I had a flashback today

I spent my time in Vietnam as a REMF, sitting on a relatively safe Marine Corps supply base that took rocket and mortar fire from time to time, but other than on two occasions I had no real life-altering horror moments, the kind that make some men my age still wake up shouting or crying. But oddly, in the middle of a normal discussion today, the conversation suddenly faded and I was in the middle of a 40-year old memory, triggered by something somebody said.

The following is a recollection of what happened. It was not a frightening experience, just surreal, and it’s remained with me throughout my life as one of those puzzling events that just . . . was.

The monsoons arrived that year in Vietnam like they have done for all time. Never shy in the best of times, the first monsoon storm slammed us like a giant fist, the rain hammering so loudly on the tin roof that conversation below a shout was impossible. I had never experienced anything like it.

When we arrived back at the hooch that night, the generated sweat rendering our ponchos next to useless, it was to discover that all the bunkers save one were flooded. This was bad news, because the increased rocket barrages had driven most of us to sleeping in our bunkers instead of in the hooch. The only bunker not flooded was the one that I and four others slept in. Secretly jubilant, we bedded down early on our stolen foam rubber mattresses and covered ourselves with poncho liners against the chill generated by our lone oscillating fan, which sat in the corner. The rain continued to pound outside, but the drone of the fan soon had me sleeping soundly.

Awake. Something is wrong, but what? I feel . . . like I’m floating. But I don’t do drugs. My ass is cold and I reach back to pull the poncho liner over me and realize it’s wet. So is my ass. What the fuck? I rise up on my elbow and the shock of cold water on my arm brings me into full consciousness. I peer around in the dim glow of the red light bulb we keep on at all times and see bodies bobbing in six inches of water, except for Harms, who is sitting in on his helmet dressed only in his underwear. The fan in the corner is burbling and spraying water as it oscillates, and water is pouring in through the tunnel entrances.

“Harms!” I whisper loudly. “Harms!! What the fuck’s going on?” Harms turns his head slowly to look at me and says “It’s far fuckin’ out, man,” and goes back to watching the other two guys bobbing on their mattresses in the red glow. “Don’t . . . don’t you think we should get the fuck outa here?” I ask. “Oh . . . sure . . . I guess so,” he replies. “Well, pull the plug on that fan and wake everybody up, for cripe’s sake, and let’s didi (get the fuck out).”

We exited with our M-16s and whatever else we could carry, and stood in our skivvies staring at each other in the moonlight for a moment, then made our way into the hooch and to bed. By morning the bunker was completely full.

It’s not much of a story, but the image of Harms sitting on that helmet in the red light while the fan whirred is burned into my brain. It’s a wonder we weren’t all electrocuted.

Not much to say to that, other than that this is a damn fine post. Also - thank you for your service, Chefguy.

Did the other two guys drown?

What Mr. Excellent said.

…oh, and those floating bodies were alive, or were they?

Wow! What do you think triggered this flashback?

Everyone survived it just fine. Harms went pearl diving the next day to salvage whatever was left in there, but our prized foam rubber mattresses were toast.

As to the trigger, I seem to recall that someone was talking about the road on a construction site and how you couldn’t tell that part of it was higher than another, so when trucks came along it looked like they were floating. I don’t recall exactly. I don’t dwell on that part of my career, but the memories are pretty vivid when I call them up. And I never have what some refer to as ‘flashbacks’, like some of those poor bastards from that (and previous/following wars). I’ve told my wife about experiences I had, but it’s always conversational, which is why this was odd.

Later in the morning, I told my boss and another woman who was in the room at the time about it, and they looked at me like “uh-oh, a Vietnam vet who’s going to go psycho on us.” I won’t make that mistake again.

I have flashbacks all the time - less now than at other times, but still it’s a feature of my life.

Before I knew what they were, especially when I was a kid, I called it ‘time traveling’. But only to myself - you don’t go telling other people that you’re time traveling. It was quite a while before I realized that most people didn’t have time machines in their heads!

it’s a neat story, (and very well told, too.)
But why describe it as a sinister “flashback” ?
How is a “flashback” different than a simple “memory”? We all have memorable moments in our lives, good and bad, from every experience we live through.

Silly example: I was in a furniture story last week, and saw something for sale–( a simple cushion for a chair) that looked just like the cushion I had in my college dorm room 25 years ago. Result : I had a “Flashback”.

Except that I didn’t call it a flashback; and I didn’t call it “time travelling”, and I didn’t think anything was unusual, and I didn’t treat it as a scary event. I just smiled as I replayed in my mind the memories ( of sitting on that cushion surrounded by good friends playing acousitc guitar.)

Okay, it wasn’t combat, I was a student, not a soldier. The only “bodies floating in water” were people who accidently stumbled and soaked their foot in the basin of melting ice cubes that kept the beer keg cold.
The “trigger” was seeing that seat cushion. But so what?
Was I having a “flashback”? Or just remembering an incident that I hadn’t had any reason to think about for 2 decades?

A flashback is different from a memory in several ways. First, with a memory, you know it’s a memory. You know where you are in space and time, and you have voluntary control over it. The memory might be associated with pleasant feelings, it might be associate with negative feelings. You are more likely to linger in a memory with pleasant feelings. If you remember something negative, you might choose not to spend much time with that memory.

Very different for a flashback. Let’s use your cushion and dorm room as an example.

If you had a flashback, as far as your conscious mind would know, you would be in college , at your college age, doing something associated with that cushion. You would not be in a store looking at a similar cushion 25 years later. You would have no control over this. You would not be aware that that 25 years had passed. After all, you are in college, and there is your cushion. This seems perfectly congruent to you.

The real kicker, though, is the emotional content of the memory of the event that becomes a flashback. Nice, happy, positive feelings don’t really produce flashbacks. Bad things, or events with strong emotional content (associated with epinephrine or cortisol? - theory of mine) turn into flashbacks. So what is going to happen is that you will live through an event, with your cushion, that had a big impact on you. You probably don’t remember it any more, but you will when this is done with you! You will travel through the event, and experience the strong feeling. My guess is that it’s not going to be a nice feeling. And then it’s over and you’re standing in a furniture store 25 years later.

But instead of just looking at a cushion, you’re standing with your body flooded with the chemicals and hormones appropriate for dealing with whatever happened 25 years ago. If it was scary, you might be filled with adrenaline. If it was sad, you might be tearing up. You might have been in the middle of a fight, and now have no one to fight with. You might want to go tear up that cushion, you might want to run away from it.

I think that’s the difference between a memory and a flashback. With a memory, you control it. With a flashback, it controls you. Puts you right back where the memory happened, and “you, yourself” don’t even know it. You live it. Again. And possibly again and again and again. Though probably not with a college cushion.

This is also why panic attacks are often associated with flashbacks. Relieve a bad event, a very bad event, and you’ll experience full-on terror, too.

herownself explained it quite well, but I wanted to add there’s some pretty interesting research on this matter done by Judith Herman, and she wrote a book on it called Trauma and Recovery. Traumatic memory is chemically encoded in the brain in a different way than narrative memory. To understand a flashback, you have to let go of the concept of narrative memory, the sort of memory that is cohesive and tells a story, because traumatic memory is not cohesive, it does not tell a story, it is simply an assault on the senses. When you go through it, you’re not thinking, ‘‘oh, this reminds me of the time…’’ You’re just there, oh fuck oh god I have to get away please make it stop * there.* It’s like Pavlov’s Dog – activate the stimulus and you have instant drool. Though to the myriad of trauma survivors out there, ‘‘drool’’ could mean a number of different things, depending on the type of trauma involved.

Herman’s argument in the book, btw, is that one major step in healing from trauma is attempting to create a narrative memory out of traumatic memory. Writing about it in a cohesive way, as the OP has done, would be an excellent step in that direction.

One potential problem with this is the obviously subjective nature of memory. Someone who has been in an accident might remember that the car that hit him was red instead of blue, and that he was halfway through the intersection when in fact he hadn’t quite reached the stop sign. Since time immemorial people have used these memory inconsistencies to attack trauma victims as crazy or deceptive, when the reality is that memory is just not some gold standard of Ultimate Truth, but it can certainly point you in the right direction. If that person is standing broken and bleeding in front of a mangled car, it’s pretty hard to deny that there was an accident.

Been there, done that. I’d guess it an important reason why people don’t relate the traumatic side of violent incidents. For someone w/o the experience, it’s impossible to empathize. It’s a creepy feeling, having someone look at you like that, knowing they are suspect of you. It probably leads a lot of people to keep the memories bottled up, when it might help to get it out and deal w/ it.

I don’t believe I implied that it was “sinister” or “scary” in any aspect. The odd thing about this was the disassociative nature of the experience. I’ve related the story to people as a memory (as in the OP); this wasn’t that. Until the film reel finished in my head, I was unaware of conversation or activity around me. Not a big deal, just something I haven’t experienced before.

Wow, I had no idea that that actually happened to people. I thought it was yet another exaggeration Hollywood used for dramatic effect.