Sometimes these punch-in-the-gut flashbacks come from nowhere, or from the slightest circumstance or reminder. Driving past the hospital where the paramedics rushed him. Seeing a fictitious murder victim on a TV crime show. Hearing the sound of multiple emergency vehicle sirens wailing past my normally quiet block.
These are the intrusive memories that accompany post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)--stark, harrowing images that pass through my mind like a Hiroshima slide presentation. I talked to my own personal best-friend-slash-therapist, Dr. Paradigm Shift, about this. I told her how the projector behind my eyes starts running with the unwanted video, my breathing gets shallow and my skin feels clammy; sometimes my reaction is so physical that I double over and grab my gut as if it's happening right in front of me, again, right then and there.
|Aidan and his buddy at the Cubs game.|
It's a symptom of PTSD, she said, and the literature confirms this. "Intrusive re-experiencing is a core symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It can take various forms, including intrusive images, flashbacks, nightmares, and distress and physiological reactions when confronted with reminders," according to one scholarly article.
Besides all the crying and sighing and generally missing my boy, these episodes added insult to injury, making me relive the horror, fear, and agony of that day. I wanted it to stop. Dr. PS suggested, and my own therapist agreed, that the best course of action would be to consciously and intentionally replace those grim, intrusive visuals with thoughts and mind pictures of happier times.
"Come up with one or two images in your mind of Aidan that make you smile, that make you feel happy and peaceful," she suggested. "Have them ready to recall. When the intrusive images come, force your mind to replace them with the good images." It sounds like it won't work, I said. These powerful, supraliminal movies force themselves in front of the eyes of my brain; I didn't think something so simple as thinking happy thoughts would really be effective.
"It takes practice," Dr. PS said. "It's not going to make them stop; it's not going to make them go away right away. But if every time an image comes, and you don't want to stick there, take out the mental photo album, and start looking through it. Focus on the good pictures of Aidan."
Now, nearly a year later, the PTSD flashbacks come far less frequently, and when they do, I am usually able to quickly change the channel in my mind. I go to Aidan on the beach, Aidan playing Pokemon cards with his friends, Aidan kneeling next to his bed, writing in his journal. I go to Aidan alive, here with me, where he should be.
And then I'm just sad. I can change the channel from PTSD, but every other channel is the grief channel.
“When someone you love dies, and you're not expecting it, you don't lose her all at once; you lose her in pieces over a long time—the way the mail stops coming, and her scent fades from the pillows and even from the clothes in her closet and drawers. Gradually, you accumulate the parts of her that are gone. Just when the day comes—when there's a particular missing part that overwhelms you with the feeling that she's gone, forever—there comes another day, and another specifically missing part.” ― John Irving, A Prayer for Owen Meany