Frozen flashbacks: Observation vs. dissociation (trigger warning)


When fight or flight becomes freeze…(potential trigger warning)


On Saturday, H went to his first counseling appointment. He came home in a great mood, saying “the guy nailed him right away. He got me!” I exclaimed happiness for the connection, knowing the way this works is that the therapist forms a sort of alliance with the patient, builds trust, empathizes, asks questions, assesses, and then begins to challenge the patient’s assumptions about the world around them and how they interact with people and situations. 

At some point, H said he knew I had been going through hell and that he was sorry for anything he’d done to contribute to the situation. He came over to the part of the U-shaped couch where I was sitting, put his forehead to mine, and said he is actively working on how he talks to me, etc. His words were very touching and sensitive and really, what I’d been hoping to hear for a very long time. 

Here’s the problem: as he stood over me, his head against mine, I was blocked in. I could separate what he was saying to me intellectually, but physiologically, I flashed back to being blocked in, held down, feeling like I needed to get space, holding my breath…BUT, I did not dissociate like I normally would have. I kept the intellectual plugged in (The Scientist) so I could hear his words but did not allow my body to fully go somewhere else. The terror I was experiencing physiologically disabled my body but I logically observed that I was not in danger. I was uncomfortable, but not in danger.

This might have been the first time I recognized what was happening to me was definitely a flashback. (AH HA!)

This was a different processing of the situation than I’d experienced in the past. I could separate my reaction from reality. I stayed in the observer position, which can easily be confused with dissociation. The place on the continuum where observer vs. dissociation reside can easily push more to a difference in kinds (full on dissociation) as opposed to a difference in degrees (objective observation while recognizing the pull toward dissociation).

Then second flashback was a bit more physiologically severe. H was playfully trying to hug me, maybe even kiss me, and he kept blocking my dodge, which meant I couldn’t get around him to take my space. Full on flashback. He finally put his arms around me and I was shaking like crazy, though I wasn’t saying anything. It was confusing because somewhere inside I knew I could use the hug but everything else inside of my mind was screaming “I’m trapped! Again! Just like…[insert any episode from a little more than a year ago]…here in this house, once again, I’m fucking trapped! Must get space! Must breathe! Arrrrgh! MOVE please!”

He felt me shaking and stepped back, looking at me, putting his hands up like “OK, OK, look, it’s OK…I mean no harm.”

I explained quickly that it wasn’t him, which he understood. The flashback was exactly the same and, once again, I spotted the fork in the road between observation and dissociation. [Dude, I got this thing!] 

Recognizing these things, in my therapist’s opinion, is *huge*. I concur. 


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