Flashbacks are cruel. In my case, they are also punishment. My brain splintered into lots of people when bad stuff happened. I allowed those people to feel all the things. The punishment is that I must now feel all the things.
I cannot predict when a flashback will find its entry point. It sneaks up behind me and envelops me. Time becomes fluid and I am no age and I have no body and there is no ground. It is real. It is happening. It is exactly the same as when it happened before. The cruel fluid somehow can fill me and everything around me. Everything is dark and blindingly bright. Everything is silent and deafening. I am empty and pushed to capacity. It is a split second and an eternity.
Today’s entry point was a bathtub. I had stretched myself and my inside people to speak some of the really hard things to my much-loved therapist in my safest place. I began to feel that familiar swirling in my head, numbness in my lips, explosions in my stomach, and betrayal of my legs’ ability to hold up my now heavy, leaden body.
Down the hall from my safest place is the safest bathroom. Inside the safest bathroom stands a free-standing bathtub. At the moment I knew that my time in my safest place had come to an end, I thought of the bathtub. It offered a cold surface and sturdy support I imagined would calm the swirling and exploding. It was nearby and I could latch the bathroom door. I could quickly, quietly, and unobtrusively collapse alone.
Right inside the quickly shut door of the safest bathroom, I folded onto the floor to hold the edge of that beautiful bathtub. I closed my eyes. I ignored the fiery heat beneath them. I focused on the cold porcelain against my cheek. I willed the floor to bolster my legs. I waited for stillness and peace. I was given the opposite.
Suddenly, I no longer have the security of measured time and life experience at my disposal. I am on another bathroom floor in the un-safest bathroom. I still need the cold and the floor and the sturdy bathtub walls to stop the swirling and the exploding. I’m too small to understand this, however. It was circumstance, not planning, that placed me in that particular spot in that particular bathroom. My feelings of terror and confusion and helplessness that overcome me are those of a three-year-old. Movement and clear thought and breathing are no longer possible.
Then, the worst part comes — when the split second entry and timeless eternity begin to ebb. My mind and time and solid ground are slowly returning. But a flashback is cruel. I despise how my mind achieves “just a memory” so much faster than my body. Is it because I don’t have a body so often? My body is inexperienced with physical sensation, and she and I do not talk much. My mind has matured with me these forty-six years and provided me safe refuge. My body, used to being a footnote, an inconvenience I address only when necessary, never learned. Or maybe I just recently started listening.
So the pain and the explosions and the swirling stay around for a while. Again I wonder, punishment? I am embarrassed that my much-loved therapist checks on me. I long to stand up and hurry down the stairs to become not-a-burden. My body betrays me. No legs, no breath, only pain.
I hear myself attempting to explain the situation to her, but my voice, while in my control, is several levels of separation away from me. It’s muffled and labored and not nearly as competent as I’d like it to sound. I do hear myself say, “It’s just a flashback.” I imagine she thinks I’m speaking to her. I assure her I can make it downstairs — no one is in the hallway, right?
Once I am alone, I force my legs to slide across the threshold of the safest bathroom to the stairs. The air-conditioning has chilled the walls lining the staircase, and I gratefully press my cheek against them the whole way down — sitting on each step, slowly, one at a time. I curse my body that I can’t run, run as fast as I can.
Shame joins the pain each time my breath betrays me forcing me to stop. Come on, breathe. No, deeper. Damn you, body, this is taking my entire concentration.
It takes me a very, very, very long time to get down the stairs. When I reach the last one, I panic. I have to stand up. Many, many deep breaths are needed. Finally, I pull myself up with all the railings and walls and knobs and umbrella stands in my reach. I stepped out the door and made it to the driver’s seat of my car. Not-a-burden is finally achieved.