Ever since I started my own personal healing journey, and learned about how Dissociating saved my life as a child who was sexual abused, it’s become a passion of mine to research and study. Dissociation is our brain’s way of protecting us; allowing us to not be fully present during traumatic circumstances.
Dissociating is a trauma response after all, and understanding that helps ease the often defaulted response of blaming ourselves for what happened. As an adult however, when we still dissociate, it can be very frustrating. I’m honored to share this guest blog post with you from my Erin Fado.
Erin has posted here on SMP before, and is a Professor of Sociology in Sydney, Australia. I’m grateful to call her a friend and fellow advocate, and always excited to share her insight with you.
Anxiety and fear are the demons which chase the soul around the confines of reality, they are personalized and invisible to almost all but the person who invented them.
It is a natural reaction when these demons arise for us to look for a hiding place or a strategy with which to outwit them, and when these resources run out then dissociation sets in. Dissociation is the magic spell that renders one invisible even to oneself in the face of absolute terror with nowhere to go.
Pierre Janet described it as a hysteric somnambulism; it resembles the hypnotic trance, and the state described by eastern meditation gurus as ’empty mind’. Interestingly, in all three, one remains in control of just how deeply and intensely the mind stays in that place, and withdrawal is as simple as a conscious decision to pull back into the present moment. However, unless the mind then has comfortable options and worthwhile strategies, dissociation can seep back.
Dissociation is also not a single dimension wide; experience shows that there are differing levels of dissociation and that intensity waxes and wanes during a single session. It can be a comfortable altered state of consciousness, where time means nothing.
When I was a child I learned to dissociate at a very early age. Of course, I did not know what I was doing. All I was doing under times of stress was retreating to my “Fairy hidden in the wallpaper” who would protect me during times of abuse by both my parents and the men. Let me give you an example from when I was six: “Hours passed, the door to the bar swung open and closed with a loud crack each time the doors passed each other but still no footsteps on the stairs. No men came either so that was a good sign I thought. Then the unmistakable sound of my mother’s footsteps on the stair threads, slightly heavier on the left foot than the right followed behind by the even steps of my father. So, he was coming too. The door unlocked and in she strode. She was drunk. My heart sank.
There was to be no explanation, no reason for what had happened. She swore at me about what I had done and how I was to pay for it and that was to be now. I was dragged off the bed onto the floor. My father filled the doorway as he normally did at times like this and she began. Kicking, kicking, kicking. Sometimes leaning over me laying punches to my head. It was utterly familiar and so was my response. Off to the Fairy in the wallpaper. Quickly, I have to get there quickly. Once there nothing was felt and it was just a matter of waiting until either she fatigued or my father said: “That will do”. It was fatigue this time. She must have been very drunk as she was not kicking as hard as usual and many kicks missed which seemed to infuriate her but the Fairy and I did not mind. We just observed from a distance and waited for the inevitable time to pass. Pass it did and they left.”
I dissociated like this all the time as a child and adolescent as a barrier to protect myself against them. It was an effective line of defense and I am sure saved my sanity and helped me endure the physical pain too. My young body was ill prepared for the onslaught those adults subjected it to.
On the other hand, now as an adult, that same dissociation is still happening but is now causing havoc with my life. Dissociation can be a living hell, where one is distanced from reality so much that only painful feelings remain, and become a benchmark in which reality is quantified. It is my experience that dissociation is the most dangerous aspect of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for it is in this place that suicidal ideation has the freedom to dance seductively well away from the grounding forces of reality.
It happens at any time and I have no control over when it is going to occur. It does not necessarily need a trigger like a flashback, it just happens. I can be mid conversation and I will just mentally ‘cut out’ and be unable to partake any longer. Sometimes I am back in the room and other times I am nowhere just totally blank unable to speak or respond. As suddenly as I ‘leave’ I come back again and carry on as if nothing has happened. It’s very disconcerting.
Cooking a simple meal can take twice the length of time it should due to the dissociation because of the tuning in and out. I can be stirring the pot at 6.30pm and suddenly it is 6.45 pm and I have no idea where the time has come. My main pro
blem with dissociation is that I frequently self-harm when dissociated and become suicidal. I appear to be perfectly normal to those around me but am in a dissociated state and in danger. I will self-harm, come back to where the family are and rejoin the group and it is only when one of them notices blood on my arm that there is awareness of what has happened. I am totally oblivious to what I have done and have no recollection of cutting.
There are five types of dissociation
Dissociative identity disorder involves the development of one or more alternative personalities and is also characterized by gaps in both remote and dependable memory and significant impairment to daily functioning. Symptoms might also include seizures. About 90% of those with DID report childhood abuse or neglect and the condition is believed to often develop as a result of trauma. Dissociative fugues, or mental separation from familiar surroundings that may include dissociated travel, occur often with DID.
Depersonalization/Derealization disorder is characterized by feelings of detachment from reality. Depersonalization typically describes detachment from or unfamiliarity with the self and may include temporal distortions or physical/emotional numbness.
Derealization describes a detachment from or unfamiliarity with the surrounding world, and it may be accompanied by visual/auditory distortions. However, those with this condition are typically aware that their experiences are not reality.
Dissociative amnesia may be localized (where events from a particular period of time cannot be recalled), selective (where certain events from a particular period of time cannot be recalled), or generalized (a complete loss of memory). Generalized amnesia is not common.
Other specified/unspecified dissociative disorder is a diagnosis used when dissociative symptoms present in such a manner as to cause significant impairment and distress in daily function but do not meet the criteria for any specific dissociative condition. “Specified” is used when a reason is given for the criteria not being met, “unspecified” to describe a case when the reason is not given.
Due to the severity of the dissociation, I have been diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder and have several alters. It is a very discombobulating disorder and a very dangerous one as two of the alters urge me to commit suicide as a form of punishment preying on guilt and shame for the acts that happened to me as a child. This is all part of the successful grooming carried out by the perpetrators of the pedophile ring. It is a difficult condition to treat and one my Therapist devotes a lot of therapy time to dealing with. When episodes are very severe I require hospitalization for safety.
While as a child dissociation was a self-protective method of coping with stressful situations in my adult years it has become self-destructive and intrusive. Roll on therapy.
-Erin Fado – https://youwillbearwitness.com
Images courtesy of Pixabay and Canva unless otherwise noted.