Working with flashbacks

Flashbacks are common for people who have experienced trauma.  They’re a key aspect of post traumatic stress disorder or PTSD.  Flashbacks can happen any time, but one of the most frustrating times is when they intrude upon my family life as it is now.  I’m no longer living with the person who filled my childhood with fear, hatred, and sorrow but the aftershocks of his actions can take over in an instant.  My husband’s voice becomes irritable or angry, and almost immediately it’s as if I’ve travelled back through time to the blue kitchen of my childhood home or the dining room where we ate most of our dinners as a family.

Everyone at the table, with the exception of my Dad, would be sitting on the edge of their chairs, wondering what it would be tonight.  What word or sentence delivered with the “wrong” intonation would light the fire of his rage?  Who would be the object of his destruction?  His anger always so close to the surface, like a pilot light gleaming through his eyes.  He teases, provokes, prods, eager for any excuse to explode.  We all share in the punishment, no one escapes it.  So often it is my brother who sets him off, and I hate myself for cowering, for not having the courage to stand-up for him to the bloody tyrant who rules our lives.  The fear is overwhelming, and it is a “freeze” response, rather than fight or flight that takes over.  Always, there is the question in my mind, “why doesn’t Mom DO anything to stop this?”  She has her own battles with him, on more intimate terms, and will not question anything he does in front of us, her children.

One night it was as simple as asking for more spaghetti.  My brother asked if he could have some more spaghetti, and my mother threw a whole pound of pasta into boiling water.  A specialist in punishing both child and mother, my father made my brother sit at the table and eat every single noodle of that pound.  There was no reasoning with him, no way of saving my brother from this ridiculous over-reaction.  All we could do was watch, and in my case, hate my father for doing this.  I don’t know what excuse my Mom made for him that night, she always found one, and made us forgive him.

Most of the memories I have of my childhood are like the one recounted above.  Filled with anger, humiliation and shame.  The house I grew up in was so angry all the time, that I cannot tolerate it now.  At the first sign of tension or irritation from my husband or (to some extent) my kids I go right back into freeze mode.  I shush my children so they won’t make it  “any worse,” and try with all my energy to stop it, to smooth things over.  Hyper-awareness takes over, and all my muscles tense.  (this is what has led to my chronic pain, call it fibromyalgia, call it what you will, decades of steeling yourself against the blow you know is coming eventually fries your nervous system)  At some point though, my own anger kicks in.  I cannot tolerate my children being attacked and WILL not allow it the way my mother did.

Of course the problem with this is that my husband (and ex-husband) are not my Father.  Projecting this old image on top of who they are is not a good way to resolve any current issues we may be having.  It seems, right now, uncontrollable.  I try saying, “This is not Dad, this is ……..” and fill in the blank with their name, but everything becomes enmeshed and impossible to untangle.

Working with flashbacks is really, really tough.  For now I’m trying to cope the best I can, and breathe.

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~ by janetlandis on August 23, 2009.

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