There’s a lot of room for different approaches to recovery from mental illness. Some people love affirmations, others write journals, some use humour… Something I’ve noticed doesn’t seem to work well very often is an aggressive approach to getting rid of dissociation. Some folks, once they’ve discovered what it is, get very keen about helping people to never dissociate. This dubious goal rather concerns me. Firstly, my personal approach to mental illness is about focusing on what I want rather than what I don’t. I mean, (one of) my goals is to have a passionate, meaningful life, one in which I can participate as fully as possible. My goal is not to get rid of dissociation. They sound similar but really they’re not. Certainly, being crippled by aspects of mental illness is something to work on, but it’s in pursuit of a higher goal. It is never the focus in and of itself. What does this mean? It means whenever my dissociation is low enough for me to enjoy life, I’m not sitting in therapy trying to get rid of the last of it, I’m painting! I’m down at the beach, out with friends, reading books, having a life. Every chance I get. These experiences give me the sustenance I need to get through bad times, they build my self esteem, give me hope, a sense of control over my own life, great comfort and joy. This is what it’s all about. I don’t mind limping a little, and I know that a great deal of the healing and recovery we need happens in normal life, in everyday relationships, in art and running and writing and standing in the rain.
Focusing on getting rid of a symptom like dissociation sets the stage for power struggles, for making assumptions about what is healthy, and for a ‘Russian roulette’ of symptom swapping. Dissociation for many people serves as a protective mechanism. Think of it as a fuse blowing in a house with dangerous wiring. You don’t wire over the fuse, or you risk burning down the house. You sort out the wiring problems so the house is safe, then you work on resetting the fuse. Good therapy always starts with helping people feel safe, and swapping out harmful coping mechanisms with healthy ones. You don’t just start kicking crutches out.
Therapists can become very frustrated with highly dissociative clients, thinking that if they could get rid of the dissociation, then they could get some ‘real’ therapy done. Trying to beat down dissociative defenses with an anxious client is likely make them worse. If therapy is perceived as a threat, the mind will continue to put all it’s energy into disconnecting as much as possible, using any method it can come up with.
Not only can dissociation be protective, but the current definitions are so broad that getting rid of it entirely doesn’t sound like a good goal to me. If any form of disconnection from the present moment is defined as a form of dissociation, then we need some. We need space to daydream, time to get lost in our thoughts, in books or films. This is not black and white ‘dissociation bad’, ‘connection good’. In order to focus deeply, we disconnect from distractions around us. Creative people often describe this lack of awareness when they are deeply involved in their work. It’s healthy, inspiring, magic. This can be called ‘flow‘, or being ‘in the zone’, absolutely immersed in your task. Experiences of flow are thought to be highly protective against depression and anxiety. Some theories about hypnotic states are that we are all going into and out of different states throughout our days, without even noticing. We disconnect from events around us to ruminate and process thoughts and feelings, drive on auto-pilot, focus intensely during a stressful conversation, warm to friends and ‘come out of ourselves’ in their company, all the time changing our level of awareness of things going on around us and inside us. There can be a natural kind of rhythm to this process, we can have our own cycles of energy and focus, times when we are most focused externally and others when we are most aware of our inner lives. In some of these states we are very receptive, taking in deeply the things we say to ourselves, at others we have all our psychological defenses up.
The thought of holding up a life where none of these things happen as the goal to strive for is horrifying to me. I value being able to disconnect from the day to day to find a place my heart soars. While I loathe being lost in severe dissociation, unable to see, feel, smell or taste, I also hate the ‘flatland’ of a totally symptom free life that somehow keeps being set up as the goal for people like me. A little madness is not a bad thing, a little dissociation that frees us to dream, likewise. The goal is about freedom, hope, peace, meaning, love, connection, art… being human. Even our weaknesses and limitations can be part of that goal.
What I need when I’m lost and trying to find my way back isn’t someone trying to carve dissociation out of me like a tumour. I need to find a way back, like coaxing a small terrified creature to come out of the dark. The right person holding my hand can be enough to bring me home. Standing in a thunderstorm can be the intense sense of connection I need for a mind in flight to re-inhabit my body. Sometimes everyday life doesn’t have a strong enough call, it’s the song of the sublime that reminds me of who I am. It’s poems that make me cry and music that makes me feel safe and books that are paper receptacles for my shattered heart. These things that remind me that I am human, that I want to be alive, and that the world is deeper, sadder, richer and stranger than we think.