So, I wrote this blog entry earlier this month and had the amnesia that often comes with anniversary flashbacks. Here’s proof!
I forgot I’d made a really similar entry last year. I’m including both, so you can see the similarities. We can miss patterns for years. Even when we’re aware, self-reflective, and observant. Our brains have worked so hard to keep us safe. Thanks, brains. Ready to let the ghosts go.
So, this blog contains two entries: “Independence Days” followed by “July 4th.”
Here’s entry 1: “Independence Days.”
I love fireworks. LOVE them. Like. Am moved to tears by them.
The beauty of their exploding flowers of light. The shifting, evolving patterns left behind by the smoke, that then get illuminated by the next fiery flashes. I love the way you can usually see the streak of the impending display shooting up and up and up, how high?! And then, often my favorite which is common and nonetheless awesome: The Weeping Willows of Light. They burst and fall like suddenly grown branches of a gigantic sky tree. And then they SPARKLE. And then they fade.
Turns out my friends Natalie and Finn share my enthusiasm for that particular firework. The Light Willows are their favorites. I just learned that this year. I would say this year was also the first time I didn’t have a shit-ton of flashback feelings during the actual ‘Works. I didn’t have my boys with me for these, which was a loss, but it also gave me space to get fully immersed in the experience of light and sound and color, which was fun.
I DID, however, have several days (DAYS) of emotional flashbacks before, and after July 4th this year.
Per usual, I was sorta sideswiped by the intensity. And it took me a while to figure out on Sunday: “OH. I’ve been in an emotional flashback since Friday!”
I was discussing this with my dear friends in the aftermath of the most anguish feels. It came up how “flashback” used to mean (and I quote my friend) “a guy seeing pictures in his head of his time in ‘Nam.” NOT to dismiss that kind of flashback. I imagine they suck just as much as any other kind. But with Complex Trauma (like childhood sexual abuse that happens repeatedly and unpredictably,) the memories get so fragmented that you’ll have: the smell of the carpet, the feel and color of the corduroy loveseat, the light coming in through the window, the sweaty feeling on your back, and the fear, the grief, the sense of despair, ALL stored in different places in your body-mind. Which means: all kinds of ways the flashback experience can be triggered in the present day.
This is stuff that’s still being explored by trauma researchers, but as a survivor, it’s as obvious as dirt. I feel it, live it, every day. It’s the ground I walk on.
So, here’s what days of emotional flashback feel like (and survivors, you can just nod, cry, yell “I HATE THIS SHIT!”, whatever suits.)
It feels like: I’m going through my morning and I feel a rising sense of despair. It’s in my chest. (I’m sort of delighted to learn I described this SO similarly last 4th of July.) It’s in my torso and arms. As that’s happening, there’s some part of me that’s psychically shoving the sense of it down and berating me: “Don’t look at that. Why are you looking at that?! Focus. Here. Your life is good right now. Isn’t this coffee delicious? Nothing’s happening that is this painful.” And meanwhile, the emotional/psychic pain is ramping up in volume like an air raid siren.
So now I have a dilemma: feel into that pain (uncomfortable) and maybe the volume goes down a smidge, or not, or keep shoving it aside to focus presently (drive my kid to Taekwondo, make breakfast, feed cats.) Past times I’ve tried food, alcohol, to distract. Present day, I call a friend once the awareness of all this going on gets forefront conscious enough.
That’s the other tricky part with emotional flashbacks: I spent years of my younger life with all this difficult emotional and horrifying informational shit burbling just below the surface of my consciousness, so that experience feels so familiar I don’t notice it! For hours. Or days, if it’s a really old pattern.
And with an emotional flashback, it’s like NO other information is present. Just the flavor of anguish, isolation, and despair, and it can feel so current, so present, that my mind makes any and all links it can to my Now life. Eventually, thankfully, I figure out that the present-day links (recent divorce, no partner, loss of identity as a part of a musical project, no mother or father to witness me being a parent or be part of my kids’ lives) hard as they are, are NOT sufficient to explain the depth and jaggedness of this pain.
And then I turn toward myself and say: ow. Yeah. this is so painful. And then I call a friend on FaceTime. And she listens. And she sees me cry and grieve, and the spell is broken.
And like the branches of the Light Willow, the pain and the grief, that grew so giant; flare, sparkle, and fade to smoke over the course of the following hours and days.
Today, the 5th, that grief/anguish residue is fainter, but still present. I slept a LOT today. Sleep is your friend, survivors. Give it to yourself with love when your body and mind need to integrate, or even just take a fricking break.
No great ribbon-bow wrap-up here. It feels so ongoing. But I wanted to write about this experience which can be so ephemeral, and so impactful.
Lastly, I highly recommend Pete Walker’s book, “C-PTSD From Surviving to Thriving.” It’s got some great stuff about emotional flashbacks (I’m gonna reread it myself too.)
In safety and love,
Entry 2: “July 4th”
Oh, Hooray and fuck me, another triggering Celebration day…
I don’t know why it’s triggering. I don’t know what happened. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
“I don’t know.”
This phrase keeps repeating over and over in my head on a loop, during an emotional flashback of some event that happened decades ago. I can’t make story sense of it, my body and heart remember, but my mind just has these feeling and thought fragments:
- I want to die, I feel so alone, I will never get out of this, my body hurts, I can’t breathe.
- I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.
I crumple in the kitchen trying to do normal things, go upstairs and curl into a fetal position on my bed, and sob. I have no real information, just horrible feelings and this isn’t the first July 4th this has happened (actually, it’s probably the 20th…) Finally, I call my friend and cry with her as a witness to my painful past, and my present strength and safe life. Afterward, I start the trajectory back to feeling pretty well again.
These kinds of days often start with a sense of anguish right when I wake up, like a small metal ball in my chest. The ball keeps increasing in size as the morning goes on, getting heavier and hotter until I feel like it’s going to crush me from the inside out. I sit with it, avoid it by doing menial stuff, try to connect with my kids, and inevitably my oldest is empathically feeling my pain surfacing and is in an irritated and fighty mood himself.
When I finally break, this time around, July 4th, 2021, post-divorce, post covid, post years and years of healing work that my kids have all witnessed: my boys who were just bickering with each other and me, rally around me sitting on the floor and just hold my hands. I say I’m going to go upstairs and call my friend and if they can just keep each other good company while I do, that’d be great.
After the FaceTime conversation that helps turn the raging tornado in me to slowly departing clouds, I come downstairs to find my boys have created a very analog game together, involving blocks and our cats. My sons, who play iPad games for a living, have leaned into each other in this way that amazes me. They’ve created: “Ailazilla.” This involves building small cities out of colorful blocks and then luring our gentlest cat of two, Aila, to cautiously, hilariously knock down all the towers.
I love them so much in this moment, and I’m proud of them. I’m also proud of myself. Proud, rather than full of shame as I felt for so many years every time I was overcome like this.
It’s ok. They’re ok. I’m ok.
I’m shaky but not tormented for the rest of the afternoon.
That night, we all 4 walk down to the town Fireworks. We sit on a bench by the Iowa river and ooh and ahh. We watch all kinds of families walk by. We take time-lapse and slo-mo movies of the glorious exploding light flowers. Then we walk the half-mile home in the dark lit by streetlights, laughing and talking. I feel like: I made it.
It’s so strange how these worst-of-days, often seem to make room for the best ones. The gem cave inside a geode. The rainbow after a storm.
In safety and love,