Notes on dissociation

May 21, 2019

Your body is constantly and prominently on display. People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body, whatever that truth might be. (Roxane Gay – Hunger: A Memoir of (my) Body)

The truth of my body is a different truth. It’s a story of disconnect, and dissociation. Of at times, not feeling like I even have a body at all. Dissociation and dissociative states are hard to explain to those who have never experienced them. The closest analogy I have ever been able to find is one where you are driving home and when you reach your destination you realise you don’t recall the journey; a sense that you made it on a degree of auto-pilot. But this fails to capture two key elements of an episode of dissociation for me. First, it doesn’t capture the level or terror and fear that often follows a period of vanishing, and secondly it also misses the brains ability to do it at very key moments as a survival tactic.

The sense of fear that comes after, manifests for me as a kind of ‘deer in headlights’ feeling. Something is wrong, but my body is so filled with adrenaline that I cannot find the words to explain what is wrong. There are no words because there is no conscious memory. There is a before, and an after, and a chunk of time in the middle which is missing. And the coming to, the sense of being ‘back in the real world’, is disorientating and scary in itself. There’s almost a drunkenness about it, a sense of being, and not quite being all at once. That feeling you have when you wake before you’re fully aware of morning. It’s over, and it’s not over, all at the same time. Often I feel physically sick, and like I need to get out of whatever room I am in as quickly as I can. 

The theme of it being over and not over, of being and not being, are hardly surprising given dissociation often comes as a result of experiencing abuse. Another thing which is over, and never really over. What’s been done cannot be undone, and as a result lives are changed and shaped forever. Likewise a survivors’ sense of self, of being in the world, is altered in a way that cannot be adequately captured in words. Who I am cannot be disentangled from the things which happened to me. They are not the all of me, but they are a part of me.

Being a survivor in many ways echoes Matt Haig’s writing on experience depression

It’s perhaps only more recently I have begun to realise that the dissociation creeps. How there are times when I have vanished without even knowing it. Most recently I was recounting a film I had watched with my wife, and she expressed difficulty in watching someone die after being trampled by a horse. I, on the other hand, had no recollection this scene had even taken place. My conscious mind blocked it as something too painful to witness or recount. And that adds to the fear, because it makes you begin to question your sense of reality. How many other moments have I missed without even knowing it?

In my 20s I developed tools to bring myself back from dissociative states, in the form of self-injury.  The physical pain of injuring myself would ground me in reality. But this too leaves an assumed narrative on my body which is not my truth. It assumes pain and a lack of coping, rather than a narrative of survival. The current day rhetoric around self-injury is one of harm and damage; my use of the phrase self-injury as opposed to self-harm is therefore deliberate and important. Injury refers to damage while harm refers to suffering, and my behaviour was a way to alleviate rather than cause suffering.

My body, and my truth feel hard to bear. They are hard for me to write about, and hard for people to know. It is a body which begs questions with a secret map of my life written on my skin, but the questions are too hard and too invasive for most to ask. At times, they are question too hard to answer. The answer is not simple nor linear, it is a complex web of experiences and survival, a being in the world shaped by experiences I would rather forget. And yet in doing so, I deny a part of me, and I deny my truth.