It’s been months since I had a proper flashback. By ‘proper’, I mean full-on, not being able to tell what’s real, immersion in my past trauma. That awful experience of really, fully reliving it.
In comparison, I get a lot of body memories and intrusive images. Those feel dreadful, but when they come up I know they’re from the past. I can tell myself it’s not happening now. The feelings are still intense and often intolerable, but I don’t feel panicked and scared. These moments are horrible, but I’ve mostly learned to live with them, as much as anyone can. They lead me to use destructive coping strategies, but they don’t evoke a sense of existential threat.
The flashback I had last night was a very different sort of occurrence. It happened in a split second and I was thrown right into my trauma. I felt like the abuse was actually happening. I was so terrified I froze. I could speak, but I couldn’t move my body. All my muscles went rigid, I was sweating and shaking hard. I felt so much shame and disgust, it was like I became shame and disgust.
This was particularly awful because what triggered me was having sex with my wife; something that should feel wonderful and safe and enjoyable. I can’t describe how shit it feels to have to tell your partner to stop touching you, because you can’t tell the difference between her loving touch and what a sadistic monster did to you when you were a child. I know that sadly some people reading this will understand how that is. It makes me so fucking angry that my abusive brother can haunt my relationship like this. It fills me with rage to know that he can come between us, and ruin moments that should be nurturing and affectionate.
My wife is incredibly understanding and she knows it’s not about her. She does all the right things and is always thoughtful and patient with me when it comes to physical intimacy. But I don’t want her to have to be. I want her to feel free to be spontaneous and I want her to not have to worry about my trauma when we have sex.
I was explaining about the flashback in therapy today, and I noticed how it really is a double horror. What I realised is that having flashbacks evokes for me the time in my life that the abuse was going on. That’s for several reasons.
1. The helplessness.
During a flashback I am helpless to stop it. I am totally in the memory and therefore I can’t get myself out of it. That reinforces the sensation and body memories around being powerless. And it also reminds me I am not in control. I can’t prevent a flashback from happening, and I can’t predict when they’ll occur. I have absolutely no power over the experience – just like when my brother was abusing me.
2. The fear.
I had stopped being frightened of flashbacks, because I hadn’t had one in a really long time. But now I am scared once again that I’m going to be ambushed by one. This parallels for me the memory of being little and afraid of my brother. It is all too familiar; that dreadful worry about whether it’s going to happen again tonight.
When I was walking home from therapy, I also thought about the ways in which the flashback was actually different from the real experience. I hated having to tell my wife to stop, but I said the word and she did everything she could to help me feel safe. I cried and shook and let myself express that I was frightened; something that I never did when the abuse was happening. I was too scared back then to even let myself show the fear.
I think those differences are important. But they don’t make this a valuable experience for me – not valuable enough to be worth the suffering. I’m exhausted now. And I am stuck with all the shame and disgust and sadness last night evoked, Those feelings are really hard to shake off.