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Dear Flashbacks,

Flashback

a :interruption of chronological sequence (as in a film or literary work) by interjection of events of earlier occurrence; also an instance of flashback
b :a past incident recurring vividly in the mind

This week, you’ve moved into my body with a vengeance. An interjection of events of an earlier occurrence, an interruption of my normal day by inserting your grainy fingers vividly not only into my mind but into my body, into my lungs, around my neck, through my belly.

You bring the war back into my soul unexpectedly, and by that I don’t mean Iraq or any other desert, I’ve never been there, and by that I mean I sometimes wish that was the case because people might be able to relate in some way or at least ask about the war I lived.  And by that I mean I can’t say that out loud because of the shame of saying I wish I had lived through the war of people rather than the sexual war I lived through sometimes.  I could speak about you more in groups, people would understand better.

Instead, I spend most waking moments consciously working to keep you in check.  People don’t typically focus on how many breaths they take per minute.  How often I hold my breath and wonder “why am I so dizzy right now?” grab the counter and then gasp when I realize I’ve been holding my breath.   How often I realize how often I feel awful and realize it’s because you have caused me not to leave my room all day and need to eat.

Massage is one of the only places where my main job IS to breathe, IS to relax, and the place that you make me work the hardest.  For months you have been poking at me, knocking at the door of my brain just WAITING to jump out. Only once before have you come out to play, and you scared me.

This week I was unable to keep you put away in your little box.  My feelings were at the surface, I was working so hard just to keep myself together generally that once I got on the table, I realized that the whole 90 minutes were going to be hard work to keep you at bay.  My feelings started swimming at the surface immediately before she even came back in the room.  I became hyper-aware of every single noise.  Every person around the building became my rapist, every voice, the one who was going to come get me.

Once she came back in the room I felt my focus go extremely inward to manage you. You started immediately when she touched me.  You started teasing me with small little memories.  Some were benign compared to others.  Little leadups to the Big T traumas.  Then in one quick moment, you hit, as if physically, and I had no control any longer.  I’ve been able to keep you in check for months, but yesterday I was totally helpless to keep you in your box.

Little t traumas either in Charlie Chaplin black and white skipping silent reels will play, where I can’t keep track of where you are leading me or when you will stop.  A mix of little t and big T traumas will play in mini cartoon style where you insert sound or feelings and my body will start to react. My hands and body will start to shake and my breathing will start to alter. In the largest situations, Big T traumas will play in full film or even 3D fashion, where you just move right into my mind and hijack everything.  This is the scariest part.

I have a deep fear that people around me can’t cope with you, mainly because *I* can’t cope with you.  I can’t imagine what it is like to watch someone experience a flashback from the outside, as I just know what it feels like inside.  The way you make me feel is so out of control.  I can’t breathe, I’m suddenly thrust into 17 years past like a horrific Christmas ghost of trauma.

I told someone this week, “you can’t handle this.”  Truthfully, *I can’t handle this.*

Truthfully, *I can’t handle this.*

I can’t handle you.

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Dizzying Dance of Disclosure

I’m thankful for the once a week where I can walk into a room where trauma isn’t a foreign language.  I’ve been spoiled in this sense.  I can walk into therapy, sit there and say nothing and be understood.  (I’ve done this once, in fact with almost a full session spent in absolute silence, and I totally don’t recommend this.)

Though this implied understanding served me well there, I’ve not branched into explaining my trauma to others in my immediate circle.  Which has led to innate lack of understanding by those around me.

Let’s be honest, who WANTS to talk about trauma?  As I discussed in a previous post, trauma stories are the elephant in the room that no one asks about.  So when I was finally asked about it outside of the room of understanding, I was unprepared.  Enter, my massage therapist.

Bodywork is a very vulnerable place for a survivor of sexual trauma to be in.  Starting a relationship with a new body worker typically involves explaining why one is there. This goes like this.

“Hey.  I’m *****, I’m here because I was assaulted in 2000.  I injured my back & neck which flares up from time to time.  I suffer from migraines and sleep issues. I’m on a cocktail of medications to help me ‘life.’ (they ask questions) Yes, still. (they ask questions)  No, I have issues from time to time with emotional trauma flare-ups because of Complex-PTSD from the assault. (they ask questions) No, I didn’t have x-rays or an exam.  I went to the hospital but didn’t stay.” (wait, what? This is about the time where the person flirts with the idea of asking more questions or not. This is also where I IMMEDIATELY know whether a provider is a sexual assault survivor.  This one line of “I went to the hospital, but didn’t stay,” will fill in the details to most survivors of what happened.  If they pick this up, I can usually dance a bit more into disclosure.  If they move into confusion, I tend to move into another topic.)

Often this intake discomfort leads to a survivor staying with a provider for longer than they should, simply because they don’t want to go through this whole inquisition AGAIN. We get used to the routine, even if the routine isn’t ideal.  We get used to the office, the room, the person, the routine etc.  If we do find someone that makes us comfortable, we may even be wary of disclosing things in order to make sure to not make them uncomfortable from our story.

This dance of disclosure is dizzying.

It had been a while since I had to vet a new provider, and I was not looking forward to the process.  Body work is already a tight wire to walk for a team to walk, survivor and bodyworker.  I found my massage therapist through a recommendation of a trusted friend, who explained that this LMT had worked with trauma survivors.  I had recently fired my previous body worker as she had worked on a part of my body after I asked her not to (due to flashbacks I had experienced earlier in the day.)  I was wary already about meeting a new person, and on edge due to the previous experience, but in desperate need of a new #team member to help remedy some of the major damage left from the assault both emotionally and physically.

Fast forward to now.

I survived intake.  I’ve been with my LMT for 6 months now.  One of the best things about her is that her energy/craniosacral work is amazing.  She spends enough time allowing me to unwind and just be.  Over time she’s been able to access some hidden chapters in the story that has been written on my body.

For a long time, I put off turning off the emotional barrier I kept up to protect me from crying.  She mentioned that several of her client’s dialogue with her during sessions, where I liked to be silent (spoiler alert, so I didn’t have to talk about feelings.)  Over time, however, she’s been able to access further into the story of my body, and only recently I agreed to give it a try.

I’ve gleaned interesting insights.

  1.  Crying in a massage is really vulnerable.  You’re mostly naked, feeling exposed, and crying.  I still have a really REALLY hard time with this. First, I hate crying anyway.  I was told that crying was weak, and I just dislike feeling like the weak one in the room.  During my church days, the leadership looked down on the “chronic criers” as needy, so I learned fairly quickly to shut that shit down.  (Side note:  I realize that this church was/is emotionally and spiritually abusive, yet old habits die hard.)  I still worry about seemingly silly things.  (“What if she gets my tears on her?” *And yes, I’m laughing as I’m typing this.* “What if I’m the only client who cries?” *Because THAT’S likely* “What if I cry EVERY.TIME?” *This is becoming exceptionally likely.*)
  2.  Disarming the body is a moment by moment process.  (And god, I hate the word process.) I spent a lot of time in my massage working on trying to disarm my body.  As a trauma survivor, and someone who lives with PTSD, I often forget how “on alert” my body is at all times.  I didn’t realize HOW “on alert” until I met my LMT and had an experience where my body fully disarmed for a period of time.
  3.  Relaxation is not disassociation, but sure as hell CAN feel like it.  During my rape, I disassociated and left my body behind.  When I am able to totally disarm in massage, I am unfamiliar with what it can feel like to feel totally relaxed, it can feel like disassociation.  It can feel disconcerting, and it is a feeling I’m not totally comfortable with, not having a hyper awareness of every part of my body at all times. (And, if I disassociate in the massage room, I am safe, and I will be taken care of.)
  4. Letting people into my world is okay. Letting people out of my world is okay.  This isn’t a statement of my value, but of theirs.  Not everyone will understand the language of trauma, but I can slowly give them a primer.  MY comfortability speaking the language will inevitability lead to their comfort level being exposed to it. I will choose wisely, but so far, my gut has been doing pretty well.
  5. Breathing is good.  This seems obvious, but one of the first things to go during a trauma scenario is the breath.  Only recently have I even been SOMEWHAT comfortable with my LMT being anywhere near my belly or chest.  It’s where I carry anxiety, trauma, pain, sharpness.  Just today I *disclosed* that is where I was carrying tension, which in itself was a big deal because I knew that was an invitation to have that area be paid attention to.  Saying that I have anxiety, causes anxiety.  Saying “I have a hard time breathing” causes me to catch my breath.  If you can do nothing else, you can breathe.
  6. Expect empathy. I was reading The Empathy Exams, and read this amazing quote:

    A 1983 study titled “The Structure of Empathy” found a correlation between empathy and the four major personality clusters: sensitivity, nonconformity, even temperedness, and self-confidence.  I like the word structure. It suggests empathy is an edifice we build like a home or office- with architecture and design, scaffolding and electricity.  The Chinese character for listen is built like this, a structure of many parts; the characters for ears and eyes, a horizontal line than signifies undivided attention, the swoop and teardrops of heart.

    I just love this.  Expect that others have the ability to empathize, and offer empathy, (ears, eyes, undivided attention and your heart.)

  7. Give yourself some damn grace. You/I am doing the best we can.  We’ve got this. Carry on, Warrior.
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Perhaps.

“Of all the things trauma takes away from us, the worst is our willingness, or even our ability, to be vulnerable. There’s a reclaiming that has to happen.”

~ Brené Brown ~

Perhaps you are living in a trauma body.  Perhaps breathing is a luxury at times. Perhaps people tell you to relax and you smile, half wishing you could take the advice and half wishing you could peel your head open for just one moment to let them into your world.

Perhaps you show up to the restaurant 15 minutes early to see if you are in the right place… Perhaps even to make sure that HE isn’t there.  Whoever HE is to you.  Perhaps you sit with your back to the wall, facing the door.  You know every entrance, every exit, and every person in that bar.  Perhaps you take a sharp breath when you smell that scent, you know the one.  Perhaps it’s that trench coat.  I mean, who wears that in a restaurant, what is under there, it’s likely going to do you in, oh wait it’s just his golf polo and khakis, you can stand down for just a moment while you scan for more danger as he sits down with his blonde twenty something.

Perhaps you have the ICE app on your phone, set to every person who could save you.  Perhaps that ICE app only has one number.  Perhaps that number didn’t save you before. Perhaps it’s only in there to let the people know who find you where to find your next of kin.  Perhaps this is the only reason you don’t have a pass lock on your phone.

Perhaps when you leave you grab your phone, and take your keys, one between each knuckle.  Perhaps you hide that you do this with your friends by putting your hands in your pockets.  Perhaps you envy the ease in which they walk at night to their cars. Perhaps your heart races while you walk, wishing you had packed nearer to your friends so you could pretend to talk to them when in fact you were just needing them for herd mentality.  Perhaps you moderate your breathing so you can have enough to take a deep breath and scream or run at any second.

Perhaps you see him everywhere.

Perhaps you needed to hear you are not alone.

Perhaps.