The Mighty Logo

When Simple Things Are Triggers After Surviving Childhood Trauma

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Last night I ordered takeout and ate it in front of the television. Once finished, I tapped the plastic spoon against the rim of the Styrofoam cup. When I glanced into the container of half-eaten egg drop soup, deciding whether or not to save the leftovers, I felt engulfed by a strong sensation. I embodied my childhood abuser.

• What is PTSD?

All of a sudden I am reeling in the shame of having eaten a meal like my stepmother had. The flashback was from when I was 8 years old. And because I was always starving, I developed a bad habit of skulking behind the corners of our home to watch my parents as they ate. In the memory my stepmother was enjoying a meal alone, and she had no idea I was watching her. After a sip of Pepsi in the iced cup she sat back in her chair and belched loudly. She rose up from the table and shuffled into the kitchen and from that point on I could not see her, so I listened. After cabinets pounded some time later her plate clanked loudly into the sink to be washed.

The flashback then zoomed forward into current day. Literally, I was shuffling into the kitchen with a leftover plate myself!

Once my free hand reached out to tug the refrigerator door handle, my identity suddenly shifted yet again. Now my brain entered into the body of the actual 8-year-old girl who I remember being in childhood. I spied on my stepmother, often praying she left some scraps on her plate. I would calculate which leftovers she scraped into a Tupperware container and which she pitched into the trash can. Either way after dark, my plan was to pilfer them. Bitten pork chop bones, or meat fat didn’t matter to me. I was hungry so I ate it. (During this flashback my brain is fully aware that hunger is a main caveat of my childhood trauma. My stepmother routinely withdrew food that I was already eating, or withheld meals in general as added punishment for mistakes I made. This starvation occurred regularly and in addition to daily physical tortures and mental abuses I suffered.)

The coolness from the refrigerator touched my skin which sent the flashback coiling into submission. My body stood still. My mind picking apart the new information. I always understood that hunger drove many of my actions as a child, but never did I comprehend the true extent.

More specifically, the flashback illuminated a childhood obsession I had with eating or not eating. And I felt a pity for that child I was for having to grow up in such a constant state of desperation. Now, I am the adult in control of my needs. Sure. And I view these flashbacks as opportunities to process trauma mostly, but damn am I caught off-guard sometimes. Imagine.

I was having a good day and boom! A bombard of deep riveting waves of shame that carry so much intensity and realness that I am rendered speechless. Although heaving I am frozen in place. Sometimes when I am weak I consider if the flashbacks are burdens rather than gifts like my therapist says.

Anyway. I’m just a 48-year-old woman who survived a harrowing childhood and all I want to do is put away these leftovers and get ready for work tomorrow just like everybody else. Behold, flashbacks are sneaky I guess. They sure do take their sweet time, and with so much trauma in my story, it’s guesswork to measure when the next one will come.

In the meantime I must continue to process this one. Let’s face it. Helplessness and desperation were formidable in shaping the childhood, and I must decipher negative effects plaguing my personality today. I have to replace shame with compassion, understanding and love because after all, I was just a small child being manipulated by an evil woman who controlled the food. If it weren’t for my courage to take risks to meet my basic needs, I would not have degraded myself. And hopefully I remember that lesson when Christmas arrives. The house will be packed with my sons and their friends, and I will cook a large traditional meal. I certainly want to avoid any triggers leading to an embarrassing meltdown, especially from something as simple as having to put away the leftovers.

Getty image via AndreyPopov

Originally published: December 9, 2020
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