How I Recovered From Dissociation and Found Myself
Dissociation is a strange thing.
Strange, even when you know you're doing it, but stranger still if it started when you were a baby, because you have no idea that anyone else is having a different experience of life.
It's awkward. Slippery.
What does dissociation feel like?
Like being hollow.
So there's a shell there, on the outside, and people look at the shell, and they talk to it and they act like it's really you, but you know it isn't. It's just a mask. A cover. A defence mechanism carefully tweaked over years and decades, with razor-sharp antennae out, reading the signals, ready to react, ready to duck for cover, ready to be whatever it is that they want me to be today.
And inside, nothing.
A great, big empty, gaping, hollow space.
More than a space.
A chasm. A vortex. a bottomless pit, and if I look too closely at the vortex I will spin and spin until I separate out into a million lost little particles, mixed invisibly with the substance of the universe.
So I cling to the side and I don't look.
I know where my real self is. She's off there, to the right and a little in front of me.
I can use dissociation to deal with pain.
When I was giving birth, I pushed my pain out there. Out to the right and a little to the front. It got a lot more bearable, out there, away from me.
Except, of course, there's no me in here for it to be away from.
There's nothing in here.
Deep, deep, behind my heart but deep in the direction of a fourth spatial dimension, there is another world. The spiritual world. When life gets unbearable I can take even the awareness of the shell and retreat there, where nobody can see me and, by seeing and expecting, shape me to suit their desires.
What is Dissociation?
Dissociation is not limited to the extreme cases which present as full-blown multiple personality disorder, or dissociative disorder.
In the normal population mild dissociative experiences are highly prevalent, with 60% to 65% of the respondents indicating that they have had some dissociative experiences. (Waller, Putnam and Carson, 1996)
A common experience of dissociation is "daydreaming", or the experience of having driven home, but not remembering the journey.
Dissociation is used as a defence mechanism when traumatic events occur. It prevents the fear and panic response in the trauma situation from generalising to the rest of life.
People who have anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks, often have dissociative symptoms when the panic attacks come on.
These are described on the Panic Anxiety Disorder Association website.
Depersonalisation: Feeling like you are detached from your body, standing alongside, or having an out-of-body experience.
Derealisation: Feeling as if your 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.
The above symptoms 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 defence mechanisms, dissociation can cause problems if it kicks in under inappropriate circumstances. Daydreaming while operating heavy machinery is not so great ...
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 they don't seem to notice 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 great disregard for what happens to the body, and in the extreme case they can believe that they can live without the body - according to Laing, this is a key component in psychosis.
If the affected person identifies with the body, they often feel empty, hollow inside. Where there should be feelings, there is either nothing, ot the feelings of the people around them. These are the people pleasers, the downtrodden mothers, and also some of the most driven successful business-people. If you don't feel the emotional impact of an unbalanced life, you can sustain it much harder and longer than ordinary mortals can!
Discovering You Are Dissociated
The challenge for sufferers of chronic dissociation is to identify their condition. After all, this is how it has always been. Why would they stop to wonder if something was 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 a serious quest to find them, it quickly became apparent that I was in some way "emotionally crippled" - and so the healing journey began.
The chronically dissociated are survivors. They "suck it up" and get on with it. They soldier on, because somewhere deep inside they feel that to stop, even for a brief rest, is to risk death.
Talking with others, I have compiled a checklist of symptoms which many of us had in common. We didn't know they were symptoms until we started healing and they suddenly shifted.
So, with no medical authority at all, here is a checklist for you to see whether you have any of the symptoms I have observed in people who are chronically dissociated.
1. Always cold - cold fingers and toes, wears jumpers even when the temperature is over 20 degrees (73 F), shivers and huddles while others are completely comfortable.
2. Other people use words like "very conceptual", "cold", "distant", "intellectual", and "lives in his/her head".
3. Locating one's home in one's body between one's eyes, rather than in one's chest, around the heart.
4. Requiring vivid mental fantasy to become aroused (at least for women) - rarely aroused by touch alone.
5. Feeling driven, that it's not safe to stop and rest.
6. Having other people around is difficult, because you can't relax while others are around.
7. Being alone is difficult, because it's intensely lonely.
8. Impatient with people who say they "can't" do something for emotional reasons - why don't they just "suck it up" and "get on with it" like we do?
9. Difficulty in reading non-verbal emotional signals, and/or hypervigilance and hyper-responsiveness to visual signals.
10. Thinking, analysing, and watching others "like a hawk", but not "feeling" others directly.
11. Taking several months to bond with newborn children, finding it difficult to empathise with and comfort small children.
12. Wanting everything put in words, and being precise about exactly what was said.
13. The ability to remember situations and conversations in great detail, or alternatively, blanking out during important conversations, and being unable to remember them at all.
14. The feeling that "people just do whatever they want to you, and you just have to survive".
15. Loving and repeatedly invoking the quote "what doesn't kill me, makes me stronger ..."
16. A feeling that they never belonged in their familiy of origin - or anywhere else, since, either.
17. Talking themselves out of being angry when people cross their boundaries, because they "couldn't help it", "didn't mean to" or "were doing their best".
18. A feeling that they have no right to exist. (And sometimes doubt whether they do, anyway!)
19. Heavy periods and lengthened mentrual cycle.
20. A sense that anything good is imminently about to disappear - "if it looks like everything is going well, you have obviously missed something".
Recovery From Dissociation
Even the most extreme cases of multiple personality disorder have been able to heal, reintegrate, and reach a level of normal functioning.
Sufferers of mild, chronic dissociation have an exaggerated mind/body split - they are only conscious of their intellect, and the occasional very strong emotion. The constant, multicolored, three-dimensional feeling world is almost completely suppressed to a subconscious level.
They usually don't know when they are angry, sad, or hurt. Not consciously.
The path to integration requires a deep re-connection with the non-rational, non-linear, physical, sensual, child-like subconscious mind.
For this to happen, the subconscious must be convinced that it is now safe to "come out".
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. Really, I did. Occasionally, I would get a stirring, that feeling you have when a thought is "on the tip of your tongue".
And 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. But I could not force myself to complete the thought. It was as if knowing what I wanted was life-threatening.
Being the hard-driving, determined person that I am, I hit it with everything I could find!
NLP, psychotherapy, lots of emotional conversations, inner child work, the Artist's Way program, meditation, sitting at the beach watching the ocean, journalling, and bodywork.
After a few months I had my first complete miracle - someone who was so in tune with me that they could "read" how I felt without me having to put it in words. After 45 minutes of having my every move anticipated and met, I had the breakthrough experience - I felt that it might be safe to be alive, after all.
At that moment, my "self" moved from somewhere off out to the right, and took up residence around my heart. My skin became intensely sensitive - running my fingers over a rough stone surface is almost orgasmically sensual, these days. My ability to empathise 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 and adult to things again.
Over the next few months, I went through a process of "growing up" my emotional self. Again, my knowledge of psychology stood me in good stead, because i could identify what emotional age I was and make allowances for myself.
There are some pluses - because I basically wasn't there when a lot of the crappy parts of life happened (remember high school?), my feeling self isn't covered in scars like most people's. When I choose to, I can pick up how others are feeling with a very high degree of detail and accuracy.
And, because I only had my intellect, I got very, very good at observing, analysing, and picking up what was happening in someone's subconscious from clues like their posture, their word choices, and their eye movements.
Most people don't put that much energy into observing, because they can feel other people directly.
But it was all I had, so I pushed it to the max. A bit like blind kids who learn to click their fingers and echo-locate.
And now I have both - observation AND direct feeling.
Putting those two capabilities together is pretty awesome, I can tell you! 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.
For about three months, it was like walking to the electric chair to go through the door of my therapist's office.
We dissociated because life was terrifying, and the only way to be free is to process the terror.
However, on the bright side, after my first miracle experience I did discover how to release fear in a way that feels good. That helped.
I believe the textbooks call it "self-soothing". Far too passive and peaceful-sounding for my experience, but there you go.
The experience of safety, of being seen and responded to appropriately, is a vital part of the healing process if you have been dissociated since infancy.
So it's more than just "don't try this at home", it's also "don't try this alone".
By separating us from our feelings, dissociation cuts us from from our deepest selves, but it also cuts us off from all the people around us. We feel we can't trust anyone, not really.
A whole new life is available - a life you can't even begin to imagine yet.
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.
But it's worth it.