The thing with flashbacks is that you never know what will trigger one, but it can be healing to stay open to the secrets they hold. I have only recently begun experiencing flashbacks. I didn’t know what they were at first, but as I became comfortable sitting with my feelings, I became curious about them and wanted to understand the lessons they had to teach me.
The first time I noticed I was having a flashback was about three and a half years ago when I was having Myofascial Release. The therapist had set the stage for such a relaxing session with the right ambience and I settled in for some much needed fascia work. My chronic, widespread pain had finally been diagnosed as Myofascial Pain Syndrome by my pain clinic doctor and I was seeing such great improvement from the treatments that I couldn’t wait to get on the table each week.
halfway through the session I was lying on my stomach when I heard an Enya song start to play and within a moment, my trapezius muscle began to knot up. It felt like someone was twisting the sinews in my shoulder blade like spaghetti on a fork. My breathing became shallow and I nearly cried out for the pain, but thought, “I wonder if this is in my head. I’ll wait to see if the therapist notices anything.” Sure enough, she moved to my left shoulder and said, “Hmmm, this is quite warm,” as Enya sang, “Who can say where the road goes,”
As the muscle knot tightened its grip on the back of my ribcage I recalled my mother destroying the relationship I had with a man overseas. I was twenty-eight years old when she found out about him and forced my father to call him and break up with him for me. I was broken-hearted. When my mother discovered an email he had sent me after she dictated a response to him from me over my left shoulder, which stated he was never to contact me again. Ever.
My autonomy and my identity were stolen from me, not for the first time, and it was never more evident than in that moment underscored by Only Time. While on the table I began to think, “Oh, no, how will I ever get body work done without being able to hear Enya?” A little while later, the therapist said, “I’m not able to get this to release. I’ll put some tiger balm on it and send you home with some homework.”
My body remembered what I had tried to forget. The music triggered a bodily response before I was aware of the memory associated with it. But since then I have noticed that my shoulder knots up every time I’m thinking of, or talking about, anything associated with my mother. It’s happening as I write this. Perhaps this is why I currently have a ruptured disc in my neck and the fascia between my shoulders has so many painful trigger points. Perhaps my body is constantly responding to triggers from my brain that I’m not completely aware of. Perhaps, there is a way to retrain my brain to stop sending stress signals to my body when a traumatic subconscious memory is triggered. One way I have started to address this is to repeat to myself, “You are safe. You are at peace. You can be happy.”
I had been out of my mother’s home four years and had recently gone no contact with her, but I was brought right back to that place of feeling trapped and helpless. If there are two things under threat in the home of a malignant narcissist, they would be a sense of personal safety and peace of mind. It’s as though our happiness is a threat to the narcissist and they will do all they can to destroy our sense of happiness and contentment. My body is always waiting for the other shoe to drop. It doesn’t matter how long I’ve been out of the abuse, my body is always prepared for the bottom dropping out. Reminding myself I’m no longer in that environment and that I have the right to enjoy being happy is a great comfort to me. Since writing those three statements, my shoulder muscle has begun to release a bit, and my left arm has stopped tingling. For me, being aware of what the reaction might be telling me gives me a chance to address it internally for some very real, physical results.
This last year, I encountered a situation that seemed to be the perfect storm of triggers. A whole series of circumstances and events transpired and sucked me back into a past trauma of being in a hospital bed, unable to move and heavily drugged while my narcissistic mother took full control over my life and health. These events marked the beginning of a very long, painful and abusive seven years full of shaming, blaming, invalidating, gaslighting, brainwashing and reverse projection that is so common with narcissists. Once this memory was triggered, I became nauseated and panicked, and my back went out the next morning in the shower. I couldn’t walk for a week, and I felt vulnerable, abandoned, and ashamed. I couldn’t get dressed or drive or clean the house or be of any use to anyone. Six days in, I lamented to my boyfriend in a text saying I was so ashamed.
As I saw the word “ashamed” float up in the text bubble, I caught my breath, “Why do I feel ashamed?” I thought. I burst into tears, then I gasped like a baby startled from her crying as I looked at the blank wall in front of me and saw my mother’s angry face and wagging forefinger as she scolded me with, “I’m so ashamed of you! If you had done what I said you never would have ended up in surgery!”I blurted out, “It’s okay, It’s okay! You didn’t do anything wrong!”
I was comforting my younger self before I realized what was happening. The flashback was triggered by seeing the word “ashamed” and my mouth responded before my head knew what was happening. As I became curious about her face flashing in front of me and my automatic response, I realized how deeply my connection to myself, my pain, and the shame of my abuse is. From that moment on the shame I have carried over my medical condition for fifteen years was gone and I was able to walk again the next morning.
I now believe with all my heart that my degenerative discs and Myofascial Pain Syndrome are a direct result of narcissistic abuse. Being in an environment of prolonged abuse and psychological trauma was too much for my muscles and my spine. The stress was like a vice that clamped tighter and tighter as I got older and my mother’s grip grew firmer. My body coped with the stress hormones it produced my entire life as best it could. For this, I try to thank my body and give it what it needs. I go do some yoga or drink some water or give it some sunshine. Nurturing myself has become a necessity and a privilege. I get to do what my mother could not. Love me.
I hadn’t been sleeping the last few weeks. I couldn’t figure out why. There were no pervading thoughts that I fixated on, just this irritability and discontentment that wouldn’t let me close my eyes. I tried sleeping with my fan off the other night so I could listen to a bedtime story in the hopes that it would lead me into a deep sleep. I think I drifted off before Sherlock Holmes solved the mystery, but around 2 AM I woke to hear the faint rumble of snoring from the apartment above. I started to have a panic attack and realized the snoring sounded eerily like my father’s snoring. He slept in the room next to mine for many years, and I spent many sleepless nights praying for another life to that sound. I then remembered that a new neighbor moved in upstairs a few weeks ago. I must have been hearing the snoring subconsciously through the white noise of my fan all that time. As I realized this, I slowed my breathing and whispered, “You’re safe. You’re free. You’re not there anymore,” and I was able to get to sleep. It was a sound I hadn’t heard in eight years, but it brought me straight back to that room that felt like a prison cell for so long.
Memories about my father are mixed with confusion, so it makes sense I would lose sleep over subconscious reminders of him. He seemed trapped and victimized most of my life and I felt sorry for him. He often told me how crazy my mother was and that he was there for me when she got really bad. He was the man I looked to to rescue me my whole life, who told me I could trust him and who had betrayed me over and over again in order to sustain his toxic codependent relationship with my malignant narcissist mother. One day, I realized he allowed the abuse, participated in the abuse, and was covertly abusive, himself. He saw what my mother was capable of. He was the adult who allowed his family to be terrorized while also terrorizing us to avoid facing the truth. My father would much rather condemn everyone around him; including friends and extended family, than face the reality that he was re-enacting childhood trauma and hurting others.
The pain associated with my father feels elusory and complex. Flashing back to the years spent in captivity to the sound of his snoring was the only way I would have realized why I was having insomnia. The experience helped to clarify some things about my past and give me insight into how to help myself in the process. The experiences of living with a narcissistic family for thirty years are stored in my body. I can only imagine the triggers are innumerable. Even the most benign experiences are tainted with oppression and trauma. My body is in a constant state of inflammation, panic, and tension. The only way I know to get through is to be open to the discoveries I make and embrace the experience in the hope that I can retrain my brain to not be in overdrive all the time.
Breaking Through the Flashbacks
I’m discovering that being tolerant of my own feelings helps me to lean into the flashback and accept it, I can find an immediate solution to help with the panic it induces and also gain a little more insight into how I relate with the world and how I might heal from the hurt that is associated with it. It shows me what I am doing by default that may not be serving me anymore and gives me the opportunity to work to modify or eliminate the behavior. When we’re ready, learning from our flashbacks can lead to some amazing breakthroughs that are more frightening left unaddressed than faced.
I had a therapist who was always telling me to really feel my anger, really feel my sadness. It would annoy me, because I was feeling it, in my chest, like a fireball. It restricted my breathing and caused me to feel panicked. All. The. Time. What I think he meant was to sit in my feelings. Really get to know them and become familiar with them.
As the daughter of a narcissistic mother, my feelings were absolutely intolerable to her. I had to pretend I wasn’t afraid or disappointed or angry just to keep her from reacting to me in a way that was frightening to me. So I stuffed them, and there they sat, smoldering in my chest cavity and frightening me. Over time, I learned to sit with them, be okay with them, and welcome them. They are really quite harmless. Once I could feel my feelings, I could see my flashbacks for what they were; clues to unlocking my past and beginning to heal.
Some of these breakthroughs have been emotional for me, but they have not been frightening or overwhelming. In the past, my panic attacks would be all-consuming and the fear distracted me from the lesson the flashback had to offer. I couldn’t even see what was causing it. It was like fumbling around in thick smoke trying to catch my breath but never being able to find the fire to put it out. Even when I could calm down, I didn’t know why I shouldn’t be panicked, and I would cycle through panic attack after panic attack for days on end. Now, when panic strikes, I’m able to pull it out of my chest, hold it up to the light and be curious about it. Doing this has helped me by leaps and bounds, because not only do the emotions become overwhelming, they can accompany physical pain.
The Body Keeps the Score
There is a very physical element to my flashbacks. Something physical outside of myself can trigger a subconscious memory that my body responds to by seizing up. My body’s response to the memory of emotional or psychological trauma is usually panic followed by pain or vice versa. This can manifest itself in many ways, but ultimately, my body seems to be trying to protect itself with no way of escape, almost continuously. This pattern seems to echo the physical sensations I had during traumatic times.
My body is actually causing itself real pain and injury. This doesn’t take a mind over matter approach to rectify. It also doesn’t behoove me to completely crumble under the pain and give in to it. There are times when it is physically impossible for me to move, so it can’t be helped, but ignoring the pain or succumbing to the pain doesn’t work. Addressing the pain, acknowledging the pain, and telling my body that it is safe can sometimes ease it and allow my body to do things like yoga and meditation, taking a walk or paddling a kayak to allow time and space for my mind to be renewed and my body to keep following suit. In this way, I put one foot in front of the other in my mental and physical recovery and keep moving forward.
Physical pain and anxiety can wrestle together to create a snowball effect. The anxiety exacerbates the pain and the pain exacerbates the anxiety, and before we know it we’re utterly defeated and fatigued. We’re ready to crawl into bed and disappear from the world. It feels hopeless and we feel helpless. When it gets like this, the best thing we can do is accept ourselves. Accept where we are, what we’re feeling, and nurture ourselves in that state. It’s not giving up to give in to the feelings and physical pain that overtake us. If we can lean into it, be curious about it, and be gentle with ourselves, our bodies will realize it’s safe to come out. Our brains will get used to being in a safe environment and learn that we are not in eminent danger. We are adults who can set boundaries and protect ourselves from things that can harm us. We are safe. We are loved.
Finding a licensed professional who understands narcissistic abuse, PTSD, and the chronic pain associated with trauma is essential. Having a qualified individual help walk us through our healing journey can help take the sting out of going it alone. It’s important that we are heard and validated, especially in the beginning of our journeys, and most people are not going to be equipped to understand the specific brand of trauma we have experienced. Lack of understanding and knowledge on the part of a partner or loved one can be detrimental to the healing process if we don’t have a lifeline. It is important that we have a foundation of self love and esteem that can carry us through the times when no one can understand what we are going through. I have found the lifeline professional psychologists who are educated about narcissistic abuse and toxic families to be crucial to my healing process. It may take a little searching, but you will know when a therapist “gets it” and you can speak freely without having guilt heaped upon your head.
Talk to someone about getting unstuck and getting to a place where you can be curious about your PTSD and flashbacks. It is a journey of self discovery that I feel is essential to healing from narcissistic abuse.
Be well, Lovelies