Dissociation is a symptom of a surprising number of psychological diagnoses, from Borderline Personality Disorder, to autism, to depression. What’s surprising about this is how rarely people talk about it, and how few people know what it is.
It’s something that many people experience without knowing what to call or how to deal with, and it can be debilitating and terrifying. For these reasons, I’d like to give an overview of some of the ways I’ve experienced dissociation, what dissociation is, and some helpful techniques to deal when you experience it.
Dissociation is simply the sensation of feeling as if you’re disconnected from or not in your body or the present moment. Most people have experienced a fairly mild version of dissociation if they’ve ever driven home from work and realized they don’t remember doing the driving once they arrive. However at a clinical level, dissociation is something more akin to feeling out of body. It’s a disconnection from reality: not being unable to recognize reality, but simply being distant from it. Most research suggests it’s a coping mechanism to dim bad feelings, everything from trauma memories to boredom (I tend to dissociate over boredom a lot). In many cases it’s associated with past interpersonal trauma, and at its worst it can involve some amnesia. However it is also a symptom of other disorders that involve intense emotional disruption.
All of this is fairly clinical though. What does it actually feel like to dissociate?
I’ve had a number of dissociative experiences, everything from the extremely common experience of zoning out while bored (although for me it generally goes far beyond that as boredom makes me extremely anxious, so I often disconnect completely from my surroundings), to looking in the mirror and being unable to recognize who I am or where I am.
My worst dissociative experience felt nearly never ending. I spent the majority of my senior year of high school utterly detached. I couldn’t bring myself to feel sympathy for others, to care about their emotions at all. I couldn’t bring myself to feel much, and I never felt like I was touching or doing anything that interacted with my environment. I remember telling my mom at one point that I felt like I was always floating three inches above my head, watching what was going on. For almost an entire year, I never felt as if my body were my own, or as if I were fully present in my body. I had a hard time focusing, a hard time looking at people or listening, a hard time reacting to sensations. Everything felt distant, as if I couldn’t affect the world around me. I would often find that my eyes had unfocused and the whole world was blurring. My brain felt slow and mushy.
I don’t remember how I came back from it. I think perhaps moving to college was enough to jolt me into feeling something. But this is something that happens periodically now. When I get anxious, unhappy, depressed, or afraid, I fall back into myself. I feel as if my body has turned to stone, as if I can’t open my mouth, as if I don’t know how to speak or blink or interact with the world because my body has gone into hibernation while my mind goes somewhere else. I can witness what is happening to my body, but it takes a struggle to interact with it. When someone tries to touch my body, to hug me or to kiss me or to comfort me in some way, it feels as if they’re touching an empty shell while I watch them and wish they would hug me instead. Sometimes I simply can’t react beyond grunting or nodding or a cursory “I’m fine”. It makes me seem surly, but really I’m not mad, just not present.
The hardest part is that when things become overwhelming I can’t feel properly. This means that empathy is nearly impossible. How do you feel sorry for someone when you can’t feel anything at all, when you’re hidden behind a barrier that feels ten feet thick? This happens to me often now. When a friend or loved one starts to show overwhelming emotion, I shut down. I know how I’m supposed to react. I know I’m supposed to feel sympathy, I know I’m supposed to cry along with them, but all I can think is “why are you crying? It’s so loud. Stop, please stop.” I have had breakups in the past where I’ve had to fake crying because I couldn’t feel a single thing in the moment. I was miles away. It’s isolating, lonely, and induces a horrific amount of guilt when you finally snap back into reality. It has also made dealing with difficult situations in relationships incredibly difficult because I have a hard time being present to feel and react, and instead I simply mumble along in a monotone and wish for it to end.
It’s incredibly hard to function when in this state. Your mind cannot focus or concentrate on anything in front of you, simply on the anxious thoughts that are going in circles in your mind. It makes relationships harder, and it means that you’re not going to be very effective at problem solving in this state. So what can you do if you dissociate or know someone who dissociates?
It’s hard to give advice that will help everyone, because people can experience dissociation in different ways and find different things helpful. For that reason it’s best to talk to someone if you want to help them to find out what they prefer: do they feel uncomfortable if they’re touched while dissociating, or does it bring them back? Do they want space? Do they want to talk? The hardest part might be identifying that you are dissociating, so having honest and open conversations about what’s happening and what feels good or bad is probably the best place to start.
For me personally there have been a few things that are helpful. One is playing simple, repetitive games that allow me to engage with someone but that don’t require a great deal of focus. This explains my addiction to stupid Facebook games like Candy Crush (Papa Pear is better though). I also find having a strong physical sensation can bring me back into my body: putting ice on my face, dancing, exercising, driving fast with the windows down. These things can shock you back into proper sensation. It reminds your body that you exist within a container and that that container has needs. In addition, I also have noticed that if my body is worn down in any way, I dissociate far more. For example when I’m hungry I can be miles away and when someone makes me eat I come right back. This goes for naps too. Sometimes taking a little time away from the situation to calm down is the only thing that helps though, and that might involve watching crappy TV or reading a book or doing something else that gives me a clear end to my escapism.
These are simply the things that help for me. I hope that these suggestions can help. Further descriptions or tips are welcome in comments.