Flashbacks: Do they ever die?

Last night, on my way back from the pool, I was gripped by an uncontrollable fear. Approaching a bridge still under construction – a bridge we drive under nearly every day – the light ahead suddenly turned red. But I was driving alone and the road conditions were so difficult, that I was forced to stop right underneath the bridge. (Normally, if I see a red light ahead while driving alone, I slow down enough to stop before reaching the bridge.) This time I was stuck, with no way to inch ahead or reverse. Looking up, I saw a blue-gray sky peeking down through the steel joists, icicles dangling from the bridgework just above me.

It was only a few seconds at most, but my heart skipped a beat and I’m pretty sure I felt frozen in my seat. Please don’t fall, please please please.

Waking from nightmares is destabilizing. But daytime flashbacks are the worst. Sometimes jarring me to the point of paralysis, I can never quite anticipate their arrival. It could happen, as it did last night under a bridge or when I inadvertently drive into a pothole. It hits with a raised sense of anxiety as I’m about to step off a curb. I’ve had flashbacks in a store, in the pool and while taking a shower.

About a week ago, just before dawn, probably struck by the all-too-real minutiae of a nightmare, I woke to find one hand clutching flannel, and the other shielding a tear-filled eye. A jumble of thoughts, recent dreams and flashbacks stayed planted in my head. They crystallized into an amorphous blob, a constellation of visions and sensations that came crashing, one by one, as if a late-REM symphonic crescendo, into my sleep.

Once I caught my breath and calmed down enough to find that I was surrounded by nothing more than peace, quiet and flapping noises from the ventilation system, I wondered what ignited those terrifying visions…

Was it from reading the near-to-final pages of Markus Zuzak’s The Book Thief, where the devastation of Nazi-era Germany takes an even more personal toll on the young protagonist’s life? (why, I ask myself, am I reading a novel that, though fabulously written, is quite possibly the wrong book for me right now…) Or were they triggered by recent conversations about my hospital stay in Cambodia, reawakening my experiences there? Perhaps the massive losses sustained by residents of Haiti were indelibly etched in my mind – regardless of how much I still manage to block out news stories about devastation.

If my dreams (and flashbacks) were anything to go by, everything coincided to create a holy mess in my still-sleeping brain. How else to explain an image of the long-haired woman in the bed next to mine, the one whose husband had gone logging into her head with an axe, and who, deep in slumber, was about to topple off the bed, into a large and growing crevice, with the ground shifting below us, but because it was the middle of the night, and I spoke no Khmer, and didn’t dare wake the others, who were also in danger of plummeting down into the gaping earth-holes, and I – who couldn’t stand up to help – was left cringing and panicking, wondering how on earth we would be saved?

As bad as the nightmares get, those images rarely interfere with my sleep. Which is why I usually feel somewhat embraced by peace and safety during the night.

But when I’m awake, anything can happen. And, often, it does. Godawfully, one year later, it still does.

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