Flashbacks, nightmares, body memories, hyper vigilance, dissociation. These are my main symptoms of PTSD. There were others that have faded since confronting my past.
The symptoms I have now vary in their intensity, sometimes I get several at once and it is almost unbearable. I don’t know what to do with myself when that happens. Normally though, it is one or two, or one leading to another. Hyper vigilance and dissociation rarely go together, but most of the others I can experience at once.
Hyper vigilance is probably the symptom I hate the most. Mostly, this is something I get in the mornings, sometimes it goes very quickly, other times it can linger all day. It starts off with a shaking deep inside me, I feel like my insides are shaking, my jaw tightens, I clench my teeth. If it’s a really bad day, my whole body shakes, my muscles ache from the tension, particularly my shoulders. My eyes get tired easily, I find I am looking around constantly, whether it’s to ground myself or scanning for “danger” it makes my eyes ache. I feel hyper sensitive to noise, I feel like every noise is 10 x louder than it actually is, I feel the sounds scraping against my skull, it makes me irritable. Every noise and touch that I am not expecting makes me jump, which makes me angry. I feel like I’m under attack.
Comfort seems to help it the most, soft things, cushions, blankets, soothing noises, but mostly it’s time.
Flashbacks are hard to describe to someone who has never had one. Everyone has triggers, a piece of music, a smell that takes you back to school days, or your childhood home, an old boyfriend/ girlfriend, a holiday with friends etc. Triggers that remind us of horrible things also exist in all of us. Flashbacks can be a result if that “horrible thing” was traumatic. I was abused for most of my teen years, so I have a lot of triggers that take me back to that time. So many things trigger, I’m learning new ones all the time.
A flashback can come in several forms, I experience visual ones sometimes, but mostly it’s a feeling, a smell, sensation, noise.. something that doesn’t belong in the “here and now”. Sometimes it’s simply a fear that comes out of nowhere, yet the cause is no longer a threat, it is a fear of long ago.
I don’t get lengthy flashbacks very often, hardly at all any more in fact. I ground very quickly, normally it’s over in a second or so. That doesn’t sound a lot, but even a second where you feel like you are back experiencing your trauma, is a second too long. Sometimes the rooms sort of shakes, the edges of it cloud and it’s hazy and then I ground, I’m back and I’ve no clue what the flashback was. Though I’m left with the fear, I am at least spared the memory. Other times I’m just in it right away, re living it as if it is happening. It can be a bit like a day dream, I’m aware of now, but I’m also aware of then -except it’s not then, it feels like now. Does that even make any sense? This is so hard to explain.
After a flashback, the feelings vary, but often it leaves me feeling triggered, by that I mean, other memories are too close. They hit me in waves as I try to remain in control and grounded, while also trying to recover from the flashback itself. It can all be incredibly distressing. This is particularly difficult when I also have a job and children, if it happens when I’m at work, or picking up a child from school, it is terrifying. That level of responsibility while I’m just trying to remain in control of myself is a great deal of pressure. It makes me fear flashbacks not just because of what I may relive, but because of a worry about where or when they will happen and how I will handle that. I probably ground more than I need in an attempt to avoid them.
Grounding is the best way to handle them, by that I mean anything that roots me to now, to keep my focus in the present. Some people suggest counting objects in the room, counting colours in the room. I prefer to use things I can touch, or hold. Hard flat surfaces work well but similarly some soft comforting items can help too. I also find the noise of chimes very helpful, I wear a chime necklace most of the time. Otherwise, I avoid triggers if I can, anything that I know will trigger and is possible to avoid, I avoid it.
Nightmares are similar to flashbacks but worse in some ways. I’m asleep, so I cannot ground, therefore the full dream plays out. The nightmares are reliving the traumas, sometimes they differ, details may change, sometimes it’s me now rather than then. I wake terrified, the best thing for me is to try to get back to sleep, but isn’t always easy. Often the fear lingers, my husband even has to accompany me to the bathroom, a few steps away, because I can’t switch the fear off. I know I’m safe with him, but not all of me gets that message right away. Body memories occur after nightmares, though at times they happen following flashbacks. I’m not going into those, it is not something I feel able to blog about right now. Just take my word for it, they are horrible.
Dissociation, this is relatively new to me, not the feeling, but my realising that I do it. I dissociate at times of intense stress. I often feel lightheaded with it, it’s a bit like being drunk. My head and body feel disconnected and I feel as if I’m in a fog. I have thoughts that I know I want to think, but I can’t reach them. I feel like I’m not me. I can hear myself talk, or write, or see myself do something, but I can’t connect it with something I have done. I can do things on auto pilot but have no recollection of doing it. We all get that at in some forms at times right? Ever driven somewhere and thought “how did I get here?”
I feel disconnected from myself, like someone else has taken over. I shared with my T that this happens and I told him it used to happen at the time of trauma. As I grew to trust him more I was able to elaborate on that, he has since said it’s dissociation which kicked in while I was going through something traumatic, the extreme stress of the situation caused it to happen. He has explained that when I get very stressed now, it automatically kicks in. It’s something I did to protect myself, it was needed then. Now, it just frustrates me, even when extremely stressed, I don’t want this defence mechanism kicking in at all anymore. The only way I can avoid it is to de-stress, to notice when I’m getting very stressed and take steps to alleviate that.
So that’s an overview of what I experience regularly. It isn’t easy, sometimes I wonder how much more I can take, sometimes I get very down, disheartened, or very angry. When the symptoms are really bad, I find myself wondering why I had to go through those traumas to then have to continue to relive them now. Sometimes it seems very unfair, but whoever said life is fair? We all have challenges to face, this is mine. I thank God every day that I have been able to handle things so far, that I survived the traumas that caused this and that I continue to survive through the reminders. I have many blessings in my life now, those are my focus, my reasons.