We plug a movie into our DVD player. Within minutes there’s an unexpected, brutal rape scene. Our throat goes dry, our heart starts beating rapidly. We shut it off. For the remainder of our day we struggle to make our minds go blank, to think of something positive, to forget about the movie lingering in our DVD player and most of all to forget the horrors we suffered as a child.
A flashback, an incident that recurs vividly in the mind, inserting itself into our everyday life, is the cross that most victims of child sexual abuse carry throughout their life. Even if we have completed recovery and pronounce ourselves healed, we are still vulnerable to searing memories from our past that slip into our conscious lives unbidden. This is a normal occurrence of anyone who has suffered from a past trauma. Victims of the Jewish holocaust during World War II no doubt had to learn to live with them for the rest of their lives. Our troops over in Afghanistan and Iraq are forced to relive horrors they experienced during the Gulf War and even now in Afghanistan. My son was a Marine for four years, spent fifteen years on the LAPD and is now working for the State Dept over in Afghanistan, training and mentoring police. He has seen his buddies blown to bits, men he had just had breakfast with. But he said he doesn’t have any problem with PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder. Somehow he is able to put everything that was difficult to witness or go through into a corner of his mind, one whose door has a lock and key, one he never opens. He is fortunate. Survivors of child sexual abuse suffer from PTSD. We seldom know what triggers the flashbacks. Sometimes it is a nightmare, sometimes it is a coincidence, sometimes it is that movie we had no idea contained a rape scene. We rid ourselves of the DVD.
How do we deal with these flashbacks? Everyone has their own way. Some wait till the flashback is too intense and cry our way out of it. Some grit our teeth and look for something to take our mind off of it: a book, a phone call, a chore, or a Walt Disney movie. Some are successful. Some never find a way to cope and lose themselves in cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, or some other obsession. I was fortunate. I thought my original experience was a nightmare. My mother, who heard me screaming for help and failed to link together what I had just experienced with my father who stood at the door to my bedroom, clutching his robe, with a guarded look on his face, told me it was a nightmare. I believed her. From that time on I have memory lapses. I can’t put together my graduation from high school or even any of my classes. I can’t remember being with friends, baby-sitting for neighbors, eating a meal, or going to church. Most of my traumas after that original one are buried so deep along with my other traumatic memories. I remember the beatings but don’t go there. What I do suffer from is periodic flashbacks to abusive ex-husbands and the horror they rained down on me. They are searing.
How do I handle them? I find a distraction, immediately. I force myself to leave the memory and think instead of how wonderful my life is now. I say a prayer. Sometimes I talk to my husband about it. Bringing the memory out and stomping on it empowers me. I place objectivity between me and the flashback, moving it further and further away from me until it is as tiny as the head of a pin. It works. I do whatever it takes to not dwell on them for what you dwell on grows and what you ignore diminishes.