This is what flashbacks are like.
You can be fine. Absolutely fine. Having a great day, laughing and joking around, enjoying other people. Singing well, feeling on top of things as though you’re actually making a contribution. Actually confident for once, actually feeling as though you’re in the right place, doing the right thing. As though you’re meant to be there – all’s right with the Universe. Then, abruptly…
It’s normally the small things that set you off. The big things you can anticipate: they come with a neon warning flashing over their heads. Trigger!, they scream. This will upset you – and so, because you’re braced against them, they don’t. You get through them and wonder what all the fuss was about.
It’s the things you don’t see coming that shatter you, like the slap that’s so much more shocking because it came from behind, it was a surprise, there was no bracing. In this case, it was nothing more than a hand moving too quickly, and too forcefully, for my war-zone instincts, my abused mind, to cope with. Not even anywhere near me; but in my general direction, and on what, if I were closer, would have been a perfect trajectory with my left cheekbone – and abruptly, nothing exists in the world but that threat. The world narrows and shakes and shatters like a broken photograph frame and all I can see is that image, a fist coming towards my face. I know I’m in the middle of a rehearsal; I can see the music in my lap when I look down, the small black dots and markings on a white page which are supposed to hold meaning, and beauty, and which suddenly are senseless; and riding over everything, a fist coming towards my face. It’s like being plunged underwater, and held there, powerless: pure immersion, pure confusion, pure sensation, pure panic. Sheer, mindless terror that screams silently: get out, get out, GET OUT!, and I break and make a run for it and manage to get outside before the tears and the shaking start.
It’s funny – when the beatings were for real, and when the fist coming towards my face was designed to make painful, bruising contact, I barely reacted. Going limp, protecting myself, passivity – that’s what kept me safe. If you fight, if you try to flee, you get hurt more. Now that the threat is not real – nothing more than a harrowing, soul-deep image burned into the deepest, most elemental part of my mind – my body reacts with terror. All the fear that I should have felt the first time round, all the instinct-driven compulsion to escape – every fibre of my being screams it. And if a flashback is the equivalent of being plunged into icy, burning waters and being held there, helpless and captive to a memory that pins every part of me to its surface – well then, the panic attack that follows is being caught up in the torrent of those waters and swept along, defenceless and unprotected, until I come to rest somewhere hard – in this case, in the lee of an outside wall of the Cathedral, drenched by gentle, soaking rain, cold to my bones and whipped by a hard cold wind – sensations strong enough to override the touch of panic on my skin, of the flashback which now rides my very core. Sensations strong enough to keep me present, to keep my battered mind from withdrawing into itself.
Now, writing this some time later – my mind, after an episode like this, ceases to be capable of holding onto a sense of the passing of time – I just feel tired. Exhausted, my very bones are tired, my soul feels heavy with it. I want to sleep, to shelter in the darkness of my flat, my haven from the world – to wrap myself in it, hide beneath it as though it can protect me from the demons that exist only in my own beaten mind. Tomorrow the sickening shame will set in, another wave I have to ride.
I am ok. Exhausted, drained, ashamed, but ok. I’ll keep putting one foot in front of another and tell myself that this is just a setback and try not to be too judgemental of myself. But, seriously – sometimes having PTSD sucks.