Dissociation and Flashbacks

I’ve been having a bad period here in terms of the anxiety. There’s increased activity with the ex, and signs of impending renewed legal activity (my least favorite thing ever) and it’s been ratcheting up my anxiety symptoms.

One of the things that is so frustrating about being a survivor of domestic violence is that even now there’s so little attention given to the mental issues it produces. The new DSM does include “complex PTSD” as a diagnosis, which is a relief to me and to others, as that is definitely the correct diagnosis for me, the previous ones were cobbled together to fit the options available in the DSM IV. But the criteria in the DSM V is still a little wonky. More work, more refinement is needed.

And still, people assume PTSD is only something that soldiers get. Or–and I think this is much, much worse–people think that what soldiers get is a worse version than anyone else.

I hate that.

I do not deny the horrors of war. My sister was just in the Coast Guard–no front lines for her–but she saw people decapitated and fished bodies out of the ocean and I don’t even know what else. I shudder to think what it is like to be in battle proper.

But the horrors of being in a domestic violence situation are also extreme.

I was afraid for my life. Every day, for eight years. For four of those years, I was also afraid for my children’s lives. Fear that was justified–my oldest was hospitalized twice in her first 3 months of life. I BEGGED the social workers for help, and they insisted that they come speak to her father, too, before getting me any assistance. I have no family here. I had no friends, we’d just moved to the city. I was trapped.

When you life in that kind of heightened alertness state for that long, it destroys you.

When I see him, even now, when we’ve been apart longer than we were together, my heart rate skyrockets, I feel dizzy and lightheaded, and the flashbacks come back. The memories come back, and I start to dissociate.

The good news is, after all these years, I’ve got a very stable grounding practice and can spot the dissociation when it starts and try to head it off at the pass. Now, when a dissociative episode happens, it mostly takes the form of feeling hazy, like I’m in a daydream, and I have trouble processing words and talking. I can’t form coherent sentences, I can’t really understand what other people are saying to me. These periods are brief, usually, and do not really impair my daily life. I can continue to cook or clean or diaper a baby feeling like a dream, because I know that it is a false sensation and life is really happening around me.

The memories are a bigger problem than the flashbacks, because they are more frequent and pervasive. I’ll have a memory stuck in my head for days at a time and my thoughts keep coming back to it like it’s being pulled by a magnet. This week I keep thinking of the time I called the police for help after he (yet again) squeezed my windpipe shut until I passed out. I woke up, agreed to spend a week at his parent’s house as he wanted (those people are just as awful as he is…) and then stumbled into the bedroom and called 911. The police came, the cops asked me what happened, and I told them. They asked him and he denied it, and then he told them I was crazy. He asked them to put me in the hospital for a psych eval. They refused. But when I asked them to arrest him or to get me and the kids out of there, they also refused. They said that their departmental policy was that if there was no third party witness, and no need for medical care or visible injuries, they did not intervene in domestic disputes.

After they left, he took my phone and locked me in the closet. He put something in front of it so I couldn’t get out, and that’s where I spent the night. In the morning, I could hear the baby crying before he let me out. I can still see him, silhouetted against the morning light in the bathroom, with his “stern daddy” look on his face, as he said, “Did you learn your lesson? Can I trust you to be out of this closet and take care of the kids?”

When I said yes, he walked away, and before I even got out of the closet I heard the front door closing behind him. My cell phone was gone, my laptop was gone, the house phones were all gone, my car keys were gone, and my wallet was gone. The kids’ carseats were not in my car, either. That’s how I lived for several weeks, a prisoner in my own home, until he was sure he could trust me again.

I don’t know if I’ll ever be free of the memories, if the flashbacks will ever stop completely, if the dissociation will ever go away. I think not. I think this is the permanent reminder that I will carry with me of the time I spent in that hell. At least now it is manageable.



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