When I flipped the switch

This post contains memories of sexual abuse. It’s not extremely detailed, as my memory is not all there, and I have a hard time with most of the actual words, but it does tell the story of what happened when I flipped the switch in the boyfriend. It could be triggering, so please be careful and take care of yourself when reading.

Traffic is terrible today, and of course I’m running late. I’m running late because I overslept. I never oversleep. But today I overslept. Which means I fell asleep at 4:30am and didn’t wake up until 7:40– twenty minutes before my appointment with Bea. Luckily when I sent a frantic text message, she was still able to see me.

It’s 8:40 when I finally arrive, ten minutes after I had said I would be there. I rush up the stairs, and find Bea sitting calmly, not stressed or upset in the least.

Taking my boots off outside her office, I say, “I am so, so sorry. Traffic was terrible, I can’t believe I overslept.” I’m still shaking my head as I walk into the office and set my things down on the couch next to me.

“It’s okay. I’m just happy you overslept. Because that means you were sleeping.” Bea smiles at me. She means this. I think she might be going insane. Maybe my craziness is rubbing off on her.

“No. No it’s not okay. I don’t oversleep. I never oversleep. I don’t even need to set an alarm. I should have set an alarm. I’m really, really sorry.”

“It’s really okay. It worked out. I was still able to see you, and you slept.”

“I know, but I should have been on time. You shouldn’t have to change your schedule because of me. I had to text Kris and see if we could move yoga back, too. This is just so not okay,” I tell her. I’m curled up on the couch, trying to relax, to calm down, but I can’t. I’m tense because I’ve screwed up. I’ve broken several cardinal rules of mine– don’t be late, don’t make others have to accommodate me, and never, ever oversleep.

“There’s that ‘should’ again. Was Kris able to be flexible?” Bea asks. She’s still smiling.

“Yeah, she said it’s fine, and she’ll see me at 11:00am. But people shouldn’t have to be flexible for me.” I sigh. I’m so angry with myself.

“Why not? If she and I can be flexible with the time, and everything worked out, and no one is upset or hurt by this, why isn’t it okay?”

I shrug. “I don’t know. It just isn’t.”

“Can you see that I’m not upset? That I’m happy you slept?” Bea takes a drink of her tea, and looks at me.

I nod. I can tell she is not upset, and I believe she is happy I slept. Not thinking about it, I reach up to adjust my ponytail that I’d hastily thrown my hair into, and laugh. “Well, here’s my hair. Not straightened, or blown dry, or even having the curls fixed. Just my mess of hair.” My hair is crazy. It’s a spiral curl mess of a lions mane, huge and untamable. I didn’t have time this morning to fix the curls or tame it, so it’s thrown in a side pony, that just touches my shoulders. When it’s straightened, my hair reaches the middle of my back.

Bea laughs with me. “It’s pretty. My daughter’s hair curled like that when she was younger, but the older she gets the less curl she has.”

I shake my head. “It drives me crazy. But I guess the worst thing that happened today is I had to leave my hair like this.”

Bea nods at me. “It’s not so bad, then?”

I grudgingly agree. “It’s not so bad. Everything managed to work out.”

“And I’m still just so glad you were sleeping.”

I sigh. “So, I know I’m not supposed to talk about Kat anymore, but she burned her hand on the fireplace. She might bring it up tomorrow, I don’t know. But it was pretty bad.”

“We can talk about Kat; and I would find it curious if you hadn’t brought this up,” Bea tells me, and then she asks what happened.

I tell her how Kat had touched the wood burning stove, which was really strange because she has always been so careful about hot things and followed the no touching rule. I tell her how I was so proud that Kat used other coping skills outside of her pacifier– which we are working on not using during the day– and how she asked for things she needed. I explain how awful I felt, and how we cuddled and how I gave her the new board games I had ordered for ABA early, and the special teddy bear tea party we had, and how brave Kat had been.

“You handled that all so well,” Bea says, after hearing the whole story.

“Thanks.” I take a drink of my chai tea (no milk, just tea) and smile. “It was rough. But she seemed okay by bedtime.”

We pause for a minute, drinking tea and I think about what we said we would talk about this time around.

“So….last time we had said we would continue with the story of the boyfriend. We kind of left off on the cusp of things turning bad. Have you thought about the idea that you didn’t flip this switch?” Bea finally breaks the silence, and I immediately curl my knees tighter to my chest and set my tea down.

“No…I did write out the rest of it, though. In case I can’t tell it.” I shrug. This is hard.

“Even though this is hard, I get the sense it’s easier to talk about than Kenny, and it’s easier to find words and put words to what happened,” Bea says softly.

I nod at her. “Yeah. I think so.”

She waits, which is a little unusual for our sessions, but I don’t feel panicked at the silence. Eventually, I start talking. “I slept with him. That was what started it, I think. You know this, already, though.”

“Yes, but I don’t have the story. How it happened, what happened. And, like I said before, we are at a different point now.” We’ve talked about how therapy is not a straight line, that it’s like an onion, peeling back layers and revisiting things happens often.

“We’d gone out, our 3 month anniversary. And we went back to his place, but his roommates had the living room taken over, so we went to his room to watch a movie. Which wasn’t unusual, it wasn’t strange. And, I don’t know……….I don’t know what happened.”

“Was it like things had been progressing and went farther than you intended this time? Maybe going a little farther every time?” Bea prompts me, but she seems a little far away. I’m partly back there, remembering.

I shake my head, bury my face in my knees. “No……” I know what I want to say, but getting the words out is embarrassing and difficult. “I wasn’t one of those girls who did everything but….you know….just so they can claim to technically still be a virgin. I was really waiting. Kissing. That’s it, that’s all I ever did.” I can feel how red my face is, and I’m so thankful I can hide my face. There is no way I could actually look at Bea right now.

“Mmm-hmmm,” Bea says, letting me know she is still listening. “So you were truly waiting.”

“I just….I don’t know. Things went really fast, and too far…I couldn’t stop it, or say no. I don’t know. I don’t know what happened.” My voice is quite, and I can feel the way I felt so stuck and unable to do anything but go along with him. “It was like I was just stuck, I don’t know.”

“Frozen. Was it like being frozen?” Bea asks.

I nod. “A little.”

“I’m not surprised, with your history. Whether you were thinking about it, acknowledging it, or not, that had to be a big trigger for you, it had to be really hard.” Bea’s voice is gentle and understanding.

“I don’t know…..I don’t even remember actually….I mean, it’s just kind of gone. I know what happened…but I don’t really remember it.”

“You probably dissociated. It makes sense, with a trigger like that, how you would dissociate and not really remember what happened.”

“After…I was so upset. So mad at myself, guilty, horrified. It was awful. And he was….happy. Like it was this big deal, such a good thing.” I shake my head, and blink back some tears.

“Did you tell him then, how you felt?” Bea asks.

“No…no. I couldn’t. He was so happy. I couldn’t say anything. It was later, when he came over a few days later, I think. That’s when….that’s when I told him. But you know this story, too.”

“That’s okay. There’s always new things we learn when we tell a memory again. And we are talking about something different, and at a different point now.” Bea sounds so calm, so sure of the fact it’s okay for me to tell the story again.

“It was a Thursday. He came over, we were going out. And we were on the couch, kissing.” I can feel myself shaking, now, because this is getting to the ugly part of the story. “I knew I had to tell him. I should have told him right away. But….I don’t know. I didn’t. We were kissing, it was okay, but then he moved his hands from my hair…..down….I pulled away, started talking. I didn’t think. I said never again, it was a mistake, that it should never have happened. I didn’t think. I was so selfish. I didn’t realize it would hurt his feelings. He argued with me. That he would marry me one day, so it was okay. I said it wasn’t the same as being married, I was waiting. He said a person can’t just take that back. I said I was forgiven, and waiting for marriage now. He said that no good Christian boy would ever want me now, I was tainted, ruined………” I stop talking, try to catch my breath, stop the tears that are falling.

“That really hit you where it hurts. He knew just what to say to hurt you,” Bea says, sympathetically. “I wonder what happened in his life that made him so hurt by what he considered rejection. You found a spot where he was vulnerable, and it likely had nothing to do with you, but with him and his feelings….feeling vulnerable, not being able to handle rejection. It’s my guess that you would have hit this vulnerable spot in him no matter what, at some point. It wasn’t anything you did.”

This is a foreign idea, that it wasn’t me, it was something in him that was unable to handle anything he felt as rejection, and I immediately reject it. “I don’t know. We argued. I was mean, he tried to convince me it was okay to have sex again. He said I had liked it. And I said….” I pause here, upset, shaky. This is where things get fuzzy and hard to talk about. Ugly. Taking a deep breath, I finish my sentence. “I said I didn’t. I didn’t like it. And he slapped me.” Just the words shock me into silence.

“Were you stunned?” Bea asks, and her voice is soft and even.

“I couldn’t believe it. It seemed fake. I don’t know. Just…not my life.” I feel like I’m in a daze. Stunned is a good word, I still feel stunned that he hit me. “He pushed me…..I fell and hit my head on the table…I don’t know….”

“Where were you? Standing?”

“No…no, I was still sitting on the couch. I never moved. I just stayed right there.”

“Okay. A what was next?” Bea asks.

“I….I…there’s a blank space, I don’t know what happened then. I just…it’s not there.”

“Is there anything after that? Something more you remember?” Bea’s voice is quite, kind, calm. She’s okay, which somehow means I can be okay to keep talking.

“I remember being on the other side of the coffee table….near the fireplace. And I…well, I just um…my clothes……” I’m struggling now. I don’t know if I can get through this. The words are hard.

“Were your clothes ripped?”

“No…not on. Not folded. I was so upset they weren’t folded.” I’m sick to my stomach. I don’t know what I’m doing.

“Where was he at?” Bea prompts me.

“I…right there. Touching me…he was going to prove I liked it.” Tears are falling now, and I feel frozen there, and scared.

I think Bea says something to me, maybe asks a question, or says something about his inability to accept rejection. I’m not sure. Maybe she says how scary that had to feel. I’m a little bit not here, lost in my past.

“He…he made a list then. This is when he made a list….” I have to stop talking for a minute, but that’s okay. Bea knows about his list, we’d talked about this before. His list…where he listed out, telling me everything my body was doing, how I was responding to his touch. I cringe. I’m sick to my stomach, and feel like I might throw up. “He said….he said that no…..” I can’t get the words out. I’m incrediably ashamed. And knowing what I know now about my childhood….it’s worse.

“What did he say?” Bea questions, sounding full of compassion.

I shake my head, and we sit in silence for a moment. “He said no virgin acted like I had in bed…that I was a slut…” I break into bigger sobs, now. I’m still so hurt by this, and now knowing I hadn’t been a virgin….well, that adds a whole new layer of hurt.

“I wonder how he even knew that. I feel like he was saying what he knew would hurt you…” I can hear Bea talking, pointing things out to me, putting my memories in a new light. I can’t listen or pay attention though. She doesn’t get it, I did this.

“After….I threw up. And he was nice again…I showered, he got me soup.” The words sound wooden to me. I don’t elaborate, because Bea and I have talked over this part quite bit.

“He normalized it, and made everything more confusing for you.”

“Do you see? Do you get now how I flipped the switch?” I ask her. I feel timid and afraid. I want Bea to understand, but I don’t want her to hate me or think I’m this disgusting slut.

“No matter what you said, or how you guys argued, or what vulnerable spot you poked without meaning to, he didn’t have a right to hurt you like that, he didn’t have the right to rape you.”

I shake my head at her, forcefully. “I never even said no.”
“You said no, very clearly. When you told him it had been a mistake and never could happen again, that was saying no.” Bea insists.

I don’t remember much of the session after that, although I’m sure I argued with her, or possibly shut down. We talk about saying no, his vulnerable spots, how it’s confusing and strange the things you remember and forget. I wonder, and Bea wonders what happened with my clothes; how they were removed, and what happened surrounding that. I say again that I don’t remember, and that I wish I knew.

We end the session with Bea reiterating that he would have flipped eventually, that maybe his sense of rejection made it happen sooner, but that it wasn’t my fault. She talks about how giving up the idea of fault means I have to give up the illusion of having control over this. And she says that on Monday she would like to hear about the next time the switch flipped in him.

“Okay. On Monday,” I agree.

I’m sure we spend a few minutes talking about normal things, light conversation, but I can’t remember what. By the time I call goodbye as I walk downstairs, I feel steady and okay– or at least as okay as I feel these days.

Driving to yoga, Bea’s message about control, and blame and the boyfriend reacting badly to something from his last that made rejection intolerable to him plays in my head, and I turn it over and over.

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Grounding solutions

to my fellow abuse survivors, as always, please read with caution. I have put triggering material in italics to the best of my knowledge.

Bea is talking, but I can’t hear her. Things are too hazy, I’m too far gone to really pay attention to what she is saying. Nothing is okay.

“I have no idea what we have been talking about the last twenty minutes,” I finally manage to say.

Bea looks at me, kindly. She has nothing but compassion on her face and I can barely stand it. “I know. That’s why we need to find grounding techniques that work for you. To help you stay in the present. So it’s not so easy for you to fall into your trauma memories.”

By this point, we have had this conversation many times, in session and in email. I know exactly what happens when we start with the grounding techniques, but I don’t have the words to explain why. Just the idea of starting to “ground” myself at this point is enough to raise my anxiety level. I don’t want to talk about why, I don’t want to say the words.

“Can you tell me what you are thinking?” Bea asks me.

I shake my head no. I don’t want to go there. I can’t say the words. It’s embarrassing. It seems silly.

We sit in silence for a few minutes. She seems comfortable with it. I struggle, picking at my fingers, starting at the floor, scooting back into the corner of the couch as far as possible. Finally, I say, “Ok. I can try to explain…….explain why grounding is scary.”

Bea nods, but she doesn’t say anything. Feeling really stupid, I tell her I think I want to turn around. Bea, being Bea, shows no judgement and simply says, “okay.”

I turn around, and then I start telling one memory of my relationship with my abusive ex-boyfriend. I decided to start with telling the end of the memory, as Bea and I had talked about before I fell down the rabbit hole.

I threw up. I couldn’t help it. Luckily I’m close enough to the tile lining the fireplace in the living room that I manage to turn my head and miss most of the carpet. He’s nice again because he’s proved his point, and so he cleans up the vomit and settles me on the couch with a blanket. He says he going to go get me soup and I mumble something that sounds incoherent to my ears about taking a shower. I could have left then. But I didn’t. He’s being nice again and I’m really confused. And no one can know. So I go to the bathroom. Bea remarks on how extremely confusing that had to be. She seems to understand, even now, how I can’t get it straight in my head.
I take a shower. A long shower. It’s as hot as I can stand it but I think I could boil myself in bleach water and I would still feel dirty. I’m so surprised when, during one of my pauses in telling this story, Bea starts talking and she understands this need to shower, this feeling of never ever getting clean again. I believed no one would ever understand this ever. And she really gets it.I use my room mates soap and shampoo because I ran out earlier in the week. Cucumber melon body wash. Bioloage shampoo. Two smells that still can make me sick. The water gets cold and I sit down. I’m freezing now but I feel stuck, like I can’t move. I got out eventually. Got dressed, put myself to bed. But I don’t remember that.
The very end of the story is he brought me vegetable noodle soup and a movie. A walk to remember. And he was nice. So nice, taking care of me like I was really sick. And I’m more confused. It’s like he is Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Where’s the switch so next time I can flip it back to the nice guy sooner? I don’t remember the movie. I haven’t watched it since, and I spent the night really zoned out, I’m counting down the hours until chem class in the morning. Then I can get out of here for a while.

It takes me a few minutes to collect myself, but I’m surprisingly okay. Of course, I know now that I was pretty dissociated while telling the story, but at the time I didn’t realize that. I managed to share the beginning and the middle of the story with Bea that day, and my grounding struggles began to makes sense to her.

Now, dear reader, some things my therapist was already aware of at this point that you aren’t aware of: I was raised in a very Christian home. I believed in waiting for sex or sexual acts until marriage. I had struggled, off and on, with eating disorders, self harm, OCD, and other behaviors prior to leaving for college. I had been dating the boyfriend for a while, and had made a mistake one night and had slept with him. Okay, now you are mostly up to speed.

My room mate is out. She was always out, even on school nights. My parents were paying the majority of the rent on our apartment because Lindsey was supposed to watch me. But she is hardly around, and I’m glad because we aren’t really friends. She’s a family friend, but that’s it. He comes over, like he does most nights. It hasn’t been very long since that first time we had sex. I don’t have a good timeline in my head for back then, so I don’t know how long. A few days, I think. We’re supposed to go out. Tap room has underage night tonight, and that’s the only night I can go. But first I want to talk. I need to explain that I can’t have sex again. That it was a mistake. That I believe God forgave me, and that I’m going to wait for marriage. He kisses me hello, and we move to the couch. We’re kissing on the couch now and I’m thinking that I should be talking to him but it can wait. But when he moves his hands from my hair down to my chest, I move them, pull back. I start talking. Explaining. I don’t remember what I said. I know it was stupid of me to tell him then. You don’t start making out with your boyfriend and then tell him that you can’t have sex again, that it was a mistake.

He argued with me. He told me that he would marry me one day, so it was ok. He told me that once you do it, it doesn’t matter anymore, you can’t just take it back. I argued back. He smacks me. That’s the first time. Open hand. Across my left cheek and eye. Holy cow, does that hurt. It’s out of nowhere. Why did I think this was going to end up ok? He’s so calm. Not yelling, but mad. Or something. Scary. He’s telling me I liked having sex with him, no good Christian boy is going to want me, I’m a slut. And I still don’t know to keep my mouth shut. I tell him that I didn’t like it. The next I know I’m falling of the couch, my head is hitting my coffee table. And then the next thing I remember is I’m on the other side of the coffee table and my clothes are piled next to me. He’s touching me there. Between my legs. He kept saying he would show me how much I did like it. That he would make me….I can’t say it…type it, write it. I just can’t. I just remember feeling cold and stuck in my head. It was like there was no way this was really happening. I didn’t even think to say “no” or to try to get away. I just laid there. He kept telling me what my body was doing, insisting that I liked it. I felt sick. Nauseas and cold and horrified at what he was saying my body was doing. And then his mouth, tongue between my legs. And then… I can’t say it. I didn’t really know what was happening until he told me. So he was right. It’s like those words are burned into my mind. I can hear it, hear his voice like he’s right here, “see. You are a little slut who likes it. Otherwise you wouldn’t have…..” And I just remember thinking he was right about me. And then I rolled over and threw up.

I tell Bea, then, after that first time, he realized that it upset me. It’s like he got some……pleasure from that. So he would hold me down, and do things, and list out what my body was doing. So I have this list in my head, and it’s everything from how I was breathing to if I moved. So you try to get me to focus on my body and all I can hear is his voice and it’s like I’m back there, just right back there in my nightmare again all over.

Bea, of course, understands. She tells me that this makes perfect sense. She says, “no wonder you have disconnected from your body,” as though I am normal.

We come up with things I can do for grounding. I can chew gum, but I discover that mints work better. I find that naming things I can see help me stay in the present. I find that while smells can help put me back in the present, they can be tricky because of my migraines, so mints and naming what I see and hear are the best techniques I have found.

Talking about talking

for my fellow survivors out there, this post talks about sex, and my opinions/associations with sex at the moment. I have attempted to put triggering material in italics, but please read with caution

As I had decided, I emailed Bea. I told her I wanted to talk about things, that I wished I could explain the flashback I was having in her office, but that I didn’t know how. I told her that so many of my memories of the relationship with the boyfriend had to do with sex, and I couldn’t use the words to tell the memories. I also told her that while I believed she believed she wouldn’t judge me, it seemed more like a nice fairy tale than a true story.

She responded that it seemed as though I was really grappling with trust, and that I was trying to decide if it was safe enough to tell any of these more difficult and scary trauma memories yet. She also acknowledged that it can be painful to talk about sex because it goes against the proper demeanor we set out into the world with each day, and that when there are horrible acts associated with sex it can be unspeakable. She suggested we could talk about sex in general as a way to work up to the other stuff.

I felt like I was testing her; that I would really only know if it was safe to talk to Bea about the boyfriend if I shared a memory, and this memory in particular could help her see why her grounding techniques were more triggering to me, not less. But that was only if I could manage to share it. I wrote her back, stating I felt like the only way to kmow if it was safe was to start talking. I also told her about my inability to talk about sex, and explained that even talking about sex in general would be difficult. I may be a married woman, and I may have a child, but I avoid sex as much as possible. I leave the room when sex scenes come on tv when watching a movie, I skip them in books, or better yet, just avoid the books that would have them in the first place.

Clearly, my anti-sex attitude intrigued Bea. She wrote back with many questions, and two statements. She wanted to know :
when did sex become twisted and bad? it just always was
was it ever a good thing?no
were you ever curious?no. I didn’t want to know about it
were there ever positive feelings towards sex? never. Sex is dirty

Bea suggested that I might tell the memory starting from the end. She said that can be easier sometimes. She said it reaffirms to the person doing the telling that they survived the memory, and that often times, the aftermath or the ending of a memory is less emotionally charged.

She also stated in that same email: One thing to remember–sex gets very complicated because there can be arousal and good sexual feelings associated with horrible things. Bodies react and that can be very shaming and confusing for people.

And that was the statement that sent my world into a tailspin. I didn’t know exactly what she meant, but I’m no dummy, and I had a pretty good idea. I didn’t email her back for a few days, and when I did, I dropped the subject of the boyfriend. I sent her the question that changed everything.

Breathing to be grounded

“I don’t know. I just don’t know,” I’m mumbling, my words can barely be heard over the hum of the air conditioner in Bea’s office.

“What is your breathing like?” She asks me, again. She is ever patient.

I continue to stare at the floor. I can’t tell her. I don’t know. I have no idea what my body is doing. I don’t want to know. The idea of trying to know makes me feel panicked. I can’t do this. I feel frozen, but what I really want to do is run out the door.

Bea is still determined that I learn to recognize some of my body signals and use breathing to ground myself. I’m extremely resistant to this idea, and I can tell this makes her curious, but she hasn’t questioned me, or pushed me on the why yet.

Bea starts explaining the idea of grounding and using breathing to ground oneself. She is demonstrating how to use belly breathing again. I’m doing my best to block out what she is saying. I don’t know exactly why, but everything she is saying is making me want to go far, far away.

I scoot back into the corner of the couch, as far as I can, and scrunch into myself as much as I can. I don’t think of it then, but now, writing this, I wonder what Bea saw, noticed, thought. I hug my knees to my chest, and hide my face in my legs. I make myself as small as I can, and I start to really dissociate. This doesn’t work completely in my favor, though, because as I begin to leave the present, I start to have a flashback. And then I’m shaking, and terrified, and helpless. I’m back in hell.

Bea notices this, and she asks me where I am. “With him,” (him being my abusive ex-boyfriend) I manage to choke out, my voice sounds foreign to my own ears.

She reminds me that I’m safe, that I’m here in her office, that it’s not then. A part of me is aware of this, my flashbacks never take me fully “back”, I always retain some degree of awareness of the present, but that doesn’t lessen the fear or the dread that I am feeling. She asks if I want to tell her what is happening.

“Yes. No. I can’t. I can’t.” I’m shaking and terrified, there is no way I can share what is happening in my head. I hate myself. If she knew, if anyone knew, they would hate me, too. I’m sick over what I did, over what happened, I can never let someone know. I’m so confused, so lost, so alone.

Bea doesn’t say anything. I can imagine that she is looking at me. I try to curl into myself even smaller. “You’ll hate me,” I finally get out. I have to turn the words over and over in my head for a good ten minutes before I can actually form them and get them past my teeth, lips, tougne. Talking in therapy is hard work.

“I won’t,” she says, “but you need to feel safe telling.”

At this point, I am getting more and more lost in my memories, and more and more upset. Again, I turn the words over in my mind, and I struggle to squeeze them out through my throat, past my teeth, I am barely holding on and I know I need something, and so I manage to say to Bea, “Please. Just talk.” And so she does.

Bea talks, and talks. I don’t remember what she talked about to be honest. That’s the idea, though. Nothing calms me like someone talking about simple, everyday, mundane life stuff. So Bea talked, and I gradually came out of my flashback.

I’m calmer on my drive home, but things still feel slightly hazy and surreal to me. I decide that I will send Bea an email and ask her if we can talk about talking because I don’t know how to do this. How does one ever really begin to share the painful details of a sexually abusive relationship?

Are you still here?

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.