TRIGGER WARNING ♥ Cozy Blankets and Coffee Needed ♥
(Content deals with sexual abuse, flashbacks, dissociation in PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder – PTSD).
A wave of terror ripples through my body,
I recognize it.
Terror and I have a history. This is my warning before a body memory swallows me. It will grip me by the throat and drag me to my knees. It will mutate me into a three-year-old girl. This little girl is so afraid. She sobs, in the dark, and shakes in her bed.
I am afraid. So fucking afraid.
I shake my head and shove my toothbrush in my mouth. Maybe I can fight this if I keep brushing my teeth. My vision blurs. I brush my teeth more violently. Keep brushing your teeth. Don’t stop. Blinding dizziness, I place my hand on the counter to steady myself. I watch the counter distort and lose its shape and then like being sucked into a tunnel. I feel myself pull far away. No, not again. Quick, go to bed!
I climb into bed.
Close my eyes.
My eyes snap open. Wide-open.
This is not real.
I reach for my Grandma’s white teddybear and tighten my arm around its neck. The footsteps grow louder. So loud, I shoot upright in bed and flick on the light. Is someone actually here?
Don’t be ridiculous. There is no one here; you live all alone.
You are alone.
It’s like a conversation in my head between an old lady who keeps telling me I’m alone, the today me, and the scared little three-year-old girl.
Thanks for reminding me that I’m alone, I say to the old lady in my head –a failed attempt to soften the fear.
My heartbeat quickens. Panic races through my body, overpowering the today me with her reason and logic — I watch as my legs convulse violently. A rush of tears hits me. I coil into the fetal position and sob. I am the three-year-old now.
The old lady in my head shouts, this is too scary for you. Go to sleep. Go to sleep right now!
And just like that, I am out.
I escape. Again.
Understanding Dissociation in PTSD
The following morning I awoke exhausted. The horror of the night was gone, but I was still overwhelmed by feelings of terror, panic, and dread. Something had triggered a dissociative state, which then led to a body memory flashback.
Dissociation is the experience of feeling disconnected from yourself and your environment. It can often feel like an out-of-body experience. For example, when my surroundings blurred and distorted (disconnected from surroundings) before feeling like I was being sucked into a tunnel (disconnected from self). It was like something outside my body had swallowed my conscious self.
We all experience dissociation. View it on a continuum, from forgetting your drive home to the development of dissociative identity disorder previously known as multiple personality disorder. Dissociation includes a variety of symptoms. For example, “emotional numbing, flashbacks of traumatic events, absorption, amnesia, voice-hearing, interruptions in awareness, and identity alteration,” says Ruth A. Lanius.
The Link Between Dissociation and PTSD
Dissociation in PTSD is often different than a dissociative disorder, as it’s typically short-lived and coincides with PTSD symptoms. However, if dissociation worsens and impacts your ability to heal from PTSD, then you should visit a doctor to determine if it’s a dissociative disorder.
Furthermore, some studies, such as Peritraumatic Dissociation and PTSD: a Shortcut to Neurodegeneration? show that dissociation during trauma can lead to PTSD, or at least, increases the risk of developing PTSD later in life. Now, this particular study is referring to peritraumatic dissociation, which is dissociation that occurs during the traumatic event(s). APA Dictionary of Psychology defines it as “a transient dissociative experience that occurs at or around the time of a traumatic event. Affected individuals may feel as if they are watching the trauma occur to someone else, as if in a movie, or they may feel “spaced out” and disoriented after the trauma. The occurrence of peritraumatic dissociation is a predictor for the later development of post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Understanding Flashbacks in PTSD
Dissociation in PTSD can lead to flashbacks in which individuals are reliving a past traumatic event(s). According to Peter Levine, during a flashback, the nervous system cannot differentiate between the traumatic memory sensations and the original trauma. Specifically, your body and your nervous system are experiencing past feelings and sensations as if the abuse was happening at that very moment –You are literally reliving the trauma. For example, I was experiencing a body memory flashback, also known as a procedural traumatic memory, when I became overwhelmed by terror. I had no narrative or visual memory. Instead, past emotions and sensations like my legs convulsing overwhelmed my body.
Even more, a “flashback may cause you to switch to another part of your identity,” says Mind for Better Mental Health. “If you have dissociated memories (because of amnesia or because you experience different identity states with different memories), then you may find that these resurface during flashbacks.” For example, when I morphed into my three-year-old self, I felt like I was in the body of a small, terrified child –she was separate from the today me. There is also a nurturing adult identity state (the old lady who tells me I’m alone) who always visits during a flashback to tell me it’s too scary to be awake. In fact, she commands me to sleep, and I am knocked out within seconds.
Again, we all have various identity states: different sides to us, different personalities, and different voices in our heads. If you have similar experiences, it’s most likely dissociation related to PTSD and not an actual dissociative disorder. Of course, it’s always critical to confirm with your doctor.
How Does Dissociation in PTSD Develop
Initially, a person develops dissociation as a psychological coping mechanism. During childhood sexual abuse, for instance, there is no physical escape, and so, the mind acts as a protector to help the child survive by separating the mind and body. In other words, the mind splits off while the body is being hurt.
Our minds are incredible with their power to protect us. These defence mechanisms allow the child to continue functioning. If children felt the full depth of their terror and pain, they wouldn’t be able to sit and smile with their friends in class the following day.
There are several coping mechanisms, memory suppression, for instance, protects the child by removing the memory and the intense emotional pain from the child’s conscious awareness.
Whereas, denial allows the child to believe the abuse never happened.
During dissociation, the child escapes by separating the mind and body. Sadly, it is often a caregiver who inflicts sexual abuse –the very person responsible for feeding and housing you! And so, coping mechanisms, such as dissociation, not only protect the child from feeling pain, they allow the child to live a double life –one in which the abuser is both care-taker by day and monster by night.
How Dissociation Impacts our Ability to Live Happy and Full lives
Most people are not aware of their defence mechanisms. They’ve been active throughout life —since the abuse. They are the reason you survived. But, keeping these shields up is exhausting and will ensure a half-lived life —one stuck in survival mode.
Even more, the disconnection of the body, spirit, and mind, leaves us fragmented –fragmented from ourselves and the paralyzing experience. In time, “these sensory fragments of memory take on a life of their own and intrude into the present, where they are literally relived,” says Dr. Van Der Kolk, author of The Body Keeps the Score.
While dissociation helps the child survive, it no longer serves us. In fact, dissociation later impairs our ability to live a full and happy life.
But before saying goodbye to the defences that helped you to survive, it’s important to thank our magnificent minds for protecting us, especially when no one else did. Isn’t that incredible? When there was no adult to keep us safe, our minds stepped in and provided refuge, safety, and escape. Even so, at some point, we must consciously step in and integrate our fragmented selves for these coping mechanisms thwarts our ability to feel. We risk missing out on experiencing profound joy, peace, and love, or the ability to develop loving healthy relationships.
Life becomes dull grey: we are protected from the darkest pain but restricted from the brightest rainbows.
3 Potent Methods to Help you Heal and Integrate
While there is no one treatment for healing trauma, there is a wide range of methods that have proven effective, such as movement, breathing, and meditation. Most studies show that a combination of practices is most constructive.
For me, yoga has been a godsend! I’ve been practicing yoga on and off for sixteen years without knowing the science behind it. Even so, I did notice, my back pain subsided, my mood swings decreased, and my depression symptoms lessened, all of which are symptoms of trauma. Even more, whenever I would stop practicing yoga, I’d notice my ability to remain calm diminished, and instead, I’d yo-yo between rapid fits of rage and collapsing into bottomless holes of depression.
I’ve since learned yoga is a potent method for healing trauma, as it helps with mindfulness. And mindfulness, alone, can decrease cortisol levels and “reactivity to potential triggers,” says Bessel Van Der Kolk. In fact, yoga and mindfulness can help to calm you and connect you with your body, both of which are needed to reintegrate the body and mind. Bessel Van Der Kolk also revealed that “ten weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to medication or to any other treatment.”
Even so, yoga can be triggering, specifically, when practicing happy baby and heart-opening poses. If you’re in a heightened state of panic, terror, or dread, I’d suggest beginning with simple poses at home. On the other hand, you could also opt for entirely different methods, such as time spent in nature.
2. TIME SPENT IN NATURE
Countless people reject and disbelieve the theory that time spent in nature can provide healing. Nevertheless, studies have been looking at veterans who have PTSD. Although little research has been done, there is a growing amount of evidence to support nature’s ability to reduce trauma symptoms. There is no reason why this wouldn’t also help with PTSD related to sexual abuse trauma. In fact, studies, such as The Role of Therapeutic Landscape in Improving Mental Health of People with PTSD show that spending consistent time in nature can reduce stress hormones, improve sleep, and lower anxiety and depression –all of which are common manifestations among individuals who suffered from childhood sexual abuse.
The more I learn, the more I feel like nature is a healing friend. We have never been alone, and we never will be. I find this unbelievably comforting! I’ve personally experienced the healing powers of nature and advocate for time spent outside on the trails, amid the trees, or alongside the ocean waves. Those rugged trails have brought me back to life more times than I can count! I’ve felt safe surrounded by the towering Douglas firs protecting and shielding me.
3. RELATIONSHIPS AND COMMUNITY
Finally, study after study shows that relationships and community provide an enormous source of emotional support and safety, both of which are vital to the healing process. “Traumatized human beings recover in the context of relationships: with families, loved ones, AA meetings, Veterans’ organizations, religious communities, or professional therapists,” says Bessel Van Der Kolk.
For me, Girl Talk and Coffee was born from an innate human need to connect with others like me –with people who wouldn’t fear or judge my terror, rage, and darkness. I hope that you, too, can find comfort and support within the Girl Talk and Coffee community. And I hope it can lessen any isolation you may be experiencing.
If you’d like to share your story, you can do so safely and anonymously by emailing me here: Share Your Story
Writing to you helps me.
And lastly, you are not alone! If you ever find yourself feeling crazy or isolated, please grab a cozy blanket, pour yourself a hot cup of coffee and join the Girl Talk & Coffee community!
Feature Photo by Haley Kean
Second Photo by Viktor Talashuk