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What PTSD Flashbacks Are Like as Someone With Aphantasia

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Editor’s Note: If you’ve experienced domestic violence, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by clicking “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

I had a flashback today. They don’t happen very often, but when they do, they shake me to the core.

• What is PTSD?

It started with an argument at home. In a moment of anger and frustration as he stormed out of the room, he shoved a floor fan on the other side of the bed, knocking it over. He hadn’t meant to scare or startle me. In that brief moment of frustration, he had lashed out without thinking, not even realizing the effect it might have on me.

• What is PTSD?

It was an instant trigger for me.

I know he has never hit me or laid his hands on me in any way, and he would never do such a thing. I know he isn’t even normally explosive like that. I know he’d never hurt me nor would he ever intentionally do anything to scare or trigger me.Yet, in that moment, everything I knew flew right out the window.

I was suddenly that 8-year-old girl again, that girl who knew when things went flying it was only a matter of moments until the pain began. I was that little girl again, scrambling off the bed and cowering in the corner of the room in a tight ball, wishing I could shrink down to nothing and fade away. I was that girl again, panicked because my arms were too tiny to shield myself, I didn’t have enough arms to block the whirlwind of hits and kicks I knew were inevitably coming.

I don’t know if my flashbacks are the same as other peoples’ because I wouldn’t dream of even asking anyone else with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) how their attacks play out. I do know, though, that my mind works differently than many peoples. 

Among other issues, I have a condition called aphantasia. In simplest terms, I cannot visualize.  When most people are told to imagine an apple, they can create an image of an apple in their mind. Although I know what an apple is and can list all types of factual things about an apple, I cannot form an image of one in my mind. The same goes with memories. I can list all types of facts about an occasion but I cannot create an image of it from memory.

Because of that fact, my flashbacks do not have images from my past. My body, however, remembers other things. I’ve always considered it a type of muscle memory of sorts, triggered by my PTSD. My mind has retained how those blows felt raining down again and again, so when I am pulled back into my past for a flashback, it is those sensations and memories and not visualizations that I experience again.

As I lay curled up in a ball in the corner, I swear I could feel the barrage of swings and kicks as if they were happening right that moment. My ribs ached from blows delivered back when I was a child. I struggled to catch my breath as the wind I breathed decades ago felt knocked out of me again. I felt like I needed to protect myself, shield my head and my body, bracing myself for damage long healed. I could feel bruises blossoming on my skin as a far off voice that felt disconnected and not my own pleaded to not be hurt, cried for it to stop, begged to be left alone. I was trapped in that moment, reliving the abuse of my childhood.

I was vaguely aware of his presence and of disjointed words being said that seemed to disperse before they ever reached my ears. Although some small part of me recognized his presence, he felt no more real at that moment than I did. The only thing that felt real was that scared little child who desperately wanted to protect herself from any more hurt.

It felt very akin to the sunken place described in that movie “Get Out,” where a part of myself was watching and witnessing from afar, though disconnected and unable to do a thing. I felt trapped in the past, cemented into a nightmare from my childhood, lost within my own head.

A small fragment of my consciousness wanted to scream this isn’t real, to force myself awake and claw my way back to reality. But it felt so real. It was like I was trapped drowning in a memory, unable to catch my own breath.

After what felt like an eternity, I was slowly able to wrestle my way back to myself. I sat there in the corner, shaking and sobbing, rubbing and squeezing my arms and legs, trying to convince myself that I was myself again, back in the present. I kept reminding myself it was over, I was safe, that none of that had really just happened. But it felt so real. My ribs still ached as if blows had recently landed and my limbs all still stung as if they were bruised.

I sat on the floor, shaking and crying for almost an hour, searching deep within for the strength to even pull myself up off the floor and onto the bed. I was mentally, emotionally and physically exhausted from my journey back in time. I felt like I was freezing. My teeth chattered whenever I tried to close my mouth, though it was not from the cold. I was shaken to the core by the whole experience.

I eventually eased myself back up onto the bed and pulled the covers protectively around myself, even though they did nothing to stop the chill that went down to my bones or to quiet the sobs that still wracked my body. He held me, doing his best to comfort and soothe me, apologizing again and again for ever even getting upset, pleading for me to talk to him, to let him know I was OK. It was the first flashback episode of mine that he had witnessed and it scared and shook him to the core as much as it had me.

I laid here in bed, thinking about how badly I needed to share this experience, to try and explain what it was like while it was still fresh in my mind. I wanted to explain the fear and the terror before the inevitable numbness set in and I shut down in order to recover and recuperate. I know I didn’t truly go back in time, but I felt just like that little girl again, experiencing one of the many beatings I had endured all over again as if it was happening right in that moment.

I had a PTSD flashback today.

It may have been all in my mind, but it felt devastatingly real to me.

Follow this journey here.

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.

Unsplash image via Sam Burriss

Originally published: April 18, 2018
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