Ah, dissociation my old friend and nemesis. It's about time I talk about this I think, if only because it's one of my most troubling symptoms. We all dissociate, it's an important defence mechanism. I remember the day my mum died. A relative sat me down and told me what had happened. I calmly nodded my head, said I understood and went outside to be by myself for a bit. I knew that I should be upset but actually I was just numb. It didn't feel real, everything felt very far away and I didn't really feel much of anything. When I came back inside, I spent a lot of time making sure everyone else was OK. People were crying in the front room, talking in hushed voices in the kitchen. Someone punched a wall and sat stating at his injured hand for a bit. I made tea, handed out hugs and otherwise did what I could. I still didn't really feel anything myself. It didn't seem possible to me that mum was gone.
I remember shopping for an outfit for the funeral, determined to find something nice so I looked good for the day. I felt a sort of weird disjointed guilt that this was what was bothering me, but my mum's death still didn't feel real. I still found myself sitting on the bottom of the stairs in the evenings, waiting for someone to take me to the hospital to see her. I remember just sitting there and staring at the wall, not really thinking about anything. In the days leading up to the funeral people started to talk about what would happen to us kids now, whether it would be best for the family to move so we were nearer our aunts and uncles and cousins, our grandparents. I felt panicky and upset by these conversations, but not really about my mum's death. Then it was the day of the funeral. I put on my nice outfit and we went to the church. My aunt explained we'd be going to stay with her for a bit so we wouldn't be going home afterwards, we'd be going to her house.
Reality started to sink in. Mum was gone, nothing would be the same again. Finally, I found my tears. I balled my eyes out during the service, I almost passed out at the grave side. My hand was shaking so much when it came to throwing the dirt in on top of the coffin. It didn't seem possible that my wonderful mum was in there, that we were burying her, that she was gone. But whilst I couldn't relate that coffin to my mum, I was finally starting to come round to the idea that she was gone. I was a mess, for days I couldn't eat, talk to anyone or do anything much but cry. Grief had set in.
That numbness, that feeling of unreality which allowed me to carry on and look after everyone else - that was dissociation very much coupled with denial. It couldn't be real so I didn't let it upset me. It was useful, it allowed me to carry on and do things that needed to be done - such as preparing for the funeral - but if it had gone on longer than that I would never have been able to grieve, to accept my loss and start to come to terms with it.
To a lesser degree, I've done the same thing with exams, interviews and other stressful situations. Generally speaking, I have no recollection of how I've done, what I've written or said after these events but I seem to do well because all the stress and panic is set aside for a bit and allows me to get on with it with a clear head. Very useful. It's times like this I love dissociation.
These aren't the only times I've dissociated though, not by a long shot. I used to dissociate when I was being abused. It's why I can't remember all of the incidents and why many of my memories are sort of fuzzy and distant. Growing up, I was able to dissociate so heavily from the abuse that I quite literally forgot about it when I wasn't reminded of it. It meant I had this really awesome relationship with my father at times, and this really awful one with him at others. For me, it was like the abuse happened to somebody else so when I wasn't alone with dad, I was able to enjoy our time together. Then as soon as we were alone, the panic and anxiety would set in.
I was often anxious as a child and teenager. In my teens, I experienced angry outburst, I hurt myself and starved myself and I honestly had no idea why I did these things much of the time. As I got older it got harder to separate myself from the abuse. I could remember it happening, I knew my father hurt me on a regular basis. I started to find other ways to protect myself, such as staying out late and avoiding time alone with him. Things that hadn't been available to me when I was younger. Yet I still dissociated. The first time I told a GP about the abuse I was 20. She asked me gently if I thought that my self harm and depression were related to this. I thought she was mad. I honestly couldn't see how the two things could be connected. The me that experienced those things simply wasn't the same person who had been abused. In much the same way, the person I was when I went out with friends, found a job and generally speaking enjoyed life wasn't, in my mind, the same person who hurt herself, refused to eat and tried to kill herself.
I felt like several different people, and this is a form of dissociation too. I could remember what had happened to me if confronted with it, such as when I saw anything to do with child abuse on the telly or experienced a flashback but the rest of the time I simply didn't think about it and for me it was like it ceased to exist. When I was happy, I didn't forget that there were months at a time of depression, I didn't forget that I still self harmed regularly but again, unless this was brought up - for instance by people asking if I was feeling better - it simply vanished from my mind.
Then there are the flashbacks. Oh the flashbacks. This is different to memories. I used to remember the abuse at odd times and it was always upsetting. I often dissociated when faced with these memories. I would become detached and numb, everything would feel fuzzy and unreal but that was better by far than the flashbacks. The sudden rush of panic, the over riding fear that I'm in danger. The confusion when I can't make sense of where I am because I simply don't recognise this place.The inevitable finding somewhere to hide, the frequent cutting and tugging at my hair, my skin. The inability at times to even recognise those nearest and dearest to me, because quite simply I am someone else. I am that girl, the one who was abused. The one I find it hard to accept even today was really me.
It's like time travel but with none of the fun and adventure, or ability to change things no matter how ill advised. It's not like going back and seeing yourself - though I often experience memories this way. It's being back there, going through it all again.
Flashbacks are often where my hard won coping mechanisms fail. I'm no longer the person who's had the benefit of therapy and medication, who has a list of handy things to do or numbers to call to help me calm down and feel safe. I stare at such lists in confusion. They aren't mine, I don't know these people and I can't do these things. I am a girl, just a child who hasn't yet learned these things. I've overdosed mid flashback before, I've cut. I often have no recollection afterwards of doing these things, of what happened. I simply remember the fear and distress. Sometimes there are images, sounds or smells I can recall after the fact. In many ways these are the best times, they give me a clue as to what happened to me - what I was reliving. That gives me something to work with. More often, I don't remember. I am just left with a feeling of being small, young and scared. There are less extreme flashbacks too, where I know where I am but I still experience the distress and panic, where superimposed over who I am now is the person I was then.
At the time I was experiencing the abuse, dissociation was my best friend, absolutely. Without it I would have been truly helpless, truly unable to cope. I wouldn't have been able to get up every day, go to school, make friends and do 'normal' things. I would have been fearful wreck, all the time. As it was I was an anxious kid, though I didn't know why most of the time. Without dissociation I wouldn't have been able to function at all.
Now, this kind of dissociation is not really my friend at all. There are days where I look back and can't remember what I've done. There are days where I need help but can't ask for it, because I'm the 'wrong' person. There are days when I look OK, so that nobody knows inside I am screaming. There are days where what I have to do is difficult or scary, but necessary. These things go undone half the time, because I dissociate and 'forget' about them. Until I am reminded that I didn't do them. When this can include really important things like paying bills, going to work or eating food, that's an issue.
I frequently have no idea if I've eaten or not, or if I've spent money or not. I find things and can't remember buying them, writing them, drawing them. Or I do remember, but it feels like 'someone else's' problem and so I promptly put the associated memories 'away' somewhere in my head.
Dissociation for me has stopped being a helpful way to survive and cope with past events, and has instead become a barrier to me learning how to survive and cope with current ones. It's a problem, a huge one. One I am still trying to figure out how to deal with, one day at a time.Hopefully I will be starting another course of therapy soon, which should help.
I wrote about this here partly because it helps me to write but mostly because I know I'm not the only one dealing with this and it's rare I see or read anything about it that isn't in a medical textbook or a support forum. In trying to talk to other people about this, I often find they are scared or disbelieving. They either think I'm 'mad' or a liar.
So, this is me doing my best to help someone, anyone understand even a little bit about dissociation. It's me trying to reach out to people struggling with this to know they aren't alone, to invite them to share their experiences or talk about them if they want to. To help those who know someone struggling with dissociation to support them. As ever, I hope it helps somebody.