Photo credit: author – the last of the ice on the pond, hopefully
A few years ago, I was diagnosed with a dissociative disorder — Dissociative Disorder NOS (not otherwise specified) (DDNOS). Dissociative disorders exist along a continuum, with Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder) at the most extreme end and DDNOS at the more mild end of the spectrum. My diagnosis co-exists with a diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) stemming from chronic trauma in my childhood. I discuss dissociation and dissociative disorders a bit further, in what follows. I’ve also written about these things previously, here and here, as well as touched on them in some of my other posts.
All of us dissociate — detach from our emotions or thoughts or our bodies or separate our minds from what is going on around us — from time to time. A common example is daydreaming on an everyday commute to work; the reason for this is often that the commute is so familiar that we disconnect from our surroundings because our close attention to them is not required. This kind of dissociation generally doesn’t interfere with our functioning to a problematic extent.
Dissociation learned in childhood to separate from overwhelming trauma and emotional experiences is an invaluable coping mechanism at the time. However, it becomes problematic as it develops into a habit. When reminders of the difficult emotions arise in the adult traumatized as a child then dissociation may be automatic. This disconnection from our emotions and our bodies can create all kinds of problems. For example, properly understanding and responding to our own emotions is critical to decision making and self-care. My previous post, here, describes other problems that can result from dissociative disorders.
When I was first diagnosed with DDNOS, I was very dissociative almost all of the time. Essentially, I was triggered almost all of the time by thoughts or emotions reminding me of past trauma, but I wasn’t very aware of what was happening with me. Dissociation was my “normal” because I was traumatized and became dissociative very early on in childhood. Because the trauma I experienced was so chronic and was tied to my attachment figures (my caregivers/parents) and growing up in my home, my triggers were — and largely remain — myriad in number. Many things having to do with people can be a trigger for me.
Learning to become more connected to myself has meant engaging with a therapist who has experience and a high level of expertise with childhood trauma, attachment issues and dissociation. The therapist observes me and lets me know when she detects my dissociation. She’s able to do this because she’s highly attuned to cues from my body, how I engage and the quality of the energy surrounding our engagement. Together, we then try to parse out what’s causing the dissociation. The therapist also helps me to try to ground myself. Being grounded means being in the here and now, present to what is going on around you, and in your body. When we’re grounded in the here and now, we can deal more effectively with our emotions and make more accurate decisions about how to respond to our environment.
During therapy, often at first triggers for dissociation were thoughts or emotions I was experiencing that were related directly to my interaction with the therapist at that moment. This is because my trauma was interpersonal and came from individuals — caregivers — I was meant to trust. What I’m saying is I was triggered by my therapist because she’s a person, and in a position of trust.
Through our sessions, over time I’ve learned how to observe myself better, both in and outside of therapy sessions. It has taken a very long time — I have been in therapy for over three years — but it is becoming a bit easier now for me to parse out what I’m experiencing when dissociation occurs. The following is an example of a recent dissociative experience and how I’m addressing it.
It’s income tax time and that’s meant meeting with my accountant’s office to go over my return. There were bumps for me in this process and dissociation ensued. To make a long story short, I was met at the office by an assistant who was in charge of reviewing my return with me but who hadn’t completed it herself. I’m sure that a few of you get headaches at tax time assembling all of your materials and completing your return. It can be a big job, depending on your circumstances. In addition to compiling my documents (two folders worth), I’d previously made a two-hour round trip drive to the accountant’s office to deliver them along with a letter I’d written to explain a few things and to ask some questions which I needed addressed. The issues in my letter were important to me.
The assistant, however, wasn’t aware of my concerns, didn’t have answers for me and hadn’t read my letter. She wasn’t even aware of my letter. Although she had my folders of documents on her desk with my completed income tax return, she seemed to attach little significance to them. She basically had no idea what I was talking about when I raised some concerns. She did find the letter I’d written among papers on her desk when I asked her about it and she reviewed it with me when I was there. However, for the most part, she didn’t have answers and for most of our meeting it appeared that I was going to have to return to the office again to have certain matters resolved that hadn’t been attended to as I’d requested. Fortunately, in the end we managed to work things out, not entirely the way I’d hoped, but satisfactorily. I felt disappointed and angry during the meeting but was calm throughout. The assistant was professional and certainly very kind, although not apologetic.
That meeting put me in a dissociative state. Or rather, I put myself into a dissociative state over that meeting. I dissociated into a separate ego state or “part” of myself. What that looked like doesn’t seem to make much sense on the face of it; however, it can be understood in the context of my particular trauma history. This is what happened: After I left the meeting, I noticed my head was filled with thoughts that I “should just put my head down and work” (I’m not working presently). I envisioned myself in an office job. Sounds a bit strange, right?
The state I was in is familiar to me. It’s a way I learned to cope with abuse by my father as a child and older. Much of his abuse was about pushing me and bullying me to do things and take on responsibility — including his responsibilities — well beyond anything resembling age appropriate limits. The abuse was severe and prolonged; as a very little girl until I was an adult, he singled me out for rage attacks and humiliation that lasted for days at a time. There wasn’t much of a break from the onslaughts. Forgetting about myself — and I mean forgetting about myself — and putting my head down and doing what he demanded even before he demanded it was one of my major strategies I developed for coping. I worked in his office as a secretary for a time, at his insistence.
Fortunately, after my visit to the accountant, I recognized I had switched into this “head down and work” state. That’s better than being in a dissociative state like that and not knowing it. But I couldn’t figure out why I’d arrived there and I couldn’t get myself grounded. In the state I was in, I’d lost sight of most of the rest of me — my body, my feelings, my wants and needs. I didn’t feel “all there.” It was frustrating and upsetting to me to feel so disconnected from myself. I knew I was stuck in the past, in “trauma time.” But I had a hard time getting back to the present, into my here and now.
A few days later I had the opportunity to talk at length with a dear friend who’s open to understanding my dissociation and who helped me dissect some of what had happened. What I arrived at with her was that it was in part my thoughts that I was being treated carelessly or as unimportant by the accountant’s office that was a trigger. I felt a lot better after talking with my friend, certainly like I’d been heard, and more whole. What I determined later on my own was that it was not only the thought that I’d been treated carelessly but also and maybe more importantly my associated feelings of abandonment that triggered my dissociation. Not wanting to experience the pain of that feeling, I dissociated to my “head down and work” state. As a child and younger woman in that state, I often used to get positive recognition from my father. And that feeling of recognition felt a lot better than the feelings of insignificance and abandonment I was often confronted with at home. After my experience at the accountant’s office, it seems plausible that some younger part of me was switching to the “head down and work” state as a way to seek positive reinforcement and avoid the painful feelings associated with not being heard.
I find that so much of recovery — and understanding my dissociation — is about healing my early attachment experiences with my caregivers, experiences that included both a lot of psychological abuse and neglect of my emotional needs. Attending closely to my present day experiences of dissociation sheds light on my past. Looking at what’s been hidden from long ago — hurts that were dismissed — and bringing that into the light, makes me whole. It’s a slow and careful process. But I’m worth it.
Finally, I want to say here that there is no excuse for abusing a child and my father must be accountable for his behaviour. However, it is also true that he had undiagnosed mental health problems that were significant, and there is little doubt in my mind that those problems were related to trauma and adverse events in his own childhood.
The good news is that when one of us heals, we can help all of us heal. That’s why it’s so important to share our stories.