Flashbacks: They're a Bitch
Recovered memories, otherwise known as “flashbacks,” are memories of an event, often traumatic, that have been forgotten or repressed and are often recalled many years later after a trigger occurrence. There are so many survivors who have experienced the disorienting effects of flashbacks and I have met many of them. I understood that these survivors were obviously experiencing something unpleasant and possibly retraumatizing, but I had never experienced them for myself and did not have the education at the time to further comprehend how the human brain could repress something so traumatic as childhood molestation or abuse. That was, however, until I experienced one for myself and slipped into a full-on mental breakdown.
My amazing Mother (who has survived breast cancer and abuse, and is without a doubt the original badass Warrior), once told me about an incident when she was in her twenties. She was a stay-at-home mom at the time because my little brother was just born. One day while watching the Sally Jesse Raphael show, where childhood molestation survivors were on the panel, she began to experience memories that she had no recall of ever happening. Naturally, she thought she was losing her mind and called her Mother for answers. When she described what she experienced, my grandmother supposedly said to her “Oh no, you remembered.” The thing was though, my mom didn’t remember and had just experienced her first flashback of childhood molestation. When she told me, I’ll admit that I had much difficulty understanding why she could not recall such a horrific violation, but it was not until I experienced my own flashback that I understood what she felt. The fact is that the abuse she experienced was so traumatic, and at such a small age (5 years old), that in an attempt for her brain to protect her from what such a young child should not experience, it repressed the memory of these events until they were unlocked by a seemingly innocuous television show decades later.
Throughout my years of becoming an advocate, I was often told by survivors what they went through after experiencing a flashback. I was aware that these occurrences happened, but I still had the ideology that the memories were always there within the brain and often questioned how someone could “forget” a trauma like childhood molestation or rape could possibly not be remembered by the victim. Boy, how wrong I was, especially after experiencing my own recovered memories that I was unaware existed.
The first time I experienced a flashback was during, of all places, a wrestling match. No, I don’t mean that I was sitting at home watching pro wrestling; I mean that I was actually performing in an independent wrestling show in 2006. My husband is a well-respected veteran of the New England independent wrestling circuit and I met him when I was training within the industry. The match was a battle royal where many different wrestlers are in the ring at the same time and are eliminated by throwing each other over the top rope to the floor until only one person is left, thereby “winning” the match (a little wrestling explanation for those reading the blog who are not wrestling fans). When I was little, I always told my father that I wanted to be a wrestler like Hulk Hogan and after my first marriage ended in divorce, I figured I would give wrestling a try to see if I could do it. I’m thankful for my time there because it brought my husband into my life and he has been my greatest support throughout my healing process.
I was the only woman in the ring that day, which the fans loved, but made me “fair game,” so-to-speak, meaning that I would be treated as every other man working the match. That was fine with me, as I wanted no special treatment whatsoever. During the match, it was planned that I would “eliminate” my husband from the match because the audience there that day wanted me to “turn” on him. After tossing my husband over the top rope, I had my back to the other wrestlers while I “yelled” at my husband; the next thing I knew, I received what was probably the hardest forearm to my spine, stealing my breath away. I remember going down on one knee, but everything around me went quiet while distorted memories of being hit and held down flickered in my brain. My husband, who is a trained behavioral therapist (now retired from pro wrestling), noticed something happening with me and got me out of the ring as quickly as possible.
The first thing I remember was him asking me if I was “ok,” but I don’t remember saying anything to him. The young man that hit me (who is now Ring of Honor wrestler the “Horror King” Vinny Marseglia) came to me in the locker room to apologize for hitting me, but obviously there was no reason to apologize, as we were both doing our jobs. I want it known that I hold no ill regard for him and he is NOT responsible for sending me into what I now know was a flashback; he is still as wonderful a person today as he was back then as a 20-year-old rookie, and is a wonderful husband and father, and I am thrilled for all his success. I remember telling my husband later in the evening that I was fine and that nothing happened, while telling myself the same and writing it off as a weird reaction to being hit. The truth was that the hit from behind startled me, which triggered a flashback. There was no way for Vinny to know that his actions could possibly trigger a flashback, as nobody outside of my husband knew the details of my abuse. The next time something like this would happen was almost ten years later in 2015.
Growing up, and even into my adulthood, I was extremely close with my paternal Nana, or as I would call her “kiddo.” There really wasn’t a time in my life that she wasn’t there, until the day came that she wasn’t. About a month prior to her passing, my cousins and I were helping clean out her home because she was being moved to an assisted living facility. While going through pictures, I came across a picture that made me shake and become physically ill. It was a picture from my high school graduation and there he was, my rapist and abuser, right in the middle of it. I became confused and disoriented, and the flashes of memories began all over again. My cousin and my husband saw my reaction and took it upon themselves to discreetly remove the pictures from the room so that I wouldn’t have another reaction when I composed myself. I didn’t know these pictures even existed, so the shock of seeing the face of my rapist caused an outward and terrifying reaction.
After that day, the nightmares started. Every night, I would have terrible dreams that were so realistic that I would swear they were actually happening. Like my Mother before me, I swore I was losing my mind. These “dreams” started to become memories because my Mother started to help me fill in the blanks that trauma left within my brain. I would question something that may have happened by describing these episodes and I knew what they were when my Mom would tell me “oh yeah, I remember that.” The sudden influx of all these traumatic memories, coupled with the stress of losing my Nana, caused me to go into a psychotic break. My husband tells me that I went into a spiral after something as inconsequential as my glasses breaking triggered me to break with reality, and found me in our bathroom muttering to myself, speaking in 3rd person (“your wife is going to die” “she’s a stupid bitch”), and the coup-de-gras of it all was carving the words “I HATE YOU” into my arm.
I received many more months of counseling after this incident and it was determined that although my first assault was extremely traumatic, the second victimization was much longer and much more violent than what I previously experienced at the hands of my rapist. Much like my Mother, my brain shut down and caused a detachment from the abuse to try to protect me from that ongoing daily trauma. Over the years my memory began to “mesh” certain incidents together, causing me to blend the two different periods of trauma instead of being able to delineate between the two.
I am in a much better place today, with ongoing support and maintenance treatment if I need it, but the work towards healing will never truly be completed. Recovered memories are like broken puzzle pieces that try to become complete puzzle pieces, but the truth is, they will never be whole again because our own brains tried to protect us from the trauma we were experiencing. They are scary, disorienting, confusing, frustrating, and a completely normal part of the healing process. If you are experiencing flashbacks, please contact a provider as soon as possible to work them out. Remember, these occurrences will happen, but YOU ARE NOT ALONE!