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The Truth About Flashbacks and What It's Like to Be Hugged During One

Editor’s note: If you experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

“What does it mean to show love or to be loved while managing your or a loved one’s diagnosis?”

I sat against the wall, shaking and crying. I was used to having flashbacks before, not uncommonly for hours at a time, but I never had a flashback like this. For the first time in months, I contemplated going back to the hospital (my last hospitalization for medication management occurred months previously) but I honestly was not sure if I would be admitted, because I was not suicidal. As I continued to shake and cry, I turned to my boyfriend for support. My boyfriend during this time was a genuinely positive, gentle soul. He never ceased to help me when I was going through symptoms, and always showed me the greatest degree of compassion and understanding. He sat down next to me and hugged me while I was breaking down, which helped me to feel safer and more secure. However, when I turned to look at his face for reassurance, I became engulfed in horror: the face of the person who sexually assaulted me was there instead. I screamed. “I think your fear is overwhelming your love for me,” he observed softly. I nodded my head in agreement. I almost begged him to take me to the hospital, but by a great miracle, my flashbacks began to subside at this moment. My next memory is of my boyfriend sitting against the couch, with my head in his lap. He’s stroking my hair while speaking soft and encouraging words. “See, baby? All of that took us 30 minutes. If we can get through that, we can do anything.” He then broke up with me months later because the power of my flashbacks was overwhelming our relationship.

Loving another person while enduring post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not easy if the symptoms are strong and pervasive. For one, it is difficult to become emotionally close to someone and be able to trust them. Even when my boyfriend and I were laying next to each other, I sometimes felt as though there was a space between us because he did not understand my level of dissociation. My mood — mood in the general sense of the word, not related to bipolar disorder — was often highly volatile and unstable, to the point that my boyfriend often said that he “did not know how I was going to react to things” because I was so unpredictable in my responses. Plus, there were the flashbacks: the relentless flashbacks of terror and trauma, which distorted my sense of reality and rocked me to the core.

People often throw around the term “flashbacks” as if they’re referencing negative memories, which are usually in context mild and non-traumatic. They do not know that flashbacks bend your perception of reality to make you feel as though you are literally in the time and place of trauma. They do not know that flashbacks can cause vivid recreations of traumatic places and people right in front of you. They do not know how flashbacks feel: that flashbacks cause your blood to freeze; your muscles to tense and ache; and your heart to beat wildly. Flashbacks can cause you to numb out and shut down internally in avoidance, or they can overpower your senses so that sometimes you have no choice but to dip your hands in ice. In essence, flashbacks — in severe forms — cause you to question not only your reality but your sense of self. Are you a person who is doomed to always have flashbacks? Wouldn’t it be easier to just kill yourself to avoid living this way, forever? These are not questions which can be answered in the affirmative, but they are questions which have run through my mind.

Therefore, it can be incredibly difficult to be in a relationship with someone who is constantly having flashbacks. I can and will attest to that. I was not in a relationship with myself, of course, but I know my symptoms were not easy for my boyfriend to deal with, and they were personally extremely difficult for me to live with. I was not suicidal in my relationship, but the instability of my emotions did catch him off guard. Although, to this day, I am not sure if this instability was in response to symptoms, because of symptoms, or due to a medication side effect. During our relationship, I was prescribed a medication by doctors in a psychiatric hospital that was supposed to improve my mania symptoms (which it may have), but ended up worsening nearly all my other symptoms: this medication, which I will not name, caused “increased fear, depression and suicidal thoughts.” Increased fear, I found out, meant increased flashbacks: flashbacks that increase not only in frequency but in strength. My flashbacks became so vivid that they almost had qualities of hallucinations, and occurred so frequently that they robbed me of internal peace for over a year. Overall, the combination made it extremely difficult to maintain mental, emotional and physical health, let alone be a good partner to my dear friend.

My ex-boyfriend tried his best to love me throughout all my ups and downs, as I did for him, but eventually, I could tell the relationship was wearing him down. He could not be there for me every time I was having a flashback. He could not be there for me to encourage me to take showers when I lacked self-care. He could not cook for me when I was too distracted to perform complicated chores. He could not be there for me every time I needed him — this factor wore down our relationship, both on his end and on mine. I was too unhealthy to live independently, and he was too well-functioning to understand why I needed his constant presence to feel safe within my own mind.

Eventually, our relationship did end, but in the months afterward my symptoms have improved tremendously with the right medication. I no longer experience flashbacks or mood episodes; I am able to take showers every day, cook meals for myself and even hold down a job. He and I do not communicate anymore, but I still miss him every day and only think of him as a positive, kind influence in my life. Although we are no longer dating, I would like to tell him that I will always love him and that I thank him tremendously for being so selfless and patient during our relationship. It was not always easy for him to love somebody with incredibly symptomatic PTSD, but he did so thoughtfully and tenderly. I would like to tell him that I am doing significantly better now, but I have never forgotten the impact of his love — I have never forgotten the day he hugged me during a flashback.

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.

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Thinkstock photo via AntonioGuillem