The Mighty Logo

4 Ways I’ve Learned to Live With My PTSD Flashbacks

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Picture this: your eyes are closed, and your most-despised, most-hated movie is playing over and over and over again. You can’t see it — you can only hear it — you can’t pause it, you can’t turn it off and you can’t drown it out. So, you ignore it, push it to one corner of your brain and move on. Ahh, but the blasted movie won’t leave you alone. Instead, as if on a separate audio track, it’s playing (out of sync) in the opposite corner of your head — this time in reverse, from the end, backward to the beginning. You still can’t adjust the volume or stop it; instead, it’s the background noise that’s quickly becoming the center of your universe as you try with all your might to go about with life and ignore it. Except, it’s your most despised movie for a reason. It snarls at you and grates on you.

• What is PTSD?

Worst of all, it doesn’t stop. You can read a book, watch your favorite movie, carry on your work, a conversation, but all the while you have multiple tracks of something you abhor going on inside. During sleep, it just plays out in nightmares, never giving you a moment of quiet or peace. It makes the horrible seem mundane, and the mundane seem horrible. If you begin to find your balance, something will happen in life and another corner will be occupied with another cycle of the damned movie. It simultaneously drives you into yourself and makes you want to flee from yourself. You have moments where it is worse, and moments where somehow it is quieter, but it is never silent.

That is what living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is like for me. The audio-track is all the cruel, deprecating, snarky, demeaning comments from doctors and medical professionals, who belittled me when a diagnosis was not possible. With a dramatic, 17-year medical history, there is a lot of material. As I am still undiagnosed with an unstable medical condition that has affected every muscle system in my body and caused numerous secondary illnesses, leaving me fully physically dependent with limited abilities, this means I am still in the danger zone, so-to-speak.

I cannot escape the trauma that led to the PTSD or put it fully in the past, or in a distant location that can only be tangibly associated with travel. It is constantly there. Medications don’t work for me, as I seem to have more medicinal allergies than I am tall. While I always champion talk therapy, I can honestly admit I have not found any tangible help from it on how to endure this.

Instead of trying to ignore this audio track, or drown it, I have learned to live with it — almost finding liberation within its confines.

What do I mean?

Here are four ways I have found balance:

1. Meditation — my way.

I confess, due to my physical limitations, my style of meditation is retreating deep within myself, focusing on slowing my heart rate and not using a muscle. Rather than thinking of nothing, I allow my mind to run full into the audio track; to hear the words, and then play against them with all the vindicating doctors and diagnosis I have had. The point of the exercise is to live in the memories as a third party — not as a victim, but as an objective observer. Sometimes, it’s actually helpful as I remember something new, something forgotten about a particular movement or complaint — a key clue in my never-ending hunt to try and discern, once and for all, what the illness is that still grips my body to this day. Most often in these memory-journeys, though, they put into context the time and place of the audio track so that when I open my eyes and I am back in the present, their words have (hopefully) less meaning.

2. Diligent compartmentalization — an oxymoron in terms.

Allowing myself for limited periods of time (sometimes several times a day, when it’s extreme) to immerse myself in the wake of trauma, requiring me, when I am out of it, to use all of my energy, sense of self, of determination to focus on a task when I am back in the present. Does it fully work? No — the tension, the stress, or the feeling of complete unworthiness and deep insecurity will seep out of the cracks through comments and jokes. But by working through keen awareness, you know when it occurs. I try to double down on self-deprecating humor or making others talk around me, or focus all the harder on the task at hand until I can retreat.

3. Kindness reminders — literally.

I am a people person (perhaps ironically, given my housebound state) who feels like I found the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow when I somehow make someone spontaneously laugh. It’s incongruous with the PTSD, and yet it’s the self-awareness of what feeds my soul that keeps me fighting on. I literally have daily reminders in my phone to say something kind or share a text or GIF when I can for my friends. I do this most often not when my PTSD is most in control, but I force myself to do these acts when I feel least capable of them. It’s almost as if I believe that, by the act of doing, I will start to feel I’m capable of receiving. Like smiling when you least want to. After a time, it stops being forced (or at least hopefully so). 

4. A stalwart pillar or friend — the holy grail of surviving this.

I don’t think there’s a magic cure that will have the memories stop haunting you, but there is liberation when you can make yourself vulnerable enough, trust someone enough, to share with them the events that scar you. When you can call them and say it’s a bad day, and my anger is coming out sideways, so please be patient and don’t read anything into what I say. There is power in that. Learning to recognize how your emotions and actions can impact — warning people, so there is no unintentional damage done — are not actions of a victim; they are ones of a survivor. Hopefully, a conqueror.

If you are struggling, I hope you know you’re not alone. More, I pray you one day find a way to turn the PTSD loop off. Until then, I hope this might be of some help.

Photo by Gabriel Porras on Unsplash

Originally published: June 28, 2019
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