Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) flashbacks are incredibly difficult to describe, and aren’t the same for everyone. Some experts believe PTSD is an anxiety disorder, while others disagree.
Before I was physically beaten by an ex-partner, who then manipulated an NYPD detective into coming after me as a wanted suspect and arresting me, I had generalized anxiety. So, I get what it’s like to have anxiety.
But, boy oh boy is PTSD an entirely different beast.
What is PTSD?
In general terms, PTSD is a disorder related to experiencing trauma, and typically manifests after the traumatic events are over. The main symptoms include:
- Re-experiencing the trauma
- Isolation at varying degrees & avoidance of reminders
- Hypervigilance (physical hyperarousal similar to stress)
What is a PTSD flashback?
Flashbacks constitute the re-experiencing part of PTSD. Sometimes they are referred to as “waking nightmares,” and, in my experience, are very visceral.
During a prolonged flashback, my entire affect will change. My face will become flat. My pupils will dilate. My cheeks will get rosy. My speech, more monotone. My own scent will change.
What does a flashback feel like?
Flashbacks take many forms, both between and within individuals.
During an episode, my surroundings become insignificant. Nothing besides what is occurring internally matters. This is my type of disassociation.
Sometimes, I don’t even realize I’m having a flashback — I just think I’m overreacting to a situation. It’s not until I start feeling dizzy and wrapped in a disproportionate sense of fear and dread, that I’ll start to connect the dots.
The scary thing about flashbacks is oftentimes I don’t know when they’ll occur. Usually, I’ll have a flashback, and then in processing it afterward, I’ll understand what the trigger was.
Peak trauma, for me, wasn’t getting physically assaulted by my ex-partner. I was surprisingly ok and hanging in there, after that event. Happy to be free from toxicity, even.
Peak trauma was the police betrayal. It was the following events:
- My seeking the help of law enforcement and reporting my assault.
- My warning the detective assigned my assault case that my ex-partner would file a false report against me in retaliation.
- My having the detective confirm in writing, on multiple occasions, that I had nothing to worry about. That I was just being paranoid.
- Detective tricking me into calling him, under the guise he wanted to talk about ex-partner’s case.
- Detective immediately berating me while questioning me and threatening arrest and search warrants.
- Complete horror and utter helplessness, on my part. Loathing myself and believing I had done something wrong (I hadn’t).
And don’t get me wrong. I see who the real driving force behind all of the above was (ex-partner), but those with power still need to be held accountable (police).
Predictably, my flashbacks feel like deception and duplicity, with large helpings of deep shame, self-blame, naked vulnerability, and sheer panic.
It’s an unbearable feeling.
And the paranoia. The feelings of paranoia are equally horrifying and intolerable.
How I endured my most recent flashback
Note I use the word “endure” rather than words like “overcome.”
Endure (verb): to experience and bear something difficult, painful, or unpleasant. (Cambridge Dictionary)
You shouldn’t feel like you need to defeat your flashbacks, if you have PTSD. I know that shameful feeling all too well after the initial, irrational panic finally subsides.
What the hell was I so afraid of just now? I wasn’t in any immediate danger.
God, I feel so stupid. I can’t believe I lost control over such a small thing.
I can’t believe [insert name here] saw me act like that — like a crazy person.
Instead, you should be proud that you withstood it. That you’re here, and you’re ok. You’re safe.
Here are the steps I took during my most recent flashback, to bring myself back down to earth.
- I googled “PTSD Hotline.” No dice. Found a number to text, but I didn’t have the capacity for that at the time.
- Said Google search led me to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. While I wasn’t suicidal, I was in a crisis, so I called.
- I quickly stated, to the person who picked up, that I wasn’t actively suicidal but was having a flashback. Admitting this out loud quickly led to hyperventilating. The person on the phone guided me through grounding exercises: she had me describe 3 items in my room, and then 3 sounds I could hear during that time. This helped a lot.
- I called a friend whom I knew could understand. Said friend also has PTSD, so I felt I could trust him not to judge. And indeed I could. I wasn’t very comprehensible throughout our conversation — in fact, I barely remember it at all — but I do remember him asking me casual questions to ensure I’d remain grounded.
- Engaged coping activities: I wrote a post about good cops existing, to offset my horrifying experience, and watched YouTube videos until going to sleep. Woke up the next day with lingering discomfort, but feeling largely back to baseline.
Flashbacks are terrifying. If you have PTSD, know that you are not alone.