Flashbacks: What are they?

First, thank you to all who have sent me messages with support and wellbeing! I read every one of them and find them inspiring. I had no idea this blog would touch so many people in a positive way but I’m glad it does!

This post is about flashbacks and, more specifically, my experience with flashbacks as a result of my PTSD. To reiterate, I believe my PTSD was not necessarily caused by the Watts case (although my experience with it was enough to cause it) but an accumulation of traumatic situations (and cases) throughout my law enforcement career.

The evening of February 18th, 2019, in a Wisconsin hotel room, is when I learned what flashbacks are. I didn’t know what was happening and thought I was going crazy. I now know that I wasn’t and that my brain was overloaded with unprocessed trauma and it was letting me know it had enough. There’s a saying amongst first responders which is, “everyone has their number.” Clearly, I had reached mine.

So what is a flashback? I think there’s a common misconception that people suffering from PTSD are soldiers who are going crazy and will shoot up the neighborhood when they have a flashback. We can thank TV and the media for that. Although this may have occurred, it is not the norm. I think most people who suffer from PTSD will never let you in on what’s going on with them and will isolate when they have symptoms. Although I write about my PTSD here I allow very few people to witness my symptoms, flashbacks, etc.

I don’t know if there is a solid definition for a flashback because for me they vary somewhat. In the beginning my flashbacks were common and were as if I had returned to the oil tank site (Cervi 3:19) and experienced some of the events all over again. In some instances, I could smell the crude, see their faces and even feel them in my hands. These flashbacks were powerful, debilitating and terrifying, to say the least. I literally had no control over my emotions that were a mix of overwhelming sadness, anger and fear. At separate moments I’d cry uncontrollably and the next I was enraged and ready to fight! At times, I found myself in different areas of my room and wondered how I got there. I looked around my hotel room for anything distracting to focus on. I put my headphones in and cranked up some music, but ultimately it was exhaustion that allowed me to fall asleep that finally alleviated them for a while.

In other instances, vivid images would come and go almost like a slideshow, for a lack of a better way to describe it. I’m usually (not always) more aware of my surroundings when this happens but the uncontrollable emotions are just that, uncontrollable. For me, this is the most difficult part of dealing with PTSD. Prior to this, I always felt in control and displayed (or even felt) very little emotion.

What causes flashbacks are triggers. This is why some veterans don’t cope well with Independence Day. The exploding fireworks can create anxiety and cause flashbacks. Now just imagine all the people who have PTSD from trauma not related to war, combat, etc. After a year and a half of EMDR and talk therapy my flashbacks have lessened considerably. Avoidance of my triggers also plays a part in this too, but it causes me to isolate. My triggers are few but very common in everyday life which is why I stayed completely isolated in the beginning. Today, I venture out more but typically not alone. My wife and youngest daughter run interference and intelligence for me to avoid what I refer to as “surprise attacks.”

Several weeks ago I learned of a new trigger when I caught a whiff of crude from a nearby oil pump. No tanks, just a ruptured line from a pump. But what I learned from therapy about retraining my brain and grounding techniques, I was able to recover more quickly than previous episodes. The good thing about EMDR is that it works (at least for me) to help “re-file” a traumatic experience(s) so it doesn’t come back with a fury. The bad part of therapy is you have to relive it to put it where it belongs. Sometimes several times. The way I see it, if I have to relive it to put it away correctly, then it’s worth it. I just wish it didn't take so long and some days I just can’t do the full session.

If any of my symptoms seem familiar to you then go talk to someone about it. Find a private resource if you have to, but don’t let yourself spiral down. If you’re dealing with PTS, and not necessarily a disorder, it’s still a serious thing and it’s time to clean it up! Trust me.

I’m not sure about my next post, but I think I’m going to write about my experience(s) with EMDR, exposure therapy, and how it all has helped me. I have to admit, I was completely skeptical in the beginning but also desperate to make it all stop so I jumped in. Today, I’m glad I did.

Take care & God bless,



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