By Michelle Tasa
So today is one of those days where I am struggling to be present in my body. It is a weird and disturbing result of childhood trauma. It’s called dissociation, and I’ve been doing it without knowing almost my whole life.
What is Dissociation?
Dissociation is a disconnection between a person’s memories, feelings, behaviours, perceptions, and/or sense of self. 1 This disconnection is automatic and entirely out of the person’s control. It’s often described as an “out of body” experience. Most people have a sense of what it feels like to ‘zone out.’ But what does a dissociate disorder feel like?
Level 1- Autopilot
So, everyone dissociates sometimes. You get in the car, drive to a familiar place and realize you have no recollection of the trip. Your body has gone into autopilot while your brain was busy with other things. It can be quite disconcerting, but we know that it happens to everyone. For me, there are a few more levels of dissociation, and they almost feel like taking a step deeper into my mind each time.
Level 2- Zoning Out
This level is what I call ‘zoning out.’ I actually didn’t realize that this doesn’t happen to everyone. My kids catch me doing it quite regularly and say things like, ” Mom, you’re staring through me again.”
Everyone who has ever watched a movie with me will groan in frustrated agreement that I almost always ‘zone out’ during movies. “Remember that movie we watched last week?” they will say and, though I can recall sitting down to watch a movie with them, I have very little recall of the plot. I could watch the film again as if I’d never seen it.
I can get to this middle level consciously now just by pushing farther into my mind. If I listen to music and push in, I can start to see the music and interact with it. The images my imagination makes will swirl around me, and I will be completely engrossed in the listening experience.
Another example is exercise. In fact, I wrote the first part of this blog in my head this morning while on the rowing machine. I glanced down and saw that I’d been rowing for 8 minutes, then looked the next time and found that 28 minutes had passed without my awareness. Only once I was oriented to the present again did I feel fatigued in my muscles and the speed of my heart rate. This is new and, actually, kinda freaking awesome. Apparently, high-performance athletes dissociate to push their bodies to extremes. I have always been a very low, if not, non-performing athlete. So, it is still quite shocking to complete a 40-minute workout while writing shopping lists in my head.
Level 3- Crazytown
There is a deeper level, and this is the one that makes it all too clear we’ve entered crazy town and might be there for a long while.
While I was in the hospital in September of 2020, I had my first flashback. It was so decompensating that I dissociated to this more profound level. I could no longer feel my body at all. I felt like I was dreaming but also not at all like I was dreaming. It felt more real if that makes sense, and I recalled every detail later. I seldom recall my dreams.
In this dissociation, I was greeted in my mind by a little girl wearing an ankle-length nightie whose name was Annie. She looked to be about 5 years old, but her features were blurry, so I couldn’t tell for sure. Annie grabbed my hand and pulled me up into the sky to ‘float’ with the stars. I suddenly remembered ‘floating’ many times with Annie as a child when traumatic events took place. It was exhilarating to float among the stars, feeling light as air. However, I ‘woke up’ from this dissociation with a whole lot of questions and very few answers.
Still, it made logical sense to me that a child experiencing trauma can leave their bodies in some sense. The brain does this to protect itself from emotional shock. Still weird but not crazy town.
My next flashback again launched me into dissociation, and this time things got freaky. Annie, who is a very bossy and precocious little thing, demanded that I play with her. She would not let me open my eyes. I kept refusing her suggestions to float in the stars, surf on clouds, have a tea party, play barbies, and finally, play dress-up. OK, at this point, you are probably with me on the crazy town part. Well, it gets weirder. I was getting really frustrated and wanted to open my eyes when a second person arrived in my head. I knew her as ‘Teacher’ though I don’t know how I knew that and I did not recognize her.
Teacher looked at Annie and me as if she wanted some kind of explanation for our argument. So, I explained how this annoying little kid kept asking me to play stupid games with her. I was a grown-ass woman, after all, and I did not play barbies anymore. Plus, I did not want to be stuck in my head anymore. Also, by the way, what the actual fuck was going on????
Annie then disappeared. Teacher gave me a look that I am sure has crossed my face many times while she ‘educated’ me. She said, ‘that little girl saved you hundreds of times from really terrible things. If she asks you to play barbies, you will damn well play barbies. Respect the fact that we are all here to help you.”
Hold up. All? Like as in, there are more people in my head? By now, I am repeating to myself, “if you think you’re crazy, you probably aren’t.” However, I am not for one second buying that. Later, my psychiatrist explained to me what dissociating was and how childhood trauma victims can have fragmented personalities (i.e., strange people in your head criticizing you for not playing barbies).
So, that’s dissociation for dummies. I have lots and lots of stories to share about my adventures while dissociating. I also am trying very hard not to lose myself in there anymore and live life thoroughly grounded and present. Today I didn’t do so well. Maybe part of writing this blog is to see if any other people can relate. Also, I’ve wondered about writing a book-oh so cliche, I know. Yet, I am staring at a future without income. Holding down a full-time job seems like a long way away. In the meantime, being present in my life is my goal.
- What Is Dissociation? – Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-dissociation-22201
Michelle is an educator, an artist and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. When diagnosed with CPTSD in September of 2020, Michelle began to document her journey on her blog, Https://www.just-get-happy.com. She seeks to connect with others on the journey and dreams of creating a charity to offer funds for victims of childhood trauma who cannot access trauma therapy due to cost. Her artwork and her writing help her to express her feelings about this long and challenging journey. She lives in Calgary, AB, Canada, with her two children.