When Bea asked me “Are you still here?” during that first therapy session, I thought she was nuts. Then, she began to talk to me, little by little about dissociation. What is dissociation? The dictionary defines it as the disconnection or separation of something from something else or the state of being disconnected, and separation of normally related mental processes, resulting in one group functioning independently from the rest, leading in extreme cases to disorders such as multiple personality. Everyone dissociates. If you have ever driven home after a long day at work and not remembered the drive home, that is dissociation. That is the “normal” end of dissociation.
When people experience trauma, one reaction they can have is to dissociate. It is a defense mechanism. For me, dissociation feels like I “live” in my head, and am disconnected from my body. It’s as if there is a room in my head, with glass doors so that I can see and be aware of what is going on around me and function very well– but everything is a bit dulled down. I am almost always a bit dissociated, and this is my normal level of dissociation. There are sheer curtains, and heavy curtains on my glass doors, and a closet in the room in my head. I can close either set of curtains or go hide in that closet. Of course this was all mostly unconscious for most of my life, and it took me a while to accept that I dissociate. Once I accepted it, I was able to describe to myself and Bea how my system worked.
I first was willing to accept dissociation, when I told Bea the ending of my abusive relationship. I’m going to share the same details I shared with her, I will place anything that may be triggering to other survivors is italics.
I was in the shower. I was hiding from him, I thought I had locked the door. I don’t remember why I was hiding. He came in the bathroom, and he was mad. He was scary, he had that look on his face. I was frozen. He shoved me threw the shower door. My apartment at the time had a glass shower door, and when he shoved me into it, I went right through. Glass shattered everywhere, and I landed on my face. Bea asked me at this point if he was yelling, but I didn’t remember if he was yelling, in fact my memory is silent. The next thing I remember is being dragged into the hallway, and then my memory is blank until I am in my bed. I have some specific memories of being in my bed with him, but I’m not at a point where I can talk about, write about, or even really “look” at those memories. I do remember that there was blood on my brand new pink sheets and I was really ticked off about that. I told Bea that, and I said, “Isn’t that strange? I remember that stupid detail, but not the big stuff?” She told me that was normal. He eventually became bored with me, like he always did, and left. I laid in bed for a while, just frozen. Then I called a friend, and I left. I never went back.
It was with that memory that Bea was able to to explain dissociation to me. She was able to normalize the memory gaps and the small insignificant details I remembered. She explained it as a defense, as what happened was so traumatic my mind split the memory to make it “safer”. This is why I have no sound in this memory, this is why there are missing parts, this is why there are insignificant things I remember. It is a normal reaction to abnormal events.
It still took me a while to even begin to connect the dissociation with that particular memory to my everyday life. When I did, I was scared, worried, embarrassed, I wondered if I was going crazy. I also doubted that a person could dissociate that way. After all, wasn’t dissociation being completely not here, not functioning? I emailed Bea, asking if a person could be dissociated from their body all the time and still be functioning. She told me that yes, it was completely possible for a person to dissociate in the way I was describing. And that was when I began to admit to myself that I dissociate. Now, I have a way to describe it, and I’m not so embarrassed. I will easily tell Bea when I’m “not here” or when our last session is hazy because I was not really present. I’m also learning grounding techniques. That’s just a fancy way of saying things you can do to help you stay in the present. But that is a whole different blog post.