Last week was a really hard week for me. Maybe it was because we’d hit the one-month-quarantined-at-home mark. Maybe it was because I was already two weeks into a pretty severe bout of insomnia. Maybe it was the phase of the moon. Honestly, sometimes I have no idea why my mood turns south. It often feels entirely out of my control.
Anyway, whatever the reason, early last week and I guess even the weekend before that, I started receiving visits from the Ghost of Nightmares past. To be more precise, I guess I would say I was having flashbacks to a sexual assault I experienced years ago.
Long time readers might remember the experience I’m referring to; I’ve written about it before. The abbreviated version goes like this: I went along with a guy I barely knew, someone creepy who had red flags flying everywhere in his vicinity. He practically screamed DANGER, and I did nothing to protect myself. The result was one of the worst nights of my life, in which I was tied up, repeatedly beaten and sexually abused, for hours and hours and hours.
This experience has absolutely haunted me, at numerous levels. For a long time I couldn’t talk about it, even to E, except in very indirect ways. Aside from all the pain and trauma connected to the actual event, I was so ashamed that I had allowed it to happen. I had ignored warning signs and failed to get myself out of the situation early on, when I could have. I was convinced that meant that I wanted it, deserved it, and therefore was disgusting, revolting and unlovable.
I have worked on this in therapy quite a lot. At first I could only bear to give E a few hints about what happened. I couldn’t admit to her my role in allowing it to happen, which meant I wasn’t able to tell her the whole, true story. So it kind of leaked out, little by little, literally over years. I finally told her the whole story, admitting my complicity, a few years ago. Even since then, we have revisited it a number of times because there are so many painful layers to examine. Each time we talked about it again, I felt I was able to let go of a little bit more of the humiliation and self-loathing attached to the experience.
After having made all this progress, I was surprised last week to be experiencing flashbacks. I don’t know if flashback is the right word, technically. Whatever you’d call it, I found that Stephen and his cruelty and the fear I experienced that night were taking up a huge amount of space in my head. I was having a hard time thinking of anything else. And thinking about it was so debilitating that I didn’t have the strength to do much else, and I kept ending up back in bed, obsessively reliving that night.
(It’s terrible to think that as long as that horrible night seemed to last, I have spent many, many more hours reliving it since then. If only I spent as many hours reliving the happy moments in my life!)
I was still suffering from pretty extreme insomnia, as well as all the tingling I get from Effexor withdrawal, so I was up a lot at night, and of course all of this seemed so much darker and more desperate at night. Some nights I wanted to rip my disgusting skin off my body. One night, I actually did burn myself, just a little; it was the first time in more than a year I had harmed myself at all. One or two nights later, I again felt I had to do something drastic. At the same time, I also knew that self-harm wasn’t really going to solve this problem.
E and I have talked so many times in recent years about self-compassion, about finding less harmful ways of managing extreme emotions. Recently, I have made a list and kept it out by my bed, knowing how hard it is to remember new strategies when I’m already dysregulated. So that night, I looked at the list.
One of the items on there was “put a cool washcloth on the back of your neck.” E told me that this would activate a physiological reflex that would bring down intense emotion. I had told her I’d try it, but I never had. It was 4am. A cool washcloth seemed kind of wimpy; I needed something more dramatic too snap me out of Stephen’s torture chamber, uh, I mean, apartment.
So I went to the freezer, took out an ice pack, and put it straight on the back of my neck. Within maybe 15 seconds, I did feel a real shift in my body. I felt calmer. The crazy urgency that was pushing me stopped pushing. Suddenly, I had room to breathe, to think.
Now I believe this may have been a variation on the dive reflex that all mammals have when we dive into water. Cold water, usually on the face under the eyes, switches on the parasympathetic nervous system, slowing the heart rate and calming the body.
Whatever it is, it’s not perfect. The obsessive remembering did come back, but not immediately. But it helps. The ice on the back of the neck is actually the first thing I have encountered that interrupts the distress in a meaningful way–that is, besides self-harm, a strategy I’m working to let go of.
As hard as it was last week, just slogging through the days with all the bad memories or flashbacks, I consider it a true victory to have discovered a new strategy I can use. With any luck, I won’t need it very often. But let’s be honest, odds are good that I’ll lose my balance and become dysregulated again at some point. Maybe I can use an ice pack to help manage the distress.
I’ve been feeling better, little by little, over the past four or five days, thankfully. I think I’ve left Stephen back in the past again, at least for now. But I’ve had a lot of other important realizations from this recent experience, and I’m looking forward to sharing more tomorrow. For now, let’s see if I can actually fall asleep.
CREDIT: Photo by Callie Gibson on Unsplash