Dissociation: Definition, Symptoms, and Recovery
Dissociation is a strange thing. Strange when you know it's happening, but stranger still if it began when you were a baby, leaving you with no knowledge of what life without dissociation is like.
What does dissociation feel like? Like being hollow. There's a shell there, and people see the shell, talk to it, and act like it's you, but it isn't. It's just a mask. A cover. A defense mechanism carefully calibrated over the years. It includes a razor-sharp antenna to read social signals and react to them. It is ready to be whatever it is it needs to be on any given day.
Inside, though, there is nothing more than a great, gaping hollow space. A chasm. A vortex. A bottomless pit. If you look too closely into it, you spin and spin until you separate into a million little particles, becoming an indistinguishable universal substance.
I know where my real self is. She's off over there, to the right, and a little in front of me. At times, I have used dissociation to deal with pain. When I was giving birth, I pushed my pain out to my real self; out to the right and a little in front. Labor become much more bearable out there, away from me.
But who is me? There is not even a me to run away from. There's nothing.
Deep behind my heart in the direction of a fourth spatial dimension, there is another world–the spiritual world. When life gets unbearable, I can take my shell and retreat to that place. Nobody can see me there or shape me to suit their needs and desires.
What is Dissociation?
Dissociation is not limited to the extreme cases, which are sometimes identified as multiple personality disorder or dissociative disorder.
Mild dissociative experiences are relatively common, with 60 to 65 percent of people saying they have had a dissociative experience, according to a recent study. (Waller, Putnam, and Carson, 1996)
A common dissociative experience is daydreaming. An example of this is when you've driven home, but can't recall the journey.
Dissociation is often used as a defense mechanism when traumatic events occur. People who have anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks, often have dissociative symptoms when the panic attacks come on. It is often considered a coping mechanism.
The Panic Anxiety Disorder Association website describes dissociation or dissociative experiences in different terms, such as:
- Depersonalization: Feeling like you are detached from your body, standing alongside, or having an out-of-body experience.
- Derealization: Feeling as if you or your surroundings are not real. Looking at things through a fog. Feeling as if the ground is moving under your feet. Stationary objects appear to move.
- An experience that may be accompanied by a sensitivity to light and sound. People can feel as if they are losing touch with reality and are going insane.
Like many defense mechanisms, dissociation can cause problems if it kicks in under inappropriate circumstances. Daydreaming while operating heavy machinery comes to mind.
Chronic dissociation occurs when there is sustained trauma in infancy and/or early childhood. Severe abuse can produce the extreme cases made famous by books and movies such as Sybil, but other, more common traumas, such as a mother with post-natal depression, can cause a milder form of chronic dissociation.
If dissociation started before the age of nine months, then rather than having a sense that the world is not real, the affected person feels that they, themselves, are not real. It seems that life is taking place behind an invisible pane of glass: everyone else is participating, and the affected person is on the outside, looking in. Their body may be participating, but their soul is absent.
If the affected person identifies with the real self, which doesn't inhabit the body, they can display a great disregard for what happens to the body, and in the extreme cases they believe they can continue live without their body. According to Laing, this is a key component of psychosis.
If the affected person identifies with the body, they often feel empty and hollow inside. Where there should be feelings, there is either nothing or the feelings of the people around them. These are usually people pleasers, the downtrodden mothers, and, sometimes, the most driven and successful business people. If you don't feel the emotional impact of an unbalanced life, you can sustain it much longer than ordinary people can.
How to Discover If You Are Dissociated
It is a huge challenge for sufferers of chronic dissociation to diagnosing their condition. After all, most have never known anything else. Why stop to wonder if something is wrong?
In my case, it took meeting someone who was so empathic she could tell that I was repressing emotions, even though she found it hard to pick up what they were. Once I started on my quest to find out more, it quickly became apparent that I was emotionally crippled. Then, the healing journey began.
The chronically dissociated are survivors. They suck it up, put on a straight face, and get on with their lives. They soldier on, because they feel that to stop, even for a brief rest, could be fatal.
Talking with others, I compiled a checklist of symptoms which many dissociated people have in common.
Although I am not a medical authority, I am a chronic sufferer of dissociation. Here are 20 symptoms I have observed in people who are chronically dissociated:
- You are always cold, especially in the fingers and toes. You wear jumpers even when the temperature is over 20 degrees (73 F). You shiver and huddle while others are completely comfortable.
- Other people describe you as "very conceptual," "cold," "distant," "intellectual," and a person who "lives in their head."
- You feel as if your bodily home is between your eyes, rather than in your chest or around your heart.
- You require a vivid mental fantasy to become aroused (at least for women). You are rarely aroused by touch alone.
- You feel driven, but stopping for a break feels unsafe.
- Having other people around is difficult, because you can't relax.
- Being alone is difficult, because it's intensely lonely.
- You are impatient with people who say they can't do something for emotional reasons. You wonder why they don't just suck it up and get on with it like you do?
- You have difficulty reading nonverbal emotional signals and have hyper-vigilance and hyper-responsiveness toward visual signals.
- You think, analyze, and watch others like a hawk, but do not feel their presence.
- You take several months to bond with newborn children, finding it difficult to empathize with and comfort them.
- You want everything put in words to be precise about exactly what was said.
- You have the ability to remember situations and conversations in great detail, or, alternatively, space out during important conversations and are unable to remember them.
- You often have the feeling people just do whatever they want, but you have to survive.
- You love and repeatedly invoke the quote, "What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger."
- You feel that you never belonged in your family or anywhere else.
- You talk yourself out of being angry when people cross your boundaries, making excuses for them.
- You feel that you have no right to exist, and sometimes doubt whether you do exist.
- You have heavy periods and a lengthened menstrual cycle.
- You feel that anything good in your life is about to disappear.
Recovering From Dissociation
Even the most extreme cases of dissociation and multiple personality disorder can be healed, so that the person can reintegrate and reach a degree of normality. The path to integration requires a deep reconnection with the non-rational, non-linear, physical, sensual, and childlike subconscious mind. For this to happen, the subconscious must be convinced that it is safe to come out of its shell.
For me, the triggering event was trying to work out what I really wanted. My loving friend said, "If your inner child could do anything at all right now, what would she do?"
I tried to think about it. Occasionally, I would get a stirring, that feeling you have when a thought is on the tip of your tongue. But then I would be hit by a wall of panic, and the thought would shatter before it even formed.
Having studied psychology, I was aware that I was watching classic Freudian repression in action. Still, I couldn't force myself to complete the thought. It was as if knowing what I wanted was life-threatening.
Being the driven, determined person I am, I gave it everything I had, including NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), psychotherapy, emotional conversation, inner child work, the Artist's Way program, meditation, sitting at the beach watching the ocean, writing, and exercise.
After a few months, I made my first breakthrough. I encountered someone who was so in tune they could pick up on how I felt without my having to put it into words. After 45 minutes of having my every move and feeling anticipated, I felt it might be safe to be alive, after all.
At that moment, my true self moved from somewhere out off to the right and in front of me, and took up residence around my heart. My skin became intensely sensitive, and running my fingers over a rough stone surface became almost orgasmically sensual. My ability to empathize sprang into existence, and I was as receptive as an infant. It took a bit of chaotic adjustment before I learned how to dial down my sensitivity and respond like an adult again. Over the next few months, I went through a process of growing up emotionally. Again, my knowledge of psychology came in handy, because I could identify what emotional age I was, and make allowances for myself.
There were some positives to my dissociative experiences: I wasn't present when a lot of bad parts in my life took place, such as high school. My feeling of self wasn't covered in scars like most people, and whenever I wanted to, I could pick up on how others were feeling with a high degree of detail and accuracy. Because I only had my intellect, I got very good at observing, analyzing, and picking up on what was happening in someone's subconscious from clues like their posture, word choices, and eye movements.
Most people don't put that much energy into observation because they can feel other people directly. But that was all I had, so I pushed it to the max, a bit like a blind person who learns to click their fingers to echolocate.
Now, I have both: observation and direct feeling. Putting those two capabilities together is pretty awesome, and not much gets by me these days.
What Was It Like?
I won't whitewash this. It felt like walking through the valley of the shadow of death to recover from dissociation. For about three months, going through the door of my therapist's office felt like a death march to the electric chair.
I dissociated because life was terrifying, and the only way to be free is to process that terror. After my first breakthrough, I discovered how to release fear in a way that feels good. That helped. The textbooks call it self-soothing. This was far too passive and peaceful for my experience, but there you go.
The experience of safety–of being seen and responded to appropriately–was also a vital part of the healing process. Don't try to heal yourself on your own. Get help.
By separating ourselves from our feelings, dissociation cuts us off from our deepest selves, but it also cuts us off from all the people around us. We feel we can't trust anyone. But a whole new life is waiting for you if you are willing to put in the effort, a life you can't even begin to imagine. It's a leap of faith, to step off that cliff and trust that it won't kill you, to depend on someone else and let down your guard. Take it.
It's terrifying. But it's worth it.