Emotional flashbacks are tricky to recognize. You can become thoroughly caught up in the fight/flight/freeze responses of the past without even realizing you have shifted. And, even if you do realize you are in one, it can be tricky to recognize to what, exactly, you are flashing back. There are, after all, so many discreet instances of various types of trauma in C-PTSD that they all blend together into one continuous mess. Emotional flashbacks rarely have a clear visual component, whether projected in the real world as per the traditional public conception of a PTSD “flashback” or just replaying a memory from your personal mental mindfield.
Nothing about 2018 was unique, except possibly learning for sure that others knew all along about my childhood trauma and, frankly, my dear didn’t give a damn. I’ve had to testify against abusive group homes before. I’ve had my grad program tell me, “Defend the same week as I fought past abuse or forgo everything by dropping out.” That’s not really that different from a boss whose first words upon learning about the life-or-death stakes of 2018 were that bothering him with that knowledge constituted proof that I was a poor-performer, that I’d always been one, and that I’d probably always be one and whose last words before I went on not-FMLA were, “You have three months. Deal with the issue and return to being useful or this company will have no more use for you.” (Let it be known that his claims about my performance have no official backing. Threats aside, my boss has always managed to be in the right mood on my actual performance review day to rate me a high performer on paper, even if he gaslights that reality later whenever he finds it convenient. But, that doesn’t help much when it’s his company.) Hell, I’ve even had to testify to abuse enablers in the 9th Circle of Hell both of those times the same week as my birthday. And, I already hated my birthday because not correctly perceiving social schemas around birthdays as an undiagnosed ADHD child made them dreaded dates as far back as I can remember.
It really comes as no surprise, then, that it’s typically hard for me to determine what I am reliving in an emotional flashback (or even that I’m in one). It comes as more of a surprise when I do realize. There are only two instances where I can even predict that I’ll have an emotional flashback, much less to what specific memory.
One of those is going to the movies. There is something about that moment when the lights go down and the screen reminds me to silence my cell phone for an entire two hours and enjoy the show that instantly reminds me of all the things there are to fear. First and foremost, of course, is that I have to not check my phone for two hours, during which time anything could happen. Second, dysautonomia will require that I use the restroom at some point and ADHD will require me to work out a time to do so that isn’t plot-critical so that I won’t be entirely lost and look stupid in front of whomever I’m with. Finally, social anxiety and the bully-in-my-brain will tag-team to berate me for the fact that to “get up and go,” I’ll have to walk past people, drawing their attention and possibly their ire and public scorn during the interruption. Thus, it’s no surprise that I always feel particularly panicky during the previews in the theater. If I’ve made the mistake of seeing the movie on a Sunday night, it’s even worse. My brain will also replay the list of things that might be due at work the next day and that ADHD might have forgotten such that my boss will finally have the ammunition to fire me for having the gall to be panicky in the first place.
The other instance is advancing to the next stage of the interview process. Not failing to advance; that would be too logical. The closer I get to escape from the bully-of-a-boss – without being forced to leave a city I like but to which I’m afraid to get attached – the more my brain replays staring at him in mute dissociative horror, trying to process why the world I’d built for myself outside of the 9th Circle of Hell was again at risk because of it. I’ve run about as far as I can geographically within the same country, and yet it always follows me anyway. And, to add insult to injury, the closer I get to successfully staying that far away, the more my brain reminds me in vivid mental detail what it was like to stand on the precipice of losing it all. I don’t need the reminder brain. I was there the first time…and the second…
It was only four months ago that I earned my most recent stay of extradition. So much of the time, dissociation renders 2018 hazy, as though it was a movie that starred someone else. I can read blog posts from the Crisis and remember that yes, I wrote that, but I might as well have been a character in a movie given how impersonal it feels. I helped another co-worker until almost midnight last week finishing a project in which I was only technically required for one small section. The panic in her voice was so obvious – as was the consequence if our mutual boss (aka the head of the entire company) discovered she missed a deadline – that I helped anyway. Yes, as far as I can tell, the only people who survived the Purge were those who either worked while on unpaid leave (aka me) or were backstabbing enough to ensure someone else went in their place. I don’t owe anyone left there anything. But, I know all too well during my non-dissociative moments what it feels like to be helpless and to know my world could collapse at any moment at the whims of a bully who rewrites reality to suit him. I survived both the 9th Circle of Hell and his abuse at the same time. I’m better than him, and, on principle, I’ll show it by sparing others what I went through if I can, even if I know they wouldn’t do the same. And, I’ll be able to do it with nary an emotional flashback in sight.
But do well in an interview and get closer to preserving – for at least a few more years – that life that in 2018 felt like it would be the sacrificial victim of the 9th Circle of Hell? Then I’ll flashback to what that truly felt like.
When I explained this to my Partner, he offered this explanation: “You can’t think of this potential new job as safe harbor without remembering what you need safety from. A person can’t be relieved at the prospect of no longer being helpless unless they also know what it’s like to have been helpless before. For someone who has never truly had their entire world dictated by trauma, this is just a job. If not this job, there will be others. If this job, they can take it and never look back. For someone like you who knows what it’s like to have been helpless, you’ll never be able to imagine how this job could give you back control without remembering what it was like to lose control.”
It was a pretty accurate description, but not complete. He knows what it’s like to feel helpless. He was there in 2018, the same as me, so he has that insight now. But, he still doesn’t know what it’s like to have had your narrative directed by abusers from its opening credits. If he did, he’d realize there is an additional element to what getting this new job would mean. He’d realize that my brain assumes “not feeling helpless” is only ever a temporary aberration. My brain doesn’t find enough out of the ordinary about a coworker having a panic attack at near midnight to have the energy to react. Based upon the actual dates of
narrative scenes blog posts that feel like they were written a million years ago, office meltdowns by even non-traumatized, neurotypical coworkers have been the norm for over a year. My safety has always been temporary.
Thus, my brain relives via vivid emotional flashback what it feels like to nearly lose everything whenever I try to fight for that everything because it thinks – I think – that it is warning me. It thinks those memories aren’t just memories. They are a “coming attraction” for what I’ll face even if I get that new job. C-PTSD still thinks, after all, that my life is written by trauma, not by me. Any safety I earn for myself is only temporary. Given the 9th Circle of Hell’s habit of stalking me from Coast to Coast, it’s hard to convince myself otherwise.
When you experience enough trauma that it all blurs together, it can sometimes seem like maybe the abusers were right. Maybe I am exaggerating what I’ve experienced – or I’m just delusional. But, I’m not. I mean, non-traumatized people presumably don’t relive the most helpless feelings they’ve ever felt when good things happen, right? I’ve also had enough external validation by now to confirm my story has been both true and not worthy of sympathy to most. I’ve also (sadly) gained a co-star for the most recent trauma serial in the form of my Partner. Altogether, the evidence suggests that my personal mental movie – impossible as it often is for those who haven’t experienced trauma to believe – is based on a true story.
But, can someone please tell my brain that plot twists can happen? Three years from now doesn’t have to be yet another derivative sequel? Or, if it does, that sneak previews don’t actually help the helplessness?
Need a recap of anything I’m talking about in any post? Check out the Glossary of Terms.