What a Flashback Feels Like

Hello Live Out Louders,

hello.gif(I think that’s the name I want to give my wonderful blog supporters.) This post is coming to you from Costa Rica, and unfortunately is discussing a topic that I faced last night while on vacation. So buckle up, and get ready to learn about one of the most scary and frustrating symptoms of PTSD: flashbacks.

Since my diagnosis with PTSD in early March of 2016, I have heard many individuals casually refer to instances where they experienced something “similar” to PTSD or had a “flashback” to a negative moment. The most common of these examples stem from a bad boss or a past job that was less-than ideal. While all humans experience negative occurrences at various points in our lives, references to PTSD and flashbacks are very serious to those who struggle with the disorder. If you’re truly wondering what a flashback feels like, let me give you the scientific definition of the symptom.

flashbacksAccording to Psychology Today, in an explicit flashback, the person is involuntarily transported back in time. However to this individual experiencing the flashback, this moment does not seem as such. Flashbacks can come suddenly and feel uncontrollable. They are vivid, sensory experiences where one feels as though they are experiencing their moment(s) of trauma as if it were occurring in the present.

For example, about two months after my involvement in the attack, I was at a friend’s birthday dinner at a nice restaurant. The seating arrangement was similar to that of Cappuccino Café (the restaurant of my terrorist incident), where I was seated at a long group table, towards the back of the restaurant. At one point in the evening, someone knocked over several plates, cups and pieces of silverware. This occurrence mirrored the exact manner in which the attack started (when the terrorists entered the restaurant and began shooting at the bar, shattering glass and knocking down plates, etc.) At the exact moment that this incident occurred, I immediately rushed to hide under the table (as I did in the attack), until I realized about 10-15 seconds later that I was not in Burkina Faso. However prior to that realization, no one could have convinced me that I wasn’t at Cappuccino Café.

Similarly, last night, I experienced one of the worst flashbacks that I have ever had since my diagnosis. After a long day of sipping melocotón daiquiris on a Costa Rican beach, eating chips and refried beans at the hotel’s infinity pool, and eating a salmon and avocado tartare salad, I was exhausted and ready to hit the sack. Earlier that afternoon in the walk back to our room to change for dinner, we had seen two delivery men rolling a jack-palette of fireworks for the wedding that was taking place on the property grounds. It didn’t register to me that soon those fireworks would be used and they would LITERALLY send me into having a colossally frightening flashback.

I had fallen asleep around 8:45PM (I know, I’m an abuela). Getting sufficient hours of sleep is already a difficult task for me, so I was excited that my exhaustion would potentially lead to me securing about 5-6 hours of uninterrupted rest. But, these fireworks had another plan for me.

steweyI woke up in sheer panic to repetitive popping sounds. My face looked exactly how it did the night of January 15, 2016 at 7:30PM, when two jihadists entered the restaurant at which I was eating. The fireworks sounded like the rounds of AK-47’s that were used to kill 29 people who night. The flying sparks onto my hotel’s balcony looked like the flames I saw as the restaurant was collapsing above me. It was like I was in the restaurant again.

My mom was present. She was repeating to me “They’re fireworks Maya,” while attempting to rub my back. But, I curled up in a tiny ball, just as I did that night under the bathroom sink. She called my father, told him what was happening, then called the hotel to inform them of my situation.

“My child is the victim of a terrorist attack that happened only two years ago,” she says. “We have a serious issue here.”

In my fetal ball, I think to myself, two years ago? Woah, that seems like so long ago. But in moments like these, I know it’s not.

I keep trying to tell myself, “La, they’re just fireworks. You’re not there, you’re not there, you’re not there.” But it’s not working. The fireworks were going on for TOO long.

The noises started getting closer, just as they did when I was hiding in the alley. There was no convincing myself anymore — in that moment, it felt as though I was in Burkina at the exact occasion where I was facing death. I tried balling my fists up and telling myself to breathe. But no matter how much in my brain I knew that they were fireworks, my body just didn’t feel that way. It retreated to its source of trauma.

I let out shrill screams, paired with terror-filled cries. My mother hung up the phone.

I didn’t know what else to do, the popping just wouldn’t stop. I just rocked back-and-forth in my little ball, and tried to think of things happening in the present, but I just couldn’t. THAT was my present.

After a while, the fireworks stopped and I attempted to calm down. My mom Facetimed my dad, who then tried to show my beautiful baby boy (AKA emotional support dog Chino), but I didn’t want to look into the camera–I was embarrassed. You may be thinking, “La’Nita why were you embarrassed? You had every right to be scared.” But there’s something frustrating and embarrassing about knowing that your mind is able to deceive you.

I knew very well that the noises that I was hearing were fireworks. I knew that physically, my body was in a comfortable bed at a Costa Rican resort and not a restaurant on the precipice of becoming a murder scene. But even with all of these rational thoughts, they didn’t seem to override the fear that my body experienced in moments that seem parallel to my trauma–which literally is the most frightening experience ever.

All-in-all, I ended up calming down about ten minutes after the fireworks stopped. I went to the bathroom, dried my eyes, and got back in bed. I attempted to shake-off the remainder of my rattled fears and lay in silence. Yet, much to my surprise, the wedding party that caused me to go into a PTSD panic in the first place turned on their reception music and brought me back to my sense of reality. My nerves began to wind down to the calming tunes of Cardi B’s “I Like It” and Drake’s “In My Feelings.” (The members of this wedding party had to be black-adjacent.)

cardi.gifAnyways, hopefully this post shed a bit of light into one of the crippling realities of some PTSD sufferers. This experience goes to show that despite the original occurrence of one’s trauma, they can continue to experience these symptoms potentially for years to come. In my case, I want to give a hefty shout out to Cardi B and Drake, because without the soothing sounds of ratchet rap, it would have taken me a lot longer to calm down.