Dissociative Disorders : How I cut off from reality and why?
Updated: Jul 6
Suffering from a dissociative disorder can be a little scary at times, if you don't understand what and/or why it is happening. I suffer from Complex PTSD with dissociative subtype symptoms. Over the years I've learned why this happens and when it started. In this article I'd like to try and explain what it is like, how I experience it and why it happens - so you may gain a better understanding of the condition. This might help you better understand your own dissociative symptoms or that of a loved one.
If you've never heard of, or read about Dissociative Disorders: here's just a little rundown of what it is and the different types that exist today. Dissociative Disorders are mental disorders that causes one to experience a disconnect from emotions, thoughts, surroundings, reality and sometimes identity. If you look up the word 'dissociation' on Google, you'll get this definition: "The action of disconnecting or separating or the state of being disconnected."
In psychiatric terms the definition looks more like this: "Dissociative disorders are characterized by a disruption of and/or discontinuity in the normal integration of consciousness, memory, identity, emotion, perception, body representation, motor control, and behavior. Dissociative symptoms can potentially disrupt every area of psychological functioning." (As per the DSM-V)
The different types of Dissociative Disorders:
Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) : Also known as Multiple Personality Disorder. It's described as a disruption of identity characterized by two or more identity states. If you've watched the movie 'Split', James McAvoy's character suffers from DID. People with DID are usually and unfortunately wrongfully portrayed as aggressive and dangerous. This is not always the case. A split in personality usually occurs as a result of your brain trying to protect you from severe repetitive trauma. This results in the creation of a number of 'alters'. These alters are as unique and distinct as each of us and differ from one another in age, personality, levels of IQ, health and more. I'm absolutely fascinated by DID and if you'd like to watch an EXTRAORDINARY account of an amazing woman with over 2500 different alters who fought to put her father in jail, many years after he had brutally abused her as a child, you can watch the story HERE.
Dissociative Amnesia: This occurs when an individual is unable to recall certain autobiographical information, usually of a traumatic event. The inability to recall these memories is inconsistent with what is considered to me 'ordinary' forgetting'. It's basically when your brain blocks out traumatic events that might be too painful for you to remember.
Depersonalization/ Derealization Disorder: Depersonalization is characterized as the experience of 'being outside of yourself'. You feel detached from your body, thoughts, emotions, sensations or actions. You can have a distorted sense of time, emotional or physical numbing and absent from 'self'. Derealization is when you feel detached from your surroundings. E.g. people or objects may seem unreal. Everything may seem a bit foggy or dreamlike.
I suffer from Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder.
As a result of ongoing, repetitive trauma throughout my formative years and beyond, I suffer from Complex-PTSD, which in turn has caused me to struggle with emotional regulation from a very young age. That coupled with severe Social Phobia lead my brain to associate emotions with pain.
Struggling with emotional regulation basically means I either cut off from my emotions completely, or I feel EVERYTHING. It's all or nothing. There's no balance. Being an empath, when I say I feel EVERYTHING - I literally mean everything. It's a difficult concept to understand if you've never experienced it. Best I can describe it: Imagine standing in a room with a group of people who are having a very heated argument and you can feel each of their emotions, their anger, their frustration, their pain. Everything! It's extremely overwhelming - and coupled with social anxiety; it's downright unbearable. Which is why my brain learned how to dissociate and detach from emotion.
What it feels like:
For me, dissociating can happen either consciously or unconsciously. Sometimes I'll only realize that I'm having a dissociative episode a day or two into the episode, by way of suddenly realizing my cat doesn't look 'real' (derealization). I then become conscious of the fact that I am experiencing a dissociative episode and then try to figure out 'why'? What was the trigger for the episode? I also have a warped sense of time because of episodes of depersonalization. To me it feels like a year has gone by, when it's only been a month, for example. This is kind of normal for me so I'm used to it.
When I go through derealization, it's like the world slows down a bit. Everything seems a bit fuzzy and it's like you're not part of the world. You're just observing. This happened to me the last time I was planning to commit suicide due to being emotionally overwhelmed by being deceived by my partner. Because I associate emotions with pain (Not all the time, but subconsciously most of the time), something like a partner cheating would push me into emotional overload - and then dissociation happens automatically. I remember having lunch that afternoon at a restaurant, looking at the people around me and feeling like I'm an outsider looking in on a movie. A bit like 'the ghost from Christmas past'. You're there, but no one can see you. Detached from emotion, everything around you seems fuzzy, time slows down and it feels like you're just on autopilot. I remember giving the waitress a ridiculously large tip. That's what you do when you're suicidal - you give everything away. Unfortunately now when I go to that same restaurant everyone wants to serve me because I'm the 'big tipper'. LoL.
Selective/ conscious dissociation:
I can also consciously or selectively dissociate. Over many years of practice I have taught myself how to literally switch off my emotions when they become too overwhelming for me to handle. How I do this might sound strange but - I literally imagine the limbic system in my brain 'shutting off' sending out signals for experiencing emotion. It's a defense mechanism and trauma response and not always very healthy. So how do I work on dealing with this trauma response in a healthier way?
Exposure therapy. Personally, I'm a big fan of exposure therapy (it's doesn't work for everyone) as I've been submitting myself to it since I was a child. Basically, I put aside a few minutes everyday in which I allow myself to experience emotion. (I do not suggest you do this without the help of a therapist if you've never done it before)
Even though I have a scientific, rational mind, as a coach and someone who is deeply spiritual I understand that it is important to be able to 'work through' one's emotions. Otherwise you just create blockages or pack them neatly away in boxes that will just fall apart later in life.
So I firstly choose a traumatic memory I want to spend some time working on. I then use something that will invoke an emotional response coupled with that memory (this could be a photograph, song, focusing on the details of that memory) - I then allow myself to fully feel whatever emotions come up. Whether it be anger or sadness or ugly crying, I just go with it. Then, when it becomes too overwhelming, I shut it off until the next time. This can be a very overwhelming exercise, which is why I suggest you not try it on your own as it could potentially become too overwhelming if you are someone who struggles with emotional regulation.
Suffering from a Dissociative Disorder does not necessarily make you an unpredictable or scary person. It is also not scary for me when I go through the experience because I understand why it happens and I have learned to be able to control it better over the years.
I hope this information has been somewhat insightful. If you have any questions regarding Dissociative Disorders, please feel free to get in contact via the contact page or you can email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org