“Please tell me there is an bright side to dissociation“. Someone found my blog the other day by searching for this phrase. It makes me ache with frustration and sadness!
Of course there is a bright side! There are so, so many bright sides. They get lost when we talk about illness, disability, deficits. When we share the ‘once it was helpful but now it’s a problem’ story. When we collapse a whole life into a single, painful narrative of difference and limitations. Dissociation can be horrific and devastating and I don’t make light of it or of the suffering people experience. But this isn’t the whole story! Let’s start talking about bright sides, shall we?
Not all dissociation is pathological
Dissociation has been broadly defined. This means a LOT of highly valuable, important skills are being included in the category. Some level of capacity to dissociate, when it is broadly defined like this, is actually essential in our ability to function. Disconnecting from things is helpful in our ability to focus. People who struggle to damp down any of their sensory input are overwhelmed and highly distracted by it. Being able to put aside most of the input (the sound of a fly buzzing, the prickly feeling of rough socks, the worry about your friend who isn’t talking to you, the slightly sick feeling after drinking too much water) to focus on something important, like an exam, is very helpful!
People who are struggling with severe and chronic dissociation, the kind that leaves you numb, confused, lost, unable to feel, taste, touch, smell, or remember the faces of the people you love, often think of these kinds of dissociation as existing on the other side of a continuum of health. That once they’ve got the ‘bad’ dissociation under control, and they’re back to ‘normal’, maybe then they will get to experience some of the good kinds.
I disagree. Those of us who are drowning in the kinds of dissociation that takes away instead of enhances our lives are closer to the useful kinds of dissociation than many regular people. We are well versed in it, we are used to it, we have a huge aptitude for it, and often we are only drowning in it now because we once stumbled across it as something incredibly helpful. Do we need skills other than dissociation to navigate life? Certainly! Does depending on dissociation exclusively leave us uneven and struggling? Of course. But, sometimes when I’m talking to people who are absolutely overwhelmed by intense dissociation, I talk about dissociation as a super power. Sometimes working on reducing it through grounding techniques and trigger management just isn’t working. Sometimes the first step is to learn how to live with it better, how to use it to your advantage, how to stop hating it and feeling destroyed by it. Sometimes we need to become better at being dissociative, rather than less dissociative.
We are so used to this idea that dissociation is bad. We are so used to this idea that our minds are damaged and broken, and that we need expert intervention to help us be more normal and functioning. Dissociation can be a terrible thing. But it can also be a gift.
- Dissociation can be learning self hypnosis to turn off your experience of pain during a dental visit.
- Dissociation can be letting go of the bad memories for awhile so you can have new experiences.
- Dissociation can be the ability to attend uni and study despite homelessness and self harm and carer responsibilities and your dog dying.
- Dissociation can be discovering that you have a part who has not experienced any of the loss or heartache, a part who loves like their heart has never been broken, who hopes and dreams and cares and helps to lead your whole system to better places.
- Dissociation can be sobbing into the night, overwhelmed with grief at the loss of your child, and still being able to get up the next day to hug and cook breakfast for your other child.
- Dissociation can be disconnecting from the panic and terror and the overwhelming smell of blood to be able to help out at the car accident.
- Dissociation can be laying in her arms and touching her face and feeling the minutes stretch out to whole days, to years that you’ve lain here like this, alone together with no world intruding.
- Dissociation can be not noticing you haven’t eaten all day because the book you’re reading is absolutely brilliant and captivating and you can see all the characters in your mind and hear them talking to each other and at night you dream about them.
- Dissociation can be walking away from every cruel and unkind thing ever said about you and finding new ways to think about yourself.
- Dissociation can be having other parts to ask for help, not being alone anymore through any of the hard things.
- Dissociation can be a four year old inside singing you to sleep when you’re lying awake worrying about the world.
- Dissociation can be going numb when you’re feeling suicidal.
- Dissociation can be reliving the most wonderful, exciting, hopeful, inspiring moments of your life as if they happened this morning.
- Dissociation can be smelling a perfume and vividly remembering your Grandma’s garden and the feel of her hugs.
- Dissociation can be having a conversation on the phone with a sick friend, getting the lunch boxes packed, finding your shoes, filling up the cat food bowl, helping knot a tie, and getting out of the house on time to catch the bus.
- Dissociation can be the way, for just a moment, while you’re swimming, or drawing, or listening to your favourite music, or watching him play, everything in the whole world is okay.
- The ability to compartmentalise is what helps us to do our best in a situation. For a doctor to concentrate on a patients needs even though their marriage is rocky and they’re stressed and anxious about it.
- Dissociation can be part of the experience of artists who lose time when they paint, and athletes who forget they are tired when they’re running, and happy nerds who don’t notice someone calling their name when they’re lost in a good book.
- Dissociation can be about mindfulness. The ability to be captured by the movement of the breeze in the lavender bush, to taste every drop of beer and be immersed in the smell and laughter of other humans.
You can learn how to use your dissociation. If you can turn it on, you can turn it off again. You can learn how to trigger it, how to use anchors, how to dial it up and down, how to go with the flow. When to trust it, when to shape it, when to learn other skills. We have so much to learn! Something that can help you put aside overwhelming feelings, or not feel physical pain is simply amazing! We have this idea that you have to lose all of those things in order to be well, in order to not be overwhelmed by dissociation in a way that steals life. Maybe this is true for some of us. But I’d caution making that assumption for everyone. And if you’re stuck (at least for now) with some of the downsides of being highly dissociative, why not at least explore the upsides? Maybe we don’t overcome everything by fighting it.
There’s balances. My experience has been that using dissociation as a blunt instrument for every purpose has great costs. Choosing not to feel all the painful feelings often costs you all the wonderful ones as well. Containment often works better than suppression. Being guided by your own needs rather than imposing a schedule or ideas from outside. But if I told you that some people can choose not to feel pain when they’re injured, not to remember awful memories when they are busy getting out of that life, that some people still watch movies like little kids do, where the characters are real and make them cry, that some people find that doing their favourite thing in the world makes time stretch into something approaching infinity… you wouldn’t tell me these people are sick, you’d say they have super powers.