Every person has certain smell associations. You smell a smell and it reminds you of something. Smelling that smell brings you back to a time, a memory.
Often times when a smell brings on a memory, you smile. A perfume that reminds you of one person. Someone burning leaves may remind you of a time you sat around a bonfire and roasted marshmallows. You may go into someone’s house that has a fireplace and that smell may remind you of your camping trip to the mountains. Certain foods cooking on the stove may remind you of the person that cooked it last and where you were. Brownies may always remind you of grandma and fudge may always remind you of your neighbor that made it every Christmas.
There are smells that make everyone smile that just plain smell good. A baby’s head. Does anything smell better than the head of a newborn baby? Everyone smells a baby’s head and smiles. Smelling the breeze with jasmine or honeysuckle in it just makes you feel good.
But there are smells that trigger memories that we do not like. Smells can be huge triggers. Most people who have had tragic, traumatic, life changing events, will remember the smell at the time it happened. I remember the cologne the man was wearing that abused me. I remember the smell of the gum he chewed every time he did. It causes terrible flashbacks.
I would say the leading cause of any flashbacks I have are smells. Flashbacks to a wonderful time with a certain scent are surprises that are wonderful but to flashback to traumatic with a smell often catches you off guard. You don’t expect to be walking through the mall and suddenly stop because of a smell. You don’t expect to walk next to someone in a restaurant and have their breath smell of the gum that your abuser chewed and just freeze. I can only speak from my experiences. I have not spoken to anyone else about what causes their flashbacks. But I know when it happens to me it can affect my entire day. I have worked very hard to not let that happen but sometimes it does.
You wouldn’t expect to be with your family walking through a department store and have someone come up and punch you in the stomach. And if they did you would feel shocked! You wouldn’t be able to move. You would think for the rest of the day how unfair it was that you were having this great family moment and someone punched you in the stomach and ruined it.
That is how a flashback is.
You are living in the moment and then that moment is taken away unexpectedly.
And it stuns you because you weren’t expecting it. And for the rest of the day it can be like shaking off a bad dream. You know how it feels when you wake up from a nightmare and you have this residue that just seems to stick with you the rest of the day. A flashback is a lot like that. It really robs you of the now. It throws you unwillingly back into the past with this tight grip. If you could pry the grip off of you, you would but you can’t access where the grip is coming from. It is deep within your brain to a place that you locked off. It is off limits. Your brain closed it off and locked the door as a way to protect you from the magnitude of it all. Then with a flashback it is like someone just rips open the door and floods your entire being with this overwhelming sensation that your brain has been protecting you from. No one can handle the thousands of things that are happening during a tragic event so our mind does it’s best to help us cope by shutting parts of it off. This is my own belief. I have blocked out many things in my past. I know many other people who have done the same. I didn’t consciously do this. I know I have blocked things out only because I occasionally remember these blocked out things. I think our mind knows “OK we are going to need to block out 90% of this because she cannot emotionally cope with the enormous weight this event would cause”, and so some of it is just gone. So we cope and we heal and we process and we move forward. Until the moment when the flood gates are open and we have to be so careful not to drown IN that moment.
I know the certain smells that bring back bad memories. But I cannot control when these smells will come nor can I control what happens when they do. I also cannot control the memories that were blocked from coming forward when I do encounter something that reminds me. My body remembers. It isn’t even something that I feel is just in my brain. I can physically feel in my body that same feeling of when I was abused when I have a flashback.
Over the years things have come to me that I have blocked out. They can be very upsetting and can really seem to rock my foundation. I think I knew everything and dealt with it and now there is something new? UGH! I don’t want anymore. But at the time I obviously blocked it out for a reason. There was just too much at the time to cope with and now there is a little bit more that I need to face. And I do. I don’t ever ignore a memory. I don’t stuff it back in to a hidden place. If it comes out I face it head on and work on the next step of healing. I don’t take it on as a flood of the memory. I allow myself to take small parts a little bit at a time and process them. It can be very very overwhelming to remember something that you don’t even remember happening. It can be dangerous. We have to take control of every single thought that comes after and make sure that we do not let it consume us. It is too big of a task to deal with a long forgotten memory all at once. it may come on all at once but we can control what we do with it after. I just let myself be. I don’t expect too much of myself but I also don’t let my mind just wander. I set certain goals and intentions on how I will deal with this and process and heal from this and that is what I do. Often times it is just to give myself a moment to feel and remember and then move forward with my day without feeding to much into all of those emotions.
So I have flashbacks of sudden unblocked memories that I never even knew existed, and I have flashbacks of things that I do remember but are brought back suddenly. I know certain things that will bring back a flashback and I have taken steps to prevent that . Certain ways that someone touches me, for example I hate to be kissed on the neck. So I told my husband don’t kiss me on my neck and he doesn’t. Problem solved. No flashback.
But it is the smells. They hit me unexpectedly and bring back flashbacks that to this day are very hard to cope with.
The only thing I know how to do, is when the moment has passed, to breathe. If I can’t control the moment when it comes then when the moment is over, I breathe. I say ” Ok that was a horrible memory and it is gone and my body can let it go”. I verbalize it always. I want every part of me to hear that I am letting this go. I try not to have nightmare residue of a flashback, ruin the rest of my day. I try to go outside and breathe the air and think about right now. I try to surround myself with something joyful to squash out that bad feeling. I try to replace the way my body remembers that in that moment of bad with a way of feeling loved by having my husband or daughter hug me, or by petting my dog. Simple things really for HUGE memories.
Sometimes it is the simple things that can bring back a lot of bad. A simple smell. But sometimes a very simple thing can bring in the good into that moment as well. You just have to seek it out and make it happen.