Query update: Still at a standstill, sorry. Life. Hopefully soon, I’ll get some energy to move on it.
I’ve been thinking about dissociation a lot recently. I hadn’t really ever thought about it until a couple years ago. It hadn’t occurred to me that it could be something that I could have experienced. I’m not crazy, I’d told myself. I mean, I’m crazy, but I’m not crazy-crazy. I’m a little weird, but I’m doing okay. Right?
Turns out I’ve likely experienced a fair amount of dissociation. Dissociation, as far as I understand it, is a feeling of separation from your body or mental landscape. It’s often a trauma response, and can be associated with other mental health diagnoses.
During my childhood, I experienced almost constant noise at home. To my non-neurotypical brain, it was all too much. I would wake up jacked-up and would still be jacked-up when I tried to go to sleep at night. I was often so stressed that I would beat my head against the headboard at night to try to conk myself to sleep. Looking back, I realise I was almost always in fight-or-flight mode, and I was unable to do either.
Then, I experienced something that is common among us neuro-divergents: my body and mind can’t fully distinguish between trauma and my neurodivergences. I struggled to set healthy boundaries, so trauma piled on top of trauma.
In my experience, my dissociation happened when I couldn’t fight or flee. To me, it felt kind of like I had a “PAUSE” button on my mind’s remote control. Almost like my consciousness sort of just–stopped. Then it kind of flew back after a while to see where we’re at, and then to stay or go away again.
You may notice that I sometimes refer to myself singular and sometimes plural. It may just be a linguistic non-sequitur, but I wonder if that too is a result of dissociation. I often talk to myself in plural. (“It’s okay, Amy. We can do it.”) There is something incredibly comforting to feel that there is another entity there to steer my ship when I need to take my hands off the wheel. In my thinking mind, I know that it’s still just me. It’s always only been me. I really do sound quite dissociative, don’t I?
I took an online Dissociative Experiences Scale (cuz we know that’s the best way to get accurate medical information!), and according to that random website, I may be diagnosable for a dissociative disorder. There’s no real benefit to me to get diagnosed, though, because the treatments I’m already doing (counselling, meds, and healthy living) are what’s in order anyway. I feel like I’m well-supported mental health-wise, so I’m not really looking to garner more diagnoses.
The interesting (and kind of awesome) thing is that dissociation is a profoundly caring experience. It is my brain literally taking care of me. The process of recognising (and naming) dissociation means that the universe was protecting me from trauma, and that thought in itself is comforting. I can’t control what happens outside me, but knowing that I have systems to help me cope makes me feel cared for.
When we pathologise coping mechanisms, we can further impede traumatised folks from seeking help. This has a gendered effect, as the majority of psychotropic drugs are prescribed to women. I feel like, on a macro level, it’s easier to diagnose and medicate mental illnesses in women than it is to deal with the wide-scale, gendered effects of trauma.
I’ve learned to welcome dissociation as my friend, the last guardian of my wellbeing after all the others have failed. As with most other coping mechanisms, it comes at a cost. I sometimes feel unsure whether I’ve done something or just thought about doing it. Sometimes I have a frightening or anxious thought, and even though I know it’s not real, it feels real to me. Dissociation blurs my perception of reality, and my anxiety sometimes dovetails with the lingering remnants of my dissociation to create a frightening mental landscape.
But once I’m past the worst of it, I can get back to appreciating all the ways my body and mind protect me. As I create a more sensory-friendly and low-stress life for myself, I can feel these protective layers peel off, leaving me with just me. Some days I find myself blasting music and dancing by myself. Some days I write quietly for hours. Every so often, I catch a glimpse of a past strategy. Hmm, haven’t felt panic in a couple weeks. It’s like an old friend I haven’t seen in a while, albeit one whose company I don’t particularly enjoy.
I suspect that many folks are on a similar journey with their mental illness coping mechanisms. It’s a complicated relationship, and I think our healing journey can be to embrace our messy, crunchy bits with love.
What do you think? Where are you on your healing journey? I’d love to hear from you!
Featured image was created by the author using elements from canva.com.