The soul cannot forgive until it
is restored to wholeness and health.
In the absence of love - how can one forgive?

With an abundance of love, starting with one's self,
forgiveness becomes a viable opportunity.
-Nancy Richards

Monday, December 29, 2008

Dealing with Dissociation

A fellow survivor recently asked me how I dealt with my dissociation. I thought I would share my answer here. Of course, this is just an outline for a very complicated process:

It took a number of years for me to get a handle on my dissociation. The first step was to simply become aware that I dissociated.

Because I had dissociated since I was a child, the emotional disconnect felt so normal to me that I didn't even know that I experienced "altered states" until a therapist pointed it out to me.

After my counselor helped me identify times when I dissociated, I learned that it had a certain recognizable "quality," just like a dream has a familiar feel to it.

The clinical definition of dissociation is a disturbance or alteration in the normally integrative functions of identity, memory, or consciousness. In children, this may occur following physical abuse or trauma.

Most abuse survivors I have talked to have said that they have trouble "feeling," or that they have become "numb." Dissociation can manifest itself to many different degrees and in many different fashions; therefore, it can simply mean an inability to "feel." For me, when the pain became "too much," I became "trance like." My gaze became transfixed to one unknown spot and I disconnected from my feelings and surroundings. I could hear what was going on around me, but I couldn't "respond" to words, noises, or actions, because my emotional self "disappeared."

When I was a child, dissociation "saved my life." It was my survival tactic. If I had to feel that which was unbearable and unending, I would have most likely gone insane. Dissociation protected my sanity at a time when I had no one to help me.

Long after I grew up, I learned that the very mechanism that saved me as a child, harmed me as an adult. I couldn't protect myself when I was young, but I could and should as an adult.

I often stayed in "harmful" situations because I unknowingly dissociated rather than reacting to pain and safe-guarding my own well-being. If we listen closely, pain is a useful resource for protecting ourselves.

Once I realized that I did indeed dissociate, that the "emotional absences" were harmful to me, and that they prevented me from healing, I made a concerted effort to "re-wire" my responses. This of course takes a great deal of time.

Whenever I felt the "quality" that comes with dissociation, I began to "pull" myself out. I shifted my eyes away from that far off "blank stare," and forced myself to remain present with my surroundings. If I was with someone safe, that meant saying, "I'm struggling with keeping myself present and not dissociating."

If I was not with someone safe, that meant leaving or re-directing myself by whatever means necessary to "stay present." I'd also like to note that my symptoms of dissociation and PTSD often overlapped as I was trying to deal with my childhood abuse.

Learning to recognize and prevent these "trances" consistently took a very long time. In this way, I learned to redirected myself from dissociating, and stay present with what was happening, but I didn't yet learn to "hold" my own feelings.

It took a great deal of therapy to create an environment safe enough to "hold" my feelings and to resolve them with self-compassion and love. At first, I was so out of my comfort zone, I felt like I was feeling my away around in the dark. I kept asking my therapist, "Is it normal to feel this way?" I had no frame of reference.

Just like with any healing, we don't just turn on a switch and suddenly "feel" everything. It would be too much. Our psyche can only take on so much pain at once and our minds guide us through the process in baby steps as we are ready to take on more feelings. (See "What? I Can Feel This?")

Sometimes, it felt like I would never get to the other side, but I did, and it feels more rewarding than I ever thought possible.


Anonymous said...

I've been doing a lot of dissociating again lately, just like I did as a child. Do you think that maybe I'm 'moving too fast' with therapy and support group? You went through all of this too, so maybe you can see it more clearly?

Faith Hoffen

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

Hi Faith,

I'm sorry to hear that you are dissociating a great deal lately.

I think you should talk to your therapist about the increase and see what your counselor thinks with regard to your individual circumstances.

Sometimes we can dissociate when we are moving too fast, and sometimes we can dissociate just because it is our learned survival mechanism when we relive childhood type pain. I think a professional who is working with you would be best to help you determine the appropriate course.

In my case, I dissociated during a period of my therapy not because I was moving too fast, but because we were touching on an area that was too painful and I reverted to my childhood survival tactics. My therapist used the opportunity to create a safe environment for me to "stay present" with my emotions.

All my best,

Marj aka Thriver said...

For myself, I've noticed that if I can focus on a tree, a flower (something of beauty or out in nature seems to work well) I can snap out of that trance state. This is a great post--one that would be excellent for THE BLOG CARNIVAL AGAINST CHILD ABUSE.

Actually, I'd really love it if you would host an edition of the blog carnival. I'm trying to keep it alive, but I don't want to keep hosting it at my own blog. Would you be willing? Let me know as soon as you can and thanks for considering.

alexis91 said...

Hey my name is Joe, I didnt even know the name of what I had was dissociation until i read something about it a while back. It described what was going on with me so well. In short my story is that growing up my father would always take his anger out on me no matter what issues he had he would beat me really bad, and he would also tell me I was worthless and all kind of hurtful things. The way i delt with it growing up was to pretend it never happened and force a sense of numbness/false happiness. Around the time that i was a freshman in high school my coaches and teachers would always tell me to snap out of it, and my soccer coach would call me the thousand yard stare guy. But what is worse is that now that im 20 and working i seem to daze off unknowingly and it interferes with my work, with my life and my socializing with people. No matter where i am or doing i seem to go into another world where i dont even know what im really thinking about.Idk how to make it stop, and i need it to because i plan on joining the army soon and i cant have please help me, and tell me how i can fix myself.

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

Hi Joe,

Thank you for sharing your "short story."

How horrible that your father took out his anger on you by physically and emotionally beating you!

Dissociation saved your life. Kudos to the "little you" who figured out how to survive!

I think it is time to thank the "little guy" for saving your life, and let him know that you can "take it from here."

Something I did was to talk to my "inner child." I thanked her; I told her I would acknowledge her pain, and keep her safe, and it was time for me take care of her, rather than letting her take care of me.

I also did everything I outlined in my post.

Unfortunately, there is no "quick fix." It all takes time, but you can get there. Therapy was the best help I ever received.

Again, thank you for sharing.

Take care on your continued journey!


Christin said...

This is gorgeous!

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

Thank you!

vlc1 said...

Hi my name is Mo and I had no idea what dissociation was until earlier this year even though I'd suffered from it for years. I have PTSD from sexual abuse as a child and I'm not sure when i started to dissociate because there was a large amout of physical abuse as well. As a child I can remember just becoming numb. My first dissociation as an adult began ten years ago that was triggered by the smell of musky wet wood. I completely dissociated for abut a week before I was brought back to reality. I have been on a healing journey for a long time now but about every two years i continue to dissociate. I try to stop it but I haven't been able to so far. I am in counseling and I'm just reaching out to anyone who has tried different things to help with this condition. Thank you in advance for your help.

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

Hello vic1,
Thank you for your comment. I'm sorry you are having a rough patch with dissociation. I know how tough it is to deal with PTSD and dissociation.

I dealt with ongoing PTSD and dissociation until I had EMDR therapy. I found that I kept getting re-traumatized with talk therapy, but EMDR kept me calm and present enough to reprocess old trauma and to resolve the pain. I asked my former therapist for a referral to a good therapist well trained in EMDR trauma therapy because it is very important to work with someone very skilled.

I think we all have to find what works for us.

All my best on your continued journey,

Anonymous said...

This is a good blog. I suffer from this. It takes the form of spending large chunks of time reconstructing the past in my mind, internet usage, driving, and staring at the floor in therapy. Ahhh, I am so over this already. It is such a painful experience and I am feeling so hopeless about my life. I have been in treatment for a long time. I get so confused though, childhood abuse is no joke, and it actually gets me really upset to think that this is an issue that exists in the world. I am glad to hear that there is a way through, I have been working on this for years. I don't take prescription drugs so it really is for me a lot of mental strength and it is such hard work. I really long to be able to heal my past and actually be able to construct the story without dissociating in doing so!! Have you been able to reconstruct??

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

Hello Anonymous,

My heart goes out to you! I remember the pain of being in the "thick of it." Yes, I have been able to reconstruct and I have not dissociated for many years.

Your comment, "I really long to be able to heal my past and actually be able to construct the story without dissociating in doing so!!" really struck me.

I found EMDR therapy to be the most helpful. EMDR works very effectively to enable the client to think about a traumatic experience and process it without experiencing the trauma. I was skeptical at first but it really worked for me. I have recommended it to others with similar results. You can find more information about EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) by googling EMDR. If you choose to try this therapy, it is important to find a therapist who is specifically trained in EMDR and trauma therapy.

Thank you for your comments.

My best to you on your continued journey.


Erin said...

Hi! Thanks so much for taking the time to describe this! I have shades of PTSD and dissociate, as well. Reading about the steps you went through really helps me clarify the things to focus on and expect (and eliminate!) That middle ground of being weirded out b/c you don't already KNOW this, feeling like you are brand-spanking new to all this is really daunting sometimes. Thanks for the encouragement that it does take a long time, and not to beat yourself up over that... that is very helpful to me. The part that really spoke to me was how important it is to find a "safe" space to work through this. I don't have any safe people in my life as yet... but I am committed to making that for myself at home. It's going well (which is hard for me to say LOL), and you sharing your experiences really helps a lot! Thank you so much, the world needs people like you, to pass it on!!! Blessings, - Erin

AbuseAndForgiveness said...

Hi Erin,
You are so welcome! I always like to hear when the sharing of my experiences helps others!

Yes, it is important and often difficult to find safe places. I'm glad you are starting the process at home!

Take care and blessings to you too!