Flayed by Flashbacks

Friday, October 09, 2009

Question

Is there any way to stop memories of sexual abuse and incest from returning? For most of my life, I never thought about the fact that I barely remembered most of my childhood. After being in therapy for six months, I started getting odd body sensations. I'd suddenly feel like I was choking, or I'd feel like I was being held down and crushed. I'd have piercing, tearing pain in my genital area. As if that wasn't bad enough, the memories started to flood back. I never know when I am going to be interrupted—at work, during sex with my partner, during a movie—and have to leave because I am triggered and overwhelmed. Sometimes the things I see/feel make me cry or throw up. I feel like I am going crazy. Since I was the victim of these terrible things, it hardly seems fair that I have to suffer through them twice. I don't know if I can survive the anger and depression long enough to get the healing that my therapist keeps promising me. How can I put this evil genii back into its bottle?

Answer

No wonder you feel overwhelmed! The rate at which you are being triggered is enough to disrupt anybody's life and make them feel crazy. I think you need to have a talk with your therapist about this. Getting in touch with memories of sexual abuse can be important to some survivors. But that is only half of the work. The other half is learning how to put the fear, anger, and pain away so that you can live in the now and feel safe enough to enjoy your current life.

There are a lot of different ways to do this. Your therapist might be able to teach you some grounding exercises and calming visualizations. Some people listen to tapes or music. Others take up hobbies that calm them. You can also investigate self-hypnosis or biofeedback. You might also want to see a psychiatrist and talk about medication. There's evidence that severe trauma can affect the brain structure and chemistry so that people become hypervigilant and live with a level of stress that is higher than others'. Medication can correct this so that you don't have more than your share to handle.

One of the questions I like to ask my survivor clients is, How do you know when you are safe? Do a writing exercise and list the situations or people who make you feel reassured, comforted, present, and calm. When you get triggered, check in with your environment. Force yourself to become aware of the ground or floor under your feet, the texture of the furniture you are touching, the color of flowers or the walls. If you are hyperventilating (taking rapid, shallow breaths that make you feel panicky), breathe into a paper bag for a few minutes. Or put your head down for a bit. Talking to or touching somebody you find safe can be a good next step.

Getting out of your head can be a good technique for relaxation. Physical exercise of any kind is very good for abuse survivors. So is having hobbies that are engrossing. I've had clients who took up embroidery, building model ships, refinishing antiques—or just cleaning the house when they felt upset.Have faith in the process. When certain terrible things were happening to you, your young consciousness protected you by splitting so that you were sent away and not allowed to remember the worst part of your abuse. If it is coming back now, it means you are stronger and your life is in a better place. So the same consciousness is feeding you pieces of your own past so you can integrate these memories and fully own your own life.

You need not spend every therapy session on this topic, however. I'm sure there are other things going on that you might want to talk about. You should be in control of the pace of your therapy. Don't raise upsetting topics unless you feel ready to handle them. Learning to be more assertive with others in your life—including your therapist—can have a spillover effect so that you gain more control over your emotions as well.

Please feel free to write again if you feel you need additional help.