The Most Important Thing to Remember About Flashbacks and Panic Attacks
It’s 1:34 am and I’m awake with allergies. This is nothing new - I’ve had the itchy eyes, scratchy throat, and stuffy nose for two weeks. I grab a glass of cold water and open the cabinet. Benadryl is good because it will help me get back to sleep, as well as deal with my symptoms. I slide my thumb under the arrow on the cap and pop open the little white bottle. As I tip the bottle over into my left palm, pink and white capsules spill into my hand.
Then it happens.
For the first time in a very long time, my mind flashes back to that dreadful and desperate night when I nearly died. It’s literally just a flash - a blink - and the image is gone, but the in the midst of the shock, I close my eyes and as I shake my head to try and bring reality back into focus, I lose my footing and the catch myself on the island in the kitchen, thankful everyone else is asleep upstairs.
In the flashback, I see the white kitchenette counter of the hotel where I stayed that night. I see the medicine bottles that litter my view and the pill cutter, which I read online would speed up the process.
I sliced into those Tylenol PM capsules one-by-one and like a mad scientist, squeezed them into the bottom of the coffee cup. Next to the cup were two prescriptions I’d swallow down, along with a full bottle of Benadryl. Later, I’d pour hot tea over the liquid Tylenol, trying to make death a little less bitter.
For half an hour, I reel from the effects of a glimpse back into the night when my life hung in the balance. I can see the dingy maroon carpet, the bed behind me, the Bible on the pillow. I can feel the queasiness, the rush to just get it over with.
- What do you do when the flashbacks still come?
- How do you respond when they are more stubborn than you ever imagined?
- When you’ve done everything right - you’ve been to counseling, taken your meds, surrounded yourself with supportive people - and they still show up, what do you do?
I would never tell anyone else what to do when a flashback comes, but for me, once the shock wears off and I begin to realize what is happening, I have to acknowledge it before I can ever move on. I hold on through the roller coaster of memories and emotions, and after a while, I do what I can to process what has happened. For me, that means writing about it.
In my life, all of my flashbacks have the same predictable elements of fear and surprise, but no two are exactly alike. In the moment, I’m not sure there is anything I can do to stop them. But once reality begins to come back into focus, and I can remember who I am now, I try and breathe deep, grab the nearest seat (often the floor), and tell myself I am okay.
I can’t stop a flashback or prevent a panic attack, but by doing my best to process what has happened, I am learning to handle them a little better each time they come up.
The truth is, I am not the same desperate guy who once tried to kill myself in a hotel kitchen. The power of a second chance has changed my life. And for me, the most important thing to remember is that a flashback is not a setback.
I’m thankful that flashbacks aren’t real. Most often, they are the darkest, scariest portions of our trauma. They are unpredictable and unfair, but I choose to keep living. Rather than allow the fear of the next flashback to hold me captive, I am choosing life. Come what may, life goes on.
I'd love the opportunity to share my story, resources, and practical tools with your church, school, or civic organization. Email me to book a speaking engagement today!
Here's a few resources now:
- American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
- The Trevor Project
- American Association of Suicidology
- Robert-Vore.com: On Faith and Mental Health
- The Mighty