The Mighty Logo

What Being Inside a Flashback Is Like for Someone With PTSD

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

Editor's Note

If you struggle with self-harm or experience suicidal thoughts, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741. For a list of ways to cope with self-harm urges, visit this resource.

Here’s the thing about flashbacks: it’s not like the movies. There is no darkness, swirling lights, no feeling of falling through a tunnel, no stars floating by or potions that read “drink me.” One moment I am in the present, typing on keys, writing this blog. The next, I am on the floor of my closet crying and trying to hurt myself. The scene was horrible the first time around. Reliving it again is like being trapped in a nightmare and not being able to tell if you’ve woken up. And that’s exactly the experience. The reality I am in, in a flash, is replaced by a new reality created from a memory.

• What is PTSD?

Let me back up. Have you seen Inside Out? Don’t worry if you haven’t, I won’t spoil the important stuff. Just that it has this great way of explaining what memories are. Imagine a big storage case, with a ton of clips sitting inside and when you recall one, your brain works like a vending machine to dispense it to your consciousness.

Well, with flashbacks — or in my case, post-traumatic stress disorder — the vending machine is broken and releases too many clips out at once, or starts dispensing them without someone placing an order, at the wrong time. Anything I have lived through can be easily accessed at any moment. Good or bad memories, the brain is dispensing without regard.

You know that feeling you get when you see the first snow hit the ground on Christmas Day? That’s your brain taking an amalgamation of all the positive things you associate with Christmas and giving them to you as you encounter the situation again, making you feel good.

PTSD is usually a sign that a lot of traumatic memories have been stored. They can be released by encountering triggers. A flashback trigger is anything in the surrounding environment that dispenses a relevant memory to be relived. Remember how, in the TV show Scrubs, J.D. would have daydreams after someone would describe a scenario? He would literally picture it and then have to be snapped out of it.

How about when you smell perfume and remember something nice about your mom who wore the same scent? Now imagine if, when you encountered that smell, you felt like you were physically back at the park she took you to, but you can’t distinguish that memory from the reality you are in. Maybe, at the time, you fell and scraped your knee. Someone without PTSD can think of that memory and move on. Maybe get a bit upset, but move on. With PTSD, you can again feel the heat of the wound, and taste the salty tears on your cheeks. When this happens to me, I cannot distinguish that I am not hurt all over again.

My brain skews the perception of the world around me and I truly believe it is happening again. That’s not easy to come back from. Another challenge to coming back is how colorfully my mind recalls the event. Twelve years ago, when the above-mentioned event was unfolding, I went into the closet because I wanted to pretend I wasn’t in a home where someone was yelling and coming to hurt me. For this memory, the flashback is armed in threefold to trick me to stay:

1. I am scared because I feel like I am back in the closet.

2. I am sweating because the closet is hot.

3. I can feel the physical pain as I attempted to hurt myself.

That’s why it takes a bit to snap back. I am not usually too aware of time. If I am lucky enough, I might have someone who knows me by my side. They’ll notice I am zoning out and getting upset and will try to get my attention back to true reality.

In addition, flashbacks cause me to be unsure of where I am on my timeline. Am I really at the park? Am I really on the couch or walking into a store? It’s like that moment in a dream, where you realize you are asleep and you are figuring out how to wake up, except you think there’s a chance you’re already awake. I have to reassess in order to come back to the present.

It’s Doctor Who without the cool sidekick.

My current life is so much less traumatic that I have been able to spend the past five years working on feeling better. I have medications which work in conjunction with my efforts to keep the memory vending machine working properly, as much as possible.

I know certain things can trigger me to live through memories, but I am armed. I have a lovely dog I can walk outside when I need a distraction. I have a husband who can see the signs and talk me back to reality. I have gone through therapy so I don’t have to avoid triggers too much. I am grateful to be armed and now able to embrace this piece of me, flashbacks and all.

Photo by Timothy Barlin on Unsplash

Originally published: October 9, 2018
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