Having a Flashback Is Not Simply Recalling a Memory

Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is most often associated with those returning from war. However, for many of us with complex childhood trauma like sexual abuse, PTSD can be an all too common diagnosis. While its symptoms can manifest differently for each individual, ranging from nightmares to insomnia to anxiety to suicidal ideation, something most people deal with to a greater or lesser degree is flashbacks.

When discussing the topic of flashbacks with friends and family, most assume it’s just a memory, like remembering your first kiss or your first time at Disneyland. However, that’s not what it’s like at all.

For most people, myself included, flashbacks are an intense re-experience of a traumatic event, which feels like it’s happening now and involves all your senses. In effect, it feels like being re-traumatized, even though you are not actually experiencing the event for real.

Flashbacks can be triggered by many things. For me, things like the smell of the cologne my perpetrator wore, the sound of a toilet flushing, the sight of white briefs, even something as simple as sunscreen can send me into an episode. It’s different for each person.

When I’m having one, it can take many forms. Sometimes, it’s as crazy as turning around in the middle of dinner and seeing him standing there, which takes my breath away and triggers my freeze instinct. Often, it happens at night while I lie awake, my brain racing with thoughts, unable to shut them off. All of a sudden it feels like a wave flooding over my body paralyzing me. I instantly am transported back into my child body.

I relive, in absolute vivid detail, a particularly horrible experience. Things like the smell of his breath, the steam on his glasses, the blue towel with multi-colored fish hanging on the towel rack, the taste of his saliva, the feeling of his rough hands against my skin, even the exact blue jean skirt and checkered top I’m wearing bunching up against my skin are intensely and painfully felt. All the while, it’s as though I’m trapped by my mind and my body. An endless loop of remembering and feeling.

Once it’s over, the racing of my heart feels as though it could pound right out of my chest. I’m clammy, and it feels like I’m going to die. Slowly, slowly the feeling passes, and reality sets back in. I’m back in my grown up body in my real life, but this terrible fear remains: When it will happen again. What will it be? How long will it last? How many more times will I have to endure this agony?

These are questions I ask my therapist every time I see her. She assures me there is another side. There is hope for a life beyond flashbacks. Yet, for now, I wait, I hope and I do the hard work of healing, praying one day I will be free from the tortures of my mind and my past.

All I can do is trust and believe because the thought of this lasting for the rest of my life is intolerable.

If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

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