Writing Through an Emotional Flashback

The good, the bad, and the ugly of writing with C-PTSD.

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I am a writer. I have C-PTSD. Writing brings highs and lows to my table. C-PTSD often dictates my response to both the low moments and the highs.

What is C-PTSD?

C-PTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a relatively new term for the mental health community. In the U.S. most insurance won’t cover treatment for C-PTSD, although it may cover treatment for many conditions linked to it. Common conditions such as major depressive disorder, anxiety disorder, eating disorders, addiction, and borderline personality disorder to name just a few. C-PTSD is so often misdiagnosed as any number of recognized conditions. Which is incredibly unfortunate for the person suffering.

How does C-PTSD differ from PTSD?

The main differences between PTSD and C-PTSD are the trauma and the flashbacks.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder stems from one traumatic incident. A car crash, a sexual assault, witnessing someone die. PTSD can be incredibly debilitating if left untreated. People with PTSD can develop anxiety and depression. They can have flashbacks with visual and auditory hallucination that puts them right back into the traumatic event. Their thoughts will circle around to the event so that they see it over and over in their mind’s eye.

C-PTSD stems from trauma taking place over a long period of time. Rather than just one instance of trauma there will be years of trauma. Child abuse especially by a parent or primary care giver send to be the most common cause of C-PTSD.

People with C-PTSD will suffer most of the same symptoms as those with PTSD with the inclusion of the emotional flashback.

What is an emotional flashback?

It’s when your present mind and emotions are thrown back in time to a place of trauma. Usually triggered by something. A look, a tone of voice, a smell, a dream. When I’m in emotional flashback, I feel small and helpless because that is when the trauma started for me.

Emotional flashbacks tend to put a stop to all logic and reason. When in flashback, my mind and body react to the trigger as if there is real and immediate danger.

Emotional flashbacks can last for days, weeks, even years. And can mimic other psychiatric conditions such as schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder. I’ve been in severe emotional flashback that caused paranoia and hallucination.

I was working as a caregiver to older people. My client’s family was unhappy with the quality of my work. They couldn’t get it through their heads that I was not a maid or housekeeper. Her niece in particular had it in for me. And she was a tough talker. One day she told me she kept a gun in her purse. That was not a big deal. I live in Texas. Everyone says they keep a gun on them. Three years into working for the same older woman someone told my husband that her niece was threatening to kick my ass. Something about this triggered a flashback. I’m still not really sure what the exact trigger was. Maybe disapproval followed by the threat of physical harm. A pattern of my childhood. I hallucinated the woman’s truck everywhere. I had to ask my son or my husband “Is that a black truck? Is that HER?” My family was very patient with me, answering “No. that isn’t her. No that is a yellow VW bug.”

The hallucinations and paranoia went away after three weeks. I stayed in flashback state for several months. I isolated. I was irritable. I was overly demanding of my family expecting perfection and getting angry when I didn’t get it. I focused on everybody else’s mental and emotional state to avoid my own. Until I started journaling again.

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Photo by Hannah Olinger on Unsplash

How does writing help?

Writing has helped so much. I can write myself out of an emotional flashback. Word vomiting all over the page acts as an outlet. I feel I have communicated something. I can see how my thoughts are veering off course. I can hear the unreality in my statements.

Somehow it helps when it is coming from my own self rather than a therapist or a trusted loved one. It doesn’t feel fraught with judgement.

I can “talk myself down” in writing in a way people who aren’t me haven’t been able to.

I start frantically listing all my fears and shame, writing that it has always been like this, that it will be like forever. I assign blame. I rage at the universe. I wallow in feeling.

Most of the time, by the end of my writing session, I have unconsciously flipped the script. I will have written how unreasonable always and forever are. How assigning blame is pointless. How raging at the universe doesn’t change or solve anything. At this point have usually decided upon some decisive action to take. I have stopped the inner critic from getting carried away and soothed it with logic. In these instances, I have stopped the emotional flashback in its tracks.

Writing can also be a distraction. Especially if I’m writing on a subject different to my emotional state. Fermenting vegetables instead of my teen years, for example.

In this instance, writing takes me it of my head, out of my issues, out of my flashback. Distraction has been a great way to write my way back to myself.

Sometimes writing makes things worse.

How does writing hinder?

Too many times, I have written myself into emotional flashback. Revisiting certain aspects of both my childhood and adult life can become really painful. Usually it’s isn’t until hours after I’ve finished writing that I realize I’m feeling small and scared. Certain subjects and ages seem to be taboo.

I first came to this realization while I was attempting to write a memoir.

I started the memory dump, writing daily for 30 minutes or more. I did this for a few months. I wrote memory after memory. I wrote about all ages and stages of my life. I wrote this way for months.

Until I just stopped.

Every time I went to pick up a pen, my stomach would hurt. My heart would speed up. My throat would close. My hands would shake. And I would freeze. I later realized I was terrified. Because I didn’t recognize and acknowledge this emotional flashback, it lasted for a very long time. I didn’t pick up a pen for two and a half years.

This is the nature of C-PTSD. Three steps forward, two steps back.

When writing is the trigger:

I am now more able to recognize emotional flashback. I am more able to find the trigger. I am more able to find my way out.

When writing is the trigger it would be tempting to just stop writing. Period.

I can’t do that. Because I am a writer. Writing is my identity, not just an activity. Writing is my everything. It has been since before I learned to read.

Saying to myself “Just stop writing” would be like smelling something horrible, wanting to vomit, and telling myself to just stop breathing. Breathing is a necessity, not just a sensation. So I don’t stop writing.

Instead, I stop writing that subject. Because the act of writing is not the trigger. I can admit that now. I will instead turn to my journal to process, or to my blog to get distance.

I’ve written some decent material distancing myself from triggers.

I’ve written some great material that has triggered an emotional flashback.

My personal solution:

My solution to writing through C-PTSD and emotional flashbacks is first and foremost to keep writing. No matter the subject or the intent, for only me or for public consumption, just keep writing.

Its learning to consciously flip the script. To take control of my word vomit, thereby taking control of my emotions.

Its spending a great deal of time learning about C-PTSD. I’ve learned the most from Pete Walker in his book C-PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.

Its recognizing what an emotional flashback feels like and learning to determine the triggers. This has helped me avoid writing certain subjects until I am better able to cope.

Its having a strong support system. Finding trusted people. People who are safe. A therapist or a family member. My support system helps immensely. Most them are non-writers which makes their support even more amazing. They are supporting an activity, an identity, that they don’t fully understand.

Its giving myself permission to be in emotional flashback without caving to my inner critic’s attempts at shame.

Its giving myself permission to write. To be a writer. To write through emotional flashback.

Writer/Painter/Poet/Believes in magic/nature/prays to unicorns/goat expert/bee farmer/mental health advocate/C-PTSD/jonicabradley.wordpress.com

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