I talk a lot about dissociation, at least I do on my Instagram account. I talk about it a lot because it is such a huge part of my own survival story and how I have lived most of my life to this point.
I have a very intimate connection with dissociation and the more I experience it the more I gain perspective on just how amazing this protection is and how much I can learn about myself as I move through it.
It Isn’t something I view as a negative anymore, rather – it serves a purpose and once I began to embrace it, it became a powerful catalyst for my healing.
20 Plus Years of Dissociation
It wasn’t until I began healing that I learned what dissociation is and began to understand how big a part of my survival it was. Even now as I write this I am still in the active process of unlocking and reconciling just how disconnected I was from myself as a child.
But the 20 years that I speak of are not those from childhood; no I’m talking about the 20 years of my adult life that I lived and raised a child through, while in a state of complete disconnection from my True Self and the childhood I came from.
In those 20 pulse years I never forgot, but I never remembered either.
I made choices based on my trauma, stayed in relationships based on my trauma, and compromised myself over and over again because of my trauma.
I told my story to a number of therapists over a 10-15 year span and never once realized its magnitude or stepped up to open the actual door to begin my healing journey.
I wasn’t in a safe place, I didn’t have the necessary support, and honestly – I just was not ready, nor did I have the capacity to move through and face my own realities.
I was 37 years old when my journey finally began.
Awareness Holds No Punches
As I began to heal, I first sought out and absorbed as much information as I could about Complex PTSD and childhood trauma, I began learning the language of trauma and trauma healing, I explored the concepts and tried to intellectualize how trauma affected me and my life.
It was inevitable as I began exploring this new world of information that my age and perspective would put me face to face with reconciling what I knew to be true with the narrative I had created for myself in order to carry my childhood silently for so long.
Self-awareness could not be avoided as I started my healing. It was a natural evolution as I began to truly explore myself and process my childhood experiences.
I found that in the beginning (when I still felt ill equipped to handle my trauma) developing self-awareness of my responses was brutal. It caused my inner critic to activate and get mean. I was not so kind to myself in those early stages of my healing journey.
Learning Self-Compassion is a post for another day.
My First Major Dissociative Episode With Full Awareness
It was the fall of 2017, I was about eight months into my healing journey and my trauma anniversaires were looming. It was the first time in my entire life that this series of dates has ever meant anything to me and now suddenly I was disgustingly aware of them.
Lucky me (sarcasm) I have a small handful of events and dates that all land within about 10 days of each other. It’s nice to get them all out of the way in one fell swoop but it packs quite a punch to take them all on at once as well.
Moving through trauma anniversaries for the first time with full awareness is some heavy shit. Period.
I did my best to make a plan with my therapist, but I had limited practice at self-care and I was far more aware of what I couldn’t control at this point in my healing, than what I could.
I spiraled into what felt like the longest episode of dissociation I have ever experienced – but really it was just the first one that I was fully aware of.
I was tired, I was over it, I didn’t want to cry anymore, I wanted the flashbacks to stop, I just didn’t have the energy. So I checked out, I shut down, and I only did what was absolutely necessary each day.
I couldn’t connect with my family, I couldn’t connect with my home, or my friends – I went to work and I came home to the couch. It lasted nearly 5 months before I was able to say I felt the weight lifting and life coming back into color.
And Then it Happened Again, and Again
It only took a couple months before another major event happened that triggered another episode of dissociation. However, I cannot remember as much about the details of the second or how long it lasted.
I do remember it didn’t last as long as the first.
I also remember how frustrated I was to find myself back in dissociation, unable and unsure of how to make it stop. I don’t like feeling disconnected, not then and not now. I became upset with myself for not seeing it coming. I criticize myself for my inability to turn it off since I knew what was going on – I just wanted to get back to life.
And eventually I did.
Until it happened again. My anger and frustration close behind and ready to admonish me for regression when I just wanted to heal and get it over with.
It took me many of these cycles through dissociation over the course of a couple years before I began to recognize truly how protective and powerful my dissociation was.
This is when I began to see this new path in my healing.
Dissociation Protects Me
First it took me developing a new level of understanding and connection to my inner child.
The abuse that I experienced as a child and the lack of safety in my own home and with my family taught me very early on that I could only rely on myself for survival.
But how does a five year old survive sexual abuse? How does a five year old survive a parent who enables an abuser and denies their child’s reality to keep them silent?
As that five year old little girl, I taught my brain how to shut off, and my body how to disconnect..
I learned how to disconnect from my body so that I didn’t feel my grandfather’s hands or taste his mouth. I learned how to disconnect from my emotions because they hurt, they were uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what to do with them. I learned to turn off my thoughts because I couldn’t make sense of my experience.
And then I blamed myself for all of it.
The very reason I begin my healing journey is to undo all of this and find that reconnection to the whole of who I am, because that is the life that I deserve.
However, all of the things that make life amazing, and fulfilling, and full of lessons, are the very things that were dangerous for me as a child.
When I become overstimulated, if I become triggered, if I don’t give myself enough time to recharge as I need, if I don’t keep track of my hyper-vigilance and my need to be productive – I still find that I tend towards dissociation.
But now I approach it differently when it shows up, I lean into it and say hello.
Lean Into Dissociation
If I can give any insight, advice, guidance – whatever you want to call it – here it is:
Dissociation is not a bad thing.
If you find yourself dissociating or already fully checked out, that is okay. Don’t rush to re-connect. Lean into your mind and body’s call to disconnect and explore where it may be coming from.
Have you been actively processing your trauma recently without a break?
Is a major trauma date coming or has it just passed?
Did something happen at work, with a friend, or with a family member that has upset you?
Did you read something?
Did you see something on TV?
Have you experienced new memories?
There are so many reasons our nervous system may perceive a threat and activate into survival mode to protect us. There is nothing wrong with our protective parts and they want the same validation as the parts of us trying to redirect and unlearn these coping skills.
Embrace your dissociation with curiosity and compassion, maybe even take heed of its call for rest – perhaps you need it.
Meet yourself where you are with love and understanding, this is how you will find the tools to shorten episodes of dissociation, to feel not so “disconnected” when cycles happen, and to lengthen the times of connection between episodes.
Dissociation has protected you, be gentle with yourself as you find new ways to cope, to rest, and recharge.
I hope that what I have written helps you begin exploring your dissociation sooner than I did so that you can spend less time feeling frustrated with the cycles of healing and more time embracing all the pieces and experiences of your journey.
Healing doesn’t mean you never dissociate again. Healing means if you do, you take the time to love yourself through whatever it is you are going through. If you are dissociated and aware of it, intentionally practice acts of self-care which may include a day on the couch binge watching a show.
We are not damaged for how we have learned to survive our trauma. We are not broken because we cannot “figure it out”fast enough. Healing takes as long as you need it to take.
You will learn to rest without guilt, you will learn how to find connection even as your mind and body wishes to disconnect. These things all come as you heal, I found that it truly is the natural order of things and the pieces all connect if you allow them too.
On goes the journey.