Journey to Mental Health Recovery

An Encounter With a Sheep Helped Me Overcome PTSD Flashbacks

Published 3 months ago • 5 min read

A sheep derailed my family vacation.

Most people experiencing a lot of “normal” stress look forward to a vacation. At the height of my PTSD, vacations were a nightmare. I forced myself to go and tried to be brave for my family. My dad would only get one vacation a year, and my parents would save all year for the opportunity. I used to love these annual trips to Scotland before I became ill.

Yet mental illness is something we have no control over. I’d been medically retired from the police for a couple of years. I’d attended too many tragic incidents, and psychiatrists diagnosed me with PTSD. They said I was 100% disabled for the rest of my life.

On this day, I’d been for a walk with my family over the lush Scottish hills. It was my perfect location, but I smelt a familiar odor on the way back — the smell of death.

A sheep was decomposing nearby. Typical for rural Scotland. But to me, it was a reminder. Suddenly, I was no longer on a Scottish hillside but in a cramped bedsit. I was looking at a man who had hanged himself.

I started to cry as the mental anguish washed over me. By the time we got back to our cottage, I was sobbing, shaking, and experiencing a PTSD flashback. It took 30 minutes with my family to help me calm down.

We ended up going home early. My parents believed I needed familiar surroundings. I needed an appointment with my psychiatrist. I felt terrible guilt for ruining their holiday. Now my dad has died, I feel even more guilt at ruining what was to be his last vacation.

I’d hit rock bottom. It was my catalyst to change.

What is a flashback?

Flashbacks are a major symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. They can take many forms and vary in intensity. Mine have often shown up as memories that feel like they are happening now. I feel the same fear and anxiety that I felt at the initial incident. My heart races, and I struggle to breathe.

Occasionally, I will get less intense flashbacks in my mind’s eye. During these, I still have some awareness of the world around me, but I’m fixated as if watching a horror movie.

Other senses, such as the smell triggered by the dead sheep, can also be involved.

I learned to recognize my triggers but dealt with them in the wrong way.

In the early stages, I learned about my triggers accidentally. I’d uncover one and immediately end up back at the scenes of my traumatic incidents.

My biggest trigger was visiting the places I used to police. As a cop, you know an area’s darkest secrets. Where the blood was spilled, where the victims begged for their lives, the hurt and the pain.

While my partner would be looking at shops and planning what she needed to buy, I’d become a macabre tour guide:

  • Someone was beaten to death over there.
  • Someone hanged himself from that building.
  • A woman was attacked down that alleyway.

Eventually, it would become too much for me, and I’d have a full-blown flashback in the street. After that happened a couple of times, I stopped going to the city for years. It meant going on much longer journeys to buy things or to have fun, but we had a better time.

Seeing police officers also triggered my flashbacks. I’d see them rushing somewhere on blue lights and sirens, and suddenly, it would feel like me, rushing to a tragedy. At the time, I missed the police and the mix of flashbacks and envy devastated me. It was far better to stay in quiet areas where the odds of seeing an officer were remote.

Anything on the TV related to suicide was a trigger. This led to even more avoidance. My family would “vet” any program I wanted to watch to make sure it had no suicidal scenes in it. Over time, this ruled out adverts, episodes of my favorite soap operas, and entire movies.

I couldn’t be near high-rise buildings because of a double suicide I attended. Such buildings are a feature of every town and city, and you can imagine the hoops we had to jump through to avoid them.

The problems with avoidance.

Recently, I began asking myself if all this avoidance was good. Yes, it prevented me from having flashbacks, but it shrunk my world. I ended up with a list of places I couldn’t go, people I couldn’t meet, and things I couldn’t see. At one stage, my world consisted of my house.

It also made me hyper-sensitive. Instead of developing mental resilience, I was weakening myself. Even the sniff of a tall building or someone mentioning suicide would set me off.

Avoidance had become a problem in its own right. It was reinforcing my PTSD by confirming that my memories were dangerous. The effort necessary to avoid my pain became unbearable. At that stage, I turned to alcohol.

I had little energy for anything constructive. I dedicated every ounce of effort to the perception of keeping myself safe. I became angry and tense as the pain grew inside me without any form of release.

How I dealt with my triggers beyond avoidance.

I don’t recommend this to everyone, and it should only be carried out under the guidance of a professional. For me, the most effective way to deal with my avoidance and triggers was to rip the band-aid off.

Once I realized how restricted my life was, it got me angry. I’ve spent my entire adult life refusing to be bullied after the nightmare of school. Yet here I was, cowering in my house, afraid to go to the local cinema in case it triggered a flashback.

I was bullying myself.

I hadn’t talked about the core experience that led to my trauma for many years. So I wrote it all down, first as part of my upcoming book and then as an article. I then read it many times to my loved ones until it stopped causing an emotional reaction.

I then went to lunch in the center of the town where it happened.

I looked up the case online and said the victims’ names out loud.

I promised myself that no one and nothing would tell me where I could go ever again.

It helped to have loved ones that I could trust with such vulnerability. Having a safe and trusted place to release your deepest emotions is invaluable.

You should also consider help from a therapist. If you sign up through this link, you get a 20% discount, and I get an affiliate commission.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy can address how your thoughts contribute to your emotions. A therapist will look at what is happening in your current life. They don’t dwell on past events and won’t make you relive any painful situations. The focus is on devising practical strategies to help you cope.

When all else fails, I practice distraction. If a negative emotion feels overwhelming, I distract myself with a book, talk to someone, or write a blog post. Typically, the emotion will decrease in strength, and I can handle it better. This is a temporary measure for emergencies. It’s comforting to have it in your toolkit.

Final thoughts.

Sometimes you have to get angry. Society considers anger a negative emotion, but it is a powerful catalyst for change. Anger pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me reach the stage where I refused to be pushed around anymore.

Initially, I was terrified. I’d been avoiding things for years. I worried that the horror of my experiences would be all-consuming.

But when it came time to confront my pain, the triggers were just sad. The pinnacle was when I made a “pilgrimage” to the tower block where it all began. Two girls jumped to their deaths there, and I guarded the scene for hours.

From my dreams, I imagined a dark and terrifying place. A gateway to hell. Instead, it was a dirty, ugly building with a piece of concrete in front. Nothing horrific was there except my memories. The building only had a menacing presence because I’d given it that description.

I expected to feel something — either terror or a deep cleansing. Instead, I felt nothing. It was a little disappointing. But I’m no longer afraid of it or other tall buildings.

Laying your demons to rest with the guidance of a professional and support from loved ones liberates you. It frees you from your past to go out into the world and create a better future.

Journey to Mental Health Recovery

Leon Macfayden

Schizophrenia and PTSD survivor sharing my journey to recovery. Join over 800 subscribers learning to improve their mental health. Every week, I share personal stories and effective tips to help you and your loved ones live the life you deserve.

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