The Mighty Logo

How I've Learned to Handle My Flashbacks

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor’s note: If you struggle with self-harm, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, click here.

I don’t know what flashbacks are like for others. For me, they start suddenly and intensely, but I come back to reality slowly. Something triggers a memory, and suddenly, I’m living the memory again. I’m standing alone, awkwardly, at a middle school gym while a line of girls sit on a bench and whisper jokes about me. I’m 16 and trying to get ready for school while my mother ducks in and out of the room, making fun of me for falling asleep studying. I’m 17 and critically examining myself in the mirror, wanting to destroy the unlikable person I am.

I’m 18 and thinking about suicide. I am a month older, in my dorm curled under my navy blue comforter, trying to sleep the depression away, until finally crawling out of bed and trying to fix everything with cutting. I’m 19 and driving down country roads wanting to escape my life. I’m 20 and neglected in a foreign hospital. I’m a few months older, up all night because I’m hearing voices that won’t go away. I’m a month older, talking to a psychiatrist in an emergency room who doesn’t believe me when I say I am better. I’m being led into a psych ward with my hands cuffed behind my back, looking at a heavy-set man filling out intake paperwork, who glances nervously at me as if I was an animal that might attack. I’m just a scared, harmless girl. Why won’t they take off the handcuffs?

I’m a few months older and am in a halfway house where no one understands me and I keep being called “noncompliant,” since I refuse to speak. I’m walking home from the hospital slowly, enjoying 10 minutes of freedom. I’m a few months older and my dad is shouting at me and blocking doorways, telling me I can’t leave. I escape, but am afraid to go home. I’m 22 and lying on a bench in a church since I almost blacked out during the service. I’m 25 and at work, sitting in a wooden chair, blinking back tears, after a client dragged me around a bathroom by my hair. I’m 28 and sitting at a long table, while six professors explain to me I can’t be a therapist because I’m not “mentally stable enough.” I’m 28 and kneeling outside my boyfriend’s apartment, knocking on the door over and over again, sobbing because he doesn’t want me anymore. I’m a few months older, feeling broken inside since I trusted someone new and then found out he was using me. I’m a few months older, realizing I let it happen again. Then I’m looking in the mirror and sobbing as I see the bruises on my skin.

I wish I had happy flashbacks. I wish things would trigger flashbacks to times of laughter and joy. I have happy memories, but all the flashbacks are dark. They hit me at unexpected times. It might just be in conversation, when someone mentions a halfway house. Suddenly I am in the halfway house again. It’s more than a memory — I feel the way I did in that moment. Sometimes it’s so vivid I can smell the place, or touch it, or hear background sounds. When I have the flashback, I become that age again. I am no longer 34. I’m younger, and I feel the feelings and thoughts I had then.

I’m having a normal conversation with someone, and suddenly I’m triggered. My mind flips back to the memory and I become a past self.

I know for some people, flashbacks are more vivid and difficult to escape. I am lucky in that I have some control over my flashbacks.

Recently, my counselor has taught me a way to handle flashbacks. I want to share it in case it might help some of you. He says when I enter the memory, to try to bring truth about the present into the memory so I can heal the wound. My past selves don’t know how to handle those problems, but my current self has wisdom and strength. My current self knows how to fix things. My current self knows what is true.

These days I still have flashbacks. They are vivid. But I come out of them slowly. And as I come out of them, I speak to my past self.  

I tell my high school self, It’s not right how people treat you. You don’t deserve that. You are beautiful. Someday you will find people who see that too.  

I tell my 18-year-old self, I know things feel pretty awful right now. You’re not broken. It’s depression. It’s not your fault. Over time, things will be better. Hold on to hope.  

I tell my 20-year-old self, It is not right how they are treating you in the hospitals and halfway house. It is not right what people have said to you. Maybe you had a mental breakdown, but it doesn’t mean you are broken. It’s not that you’re non-compliant. You’re just trying to survive. In the end, you will find your own path to healing.  

I tell my 28-year-old self, Don’t listen to those professors. You will be brave and start a new program with people who respect you. You can accomplish things in life. You have potential. And don’t let men tell you you’re not worth anything, either. Eventually, you will find people who want and value you. Be strong and wait.

I am learning how to talk to my past selves. It is helping me so much. I feel like every time I comfort a former self, I start to slowly heal the wound of that memory. I want to let go of these painful memories and stop re-experiencing them. I want to stay the confident 34-year-old woman I am. I hold out hope that it will happen. I believe I will continue to get better, and someday I will be able to look back and help people who have the same struggles. If this post helps you, maybe that day is today.

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

If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text “START” to 741-741.

We want to hear your story. Become a Mighty contributor here.

Thinkstock photo via Archv.

Originally published: April 25, 2017
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home