Lucky (or, “What is a Flashback?”)

Photo credit:  Rebel Recovery

I had fun taking care of that regal feline in the photo last year.  Unlike me recently, I don’t think he is at all overwhelmed.

***

I’ve found a new apartment that I’ll move into in about a week.  But I’ve been overwhelmed; I’ve been having lots of flashbacks.  It’s been hard.

I left my little log and stone home in the forest at the end of January, after living there for two and a half years.  I’ve been house/cat-sitting for a couple months while I looked for another place.  Another place in a more urban environment, because some of the hardships of where I was living in the forest had lost their charm.

Hardships like the twenty-minute drives necessary to buy groceries, the expense of the gas to do that, the shoveling myself out, the parking at the bottom of the steep, icy driveway once I returned home, and the climb up the driveway with my heavy knapsack of groceries on my back.  And the old, old carpet that smelled of years of damp.  And the little creatures in the walls, and the ‘mouse bucket,’ which is a story for another time.

But let me tell you a story about the persnickety toilet.  That toilet was so persnickety, in fact, that at one point my elderly (and hardworking and frugal) landlord lifted it from where it was bolted in the bathroom and, his old back stooped, carried the heavy thing all by himself across my living room carpet and out the door.  He fiddled with it outside to try to fix it (i.e., to try to unclog the thing).  He chatted amiably to me all the while, and I tried to melt into the patio stones.

***

A common misperception about flashbacks is that they’re like a film reel playing in your head.  The kind of thing that happens to the ex-combat soldier who’s a character in a movie you go see at a theatre.  He’s back at home and a tire explodes on a car driving past on a quiet road in his small town.  The sound is reminiscent of gunshots and bombs exploding in the war that he fought and all of a sudden he’s sent back in time to that place, not even aware of what’s sent him there.  His mind is filled with images of himself in mortal danger, fighting for his life, or seeing his comrades get killed or, also traumatizing, memories and images of him taking the lives of other people.

But flashbacks aren’t reserved only for ex-soldiers with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).  A traumatic experience is defined as any experience that overwhelms a person’s ability to cope with it.  Pathology can ensue in the form of PTSD when those traumatic experiences constitute a threat to one’s survival.  However, what constitutes a threat to survival is not always blatantly obvious; it may not be apparent to self, let alone to others.

For example, their own parents are the greatest threats to some children, but many of those children grow up into adulthood suppressing parts or all of their own traumatic experiences.  This is because children rely on an emotional attachment bond to their parents in order to survive.  However, traumatic experiences that have been mentally suppressed, or not remembered explicitly because they occurred when the child was pre-verbal, still live on in the body and in the recesses of the mind.  They lie quietly waiting to be triggered alive.

Flashbacks may not have any visual — or auditory — components at all.  They can be experienced mainly as uncomfortable emotions or bodily sensations or mental confusion.  The individual experiencing the flashback often may not know that they are indeed in a flashback experience.  And flashbacks don’t always link back to an easily remembered or discernible specific life experience.  Unconscious defensive reactions to flashbacks can include distorted thoughts, reactive behaviours and generally dissociative mental states.

***

In the part of the world where I live, it’s tough — really tough — to find affordable rental accommodation.  And it was extra challenging for me because where I was looking was about an hour-and-a-half drive away from where I’ve been living, in a place I’m not familiar with.  I chose to look for an apartment there because the rents are about twenty percent cheaper than they are closer to me — and because I’ve heard good things about that city.  But by the time I signed the lease for the place I found, finally, I was done.  I was really stressed and burned out from all the driving and looking around, scouring rental ads and applying for places I didn’t get, and looking at places that weren’t suitable at all.  Also, I was conscious of the money I was spending on gas and highway tolls.

I didn’t get exactly what I was looking for, partly because it’s extremely competitive to get anything at all in my price range — there’s not a lot available and the early bird gets the worm a lot of the time — and partly because I was so burned out.  But also because I ran out of time.  The clock was ticking on my house/cat-sitting gig.

I’m thankful for the apartment I found because I know I’m lucky to have it.  I had a chance encounter with a lovely landlord who showed it to me before she listed it for rent, so I was at an advantage in the rental competition.  (This was after she showed me a tiny, dark, but otherwise adequate basement apartment, except for the fact of its six-foot ceilings.  That apartment was in a part of the city I love.)

My new place, the place I ended up with, is also tiny.   Really small.  Smaller than I thought my new home would be.  But I’m so lucky because it’s all new everything — fridge, stove, toilet.  And I have a bathtub which is something I haven’t had for a couple years.  And it’s above ground with big, beautiful patio doors for the sun to shine in.  And it’s clean, clean, clean.  And no critters.

I’m grateful to have found my new home because I know how rough it is out there to find housing.  Lots of people have fewer resources than I have and families to support, too.  I’m grateful for what I have.

****

Even with its hardships and inconveniences, my former forest home was a blessing and I miss it.  I moved there while I was coping with bankruptcy, and coping with being unable to work because of a relatively new diagnosis of  PSTD and dissociative disorder nos (ddnos), rooted in abuse in my childhood.

The rent was unbelievably low.  And the peace and blessed solitude of that place!  I didn’t have furniture when I moved in but that didn’t matter.  I spread a blanket on the old carpet in front of the big picture window with the forest and all the birds and animals outside and no other people anywhere and I lay there in silence and solitude and gratitude.  Being away from a lot of people and surrounded instead by the peace and beauty of nature reduced a lot of triggers for me.  I breathed.

The peace and silence — and the help of an expert therapist — helped me listen to myself.  A listening that was a lifetime overdue.  I found my creativity and I expressed it like I’m still expressing it now.  And I’m healing, slowly.  My bankruptcy has been discharged.  I’m still not able to work, but I’m making small improvements and I certainly have more insight into myself.  My therapy continues. My forest home and all of the animals helped me get on my feet.

***

My father terrorized and berated me for as long as I can remember when I was a little girl.  Cruel, irrational tirades that lasted for hours and from which I had no escape.  He backed me into corners with his tirades, followed my little girl body around the house with his six-foot, two-inch man frame.  Insisted that I stay up and listen to his troubles when my mother was at work.  I had to think hard to figure out how he wanted me to respond to him.  The consequences were dire if I got it wrong.  And I got it wrong a lot.  His demands on me were irrational, not age appropriate by any stretch of the imagination.  I bent myself to try to survive in that house.  He scared me.  I lived in fear of him and didn’t feel safe in my own home.  His tirades went on past the point of me being a grown woman.

***

My new apartment isn’t in the kind of neighbourhood I thought I’d end up in.  It’s not on a quiet, leafy, tree-lined street of old homes with apartments in them.  There’s more cement than greenery where I am now.  In fact, I’m sort of in a parking lot.  And I’m surrounded by high rises.  And a ton of people.

Since signing my new lease, my flashbacks have been especially frequent and painful.  I haven’t understood what was happening.  I’ve been in a state of some mental confusion — and fear, although not entirely conscious of the scope or the source of that fear.  I haven’t been aware of the intensity of my own emotional experiences and reactions in general.   Behaviourly, I’ve been scrambling.  I’ve been compelled — driven — to figure out, immediately, how I’m going to furnish my new apartment, perfectly.  I’ve had sleepless nights and missed appointments because I’ve been too tired.

I’ve been afraid.  I’ve experienced intrusive, waking dream-like images that I’m living in a glass house, vulnerable and exposed for all to see.  Vulnerable for anyone to get at.

***

I have good help, though, to help me get through these flashbacks.  And support.  And enough resources of my own.

I know I’m one of the lucky ones.

Yours in healing,

Annie.

 

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