What It's Like to Experience Flashbacks of Childhood Trauma

I remember being physically abused by my dad when I was 5. That’s my earliest memory of abuse.

I had my first flashback when I was 24. It wasn’t of the physical abuse, but of sexual abuse by a neighbor. I didn’t realize it was a flashback. At the time, I hadn’t been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For several years, the flashbacks were few and far between. I never referred to them as flashbacks — I thought they were just really vivid memories.

For years, I didn’t tell anyone about the “memories” — I pushed them down as deeply as I could, but they always resurfaced. I felt frustrated and defeated because I couldn’t control my own thoughts or my own mind. It was scary and frustrating, and I didn’t understand it and couldn’t explain it.

In December 2017, I had a “mental health crisis” (nervous breakdown), and as a result, I began therapy. My therapist told me I had to deal with my history of abuse and diagnosed me with PTSD.

After my breakdown, my flashbacks became more frequent and more real. One morning while making my bed, I saw the sheets that were on the bed I’d been abused in when I was 6.

Suddenly I was 6 years old again: scared, embarrassed, ashamed. It wasn’t just a memory; I actually went back to the incident. I felt all of the feelings, smelled the smells, even heard the TV and the song that was on the radio. It lasted for less than 30 seconds, but it seemed like forever.

Flashbacks aren’t always the same as remembering something. They take you back to that place — to those sounds, sights and smells. And in my experience, they suck.

Living with flashbacks means I’m always on edge, never knowing if or when they are coming. But I’ve learned some coping skills that help me get through them: I remind myself this isn’t happening right now and it did happen to me, but I survived, and that means I’m a total badass. I named my PTSD and when the flashbacks come, I talk to my Illness and I tell it to go back to it’s little corner because I am in charge. I practice deep breathing and try my best to focus on the present. I journal about the incident, including what happened before so that I can identify triggers and avoid them.

Do these strategies always work? No, but the more I practice them the better it gets. I’ll never beat this demon completely, but I have learned I am stronger than my PTSD and I can control my thoughts when they take me places I don’t want to go.

I fight every day and will continue to fight daily, because I am a warrior and I refuse to let my Illness defeat me.

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 a loved one is affected by domestic violence or emotional abuse and need help, call The National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233.

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