Living with trauma means being a tight-rope walker. To not be put off-balance by the post-traumatic selves that you must juggle while you walk, to manage to move forwards while the competing demands of everyday life and a traumatic past unwilling to relax its grip upon you buffet you from every direction and to maintain your focus amid the myriad glinting distractions of a crowded circus tent that only seems to hold tricks and traps disguised as well-meaning bystanders, means navigating life with the utmost attention and precision. Just an instant’s lapse in concentration is likely to bring about a wobble that could only too readily become a plunge into gruesome territory. One moment, there you are, delicately, tentatively placing one foot in front of the other, when – whoosh! – all of a sudden a glimpse of something rips your mind away from the rope and you’re gone. Caught now in the web that lies beneath the line, you are entangled in the living memory of the assault. Your body courses with adrenaline and undergoes the same physical responses it would in an actual attack. All the same emotions well up inside of you with overwhelming intensity. The space-time continuum is severed and your traumatised mind can literally not tell the difference between then and now. Your panic as you are overcome, yet again, by that devastating series of events is no less potent, no less horrific for being recurrent.
Flashbacks hold many of the injurious characteristics of the assault itself – they are violent, unexpected, invasive and uncontrollable. From one moment to the next everything can change. Seemingly anything, from the obvious to the innocuous or absurd, even people and places that have a long history of positive memories, can suddenly turn on you and bury you in a flashback. You can go from a present moment that seems completely safe, known and manageable to being there, then, reliving the assault as if for the first time all over again. The same mix of emotions, the same series of events, the same sense of terror, confusion, powerlessness, horror and pain all take over your world anew. It is not just a memory, nor a strong sense of déja-vu. Even that unforgettable scene in A Clockwork Orange, with Alex strapped to the chair, his eyes pinned open, forced to watch violence while being made to feel ill doesn’t capture the experience. Flashbacks are more physical, more tangible. They are so convincing, it takes all your courage and concentration to convince yourself that, despite what your body’s alarm system is screaming at you, you are indeed safe, there is no inherent danger to you, you’re not there, then – you’re here, now.
Perhaps though, the scariest thing about flashbacks is not that they take you back so literally, so persuasively to that terrifying time and place, to that inexorable series of events, severing you so completely from the present time and place, but that they force you back into that powerless, passive, wounded state of being. In a whole new place and time, with a brand new set of circumstances and with people you love and trust, you are again made to feel out-of-control, in harm’s way and unable to do anything about it. Swept up in a destructive current intent on taking you somewhere you know you don’t want to go, you simply cannot remove yourself from its path despite every effort. That psychological place, that emotional state, is so harmful, so hurtful you’d do anything to avoid it and yet here it is tainting new moments of your life, inflicting itself once again on you and your world. All you want is to break its spell but, because you did not cast it, you don’t seem to have the power to undo it.
Once returned to that state of being it can take days, sometimes weeks or months, to rebuild a sense of confidence, strength and agency. The recovery process is anything but linear. Rather, you can have periods where the tightrope stays still and you glide along it with the elegant, expert precision of a professional, periods in which the devoted attention and precision that you pay to daily life are rewarded with the ability to actually live and enjoy daily life. But then, always when you’ve just begun to relax into an inexpectant, settled frame of mind, a trigger will rear its ugly head and with one lazy swipe destroy all your hard work, whilst souring everything with its poisonous breath. Just like a tight-rope walker, sometimes the only way to move forwards is to move backwards. You put your foot back on the line behind you, transferring your weight to that position your body has hopefully become accustomed to and settle in, with all your attention, engaging your core muscles to stabilise you and refusing to let any of that ugly demon’s tricks distract you. It isn’t much fun, and it never gets easier. However, you do get better at it. The more you practice, the more cunning your coping tactics become and, even more importantly, the more assuredly you know that it does pass, that you will survive.