On Wednesday, June 15, 2011 the Vancouver Canucks lost Game Seven of the Stanley Cup Finals to their rivals, the Boston Bruins. It was an emotional hockey series and the Vancouver Canucks were favoured to win the Cup. Irresponsible hooligans used this opportunity to go on a rampage; screaming and yelling, smashing windows, setting fires, looting, drinking, and fighting. News of the riots flashed around the world. It was an embarrassing incident for the City of Vancouver.
After the incident I spoke with a colleague and she told me that the day after the riots she saw eight clients and all but one appeared to be going through some sort of crisis. They were either highly agitated or very depressed. One was suicidal and had to be admitted to the hospital. All of them were strangely “off” in some manner and none could pinpoint why. What was common about these clients was that each experienced major trauma or abuse in their younger years.
In the days following, other therapists related similar stories of people with traumatic histories being triggered by the violent images from the riots. This was heighted by the generally unsafe and frightening feeling that prevailed throughout the city for days after. Many individuals with traumatic histories were having flashbacks directly related to the riots; flashing back to people dancing and chanting around huge fires (ritual abuse) much like images of “fans” cheering as cars were overturned and set on fire. Or flashing back to being beaten as a child; similar to the television images of people fighting and lying on the ground being kicked and punched. Or flashbacks to parents yelling and screaming and throwing things at each other; much the same as the many scenes of people yelling and hurling of objects during the mayhem. Or flashbacks to drunk and unpredictable caregivers; similar to scenes of the drunken out-of-control rioters.
Flashbacks are memories of past traumas that pop into one’s awareness without any conscious attempt to retrieve this memory. The individual can have a sudden, powerful recall of a past trauma that is so intense that the person “relives” the experience, unable to fully recognize it as a memory and not something that is happening in “real time”. That is why it is so disturbing. A flashback catapults you to the moment of a traumatic event complete with the fear and other sensations that were felt at that time.
What was especially distressing for the clients noted above was how the flashbacks came about so intensely and so suddenly, and in the moment, not knowing why all of this was happening. For some of these clients it was the first flashbacks they had in months. And for those clients who live with flashbacks on a more regular basis the current flashbacks became more vivid and alive. These clients weren’t just scared, they were terrified. They felt out of control and at the mercy of their experience. And as the flashbacks occurred, they were unable to access the adult part of themselves for reassurance, protection and grounding.
For clients who endured horrific events as children, their past and present can sometimes merge. In the days following the riots, these clients weren’t just experiencing a merging of past and present, but instead, found themselves thrown back into their past in a manner that was so confusingly unexpected. The intense feelings and body sensations were so frightening because the feelings/sensations were not related to present reality and many times seem to come from nowhere. Five of the eight clients noted above actually told their therapist they believed they were going crazy.
In the weeks that followed the riots it became incredibly valuable for these clients to understand what the triggers had been and to recognize how important it is to share, discuss, and debrief with their therapist. It finally made sense to them. It gave them relief in knowing that they weren’t crazy and that their flashbacks weren’t all that unexpected and surprising given the overall unrest in the city that Wednesday night. It allowed them to regain a sense of sanity and control. It allowed them to come back to the present.
Many of us may be shocked or angered or simply take for granted the violence and images that are projected through the media. But many individuals with traumatic histories live their daily lives sensitive to the happenings throughout society. These individuals can have horrific memories resurface without warning and, in effect, become re-traumatized by current events. There are many trauma survivors in our society and they become the “hidden victims” of events like the Vancouver Riots.