“Dear Ignacio, I have been doing sex work to support my family for years. Recently, a client wanted to do age play, where I was supposed to act like a small child. I agreed to this as I had done some similar stuff before. But this time, in the middle of the scene, I had vague flashbacks to my childhood and an older neighbor. The flashbacks left me extremely unsettled. I have no clear memories as this was around when I was 4-5, but I remember sometimes sitting on this neighbor’s lap and feeling something hard under his pants. I also have memories of going inside his house alone. I can’t remember anything else right now, but I wonder if I was sexually abused by him. How can I be sure?”
Thank you for reaching out and seeking help with a personal issue that is connected to your job and livelihood. Dealing with #trauma is hard in any context, especially when trigger points are part of one’s profession. I hope you take the time to take good care of yourself around this unsettling #flashback.
Flashbacks, in both visual/auditory (explicit) or emotional (implicit) forms, impact our everyday life in a deep way. You were engaged in a #consensual task, yet your brain started sending you signals of #danger and #fear. I suggest that you start processing the unsettling flashback separately from the looming question of “how can I be sure?” in light of your minimal memory clues.
Flashbacks can be very taxing for #survivors; even described as “waking nightmares.” Sometimes our body's response to flashbacks is treating them as if the traumatic event is happening right now. Reminding yourself that you are no longer in that moment, even if you don’t know what moment that is, and that you are safe and capable in the present moment is one way to begin managing flashbacks.
I recommend that you work with a counselor, therapist, or coach with experience in trauma to further help you gain the necessary skills for navigating this path. You may also find support groups for people who suffer from flashbacks, PTSD, and childhood trauma helpful.
Focusing on your feelings associated with the memories, I encourage you to take note where and when you have flashbacks, if they were to recur. Something about the #role-playing seems to have triggered these memories. Take note of how long it lasted, which parts were explicit and which were emotional and in your body, and what other memories or feelings you could connect it with.
As you dig deep and take note in this process, you may feel overwhelmed by what comes up. You can start a journal to keep track of your process, but be aware that making hidden memories more tangible - while #validating - can exacerbate your feelings of unsettledness. Self-care and going slow and working with supportive loved ones or professionals can be very helpful here.
I have a flashback that has been recurring for years. I developed #insomnia as a result because I didn’t want to sleep alone. As soon as I began taking note, I learned my #triggers and since then I have come up with a variety of ways to ground myself, care for myself, and be gentle with myself. I am still processing my flashbacks 40 years later.
Now, the question about what these flashbacks mean. Sometimes our beautiful and complex brains put in gear the process of erasing or diminishing traumatizing memories to protect us. Considering your age at the time, it is also difficult to rely on what your developing memory could hold on to.
You may continue having flashbacks that assist you in remembering more details, but you may also never remember anything more. Remembering the details of your trauma is not necessarily required for you to be validated in your reality, or to begin your #healing journey. Your flashbacks indicate a memory and associated feelings. Your feelings are always real. The unsettledness of your heart is real.
It’s up to you to decide how much you want to engage with these surfacing feelings. Maybe for now all you need to do is to manage the flashbacks. I have included a resource that introduces a 13-step process for managing flashback at the end. You can also dig deeper and read a book like The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing to learn more about the complicated ways we respond to trauma, including when there aren’t clear memories.
My friend and colleague Alisa Zipursky discusses her journey with identifying as a survivor of CSA without clear memories of her abuse. In her website, healinghonestly.com, she offers resources and tips for people who also struggle with vague memories of abuse.
Alisa indicates how after acknowledging a series of strong negative feelings toward her father, many nightmares, and help from clinicians who identified her PTSD symptoms, she came to the conclusion that abuse had taken place by her father. This is her journey, yours maybe similar or different.
Finally, I have also included an article by Alisa Zipursky about the “False Memory Syndrome,” which is illuminating for the many survivors who struggle with uncertainty and doubt around their early childhood abuse.
Book: The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing
13 Steps for Managing Flashback http://pete-walker.com/13StepsManageFlashbacks.htm
The lie of False Memory https://healinghonestly.com/memory/lie-false-memory-syndrome