Someone asked me to do a post on dissociation, which, coincidentally, is coming up in my therapy a lot recently. The truth is that it’s something I can’t really comprehend or approach very well at this point. I mean I can talk about it (and I will – hopefully not at my usual length but, well, you’ve been warned); however, the very experience of dissociation is something that defies the mental grasp because it’s literally a way to leave your head.
can be googled easily enough if you’re interested in the specific symptoms. It’s confusing for sufferers and for those trying to treat it because basically, it’s: a) a totally subjective experience, b) an experience that is a form of escaping an actual
experience, c) both healthy and natural (in certain contexts, such as daydreaming) as well as totally unhealthy and unnatural (in other contexts, such as buried trauma). Dissociative disorders can include feelings of depersonalization (“I’m not real”) and derealization (“this world isn’t real”).
I experience dissociation on roughly a weekly basis (depending on who I interact with or what occurs that week, obviously). Some people describe the experience as literally “out of body” – that is, they are watching themselves and not inhabiting the body they see. I’ve never had that form of it, but I have had the equally drastic experience of genuinely believing the world was not real. The movie “Inception” was incredibly triggering for me because it was this eerily accurate depiction of how I felt when I was at my worst: this world is a dream and I need to die in order to wake up.
As I watched the film with friends, I felt like everyone was watching me (which was paranoid as no one knew I had dissociative episodes at this point) and that my “secret” was exposed for everyone to see. I coped by using my most common and low-key form of dissociation: focusing on tiny details.
Has anyone else done this? When things get overwhelming, when I’m in a very emotional conversation, when someone starts crying or I just generally feel like I can’t deal with something, I start picking at fabric, counting stitches on clothing, examining my skin or hands in great detail, or whatever. This form of dissociation is one that I do have control over – I choose to mentally go “into” those details I’m focusing on rather than hear the words I don’t want to. That fun little habit wreaks total hell on relationships, as you can imagine. Someone’s baring their soul to me and I’m fondling the curtains (no joke, that actually happened once).
It’s unhealthy in the sense that I have created a rut in my brain that never leads anywhere better. But it’s also unhealthy because it can very easily become a slope that I slide down into the worse and darker forms of dissociation. I’ve often thought that my self-harm is definitely related in some way to the dissociation – like it’s a way to stay grounded and feeling something rather than that horrible feeling of floating away from reality. Hm.
My earliest memories of identifying dissociation were about 13 or 14, though it must have happened earlier as well. I would sit in my room, in the dark, listening to music for hours and hours – sometimes as I self-harmed. The Radiohead song above, “How to Disappear Completely,” fascinated me because it described how I felt long before I understood it: “I’m not here, this isn’t happening.” The words were on loop in my head as I’d dissociate from strong emotions, physical pain, fights with friends or family, ridicule at school, whatever. I felt like I’d discovered this great little escape hatch from the hell that was my brain. But I knew, instinctively (and I know much better now), that it was also killing me. I didn’t realize that when I dissociated, I was abandoning myself. The girl in pain was still there, but I rejected and invalidated her by going somewhere else when she needed me most. It breaks my heart to think about but of course, I simply didn’t know any better.
But here’s the worst fucking part of dissociation: it keeps you re-living the things you’re dissociating from. Honestly. That’s the tragic irony of it. By withdrawing from the pain, you KEEP the pain. It’s not faced. It’s not dealt with. It’s not exorcised or vented. It’s just there, rotting inside and ruining everything – as I’m living proof of. Based on some original hurt, you remain stuck in patterns that actually create that hurt (e.g. research now shows that abused children often become adults who only pursue abusive relationships).
The original event that taught me dissociation is, for now, a mystery to me. I suspect it’s a mystery to a lot of people who do it, for the simple reason that the dissociation worked, and the part with the memories is shut up in a box. But I have my suspicions, and am starting to gain an idea of it, based on noticing what triggers dissociation for me now.
The thing that scares the shit out of me? Proper therapy for BPD involves bringing light to the dark corners that dissociation was developed to hide.
Exploring the sensations/experience of dissociation is the current focus in my one-on-one sessions. And MY GOD, it is uncomfortable. So I’m sure I’ll have a lot more to report on this topic as time goes by.
What about you guys? Are your dissociative experiences something you can talk/think about or not at all? Have they played a role in any treatment you’ve had?
Above all, and as a final note, STAY SAFE: if you feel dissociated, do whatever is necessary for you to feel grounded, safe and adamantly in the present – call a friend or a helpline, self-soothe, listen to grounding mediations, inhale scents like citrus or cloves, etc.