The reality of living with flashbacks (or living with someone who has them)
Have you ever driven down a long stretch of familiar highway, put the car in park at your destination, and realized that you remember nothing about the drive?
Or have you ever found yourself staring out a window, eyes barely blinking, only for someone to bring you “back to reality,” and you can’t even remember what you were thinking about?
While flashbacks are commonly referred to in every day vernacular (in the same way that we throw around diagnoses like OCD or anxiety), they are actually a common side effect of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Having a flashback often causes you to disassociate, which is when your brain can lose a sense of both time and reality.
When you lose yourself driving or find yourself daydreaming out the window, you are mildly disassociating, or the closest thing to it. Flashbacks, in the case of PTSD, occur when you’re triggered by someone or something. During a flashback, you may be partially present, or you may be completely unaware of reality. Your mind might have taken you “back there,” to that moment, going through the trauma all over again.
We often talk about PTSD and flashbacks as something that only vets go through. We think of fireworks putting a veteran back in the crossfire, or a helicopter bringing him back to his platoon just before an attack.
But PTSD can affect anyone who has gone through any sort of trauma.
I know this because I deal with PTSD on a daily basis, re-living the fear instilled in me from an abusive relationship, and the pain and loneliness of being raped.
In the cafeteria at school, if an excited coworker bangs loudly on the lunch table to emphasize some part of the story he or she’s telling, or the point they're trying to make, my instant reaction is to duck and hold my breath. If a student sneaks up behind me to be funny, I fall to my knees at worst, or lose my breath at best, trying not to cry in front of the whole class. If my partner is in a bad mood, I am often wary of his presence, even though I know he would never hurt me.
Photo by Kaitlyn Baker on Unsplash
In October, Lady Gaga appeared on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. In this interview, she came to the defense of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, one of the women who accused Brett Kavanaugh (now an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court) of sexual assault. Throughout the debate, Dr. Ford was forced to relive her experience over and over again, while people shouted at her, doubted her. While our president, Donald Trump, mocked her.
In her interview with Colbert, Lady Gaga, who is a survivor of sexual assault and a long-time vocal activist for women and the LGBTQ+ community, explained how the brain stores and hides trauma:
“It takes the trauma
and puts it in a box
and it files it away
and shuts it so that
we can survive the pain.”
Sometimes really big things, like your abuser rising to the highest form of power in the country, can trigger you. Sometimes really small things, like your coworker slamming their fist on the cafeteria table, can trigger you. When you’re triggered, the box opens.
Blasey Ford “was brave enough to share it with the world to protect this country.”
Dr. Ford’s testimony was heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking to watch her relive her story. It was heartbreaking to hear all of the powerful men who didn’t believe her. And it was heartbreaking to relive my own experiences and to know how many people in my own life, in not believing Ford, might not believe me. It’s not really any different.
When we don’t believe survivors, we’re letting men like Kavanaugh get away with it. We’re letting men like my abuser keep abusing. We’re setting a tone for the young boys growing up to be men.
During the Trump presidency, a lot of people who have experienced trauma have been reliving that trauma. The box has been opened and the files are pouring all over the floor.
The hope is that you’ll read them.