‘Everything feels kind of cloudy.’
‘I don’t remember meeting that person.’
’I’m in a safe relationship but I feel nothing at all.’
Do you sometimes feel that you are looking at everything through a fog? Or do you feel that you, or the rest of the world, are not real? Is it noisy in your head, with the conversations that are going on inside it? Or is there a nagging voice inside, commenting on what you do, picking holes in your decisions, criticising who you are. You might have looked at the clock and feel confused that time seems to have gone by without your awareness. Have you found texts on your phone that you must have sent, but you don’t remember doing it? Maybe you have reflected that different people who know you in different contexts seem to know very different versions of you.
These are all aspects of dissociation.
What is dissociation and why does it happen?
Dissociation is a set of powerful survival strategies that our mind and body can develop in early childhood.
A child who was able to forget what happened at home when they get to school may have been able to survive just that bit better. A frightening home life seems so normal when you’re there, but school, and forgetting, might offer escape. Or a child who was able to forget how unsafe school was, once they were home for the holidays, kept themselves emotionally safer. No-one wanted to know anyway. A baby who is hungry and doesn’t know when the next feed is might develop the ability to switch off all their responses to hunger. A child may find that forgetting what happened when they went to their uncle’s is very much more survivable than remembering it. If there is nowhere to process what happened, then it’s safer to put it all in storage.
‘…but worse things happened to other people and they’re ok!’
If you repeatedly had to handle things alone that children should not have to manage on their own, then dissociation is likely to have been extremely useful. Dissociation is a trauma response: this might be something that we easily understand as trauma, like sexual abuse, neglect, abandonment or domestic violence. But might also be a very changeable parent, who sometimes seems very safe and is sometimes very frightening. Carers who are not able to handle our emotional or physical needs. Being in care, hospital stays, boarding school, being sent to stay with people for a while. Parents being in and out of hospital, or rehab, or just not being physically or emotionally present. Being alone.
Isn’t dissociation a disorder? I’ve heard about Dissociative Identity Disorder.
Dissociation is not a disorder when you’re a child and you need it. It’s an amazing thing that the mind and body can do to manage unmanageable feelings and experiences. Discovering that you’ve wiped something overwhelming from your mind meant that you were able to manage, rather than fall apart. Somehow finding that a part of you has developed that can forget the fear of ‘scary mummy’ might feel as if it will make ‘nice mummy’ stay longer. A child might find that the ‘real them’ has vanished somewhere, and in its place is a part that feels nothing, or feels invincible, or is able to collude. And this means that when things that there are no words for happen, feeling nothing/invincible/collusive means that they survive.
When you’re an adult, dissociation is sometimes still a fantastic coping mechanism. It’s dissociation that enables someone to make themselves a human bridge to get people from a sinking ship into a lifeboat with no concern for their own survival. And it’s dissociation that makes you able to ‘switch off’ during unpleasant meetings.
But it can also feel, and be, very disordered! Being unable to answer the question ‘How was your weekend?’ because your mind has wiped it out, can be embarrassing. It’s complicated to realise part way through a conversation that you have no idea what’s been said. It’s hard to be greeted by someone who has met one of your other ‘selves’ at a social event and you don’t really remember.
What support is available?
Dissociation is very treatable. Typical therapy treatment for a dissociative disorder is 2-5 years. Some people prefer to have a few sessions to explore how their dissociation affects them, and then to take some time before seeking longer-term therapy. A dissociation-friendly therapist will be well-trained and experienced. They are unlikely to be surprised if, for example, you can’t remember anything about the previous week’s session. Or if a part of you that hasn’t been to therapy before suddenly turns up. It won’t be strange to them if you suddenly totally forget what you were talking about, or your feelings suddenly vanish, or you start presenting very differently.
Organisations who work with dissociative disorders include ESTD and ISSTD (the European and International Societies for Trauma and Dissociation). PODS and First Person Plural offer support for people with dissociative disorders and their loved ones. The Clinic for Dissociative Studies can help with NHS treatment, although this varies between areas. Universities can offer support if dissociative amnesia affects study or exams. PIP is sometimes granted and can cover therapy costs.
And I’m at leedscounselling.com. £40 a session, online or in person in Leeds LS6. Complicated people welcome
Written by Judith Marlow