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lavinia's torment

but to what sound her listening ear stoops she?
what netherworld gulf-whispers does she hear,
in echoing answers from what planisphere,
along the wind, along the estuary?
-dante gabriel rossetti

her name is lavinia. she came to me through shakespeare's text, crying her wordless cries of torture and dismay, yet somewhere in her pleas there was still hope. when i came across the play titus andronicus in my volume of the complete works of shakespeare, i noted immediately the pen and ink drawing that accompanied the introduction to the play. there was a woman, unintentionally the center of the picture, crouched and dressed in white, surrounded by men. one was holding her, as if consoling her, another stood to protect her from an advancing villain, and a third knelt nearby with his hands frozen in an urgent gesture, as if beseeching her to speak. her head was bowed, dark hair visible beneath the hood of her robe. her hands had been cut off, and her stunted arms were crossed in front of her chest. she seemed to ward off evil even in her apparent weakness.

intrigued, i began to read the play, and for the next several hours nearly drowned in the tragedy of it. lavinia, as sweet a girl as shakespeare ever devised, is tormented, endlessly. after witnessing brutal murder, she begs

'tis present death i beg, and one thing more
that womanhood denies my tongue to tell:
o, keep me from their worse than killing lust,
and tumble me into some loathsome pit,
where never man's eye may behold my body.
do this, and be a charitable murderer.

lavinia is then raped, her hands are cut off and her tongue cut out, and she is abandoned by her ravishers in the woods. her uncle, finding her, brings her back to her home, where she is unable to say who it was who so maimed her. her father, full of angst at his daughter's condition, does everything he can for her, and, after a long time has passed, she is able, by signing, to tell of her torment.

what i began to think about after reading the play was how she must have suffered, knowing her truth and her fear and being unable to express any of it for lack of the ability to speak or write. then i imagined what a flashback would have been for lavinia, what horror. there was a wanting in her to explain, to tell of what had happened, and she was unable for such a long painful time. i became so attached to her, and to what had become of her, that i could imagine her, shaking, crying wordlessly, and in her voice i heard her resentment, her pain, and, most importantly, her determination.

lavinia is a literary figure who has inspired me beyond explanation. i will always be thankful that i found her, that i understood the message that was delivered to me, which is that, throughout my struggle, i must be thankful for my ability to ask for help, for care, for someone to listen.

i began to analyze my own flashbacks, taking them as a sort of painful gift rather than a curse. in many ways, flashbacks became more a sign of healing than of repression, a signal from my mind that it was time to come to terms with my violation. while i used to do everything i could to block flashbacks from my mind, i now have accepted their significance in my healing and have come up with coping techniques rather than blocking techniques.

flashbacks are intense experiences, and come in many different forms. sometimes survivors suffer from flashbacks that are repetitive; the same image or sequence repeated each time the survivor has a flashback. sometimes they can be different every time, either based on memories or on subliminal images. there is no exact description of a flashback that is applicable to all survivors who suffer them, but they are in all cases difficult to handle and sometimes extremely emotionally painful. i wanted to provide here some tips for coping with flashbacks.

tell yourself that you are having a flashback and that this is something you need to work through, but that it is perfectly normal considering what you have gone through.

remind yourself that what you are experiencing is something from the past, and that the only person who can endanger you now is yourself. if there is someone with you and you feel comfortable asking, ask them to remind you of what is happening in the room right now.

understand that you are experiencing, rethinking and reliving a fearful time in your life. even if it is hard for you to admit fear, it is important for you to do in order to work through your flashback.

use your powers of observation to take in details of the surrounding area; trees, colors, bodies. focus on beautiful, unfrightening images. if it helps, go somewhere away from what might have triggered you (loud noises, a specific person or place).

remember to breathe deeply.

comfort yourself. touch your own hair and face in a gentle way, hold yourself. remember that you are a sacred temple that was once violated, and that your body is completely holy.

if you feel able to be confrontational, address yourself and the subject of the memories directly. tell them, aloud if you have to, that they are not wanted now and you will focus on them at a more stable time.

in the aftermath of a flashback, remember to take good care of yourself. pamper your body, your mind, and your resilient spirit.

write a journal entry about the flashback. remember images, sounds, and new memories that may have resurfaced. this can help you work through some of the confusion of a flashback. make sure you are well-grounded before you start writing so that you don't escalate into another flashback. here's what i recommend: make a peaceful writing time and place. plan it for a time when there won't be lots of people coming in and out. light a few candles (i recommend using an aromatherapy candle, particularly rose or lavender), and find some music that is particularly soothing to you. choose a protection mantra, something you can repeat to yourself in order to create a feeling of safety. if you start to feel frightened, repeat your mantra as many times as you want, until you feel safe. then stop writing and try again later.

try to remember that because you have flashbacks it does not make you crazy or less than whole. for many survivors, flashbacks are a large part of the healing process. you are not alone. and remember, you have the ability to speak out.