Before we begin, let’s define dissociation. If you look in the dictionary, you’ll find “Disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity.”
Dissociation is a way for trauma patients to disconnect. It’s essentially what people mean when they say “zone out.” In my opinion, we all dissociate at one time or another in our lives. Until recently, I didn’t realize I dissociated. Whenever I read of dissociation, I was inundated with “out of body experiences.” This is not how I experience dissociation. In fact, I’ve never had an out of body experience where I’m seeing myself from an outside perspective. Dissociation is a side effect of trauma. It’s not to be confused with dissociative identity disorder (DID). While some people certainly have both, not all trauma survivors will develop DID.
Why do we dissociate? We dissociate for a variety of reasons. People who experienced trauma dissociate as a way to self-protect. Most trauma survivors were powerless and helpless, so they learn to disconnect from themselves and reality. Dissociation is way of self-preservation. In my case, I learned this from a very young age. As a child, I was unable to physically leave my environment, but my mind was able to take flight. And it did.
So how do I experience dissociation? The primary way I dissociate is by daydreaming. This seems pretty normal, but it’s not “normal” when it happens often. My mind takes me to intricate fantasy lands. My coworkers will often ask how I looked so “awake” at a boring work meeting. My response is always “I was at Narnia,” or “I was at Hogwarts.” The reaction is typically a smile. In reality, that’s truly what is happening. My mind takes me away into a place of make believe. This can be a place such as Narnia or Hogwarts or one of my making. Until recently, I’ve wondered in silence as to why I did this while wondering if others did this as well.
The second way I dissociate is by letting my mind wander. This is a bit different than day dreaming. This tends to happen as I’m in the middle of conversations, doing homework, watching tv, or even reading a book. I’ll be in the middle of the activity, and next thing I know, I’m gone. I’m elsewhere. My mind is elsewhere. This is especially awkward in conversations. Most of the time, I can come back and catch up. A lot of the times, I have to rewind the audible book, movie, or show. Just yesterday, I was listening to a recording that I had to rewind 6 times. It can be a real problem.
The third way I dissociate is by not being able to recall information. I’ve spoken on this before, but I can’t recall much at all. My main drive in seeking out therapy was to regain some memories. Right now, it’s emptiness. At times, I get whispers of something, but as I try to focus, I lose it.
I’m sure there are other ways in which I dissociate. These are the ones I’ve identified thus far. Being aware of this has been very helpful. I’ll be following up this post with a post on how I ground myself into reality.
*As a reminder, I’m not a licensed mental health professional. This is being written from my perspective as someone going through this. If you need professional assistance, please reach out to a mental health professional.