Flashbacks and Nightmares

Most childhood sexual survivors are plagued with periodic flashbacks. Some remember what happened and some don’t and are puzzled and at times, depending on the severity, traumatized all over again. These flashbacks can be excruciatingly painful. Some don’t know what they refer to. Some know but want nothing more than to be rid of them. They intrude on your daytime job and wreak havoc with your nighttime. They can be trivial, fear of a half-open door, or they can be terrifying such as in a nightmare that wakens you screaming and trembling even though you are not aware of what it means.

For many decades after my father raped me when I was thirteen years old, I suffered from severe nightmares where I thought I was being run over by a steam roller. I would wake up screaming and thrashing about. Most of the time it took hours before I calmed down and could rid myself of the memory. I never knew what it referred to. I had a vague remembrance of someone being on top of me and crushing me to death when I was in my early teens but it was so weak, so far from reality that I couldn’t begin to figure it out. At times I thought I had an overactive imagination. I remembered the first vision but also remember my mother wrapping her arms around me as I screamed for help and telling me I had just had a nightmare. No amount of entreaties brought any further response from her. I shuddered and trembled, trying to find some place to hide my body until I hiccupped myself back to sleep. From then on the “nightmares” occurred with regularity. I suffered from insomnia from those early teen years until I completed recovery decades later. The nightmares stopped after my father died but I did not make the connection until I was part way through my recovery.

Sometimes the most insignificant would be enlarged in my mind as if it had a sign on it saying, “Don’t go there.” A door half opened plagued me for years. Hearing the word incest and not knowing what it meant, knowing only that I was better off not knowing. The name Lolita caused me to get knots in my stomach. It would be many years before I discovered that it was a famous novel about an older man who seduced a twelve-year-old girl. And not till close to the end of my recovery did the memory of my father reading parts of that book to my mother and me, while we sobbed and begged him to stop, did I unearth the origin. After he came to the part where the older man blamed the young girl for what had happened he forced mom and me to watch as he tore the book to pieces and flushed it down the toilet.

Other flashbacks can be every time you meet an older man with white hair you are either terrorized by him or drawn to him. I was beaten severely by my father at my mother’s insistence until I agreed to accept responsibility for the nighttime visits of my father. The beating took place in our living room. We had a large copy of The Declaration of Independence hanging above our piano. I read the words as the blows started. When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth……………. I kept repeating those words in my mind thinking they would keep me from feeling the full force of the pain. For decades I could not bear to look at a copy of the Declaration of Independence. Ironically enough those words of independence had settled somewhere in my soul and given me the courage to run away from home when I was eighteen.

Whatever flashbacks you have, whatever flashing pictures in your mind that bring emotional instability and fear can be relegated to a far corner of your memory, a distant haze, like a scar you have from a childhood accident. They may never totally go away but your response to them can be managed. You can swiftly replace the flashback with a happy time in your life. You can blur the vision around the edges and mentally move it far away from you.

No one said it would be easy. The men and women I have met since I became involved in helping child sexual victims who are walking the same path I am are held by me in such high esteem. They are courageous; they are kind and sensitive; they are supportive and intuitive. They are many things, all of them good. We are all fighting the good fight together hoping we can make a difference, lessen the trauma, help the victims, try to reach more untreated parents who don’t understand that children of an untreated child sexual abuse stand a five times greater chance of being abused themselves. Incest and child sexual abuse is a multi-generational problem. Don’t let it impact and destroy your family.

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