Swallowed Whole: Inside an Autistic PTSD Flashback

It came out of nowhere. I was in my home with my life partner of almost twelve years. We were laying on the couch, I was in his arms cuddling, and I felt this wave of debilitating dread come over me.

I was literally frozen, unable to move, barely able to breathe. Every muscle in my body was tense, as if rigor mortis had set in while I was alive. I began to panic, as the anxiety that began as a twinge as a knot in my stomach, intensified and dispersed throughout my body, ending in my chest where the heart palpitations began.

Editor’s note: this article contains mention of sexual abuse. Reader discretion advised.

A few minutes passed, and I was able to move, to sit up, only to wrap myself with my arms in an embrace, rocking back and forth, while trying to curl in the fetal position, as the tears and sadness enveloped me whole, like being swallowed by a whale.

I was having my first flashback of childhood sexual abuse at the age of almost forty-two. Though I had always been aware of the abuse via memories, I hadn’t previously had a flashback.

Being a Black AFAB (assigned female at birth) autistic, there have been many moments in which my soul has been swallowed by traumatic experiences. Racist, ableist, capitalistic, and misogynistic society has taught me from young to suppress my emotions, reinforced by the “strong Black woman” trope, without the freedom to ever lay my armor down.

But that’s not how energy works, it is neither created nor destroyed. It simply transitions, and with pain that means it manifests in some other way, usually at a time where you least expect it, bubbling over, uncontrolled, like my flashback.

Childhood abuse, especially physical and sexual, are sadly quite common amongst autistics, but especially AFAB/girls. My experiences added to the statistic. I was molested by a family member for a year in first grade. Being autistic lead me to be overly trusting, a yearning to be understood and validated, while always feeling like an outcast, which was combined with my lack of understanding social norms, including appropriate touching.

I was the quintessential victim, and because I valued his attention, and what I thought was validation, I didn’t speak of the molestation until puberty. I told my first boyfriend, who literally had to explain to me that what happened was wrong.

I again swallowed my pain in silence until senior year in college where I wrote my sociological thesis, aptly titled, “Suffering in Silence: A study of the relationship between self-perception and survivors of sexual abuse.” I interviewed other victims and included my own story for research.

Being sexually abused in childhood also increases the likelihood of adult abusive relationships. In my mid-to-late twenties, I again, was another statistic, swallowed whole, within two toxic relationships that happened in succession. One ended with a restraining order because he was stalking me and the other ended after repeated sexual assault.

As a Black autistic, I had been socialized from childhood that my feelings weren’t “real” or “that bad.” That I was merely “too dramatic/sensitive” while also being deemed “cold.” I needed to learn to “let things go” while simultaneously being chastised for not “trying hard enough.”

I was “too rigid” with my thinking and boundaries, which all coincided within, manifesting as always second-guessing myself while giving others the benefit of the doubt, ignoring my ironically-accurate autistic intuition. All of which allowed and encouraged me to swallow my truth repeatedly.

What was the point of expressing my emotions, if no one validated or valued them, including when I would set a boundary or say “no”? What was the point of being authentic, and honoring myself, if I was forced to change, while my efforts were ignored by family, teachers, as well as, therapists?

So yesterday, my spirit refused to swallow anymore and released my past via a flashback with tears and all of the suppressed emotions. Though it felt horrible in the moment, I can say I am much lighter for it.

Since my thirties, I have learned that it is always best to go with the current instead of against it. I no longer swallow my truth.

I speak, listen to, and validate my truth.

I give to myself the support I needed as a child. I now and always, take away the “sw” of swallow and I simply allow my truth to guide me.

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3 Responses

  1. Yesssssss! Loving seeing my community sharing their experiences. Keep healing your childhood self–life’s journey!!!

  2. Thank you for sharing that with the world. You have spoken your truth, giving others words to describe / to understand their own painful histories. Also helpful for those who care for others with similar pasts and present. Thank you for being honest & brave.

  3. Thank you so much for being willing to be vulnerable and open about your realisations and process! I can empathise.

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