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

Borderlines: an example of why a licence to breed would probably be a fantastic thing?

It's sad that mental illness can be a source of division rather than unity even among families.
It’s sad that mental illness can be a source of division rather than unity even among families.

Today started as one of those “wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking and never get back to sleep” mornings. Never the best of beginnings. Dream life, and the consciousness that lies right on the fence between waking and sleeping, is such a mystery. Sometimes you dream about things that you thought were long “sorted” and then realize a part of you which you don’t even really know about is working through stuff on a full-time, under-the-table basis. When I first started therapy, I was terrified that it would immediately involve being forced to meet my subconscious self. That’s someone I really didn’t want to get to know any better. Not because she’s necessarily evil or nuts, though she may well be (and often seems to be), but because I can always sense that she is there, dangerously hurt, out of my control, feeling everything a thousand times stronger and deeper than I can stand to think about. For so long, I kept funnelling every emotion I couldn’t handle straight through to her, closing my eyes and plugging my ears as it went past my conscious self. All gone. All better. Oh wait, except not at all. Unsurprisingly, deep and essential parts of yourself become a festering dumping ground when you use this method, a sewer of unpleasant feelings. And when the sewer starts backing up, you’re forced to pay attention.

Which brings us back to now.

 At about 5 a.m., I found myself instantly transported from zzzzzz to grrrrrr without knowing why for a full 10 seconds or so. Processing, processing, processing…. oh yeah, that family argument when I wish I’d said that and then I didn’t and now I can’t let it go. WHY am I thinking about it now? Why was I feeling it before I even knew what I was thinking about?

I still have an okay relationship with my family. Which is to say, to all appearances, I have a great relationship with every member of my immediate family. In reality, it usually seems we have terrible, if not non-existent ‘relationships’ in our family. Anyone know what I mean? Based on the fact that BPD seems to have a very typical “breeding ground,” I’m guess I’m not the only one with this kind of background: everything’s normal on the surface, but growing up you often felt things that were terrifying, confusing, painful and horrible, and no one said a fucking word about it. Even when all of it started to manifest as “bad” behaviour that made you feel ashamed and had your parents wondering what on earth was suddenly (“suddenly”) going on with your wacky adolescent self, no one did anything – least of all the caring or validating thing. Emotions were understood through a lens of judgment, criticism and an emphasis on rigid self-control. Real understanding, caring, compassion, or emotional honesty were in seriously short supply. Sound familiar? It was my first two decades in a nutshell.

I used to (and periodically still do) get so frustrated with myself and ashamed of my pain because technically, nothing “that bad” had happened to me. Nothing – at least nothing that I can remember – fit the stereotypical bad childhood that would have allowed me, and others, to easily explain my emotions and resulting behaviour. I was never beaten, mistreated or abused in any of the widely recognized ways. My parents weren’t alcoholics or drug addicts, we weren’t poor, and we were never harshly punished.

It’s only recently that I am able to start the slow processing of teaching myself what I now know to be true: Providing basic – or even perfect – physical care for a child is not enough. If our western society is proof of anything, it’s that. How many well-off suburban kids, raised in a (relative) lap of luxury, routinely grow up to struggle with severe mental illness of one kind or another? All the physical care in the world does not make up for the crucial things that our culture now lacks: authentic emotional health and expression; real community; compassion and validation on a regular basis; genuine caring relationships that we know will always be there for us. The number of people I know who were raised in such an environment could be counted on one hand; you’ll spot them right away because they’re happy, well-adjusted, in great relationships and very successful in some way.

Anyway, rather than go off on a tangent/rant about all that, I’ll stick to the point: my family is terrified of emotions. So much so that even when my life was completely off the rails and I was covered in cuts and severely underweight, nobody said a word. I pulled out all my eyebrows and eyelashes; I got caught shoplifting. Nobody said a word other than, “Don’t do that.” Nobody suggested therapy. Nobody asked what was wrong. Nobody. No screaming fights in my family. No “I love you” either. No crying, no comforting, no admitting that you’re actually having a really, really awful day.

I am the product of this environment, clearly. I have internalized every one of these lessons until emotions are scary, uncomfortable, foreign. I don’t like to be around people who are crying or upset – so you can imagine how group therapy is for me. I hate raising emotions in myself because I have a grand total of zero skills for dealing with them. I don’t know how to exorcise or express them healthily, and I’ve long preferred numbness as opposed to the only other coping tool I adopted for handling them, which was self-destruction of just about any kind. I see my problems and my hurts as constantly in need of someone else’s care and attention, but I believe I’ll never really have it since people don’t care and can’t be trusted to do so.

I honestly would not wish BPD on my worst enemy.

So anyway, I wake up last night thinking of a number of choice remarks exchanged between my dad and my (now adult) brother the other day. No need to infuriate everyone else with them, but suffice it to say they were to the effect of “trauma and mental illness are stupid figments of the imagination and people just feign them to get attention” along with some bullshit about how the government is too liberal in funding their treatment. Offensive, as well as WAY too close to home for me to take it any way other than personally.

Now I know my family and I will never see eye-to-eye on politics and/or religion. That’s just the way it is and always will be, and I honestly don’t think it would matter – if there was a foundation of basic respect and validation going on. I’m willing to accept that you can’t just dismiss someone based on generalizations about the beliefs they subscribe to. Do I get the same basic courtesy? No. Do I say a fucking word about it even though I’m seething? No. I sit there and pretend I can’t hear it. I sit there and pretend I’m numb to the raging anger, injustice, hurt and indignation that are coursing through me.

Old habits die hard, eh?

As a result, I’m the one who gets to wake up in the middle of the night, twisted and tight with rage without understanding why.

All of my unresolved hurts from this environment mean that every time I feel hurt again – at all – by any member of my family now, I tap into a deep well of pain and anger that I’ve been filling for years and years now. I don’t know what to do with it. Any of it. As I see it, the options are:

  1. Ignore it

  2. Run from it

  3. Drag it up

Ignoring it doesn’t work. Duh. It’s a strategy I’ve employed, unsuccessfully, for the vast majority of my life and I think it would ultimately prove just as fruitless as it did for my parents, and their parents before them, and probably their parents before them, etc. etc. I have no interest in alternately suppressing my emotions and (rarely) releasing them in passive-aggressive, indirect ways that achieve nothing.

Running from it always seemed like the best option to me. Until I did it. For three years I lived overseas and enjoyed an overwhelming sensation of freedom and possibility. Family by phone/email, just how I like them. The odd visit, sure, I can handle that. But the big things were still ingrained in me. They weren’t resolved and they fucked up everything in the end. My closest relationships destroyed, my life choices terrible, my pain still handled in self-destructive ways that didn’t work.

Dragging it up is the only option I’ve never tried. Mostly because it’s the scariest. By far. But also (and maybe I’m just saying this to give myself an excuse not to tackle it), I think it would be more harmful than helpful. Sure it might be initially cathartic for me – but I really don’t see my emotionally-stunted family dealing very well with a full-blown attack based on things they probably don’t even remember doing. I foresee plenty of defensiveness (“How can you be so ungrateful!”), dismissiveness (“You’re exaggerating, it was never that bad; you’re being too sensitive”), and ultimately, just more pain as a result of opening up/having emotions, which is a lesson I really don’t need to learn anymore.

My parents had a favourite phrase to be sarcastically deployed while we were growing up: “Tell it to your therapist.” The way they used it was meant to imply, “You’re being silly and I’m not going to take your whining seriously.” What it actually implied was everything their actions/behaviour primarily supported: “Stop talking about your problems because I don’t care, even though I actually do realize I’m being the kind of parent right now that ends up with kids in need of therapy.”

“But you don’t let us watch the Simpsons and Kevin’s mom does!”

Oh go tell it to your therapist.

“You didn’t pick me up and I had to walk a whole block!”

Tell it to your therapist.

“I can’t stop hurting myself and I’m living on a few pieces of fruit a week.”

Tell it to your therapist. Except I never actually said that one because I was too afraid that that would be the answer.

Every time I think of all the times my parents would say that stupid fucking phrase, I want to puke/cry with rage and with how pathetic it all is. It hurts worse because I don’t actually want to break all ties with my family forever – I still care about them. And I can’t just write my parents off as bad parents either, contrary to how this all sounds. The saddest part of all of this is how hard (potentially impossible?) it is to break generations of this kind of parenting. Raise your kids to be uncomfortable with emotions, to hate the side of themselves that feels, and they will not be able to help themselves raising their kids the same way. Talk about leaving a legacy.

I think for many of us, when we seek help with the problems that have plagued our families and environments, we are actually taking on a much harder task than anticipated because it’s not just about fixing one person. We’re trying to break a whole chain of empty, miserable people rather than be just another link. Often, we are still right in the midst of those chains, and cutting ties with them entirely simply isn’t an option. I don’t think about having my own family very often yet, but I hope that if I ever decide to, I will NOT allow myself to be a mother until I am certain that I have broken that chain. If I can’t handle emotions – first and foremost, my own – then I really don’t stand a chance of doing much better than my parents. I can understand that, in theory, but it doesn’t make the anger any less powerful when the same hurtful shit keeps coming up…