Before I begin today’s topic I want clarify a couple of terms. There is a difference between trigger and flashback. Triggers are external. They are anything that cause a survivor to feel unwanted emotions and feelings. They can, and often do, lead to anxiety (psychological reaction) or panic attacks (physical reaction). They can be a topic, a graphic description of abuse, a movie, a song, a sound, even a word. I trigger when people attack me verbally which often results in a full-blown panic attack which takes me 3-4 hours to recover. I trigger over articles about abuse if I don’t mentally prepare myself first. This is why I appreciate the use of trigger warnings at the beginning of books and articles.
A flashback is more internal. It is a psychological event in which a survivor is taken back to the point of abuse and it is nearly impossible to recognize the difference between the memory and the current reality. It is downright terrifying to experience.
So, here’s the warning. I am going to share about the flashback that sent me back into therapy. This was not just a trigger/anxiety attack situation. We have never experienced this before and it really challenges our relationship.
AND…sorry this one is long.
It never ceases to amaze me. Just when I think I’m stable, I’m healing, I’m safe…things change. It was early February. The day before my story was going to be publically released. A public proclamation of Abba’s healing work in my life and marriage. An unexpected message sent me into a conversation that left me emotionally drained and vulnerable. Suddenly, memories were verified as real. Yes, you did experience incest. Yes, you did drag your siblings into your nightmare. Yes, this did not just happen to you. The weight of it all was a little too much. I no longer had a therapist to work me through the emotions and I couldn’t blog about it, because sexual abuse they understand…but incest? I had seen people’s response to *those* stories and I didn’t want to open myself to that type of criticism.
I walked downstairs. The husband and I were recovering from two weeks of illness and too much work. We spent the day slightly flirting and then not-so-slightly flirting with one another. I knew and he knew that as soon as the kids went to bed, that it was our time. And I was looking forward to it. I missed the deep oneness I felt connected with him.
I opened the refrigerator door and stared. He said something and I gave no response. “Are you ok?” I looked at him. “No. I’m not ok.” He’s learned when I’m that honest to listen. “And I don’t want to talk about it…I don’t want you to deal with this right now.” He looked at me and I knew he was struggling, “Do I say something? Do I not say something? Do I fix this? We need to be honest with one another, but how do I push her to tell me?” I looked at him, “I’m just going to lay in bed for a while, ok?”
When he came to bed I was still there. Rolled in a ball, tears long dried up. I felt disconnected from myself. I just wanted to make the bad stuff go away. I wanted to be this wife who didn’t have this ugly history; his without all this crap. I was torn between falling asleep to make the memories go away and wanting to cuddle up next to him and let him touch me. I wanted so desperately to feel that I was worthy of love and I wasn’t that little girl anymore. I needed him to make the nightmares in my head go away.
I regretted it the second I said yes.
In order to keep this part of our lives sacred and private, I will just say that the way I was abused was the way our evening was going. I had long had victory over this and enjoyed the freedom. But this night…this night I didn’t feel freedom.
He touched me and my entire body didn’t sing, it screamed. I begin to touch him and my stomach responds. And I am an 11-year-old again. And I am not sure if I am being abused or abusing or what is happening and I am going to vomit. All over my husband. I cannot grasp I am not there and I am here. I can’t escape the horror of it because my coping mechanism is long gone. I try to stay engaged in the process and mentally tell myself that I’m not abusing my husband and he’s not abusing me. I am drowning with no escape. And so I force myself to think of something other than what I am doing because I can’t tell him we need to stop because but I need to and I don’t want to hurt him. And I’m praying Abba please make this end…and it does. And I leave our bed, go into the bathroom and heave and cry and beg Abba to please end my life. This is one of the lowest points of my life. I crawl back into bed and plead silently, “Don’t touch me. Please don’t touch me.” but I need the comfort of his arms so I snuggle close and he whispers, “Are you ok?” and I just say, “No. I’m not sure I’m going to be ok again.”
When this happened I didn’t quite understand how he perceived the entire scenario. He knew that I was disengaged. He knew that something was bugging me. He figured when I was ready to talk he would be there to listen.
It took me two days to talk. And when I did, I hurt him deeply. I had to tell him about the incest in my family. And although I could tell he was fatigued by yet another story, he was compassionate with my pain. I told him that I wanted to be with him that night but I was emotionally vulnerable and should have not done that. He responded with, “You didn’t have to push us.” Which made me retort, “That’s not fair.” So, the conversation was not starting on a good note. Then I told him about the flashback. He looked confused, “What’s the problem? Why is this causing you so much trouble?”I gulped and blurted… “Because. I don’t think you can touch me again. I don’t know if I can touch you again. I did…and I almost vomited.” His face…no words.
We didn’t speak to each other for days. When we finally reconciled it was sweet and beautiful and I assumed all was well. Until we were sitting around the campfire working on questions for this series and I asked him, “What things has your wife said that have hurt you?”
“When you said you were repulsed by me.”
It’s been 7 months and we are still dealing with the aftermath. My confidence and trust are eroded and I’ve hidden part of me away again. The process of reclaiming is pretty painful and it opened other wounds that need healed. Yet, despite all this pain, we are standing on the firm foundation of the miracle done in our relationship.
So how does a spouse respond to the moments when their seemingly loving spouse turns into a raging nightmare? Specifically, how does my spouse deal with me when I experience a trigger of flashback and my behavior changes?
I don’t take it personal anymore. I listen to what you are saying and try to hear what is you are not saying. “I” don’t have anything to do with what it is you are screaming at me about. I realize that I’m not the guilty one. I’m not the one who hurt you and I’m not the one continuing to hurt you. I don’t own what is not mine. I used to be more offended and hurt by your blowups and your depressive episodes, but I know they are not about me so I don’t respond as much. You still have a temper and I have found ways to not push your buttons. Ultimately, this is because of the Lord. He’s helped me.
It’s been a long process. He asks specific questions and listens. He realizes that when I say “I can’t answer”, pushing me to talk will bring anxiety and explosions. He’s tried to understand the why and concluded that’s not a question that can be answered. He tells me my willingness to share my stories, sometimes at random times, has helped him realize that gravity of what happened. And there are some things that I save for my therapist. Some things are just better left unsaid between us. And we’re both beginning to accept that limitation in our marriage.
Thank you for letting us be real and transparent with you.