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“I just hope my story helps to cancel out indifference and silence.
I know how difficult it is to go through healing, not just mentally, but emotionally, and the paralyzing inability to define what is necessary for thorough healing. I have been blessed with sixteen years of therapy, and eventually learned to quickly address triggers, flashbacks, and body memories so that I can experience relief. I did not always feel this way about embracing the painful symptoms, but through being willing to trust, relief became a reward to strive for. Honesty, trust, counselling, and a great support system has energized me and fed the thriver within me. And now I want to do all that I can to encourage every survivor and perpetrator to seek professional help.”
Triggers, Flashbacks, and Body Memories
I was told that one in four Australians suffer from child abuse. This makes me very sad. Here in America, the statistics, are close to the same. The horrors of just one traumatic experience of abuse, regardless of the type, can cause a lifetime of consequences. Complex post-traumatic stress disorder should never be laughed at, but rather taken very seriously.
Trauma, whether recent, or years ago, can cause serious consequences if left untreated by psychological professionals. This fact cannot be emphasized enough. I encourage anyone who has experienced emotional distress, trauma, and abuse, to seek counselling.
I myself feel very qualified to share what I know concerning the consequences of complex trauma. First, I am a survivor of all manner of child abuse trauma, which includes four generations of murder, incest, volatile rage, and rampant addiction. I am the only one in my family who sought professional help. Watching my ‘surviving peers’ suffer from triggers and flashbacks just reinforced the need to have treatment and to develop a strong support group.
Something I realized while preparing to write this article; was that my mother’s triggers and flashbacks became mine. Not only did I adopt my mother’s triggers, but also a new set of flashbacks were created for me from the abuse and rage that she heaped upon me. In addition, her flashbacks magnified my flashbacks. The consequences of inter-generational traumas and abuses are compounding and complex.
The first flashback I experienced was triggered on November 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was killed. I was two years and two months old. We were all sitting in the living room, (gathered for the holidays), and the television was on. I was sitting on someone’s lap. I felt the emotions of shock, grief, and sorrow flood the room, which was the trigger that made my mind flash back to age one. My father had been killed in a car crash whilst he and my mother fought, (a fact I certainly did not know or understand, at that age).
My little mind rubber-banded back to the funeral services of my father. Family and friends expressed the same feelings and emotions that JFK’s death had brought about.
Then came the flashback - a movie of a time passed where again, I was sitting on a lady’s lap. I could see my father’s nose from the side of his casket. Here I was - one year later - sitting in a room filled with family and friends, and not understanding that I was dealing with two deaths.
I experienced many more flashbacks as I grew older. After my dad died, my mother took me, and left my three brothers alone in our house. She placed me, barefoot on the pavement, expecting me, at the age of one, to follow behind her. I became weary. I felt like I was choking on darkness. Standing in the street feeling dark-wet-cold, I plopped down, refusing to go further.
From that time on, whenever it was drizzling outside, I was triggered and re-lived that night for the next 40 years. My feet would feel the rough road underneath as if it were just happening. That was my very first “body memory”.
Another example of my “body memories”: anyone touching my neck- I would flashback to abuses. Both stepfathers would grip my tiny neck and painfully guide my body. Their grip was so bruising that a body memory developed where they hurt me. The triggering by touch: gentle or cruel, caused me to flashback to either a beating or a sexual attack. The flood of horrifying memories, were as real as present day.
My responses to the memories would create further confusion. Judgmental mindsets about my odd responses affected many of my relationships, in a negative way. One time, I reacted strongly to a memory. People saw my odd behavior, and said I was “mentally off”. Their opinions and ‘understandings’ resulted in them judging me; shaming me. Their reactions drove me into isolation.
As a child I never knew how to act at any given time. This carried far into my adult life. I was so afraid that a noise, the weather, a house, a car, a voice, a smell, and so many other things would set me of. People would say, “Are you with us”? If triggered, nausea, projectile vomiting, dizziness, accelerated pulse rate, sweating, instant diarrhea, and so forth were almost immediate. My body always remembered.
The emotional consequences of complex trauma were so confusing to me. I was certain that healing from the pain of being abused would be impossible. When I walked into a strange building, I would start holding my breath as if I were under water. I couldn’t differentiate between the pain of the moment and the pain from the past. I would feel completely disabled if I tipped too far.
Finally, the triggers became less frequent, when I learned to tell my secrets of horrific pain and endless torment. I learned to embrace those triggers and flashbacks through therapy. I became willing to discuss the violations inflicted upon me. I learned through therapy and developing my voice, that the body memories could become less and less. I gained a clear understanding of who was the victim and who was the perpetrator; I received nurturing and began healing.
The hardest fact for me to ever understand was that I had, “once been a child”. Understanding this truth, allowed me to give responsibility back to the adults. Thus the real healing began.