AFS #2: Help with dissociation?

I’ve been kicking this one around for a good long time, so today’s question comes from r/asktransgender as of about three weeks ago. I’ll dig through my bookmarks and get a proper link up shortly. (Here it is. Turns out I was even slower about this than I thought – it was two months ago!) The ensuing rambling includes some rough anecdotes from my own experience, and has the following content warnings:

  • Self harm
  • Suicidal ideation
  • Child abuse
  • Graphic firsthand descriptions of mental illness

If you’d like to ask me a question and hear me overshare in response, you can do that too.

So, I’ve had problems with disassociation and life not feeling real ever since I can remember. For most of my life I tried self-harm to fix it, and feel real, but that doesn’t really work and isn’t healthy. I was wondering, does anyone have any good, effective ways of feeling more centered, or grounded in your body? Thank you!

I want to talk about this because, after a lifetime of living with it, dissociation has become inextricable from my identity and worldview. It’s so all-encompassing, and has been a part of me for so long, that I can’t imagine the person I’d be without it.

It’s hard to understand dissociation if you’ve never experienced it, and in a frustrating way, it’s actually harder to understand once you have. I’ll try to describe it, but I’m going to fail, the way every person who described dissociation to me failed and made it sound nothing like my internal experience. I think everyone’s dissociation feels different, and when we’re talking about the weather of your psychological universe, those small differences can make a particular pattern unrecognizable.

When I’m dissociating most profoundly, I’m not even aware of it. It’s a reactive, defensive state in which my feelings and my personality are shut down almost entirely. What remains of me is enough to pretend, to put on whatever face is required and go through the motions of work, of relationships, of life. I faked it very well for fifteen years.

It wasn’t so bad. Faking it is a lot easier than dealing with it, that’s why our brains dissociate – we’re avoiding coming to terms with experiences we don’t feel safe to absorb yet. I was happy a lot during those years. I had a lot of feelings, a lot of emotional experiences, and I would have said that I cared about those things, was fearful they would fail, hopeful for their success. The people I loved felt loved. It was all real… or so it seems on paper.

That Demon, Doubt

On paper, it’s all there. But that’s what dissociating really is – it’s Doubt. Doubt with a big D, Doubt the Devourer, the Whisperer, the Poisonous God. Doubt that infects every single second of your waking life, every word you speak, every step you take. Doubt that makes the real world look thin, wobbling like a chain-link fence over a mad, howling darkness. At the worst of it, this is how I felt every day. I was looking through the world, through the ground under my feet, and beyond everything I thought I knew, every person who told me they loved me, every hand held out to help, every effort I made, every hope I had… just behind everything was that senseless emptiness. Nothing was beautiful anymore. Nothing mattered, or could matter, because nothing ever truly obscured that void, nothing got across it to touch me. Every voice echoed until it was incomprehensible, while I goggled at the yawning distance between me and the person across the table. Every hope fell into that pit without a sound, swallowed up whole as if they were never there.

I still see the world that way sometimes. I can control my dissociation well enough now that if I made an effort, I could throw myself back into that state. That’s what’s terrifying when you finally start to contend with those things you dissociated from – you can see how comprehensive the damage is, how easily you fall back into the self-defensive patterns that are poisoning you in your own skin. What little success you’ve had at building an identity, finding meaning, finding hope or even a reason to go on getting out of bed… it feels like you will have to fight, every minute of every day for the rest of your life, just to hold onto that. This was the state in which I did a lot of my self-harming and suicidal ideation. Looking ahead at a lifetime of that, a lifetime pretending to be getting better while trying not to stare into the abyss at the corner of my eye… It felt so murderous, and I was so tired. So fucking tired of insisting every minute that I was real, never mind worthy or wanted. So fucking tired of holding my sanity together with broken fingers and pretending it was easy. If that was what life had to be like, I didn’t want it.

But that view of life was also coming from that demon, Doubt. I was imagining fighting myself for my life, battling my dissociation, a zero-sum game of me against me with a neurotypical brain as the prize. But that adversarial way of dealing with my pain was another form of dissociation. To clarify this, let’s look at what happens when a kid first starts to dissociate. Often this is the result of trauma, and in my particular case I can remember a few specific incidents that illustrate this process well, so we’ll go with one of those.

Imagine someone hurting you

A few months back I wrote about the time my mother spent a Saturday beating the shit out of me every two hours on the dot. I’ve come back to this act a lot in my mind (and in therapy) because it’s one I find particularly hard to reconcile, and it’s that inability to reconcile that breeds dissociation. So imagine: you’re a seven-year-old kid laying across your mother’s knees while she whales on you, and it hurts like hellfire but eventually she stops, and she gets up and you’re sitting on the floor crying. She stands over you and tells you that you don’t seem to hear her after the pain wears off, so her new plan to “get through to you” is to come back every two hours all day and beat you again, until she feels the lesson has sunk in.

You feel a kind of relief when she says this, because of course she’s not going to do that. No one would do that. That’s a huge amount of effort and time, and after two hours she won’t be in the same towering rage she was just now. You can’t imagine someone hurting you the way she just did without the excuse of having lost their temper. You sniffle and you try to stay out of sight and let her calm down, let her forget.

When two hours pass and she comes back in, you can’t believe it. Fear crushes your chest and you scramble backward on your bed as she closes the door behind her and locks it. That door is never locked – you’re not allowed to lock it from the inside. You realize that she’s locking it so that you don’t run out of it. Your mother has just closed and locked the door so that you don’t try to escape when she starts injuring you.

As a child, how do you parse this? You raise your eyes to her face, the first face you ever saw, the person who tells you every day that she loves you, and see that it’s empty, entirely void of even the knowledge that you are a human. When you shriek and pull away from her, her mouth twists with irritation, not even rage now, simply the impatience one shows when jerking the tablecloth into place, pushing an object back where it belongs. You look in her eyes for the woman who loves you, and she’s not there. You don’t recognize her at all for a moment, because it’s not your mother’s face. You’re so confused that when she starts to swing, you don’t really feel it.

You don’t feel it the second time, or the third, or the fourth time she comes back that day, every two hours, which is unfortunate because the less you react, the harder she hits. But you can’t focus on the pain when your mind is fracturing around a contradiction it can’t resolve: the person who loves and protects you wants to hurt you. She isn’t just hurting you accidentally, because she’s angry, or even for a purpose, to make you obey. She made a careful, deliberate plan to hurt you, over and over, and now she’s carrying it out, and no amount of contrition or submission on your part makes her stop.

All the rules you’ve been given to live by as a child are broken. You have no way to fix this situation, no move you can make that doesn’t result in pain. Like the dogs in Martin Seligman’s cruel experiments in learned helplessness, you give up. You shut down. You turn away from the unsolvable puzzle, the unanswerable contradiction of what you’re told and what you’re shown. You turn away, and turn away, until you can’t see it anymore. Until you don’t remember at all. For years I didn’t think about great whacks of my childhood, but I would have told you I remembered all of it. I could have rattled off a perfect autobiography that omitted all the screaming, all the blows, all the sneering and snarling and surveillance. None of that seemed very important. You survived it, didn’t you? In the old days they beat kids with belts, so really, you’ve got it good.

Your house goes dark

This is dissociating. This is how it starts. This turning away, the way you look anywhere else but at that horrible thought until, after a while, you can’t even tell the blind spot is there. The You who was angry and hurt at what happened to you, your entirely reasonable fear and pain, the emotions you felt in that moment – all of that is locked away from you. Once in a while someone breaks in, breaks past the walls and locks you build stronger every year, and ransacks a chamber of your heart, and you just turn off the lights on the mess, close and lock the door, and push a bookshelf in front of it. Gradually your house goes dark, window by window. You move your few belongings into the rooms you have left, at the bottom by the door. There’s not enough space to grow anything, and you can’t do most things the way normal people with normal houses do them, and you had to leave most of the things you really love somewhere upstairs in those locked rooms… but you can live here. It looks the same from the outside. So long as you keep on answering the door, nobody seems to notice that 80% of the house is empty.

This means that there’s only one way to get control over your dissociation: to stop turning away. Open up those rooms and look at the mess. Process your trauma, and confront the questions you’ve never been able to answer.

Throw everything out onto the front lawn

You don’t want to do this alone, and I would never suggest it. The reason we dissociate is because it’s not safe to deal with our trauma, we don’t have the space and time and support we need to work through those things we’ve locked away while we’re trying to survive. If you don’t have the support to endure a major psychological breakdown without someone bludgeoning you with guilt or responsibility, dissociating is the safer option and a more comfortable place to be. You will be a walking wound while you’re in recovery, and you need both a professional who has experience dealing with trauma and a lot of time and space in your personal life where you’re allowed to be emotionally volatile. Suppressing these feelings is how we got here, so we need to be safe oversharing a lot for a while. We need to throw everything out onto the front lawn before we can clean up in here.

There are a lot of techniques I use to help me notice when I’m dissociating, bring myself back from it, or keep myself from falling into it, but they all come down to a form of mindfulness. Dissociating is in effect your brain immersing itself in a former emotional state. You start feeling emotions that were pertinent to that event, start playing out events in your head. Maybe your face changes, your expression shows the anger or fear from a fight twenty years ago. Maybe you mutter words you wish you’d said, or did say. You lose track of what’s going on around you. This is because your lower brain is overriding your upper brain.

Your lower brain is where your parasympathetic nervous system lives, and it’s this part of your brain that trauma usually kicks. When you were hurt, this part of your brain learned to flood your body with emotions and chemicals, in an attempt to protect you, to give you the strength you needed to fight or flee. Now, because those hurts haven’t been processed and contextualized, simply locked away complete with their emotional payload, when something triggers the same responses – “that’s what my abusive ex always used to say to me” – your parasympathetic system fires up all the old instincts and starts pumping out chemicals, getting you ready for trouble just like the trouble you remember, whether or not that trouble is actually coming. When it does this, it bypasses your upper brain entirely – it doesn’t have time for your thoughts, it’s coping with what feels like a threat to your health. This is why you can’t think your way out of trauma and dissociation – it’s literally shutting down the part of your brain that can listen to logic.

The only way to reboot, to shunt your brain back into a state where it can reason and process, is to continually remind it that the threat is no longer real. This is why you need a good support system before you start processing – if you’re still living somewhere where people reinforce your trauma by abusing you or forcing you into unhealthy patterns, you can’t promise your body that it’s safe, because it’s not. But you don’t need a lot to start to feel safe. A door you’re allowed to lock, a room that feels good to you, and a person who cares about you and won’t take it personally if you cry or rage a bit – that’s about all you need to get started. Then you can start to reverse-engineer the dissociating process.

The Trials of Billy the Bookcase

So say you’re triggered by something and you’re wobbling. Say it’s something small – you’re trying to build some IKEA furniture and, driven to madness by Billy the Bookcase, your spouse shouts at you. Now you’re scared, and shaking, and angry, all out of proportion to what just happened. This is the kind of moment when your brain has learned to dissociate, to turn away from those feelings it doesn’t have the time to process. What would that look like in this moment? You swallow your reaction, make nice with your spouse, finish setting Billy up. You think, “I’m overreacting, just freaking out at nothing. I’m being silly, I’m being stupid. If I bring it up, they’ll just feel bad over nothing, so I won’t bring it up. It’s not their fault, it’s mine, my dumb brain that can’t get over things.”

When you reject yourself like this, you’re teaching your brain that its pain is not important, that when it feels hurt, it had better hide that away for good, because telling you about the hurt is not making it stop. I’m willing to bet that’s what the people who made you feel this way in the first place told you too – your pain doesn’t matter. Your pain is a lie, your pain is a fake, your pain is manipulation, an attack. Crocodile tears, malingering, drama queen. Give you something to really cry about.

What would it look like if you didn’t turn away? What if you didn’t treat yourself like the worst people you’ve ever known treated you? What if you gave yourself what you need? What if, in that moment, you stood up and walked out of the room to process your emotions in privacy?

This simple act demonstrates a lot of different things. You’re thinking – but my spouse, they’ll think they hurt me, they’ll think there’s a problem! Yes, maybe. That’s okay. They’ll live. Try to get your head around the idea that you deserve to feel safe taking the time you need to process, regardless of how anyone else feels about that. The only emotions you’re in charge of are yours. Let your spouse feel how they feel, and process those feelings like an adult, while you process yours. Then you can both talk about your feelings, if you need to.

Imaginary air raids

So step away, take the space and time you need to process. Just sit. Don’t try to turn away from the pain you feel, the triggered feelings – but don’t sink into them, either. If being shouted at brought up a particular memory, acknowledge it – “Yes, that is very much like what just happened, that makes sense that I’m remembering that right now” – but don’t let yourself fully replay the moment, stay away from the specific words. If you’re angry, if you want to shout back at your spouse, don’t sit there coming up with arguments – just feel that anger. What does it feel like in your body? What is it doing to you? Which muscles does it tighten, do you feel it in the belly, in the chest? Are you unconsciously wringing your hands, fretting at your hair? Inspect this moment, how your body experiences it.

While you’re listening to your body, you’ll be unable to avoid noticing how this moment is different from the situations that taught you this emotional response. Presumably (hopefully!) it’s better. That person who just shouted at you isn’t routinely abusive to you, they were just contending with the existential horror of an Allen wrench and reacted poorly. The space you’re in is yours, yours to shut people out of if they treat you badly, yours to express yourself clearly and truthfully in. Your body knows that – so while you’re listening to it react to the chemicals your lower brain has thrown out, listen to what it says about the world right now. Ask it if it feels safe. Your heart is pounding, your hands are shaking… but does your big toe feel like it’s in danger? Does your butt feel particularly concerned for its continued wellbeing? Or does your butt think everything’s basically fine except that the upstairs neighbors in the brain stem keep shouting about imaginary air raids?

You don’t need to reject either of these things. Your response to being triggered is not wrong, it’s just outdated. It’s been locked up in a dark room for years and has not yet gotten the memo that the war is over. Sit with the fear, and also with that quiet certainty from your big toe that from down there, everything looks pretty much okay. Carpet’s still there, still got socks. Nutrition holding strong, toenail says it’s loving the calcium. No problems down here, Chief.

Don’t tell yourself how to feel

Understand that you can experience both of these things, that neither of them has to cut you off from the other. You can feel fear and pain and then come back to this good life, here, with us. You can go into those dark rooms, and we will keep holding your hand, and the door won’t shut behind you. Because that’s what you’re afraid of, that’s what dissociating is – you’re afraid you can’t survive feeling that way, can’t survive experiencing what happened to you, so you close it off. But you did survive it. The frightened, hurting creature trapped in those rooms is you, yes, but the person who got up and walked out and found another place to keep on living is also you. You saved yourself – you get to be proud of that! You are the one who got you here. Your suffering is part of your strength – you don’t need to conceal it in order to be healthy.

So you sit, with all the doors open, and let the wind blow through. Clear the air. Feel what it feels like in here when you don’t tell yourself how to feel. Let your toes remind you that no past can take this good present from you, which means it’s okay to let the past exist. You can go into that darkness and come back. No more shuttered windows, no more locked doors. Turn on the lights – you will survive looking at the mess.

Your house might always be a bit of a mess. You might always dissociate, in the sense that there are parts of you that will always feel very different from other parts, parts of you that have different architecture from the more recent additions, and that’s okay. So long as you remember that all of it is you, all yours, so long as you keep the doors open, you will get better and better at moving around in there. You’ll learn to use your dissociation to explore yourself, rather than hide yourself.

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