My years of disassociation
I was one of those kids, you know the ones
Head in the clouds
Away with the fairies
Actually I was one of those kids, a kid for whom the world was not gentle enough, not safe enough. And so I could not embody fully, could not settle into myself, could not settle on to the earth. I walked on my tip toes, my heels rarely touching the ground. I loved to climb up high, trees, walls, gates…
I remember being ten years old, sitting high up on a wall by my house, looking down onto the street and seeing other kids playing. I felt so curious about them. Like an alien creature trying to understand a different species. I was scared of them too. They seemed to be so rough and mean with each other yet still I longed to be included in their games.
I’m not one for climbing anymore. Now I like rolling around in grass and mud and inhaling the timbre of the good brown earth. I am in love with the world, in all its roughness, ugliness and pain. I simply love it all. It is all beautiful to me.
It’s taken almost twenty years of therapy, yoga, meditation, dance, writing, living, to get to this place of total infatuation. It has been, and continues to be, a spectacular journey and I am deeply grateful.
Now I know that for most of my life I was living in various stages of disassociation. I was living outside of myself, above myself, without a self. Floating along and trying to not get contaminated by this harsh ugly world. I felt spiritual and superior. For years I was a spiritual leader in my community, yet I never felt part of the community. I felt special and apart and deeply lonely. Human to human connection is not possible from this elevated place. I was still that kid sitting on a wall.
Disassociation was my response to trauma and stress, to situations where I could not comprehend, tolerate or contain frightening experiences and overstimulation. My nervous system felt so overwhelmed it developed the ability to shut down. This can happen when fear triggers the fight/flight response in the nervous system and a person does not have the ability to run or fight and so can only freeze. In most cases children do not have the ability to run away from scary situations or to fight for themselves, so freeze responses to early childhood trauma and chronic daily stress are very common.
Research has shown that this freeze response can lead to disassociation and disassociation can be an adaptive and sensible coping strategy. It is a way to survive. 1
Like all so called mental health issues, disassociation is experienced on a scale. Disassociation in its most extreme leads to multiple personality disorder and amnesia. It can be much more subtle than that too. Disassociation can happen for anyone – you certainly don’t need a history of abuse or any major trauma. Everyone probably has experienced it to some extent. You know that moment when you are driving the car and realise you are almost home, yet you don’t remember taking the turn on the road or driving past landmarks. Well that is a sort of disassociation. For those minutes we are not present in our bodies, in our cars, in the present moment. It’s like we are off somewhere else altogether.
My experience of disassociation caused at times mental confusion, forgetfulness, loneliness, alienation, an inability to pay attention to detail, a sense of not being real, a numbness in my body, a disconnection from my emotions, a disconnection from others and from the natural world.
As I got older and had the ability to walk away from scary things or fight for myself, or choose what to do and where to go, I didn’t need this strategy anymore and it no longer served me but I could not simply turn it off. It was so ingrained a way of being it felt like it was me.
I know a lot of people reading this will see themselves in these words and to you I say that this is not who you are and it is something that can heal. Therapy, meditation and other tools helped me locate a deeper self and create space between my deeper sense of beingness and the self that grew with these disassociative tendencies. In that space I found the possibility for change.
Now at 40, a mother and a therapist I see so clearly the great sensitivity of all children and the deep needs we all have for safety, nurturance and calm confident holding. I try to provide this for my daughter, for the child within myself and for my clients and loved ones. I think perhaps most of us could do with more gentleness, compassion, kindness and slow calm presence. The world and other people may not often meet these needs but as adults at least we can have the intention to give this to ourselves as much as we possibly can.
As a child in order to feel safe I needed slowness, space, quietness, time in nature. Often my nervous system was overwhelmed with sound and stimulation, I found the busy, noisy environment I grew up in constantly stressful. I continued to recreate the stress for many years as a young adult, keeping busy, avoiding quietness and calm. Now I have created a home and life-style for myself that meet my needs rather than feeds my trauma. I invite you to think about what you might have needed as a child to feel safer and calmer and see how you might give this to yourself now.
The ability to feel safe is paramount when we are working with trauma. When we feel safe enough the frozen places begin to thaw. We feel the pain we didn’t feel then along with the joy, love and aliveness that got frozen too. It is not an easy path, and it is not quick. It is a gradual coming back to life and it is most definitely worth it. To be fully alive, vibrant, engaged in the world, able to feel joy and love we must feel the pain and suffering too. My way to numb that was to disassociate, for others it’s other addictions (substances or behaviors) which help us to not feel. No matter what our coping strategies are or what we have experienced it is possible to feel what we didn’t feel then and come back to life again. It is always an option.
The first step in this recovery is recognising that yes I am in pain, yes I am numbing in some way and yes I do want to heal. The second step is realising we need help. I think professional help, a good therapist for example is essential if we are trying to heal trauma because trauma always sucks us back in time after time as the nervous system tries to complete its cycling. Trauma is like quick sand, really hard to get out of without someone on the other side holding a rope. I have had a lot of support from professionals and friends over the years. I could not do this healing alone. No one can. We need support, guidance, a loving skilful other. It’s important we allow ourselves to reach out and seek the support we need. This is one of the most loving things we as adults can do for the hurt children within ourselves. We can find the people who can hold a caring space for us as we learn to care for ourselves.
1International society for the study of trauma and disassociation