I’m not here, this isn’t happening: BPD and dissociation

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.

Dissociation 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.
Cat xxxx
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26 thoughts on “I’m not here, this isn’t happening: BPD and dissociation

  1. For me, dissociation feels like running on autopilot, as though there is someone one step ahead of me planning out my choices and making them for me. I had an episode in a bookstore today because I was lost and couldn’t find my way out. I became overwhelmed and could sense that other person guiding me out of there. I got to the parking lot and was relatively safe, so I’m thankful for that. Although I did buy a weird book, since my black and white thinking was like “If I don’t get a book then the whole trip will have been pointless and I took precious time away from recovery and everything’s ruined and…” Let’s just say splitting makes me do weird and retrospectively funny things.

    • Thanks for sharing, heatherplant – yes, it can definitely be difficult to see dissociation as something that needs to change when it has helped (or even saved) us so much in many ways. I am still very daunted by the fact that recovery = going through the pain all over again – only without the benefit of dissociation? Yeesh. xxxx

  2. Dissociation is definitely a complicated matter. Too many times I’ve been misdiagnosed and wondered myself what was the matter, because I used to frequently disassociate and thought it was more a problem of telling the difference between reality and unreality (sometimes got diagnosed with schizophrenia). At the same time, even knowing it was a mechanism being used to change up perspectives for external or internal stress or anxiety, I’d sort of adopt the idea of staying out that way for a while to see if I could get a handle on it, and perhaps use it to help work around issues. But as OP pointed out, it’s not dealing with the stressor or issue much at all, and the condition doesn’t get much better that way.

    Maybe on the mixed blessing side, it leaves me more aware of other perspectives on things, but too frequently reminded that it, and other states of being associated with this, are really outside the people-tribe, and lack of connection at all with a scene takes a toll on someone’s ability to meaningfully interact, communicate, develop social tools or feelings of belong-ness.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Chris. Yes, I agree completely. If there is one thing that has contributed most to my long-term negative outlook/depression/worst feelings of giving up, it is “otherness.” I truly believe human beings can face just about anything if they feel that sense of belonging or tribe (read an interesting article that posited it was essentially community/unity that sustained and recovered the Jewish population affected by the Holocaust). Without that, it seems we are learning the hard way that we can’t face anything at all. You raise some compelling questions in my mind: for example, we all feel “apart” at some points in our lives – what makes some people come back to a “norm” of feeling like they belong, while others clearly gravitate to the “otherness” as their identity and internalize it to the point of self-destruction? Abuse, trauma, biological/chemical factors, yes, but many people overcome those to heal while others cannot. I want to become an “overcomer” but I feel it’s too late and my identity is firmly rooted in the opposite camp. The process seems very vague and hard to emulate, even when you want to. xxxx

  3. Thank you for another great post Cat 🙂 Re: your latest comment – hhmmm……I’m definitely concerned that I am gravitating to the ‘otherness’ as an identity, much more so in those worst periods…..I’m still not sure whether some of what I experience is dissociation, but maybe in some ways it doesn’t matter, as long as I can talk about it and try and figure out what it means or where it comes from…..the sense that there is a strong emotion (fear, sadness,pain) that I’m not accessing or feeling but I know it’s there, or that the world is out of kilter in a way that feels frustrating and odd (but not necessarily unreal). The times when I’ve really felt I wanted to die were either when I was seriously depressed, or when I felt there were intense emotions of sadness that were there but which I somehow wasn’t feeling and couldn’t express and the feeling just kept building and building until it was almost unbearable…..I don’t know if that was ‘numbness’ or ‘dissociation’ or what, but whatever it was, it was horrible, and if it was intended to protect me from the emotion, it didn’t feel like that was particularly successful, as cutting me off from what I knew was there, but inexpressible, was horrendous….. xxxx

  4. Pingback: Dissociated - You Won't Tame this Sassy Cat

  5. Wow…. Someone who just explained me to a “T”….I have disassociated since before I could walk, probably. The first time I tried to commit suicide, I was little more than a year old and jumped without hesitation into the deep end of a pool.
    The difference between me and most people, though, is that I was never afraid while I disassociated, and it mostly just fascinated me. I can stare at my hands and just think to myself, are those real? Is this real is that real? I see these things, but are they really there? Am I really here? I can see…. But what am I looking at?

    My life has been like one giant ass acid trip.

    For most of my life I never realized what I was doing was weird. When I was young and in school, I would try to ask other people if they knew what I felt, about whether shit was real, or not. … But no one ever did.
    I’ve lost everyone who I ever loved, including all five of my kids and whom I raised four of all by myself until they were all out of diapers and school aged….

    I am a middle aged woman with a bratty, neglected and abused three year old who lives inside of me and is the CZAR of my brain who seemingly has a lifetime commission.

    Great post! Thank you!

  6. New to this blog and this comment is a little late but I rarely get to talk about my BPD and its symptoms. Disassociation is something I have been experiencing for I don’t know how long but am just now able to identify. It happens allot during episodes of self injury. Ill took down at whatever terrible mess I just made and just stare, blur my mind and either think of nothing at all or think, what the hell is that? did I do that? is that my arms? Then it usually turns into fear. Other times its like exactly what Heatherplant described. I go into auto pilot or will just turn of my thinking & will work as hard and as fast as I can. I also have these episodes where I will be, I don’t know what to call it. In a trance maybe or stuck in a stare. where just sitting and staring at something actually feels good. I know its going on but I don’t want it to end. Sorry I am not very good at describing it.

    • Thanks for commenting – it’s interesting how you described dissociation as “blurring” the mind. Interesting because I do think of dissociation as related to meditation in that they are two sides of the same coin: both blurring the mind to see outside the lines of life/consciousness as it were. I do now find that meditation helps me achieve that same calming state that dissociation used to bring – without the panicked feeling of “wtf is happening” if you know what I mean? I’m not very good at describing it either! 🙂

  7. Wow! I can really relate to this! I’ve been in DBT for BPD for about 9 months, and have known that I have BPD for about a year. I’m really just now starting to face how serious and frequent my dissociation might be. This post brought me back to college, where in my darkest times I would listen to “How to Disappear Completely” and feel like it was a perfect musical description of the process of what I have come to know as dissociation. I never shared this with anyone…it was an alone in my room and deeply depressed thing. I knew it was unhealthy to sink even further into disconnectedness, but there was such relief in that place. I’m really scared…I feel like I’ve lost so much time and I don’t know how to keep myself grounded in reality and how to notice if I’m beginning to slip away. For me, it seems to happen in levels…I begin to sink in a little and I don’t notice that little bit. After awhile, I’m drowning and I don’t know which way is up so I can swim to the surface. And on top of that, there’s such temptation to slip even further into it. I have so much anxiety about it. Thank you for your post. It has provided me a little bit of relief.

    • Hi Ceedub, thank you for reading. Congratulations on nine months of DBT – that is a real accomplishment! The program I did was one year, is yours the same or no set timeline? I’m glad the post helped you and I know how scary dissociation can be. I was exactly the same as you – I used to see it as a kind of “safe place” but eventually, it became something I couldn’t really control and the feeling of slipping away was terrifying. DBT coping techniques helped, as did a therapist who really understood what it was and how to fight it. I find one of the best ways to stop it is just to move a lot – a walk where I really pay attention to my surroundings, exercising or stretching, etc. Take care and please keep me posted on your journey if you get a chance xxxx

  8. I have BPD and frequently experience dissociative episodes when I have panic attacks. What DBT skills have worked for you during a dissociative episode and/or anxiety attacks?

  9. Hi Lauren, thank you so much for reading and for commenting. There is a module of DBT called distress tolerance which contains my favourite skills for combatting disassociation/panic. Self-soothing activities (letting myself cry a lot, watching cute/happy movies or tv shows, hot tea, my favourite dark chocolate, a warm shower, going by myself for a pedicure or fancy coffee) are my go-to strategy if I’m at like 8 or less on the distress scale. Anything worse than that and I can’t even do self-soothe: I have to get down to an 8 or less first by distracting myself severely from my mindset with physical stimuli. That means jolting the nervous system out of dissociation/panic by changing the scene and feeling. I usually get out and go for a drive (note, I know this isn’t necessarily a safe idea and I’m not recommending it for everyone, but it’s what works for me) or walk, or I take a shower where I alternate between hot and very cold water. I’ve never really experienced severe anxiety (for me it’s pretty much all depression), but I can imagine that feeling safe and in control is perhaps more important than shocking your system, if that’s what you are struggling with. In that case, cleaning your place is a great way to get up and doing something (rather than letting your mind fly through anxieties like crazy while your body sits still, thus creating a total disconnect) without putting yourself in an environment that feels unsafe or more anxiety-inducing. I find it very therapeutic to clean, even when I’m furious (I clean REALLY well at those times – my boyfriend knows that if every crack and cranny of my living space is spotless, I’m probably at least somewhat irritated or stressed haha). Don’t forget to validate your own emotions throughout – you’re feeling ____ (fill in the blank), that’s okay, and you are allowed to feel that way. I hope that helps at all and sorry this reply is so L-O-N-G, whoops. Take care and keep in touch xxxx

  10. Up until about 6 months ago, I had no idea what Dissociation was, much less realize that I suffer from it. I started Therapy sessions in late January of this year, after two divorces and a childhood that included sexual abuse, everything came to a head and I realized I needed to get help.

    I lucked out big time, or maybe it wasn’t luck, but I found an amazing therapist who’s just the right personality to work with me.

    Anyways, when she diagnosed me with Dissociation from PTSD, I had no idea what she was talking about. To me, PTSD was something that veterans suffered from after coming home from deployment. No joke, I never equated that with anything other than war. Of course after doing some research and continued sessions I’ve realized it’s way more than that.

    Childhood sexual abuse is obviously a form of PTSD and the Dissociation that comes a long with that is a daily struggle for me. The auto pilot, is a big problem for me. I can do that at the drop of a hat and without even realizing it. When I’m in a situation where I have to “Fight, Flight, or Freeze”, more often than not I freeze because of the power that the predator had over me as a kid is still there and my mind gets overloaded. This happens a lot as i’m trying to get back into dating, at 40 something. When I’m in a situation that becomes intense either in an emotional way or an intimate way, I have a real problem dealing with that.

    I pull away from relationships to protect myself. That’s a big problem too that I don’t fully have a handle on yet. Feelings of inadequacy, poor self esteem, and vulnerability to a lifetime of sadness and never finding true love haunt me daily or almost daily.

    I found that writing in a private journal has been a God send for me, it’s become a primary coping skill along with playing music, and the usual tracing corners on the walls, counting tiles, on the ceiling, etc. Yes I definitely do that, and you mentioned how that can be difficult when you’re listening to someone pour their heart out and all I can do is trace the walls or focus on a pillow or curtains. I can definitely relate.

    Anyways, I’ve been reading up on Dissociation, PTSD, and I came across your blog and wanted to say thank you for writing and I’ll start following your future entries.

    Matt

    • Thank you for reading, Matt – I wish you the very best with your therapy. It sounds as though you are making some great choices in the right direction and (not to sound too Care Bear Special about it) that’s something to be proud of. I also think it’s the right choice to be wary of relationships until you have a great relationship with yourself: in my experience, people who are dismissive/callous about your emotional needs, and people who are only too happy to put you in the “poor wounded victim” role and nurse/coddle you are equally dangerous to our emotional health in different ways. xxxx

      • Thank you Soul, your reply is heartfelt and appreciated. Coming to terms with something like this is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. I’ve never had such a struggle dealing with emotions before, I suppose because I’m only now coming to terms with those feelings and thoughts that I have suppressed for decades. It’s amazing how my mind kept me from really dealing with these feelings for so long, until it knew the right time was at hand to move forward and work to accept my past, so that I can one day change and move on from it.

  11. Since 8th grade (freshmen in college now) I’ve experienced this thing where suddenly nothing feels real for a few minutes and everything seems super loud and weird and off and things even sort of look different to me. I have borderline personality disorder but no one ever really talked to me about disassociation but today I realized I think thats what I’ve been experiencing. Does that sound right?

    • Hi Brooke, I’m not qualified to really diagnose it (of course), but that’s very similar to what dissociation feels like to me. Many people find their first yr of university/college the most taxing year of their life (in terms of mental health), and everything kind of comes to a head. I hope you’re taking great care of yourself and have a support system to help you with your first year – thank you for reading! xxxx

  12. I sometimes wonder if I am always dissociated. At least the majority of the time I think I am. I don’t really understand the concept of being grounded.

    • So far I’m unclear if I have bpd or bipolar my pyschitrisit has mentioned bof lightly. And I also tend to get manic symptoms. But one thing I do know is I had alot of childhood trauma dissociation is uncomfortable as heck to Me I end up convinced I’m crazy. Usually I find trying to get my self distracted like talking or playing with kids helps anything to get my mind engaged.

  13. Thank you so much for sharing your insight that dissociation is self a abandonment: it made something finally click for me. I’ve spent my life envying sociopaths and loving my dissociative states (except, as you mentioned, I’ve done REALLY dangerous things I now have no memory of– like finishing a 2 day old bottle of anxiety meds: God really does protect children and fools)! I have BPD and severe Bipolar I, so I feel EVERY emotion, to the extreme, 24/7. I really want(ed) to be comfortably numb, but you’re right: the only path to Nirvana is through the pain, so I can radically accept it and let go of it. Thanks again!

  14. I love that song. I have bpd as well and have been through dbt. It helped alot. I forget that i have bpd sometimes but ive probably just become used to feeling numb/charismatic/awkward/who the fuck am i? I think you can work on yourself up to a point then you just have to forget about it for 5 years and let the trama of sturring everything up settle and just live one day at a time. Focusing on something you like to do. I read your blog today because i just realized that ive been in a dissociative rut the past week. Your experiences we’re so familier and at first its comforting right? To think ok, im not alone. But then i think well who the hell am i outside of this disorder. And even though i have many hobbies and personal preferences, without a sense of identity to attach to, what does it matter. Its soo hard to reconcile beining passionate about one thing then the next day look to that same place within you and seeing that there was nothing there all long. Just a body. Im happier and more “functional” than ive been my whole life, ive learned not to care about it. Who cares if im dissociating. Just try to do your best and then play some games for while. Then pet your cat. Good luck and thank you for suffering with me.

  15. Pingback: Dissociation in Borderline Personality Disorder – audere, agere, auferre

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