Caught in a dissociation loop 

Figuring out what triggers your dissociation can be a time consuming process. There’s an inherent challenge in noticing the cue for an experience that by nature reduces your awareness. Anything can be a trigger, however subtle or obscure. There will be a story behind each one, a logic to it that makes sense once you put the pieces together, but when you are at the start of in the middle of that particular jig saw puzzle, often things seem random, unpredictable, and bizarre. People often feel totally defeated and crazy. It’s a huge challenge to believe that things will make more sense down the track, and to hold on to the possibility of recovery.

Something worth keeping in mind is that dissociation can be its own trigger. What first sets  something off and what sustains it can be very different processes. Because dissociation is often a response to some kind of overwhelming stress – and because experiencing dissociation can be overwhelmingly stressful, it can be very easy to get caught in a loop where the dissociation triggers itself.

Not everyone experiences dissociation as stressful. For some people, dissociation is sweet relief from intense feelings or overwhelming pain. (see Understanding Emotional Flooding) It is the anaesthetic of life, the calm in the eye of the storm, the still peace of an animal doomed to die. For others, even massive dissociation comes with its own emotional disconnection that shields them from the impact of their experiences. People may describe amnesia, derealisation, or depersonalisation with a kind of numbness or indifference, as if they are telling a story that happened to someone else. However, not everyone gets this emotional buffering – or not all the time. For others of us, we are intensely aware of our dissociation, and fighting against it. We may feel as if we are behind glass, or underwater, or buried alive, or dreaming and unable to wake up, but the struggle to feel more real and connected is terrifying when it’s unsuccessful. Trapped in a psychological limbo with no way home we can become frantic and distraught.

When dissociation is our own personal fuse box, blowing out whenever the stress is too high, the stress of our dissociation can trigger more of it. The more distressed we are by it, the deeper it gets, and the more distressed we become. Fear can be a powerful trigger of dissociation, and experiences of dissociation can trigger intense fear and helplessness. Severe dissociation that we don’t understand, have never seen in others, have no language for, and can’t seem to make stop can be a very traumatic experience. When we better understand our experiences, learn a language for them, discover that they are normal, universal – not only to humans but to mammals, protective, and can be endured and worked with to resolve it – our fear diminishes. Our sense of powerlessness can ease when we understand that our brain is trying to protect us and is not the enemy. Our sense of loneliness and alienation can calm when we find that dissociation is extremely common but merely infrequently spoken about, a large if hidden aspect of the human experience. It is possible to learn more and fear less about dissociation, to be able to feel the triggers and foresee the disconnection without terror, to learn to lean into it and know that it is protective and will pass. It is possible to break the loop and allow the dissociation to become discrete episodes or at least a cycle that shifts between low and high levels at times of different stress.

Another aspect that can lock us into a dissociation loop is how we respond to it. Some people have a passive response to dissociation, sleepwalking through their lives. At the other end of the spectrum, people can become so distressed by and intolerant of it that they resort to extreme measures to break free of it. They may self harm, have compulsive sex, take needless risks, or abuse substances to try and feel something or reassure themselves they are alive. Traumatic replay can be part of this. Putting their mind or bodies into various forms of crisis can temporarily relieve dissociation by countering it with a burst of crisis mode in which we are energised, focused, and profoundly in the moment. However these crises can also be the stress that triggers more dissociation, entangling us in a loop that our efforts to escape only deepen.

It doesn’t have to be this way, and sometimes simply recoginsing this pattern can be enough to break it. It’s certainly something I’ve seen a lot in those of us who have become deeply and devastatingly dissociative, and it can sometimes explain the way that helpful dissociation has developed over time into the ‘pathological’ and distressing kind that takes away from our expereince of life rather than protects it. Other ways of working with dissociation that may be more helpful are

For more about dissociation, see my Dissociation Links.

Facial Blindness

Siiiigh, so a great person introduced themselves to me the morning of the recent conference, tells me they know my partner, and really does it with such aplomb, I’m impressed. We have a brief chat about her work, my blog and so on. I’m looking forward to talking to her more.

That evening a great person sits down next to me, we start talking, I ask about her job, tell her about my partner, and so on. It’s not until she gives me an odd look and says yeah, your partner is great!… that I realise it’s the same person and I’ve just put them through the identical conversation.

Goddamn I hate doing that! Grr dissociation can be a pain!

It was many years before I came across the term facial blindness. I really notice it at conferences! If I want to thank or speak with a keynote speaker, I must be quick enough to get up the front and identity then from close up before they are enfolded by the crowd. This is because I cannot actually identify them by face. I live in fear of shaking the wrong hand and thanking a random audience member for their great presentation…

I have no idea who most of these people are and can’t identify them by sight unless several system members have spent time with them.

How can I be at a mental health conference and experiencing dissociation and still feel like no one would have a clue what that is or be comfortable with me talking about it?

Sigh.

Tony Hill, one of my favourite fictional characters, describes himself as ‘passing for human’. That exactly how my invisible disabilities and diversity makes me feel, like I’m pretending to be normal and getting caught out.

In this case, on my third interaction with the lovely person, I grasped the nettle and mentioned I had facial blindness and that I needed them to cue me about their identify for the first 10 or so times we meet. They took it really well and I felt less the freak. Sometimes we have to be brave to make the invisible, visible, and to speak the taboo.

Understanding Emotional Flooding

Oh, the joys. I’ve been wanting to write this for ages, but it’s large and complex. I haven’t entirely done it justice here and I’ve touched on some areas that I’ve covered in other posts in more detail so I’ve linked instead of repeating myself. A lot of us with troubles with flooding get diagnosed with things like Borderline Personality Disorder, and although having a word for it can help, it can also leave us feeling very powerless and different from other people, which in some ways can hurt a lot worse. I don’t think we are either powerless or even particularly different. I think we are experiencing powerful things that our culture isn’t good at handling, and often convinces us to respond to in the worst possible ways.

What do I mean by emotional flooding? That place in which you are drowning. Emotions are so intense, so deeply felt, and so long lasting that you feel like your very identity is dissolving in them. You can’t clearly remembering not feeling this way and you start to lose hope you will ever feel differently again. We have a term for this when the feelings are really good ones – mania. But for the black depths of emotional pain or the anguished hypersensitivity of the chronically triggered, we don’t have a lot of words. Which doesn’t help! Decompensation is one way of putting it, but it’s not pretty and describes the effect of it, not how it feels on the inside.

I call it flooding. It’s the opposite to numb. It’s breaching containment. It’s not just taking the lids off boxes full of strong feelings and painful things you don’t like to think about, it’s falling in and having them snap shut on you so you can’t get out again.

Flooded can be an enduring state or a temporary crisis. I’m really familiar with it because I’ve spent a lot of my life flooded. It’s the state of being without ‘skin’ described by people trying to recover from trauma. It’s the ‘highly sensitive person’ label used by those who flood easily but don’t usually identify trauma. It can be hell. Exhausting, overwhelming all your resources to cope, and rapidly getting you to the point where you hate yourself and your life. It often leads to a state of frantic agitation which can be dangerous. People feeling frantic distress may resort to self help measures that seem crazy to those around them, and often to themselves once the crisis has passed.

I can only really describe flooding from my own perspective and much of this may be fairly unique to me, but I’m hoping there’ll be points of recognition and useful ideas for others too.

I flood quickly under certain circumstances. The first is when I’m chronically triggered. That might be a particularly bad week where a lot of big triggers happened to line up, or it might be that I’m particularly vulnerable at the moment and triggers I could otherwise handle are setting me off. One big trigger can cue a level of sensitivity and vulnerability that make me exquisitely attuned to all other triggers around me – I lack psychological ‘skin’ and can’t buffer the world anymore. Everything gets ‘under my skin’, everything feels personal, I can’t shrug anything off, and the littlest things feel like the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve touched on these issues before, you can read a little more about them and my coping strategies:

The opposite process can also flood me, not triggers from outside but the result of internal processes. When you’ve come through anything that causes big feelings and intense thoughts and questions, most of us learn that to get out of bed in the morning we have to contain them. We put them in a mental box (or the cellar, or walk away from the big pit, or however our mental landscape works) and go focus on the rest of our day. This is a really useful skill. However it has a couple of risks. One is that triggers can set off a really huge reaction if they breach this containment. That’s why I can go from completely fine to a panic attack or overwhelmed with tears about baby stuff at the moment. My miscarriage is fresh and I have a lot of big stuff in boxes that can flood out and overwhelm me. The second risk is that, once we’ve boxed up the big stuff, we can find that walking back towards it voluntarily takes a bit more courage than we can coax up. Worse, our culture of ‘move on and get over it’ and our warped ‘recovery oriented’ mental health supports – when they think recovery means not feeling big stuff, can punish us for opening those boxes and warp our mindset to a point where we think that being in pain is sickness, failure, or us doing something wrong.

At that point we can shift our focus from containment – a highly necessary skill! to suppression. Where containment boxes stuff up so we can focus and be safe and do day to day things until we have a safe and appropriate time to feel and think and open the box back up, suppression coats the box in concrete and drops it in a lake. We box things up with no intention of ever going back for them. When they rattle and howl and start keeping us awake at night, we concrete the lake too. The trouble with this is that this stuff has buoyancy. The deeper we push it down, the harder it pushes back up.It also contains key aspects of our self. Little bits of us gets boxed up too. The reason the stuff wants to come back up is because we need it. Like iron filings trying to reach a magnet, it tries to come home. But we have split off from it and don’t recognise it as ourselves anymore. It’s like your lost cat turning up on the doorstep in a storm, wet, covered in mud, howling like mad. We freak out and slam the door and shut the windows while it cries, growls, and starts to attack the door.

Suppressed material isn’t trying to torture you, it’s trying to finish a key part of a process that you started – reconciliation. When we never make space for it, it randomly ruptures through a thousand feet of concrete and bursts all over our life with the intensity – and sometimes the unseeing rage – of an abandoned child. When we finally get it back ‘under control’ we feel vindicated that of course this is the right way to deal with it, because it is completely irrational, intense, dangerous, and unmanageable. It is flooded. But the truth is, this is the outworking of our process.

In suppression, we often turn against ourselves with shame, rage, fear of this feeling of being out of control, and often harsh self punishment. This is what does the harm, not the flooding, but our misunderstanding of it and response to it. Intense feelings and confusing questions are a normal part of life. They are frequently but not always triggered by experiences of change, loss, or trauma – not always our own. They are not mental illness or weakness or brokenness. They are our responsibility to figure out how and when to deal with them. Being flooded is not an excuse for flooding or abusing those around us. But it’s not a bad thing, not something to be ashamed of. It’s just human. We need food and air. And sometimes we need to feel very big feelings and ask very hard questions. There’s nothing wrong with us.

Shifting from suppression and self loathing (I hate myself) back to containment is possible. When suppression has been used a lot, initially the mind fights all forms of containment. Even putting aside little feelings can become impossible because you have broken trust – your mind no longer has faith that you will come back for anything you manage to compartmentalise. In an effort of elf preservation, it tries to stop you adding anything at all to the massive, growing collection of suppressed material you already have trying to break back through into awareness. Basically it doesn’t want you to feed the volcano any more. As you start learning how to safely let out small amounts of contained stuff, without blowing up the whole volcano every time (it’s not always possible), your mind shifts gears. It gets that you’re back on board and starts working with you to contain things. You have to coax and prove that you’re trustworthy, but it can turn around surprisingly quickly. This can simply start by inviting your mind to help you put aside your reactions to a trigger until you can get home, and then promising you will make a cuppa and sit in the back yard and let the feelings and thoughts come up – or however it is you prefer to feel big things.

For those of us with multiplicity, parts can be flooded, that can be their role. We often hate the part instead of hating and dismantling the role. In fact, whole groups of parts can be flooded. While they can feel like the worst thing imaginable, and impossible to let out or connect with, they are probably what stands between you and a lot of big stuff. They flood so you can feel sane and think straight. For me, I have taken on the idea that my job isn’t to reject them but to start to figure out how to look after them. If my most likely to self harm part comes near the surface I push her away until we’re home safe, and the she can sit in the bath or write in the journal or paints inks on our skin as she needs. (Wrist poems)

Another common trigger for being flooded is approaches that treat the flooding itself is useful. Ideas around catharsis, ‘letting it all out’, the need for big ’emotional releases’, and some approaches to anxiety use flooding  because on the other side of flooding is some outcome they want. A common example is people who have a perfectionist approach to therapy or self improvement and try to ‘process’ all their feelings or triggers all the time. I explore this more in

Flooding can activate attachment and makes us bond to others nearby. This can be a very valuable experience of being safely supported and connected with when we are overwhelmed. It can also be a form of dangerous trauma bonding in which attachment figures are sometimes experienced as safe and sometimes so frightening or intrusive that we flood – and in response to that flood they shift back to being caring so we bond. Some parenting approaches teach parents to deliberately induce flooding in children using methods such as restraints, because the resulting bonding is thought to be helpful – however, most therapists argue that bonds created under such duress are problematic and that the experience of being so intruded upon and overwhelmed that you are pushed into flooding does long term harm to a child’s perceptions of safety and autonomy that the trauma bonding merely conceals for a time. When this occurs without good intentions on the part of the adult the same process may be described as ‘child grooming’.

Some approaches to phobias also deliberately flood people ‘Flooding’ is in fact another name for ‘exposure therapy‘ where someone is deliberately overwhelmed with triggers to try to break the link between the trigger and the flooded state. Forced to confront what they would far rather avoid, for some it may reprogram that link so that trigger no longer evokes panic. It can be a powerful way to reality check a broken internal alarm system – see, you were so scared, but nothing bad actually happened. For others they may simply snap from being flooded into being dissociatively numb. The way exposure therapy is timed – some therapists take patients beyond the point of hysteria, while others move extremely slowly and practice relaxation and calming skills through the process, and the way it is handled – if the patients wants it or is being forced into it, possibly impact which outcome occurs – a genuine changing of the trigger or simply a dissociative break.

We ourselves can trigger these same dynamics with rapid changes of approach to our own triggers and vulnerabilities – going from extreme avoidance to extreme confrontation of triggers is common for those recovering from trauma. It often sets off cycles of being flooded and numb. We also feel deeply frustrated that ‘no matter what we do’ we still feel out of control and overwhelmed.

We can cycle between numb, ‘normal’ and flooded. This makes us feel chaotic and crazy! We can also get stuck in a flooded or numb space. For those with multiplicity, this kind of cascade switching can be a system desperately attempting to self regulate by giving each kind of part some time out. (Multiplicity – rapid switching) The problem is that you don’t get to choose when it happens and feel horribly out of control. You also probably use all the times that you’re numb or feeling okay as ‘proof’ that you’re not ‘really’ needing extra care or having big feelings, you’re just kind of faking or being weak and need to try harder – ie need to suppress more. Self care becomes suspicious self indulgence in your mind, especially if it acts as a trigger and the mind assumes that self care means its an appropriate time to let out some big feelings. It doesn’t work, we think to ourselves. It just makes me weaker and sicker! Being mean to myself is much better, it makes me stronger.

Other people being kind to us or praising us can have the same effect – sudden flooding can be cued simply by feeling slightly emotionally safe. This can make you try to self regulate by maintaining a chronic feeling of being unsafe. Over time you exhaust as well as emotionally starve and your containment starts to fail. Flooding becomes a regular part of your life and you are at constant war with your mind to keep it at bay, using what has always worked in the past – punishment, self hate, chronic anxiety, and staying away from people who treat you well. Traumatic replay of horrible events can easily be part of this dynamic too. These approaches make complete sense but they take you nowhere good in the longer run! Bits of them here and there aren’t the end of the world on bad days, but if this is how you always approach flooding you are in for a rough time.

For me, being pushed for intimacy instead of invited into intimacy can also trigger flooding. Some situations (eg therapy with someone I don’t trust yet, or a relationship where connection is being demanded) will inevitably flood me. If we are being asked for things that are currently in our mental boxes, being contained – whether that is ‘be more vulnerable with me’ or ‘I need you to show me how you feel’, my mind will open all the boxes  if that is the only way to be obedient or to have a connection. That isn’t the end of the world unless I or the other person don’t cope with the flooding or I get stuck in it. I’ve had this happen a couple of times and ruin friendships. These days I’m a lot more careful of this dynamic. People who have empathy for your vulnerability will usually cue it just by being attentive. Those who demand it are often those who are least equipped to cope with it.

Good trauma therapists are familiar with these dynamics and don’t panic if someone floods, but they also don’t try to open all the boxes at once. I recall a great example given by Barbara Rothschild where she uses the metaphor of carefully opening a shaken bottle of fizzy drink bit at a time, so you don’t get yourself covered in drink. Here’s a talk by her about this idea with a couple of easy to understand examples like that one:

It takes some practice to learn containment again and work with your mind when you’ve been using suppression and feeling intense fear or shame about your flooding. It’s especially challenging when your social network doesn’t get these ideas and supports the suppression-and-shame approach without realising what that’s costing you. A lot of the ideas around phase-oriented trauma therapy is giving people time and support to really learn, experience, and trust this different approach before opening the really frightening boxes. Of course, you don’t need a therapist to change how you think about and respond to flooding, and many therapists will actually make this process worse. I know of one locally who would insist that any client who wept must leave the room and stand outdoor the closed door. They were not permitted back until they ‘had themselves under control’. Bad therapy frequently confuses obedience and suppression with ‘recovery’ and would make this process of turning towards yourself, tuning in to yourself, and working with instead of against how your mind is trying to work, much more difficult.

It can be done. You can normalise flooding and have compassion for yourself in this state without just being overwhelmed by it or fighting it. You can learn how to open and close boxes again – not perfectly, not always exactly the way you would like, but enough to be both human and able to function. You can find value in the intense states and learn with experience that you do pass through them. It’s not fair that some of us have a much rougher road and a lot less skin and we build up huge amounts of intense stuff to deal with. But it’s also part of a more profound experience of life. Intensity isn’t just about mania or despair or depersonalisation. For myself at least, there are also experiences of deep connection, spirituality, the profound, the sublime. I envy the undisturbed a lot less when I realise how deeply connected to my own heart I am, the passion with which I have lived my life. It is precious to me that I can feel, even that I can be stripped of name and self, that I can find myself at 3am naked on the cliffs before the void in my own soul, in a kind of utter freedom. That I can sink so deeply into love, contentment, peace. I have lived deeply, and I would not have it any other way. I have suffered, but my heart has also been made larger. The size of the cup that brings pain and bitterness to my lips is the size of the cup that brings joy. Even in pain there is something of value, something human. To be deeply moved, to know passion, to know life. To know and recognise and be able to sit with flooding in others without being swept away. It takes courage to live in hard times, to live with an open heart. It can be a thing of great beauty.

Trauma is not everything

Bear with me, all those of you who are still fighting like crazy to have trauma recognised as important, relevant, meaningful to people’s experiences and struggles. I know that for you the idea that trauma can be overstated or misapplied may seem ridiculous because in so many areas it’s still fundamentally so ignored! But the fields are not flat – in some areas trauma is the focus in a huge way, and sometimes this is unbalanced and makes life harder for people.

I was discussing this issue once with a sexual therapist who was being driven to distraction by the assumption that trauma underlies all challenges people have. People were being presumed to have been sexually abused merely on the basis of having some issue they would like to seek support from a professional like her. The gender and sexuality diverse community has laboured under this myth for many years! I still hear from friends that some doctors and psychiatrists believe that being queer in any way is a sign of sexual abuse in childhood, or means they have unresolved issues with a parent. (Who the hell doesn’t have an unresolved issue of some kind with a parent??)

Trauma being a central focus can also cause problems because of people’s natural desire to arrange things in some kind of order. People often create a hierarchy to trauma experiences and feel humiliated and mystified when their trauma history isn’t ‘bad enough’ to justify their current struggles. Context – so dull and yet so key to the story of post trauma stress – is so often forgotten. Friends, connections, and meaning play such a huge role in our response to trauma. It’s not all what happened to you, it’s also how people treated you afterwards. Some of the most undramatic stories in our lives, loneliness and loss, leave the deepest wounds. Resources that focus on trauma either exclude those needing the same support but due to anxiety or other kinds of distress, or they broaden the definition to the point where all people are traumatised and the answer to every question and result of every equation is trauma.

It’s easy to look at a misfit like me and see trauma, and trauma is a big part of my story! But it is not the only part. I was a creative oddball long before school bullies and self harm. Claiming and understanding my trauma history and how it has shaped me has been essential to understanding myself, but I also find that at times I have to reclaim myself from the overwhelming trauma narratives. My life includes these things but does not revolve around them. I am more than what has happened to me. I am more than a sad story of harm or a triumphant story of recovery. I am also a life, a human life, with all the sorrow and pain, and the confusion, and the sublime. My story is not more or less meaningful, my pain not more or less real, my joy nor more or less extraordinary. I am human, and trauma narratives can take that away from me and put me in some other box of people who are different, lesser, or special. I am not other. I am human.

I remember going to Melbourne to see the Tim Burton exhibition and reading about his childhood and early life as an artist, expecting to see a trauma story given his proclivity for the gothic misfit. There wasn’t one. He was a creative oddball who didn’t fit well – his portrayal of the blandness of suburban life are now legendary! (think Edward Scissorhands for example) Trauma is part of the story of many artists lives, but for many it’s not, and we misunderstand something about the nature of creativity and restlessness when we forget this. When we don’t recall that many artists don’t ‘fit’ at first, we turn that ‘not fitting feeling’ into something about trauma. Being an outsider is always a strange, challenging, and blessed experience whether you’re super smart, disabled, or vaguely mad. Trauma may be a result if you’re isolated or bullied, but it’s not always a cause. 

I find myself wanting to talk about how harm can happen when all our dominant narratives become about trauma. When friends struggle through extremely poorly delivered child abuse awareness training where they are told definitively that people who are sexually abused as children are damaged for the rest of their lives and never recover normal relationships or sexual intimacy, I’m so angry. And when those friends try to speak up and say – hey, that was me, and yes, it’s the most horrible thing – but don’t write off our lives! We DO have lives! And are instead told their personal experience is clouding their judgement so they are failing to appreciate the catastrophic impact, I think something is wrong.

I’ve read ‘trauma informed care’ documents that make victims of trauma sound like helpless children, or that insist that healing only happens in therapy and close connections to a traumatised person should never be attempted by someone not ‘suitably trained’. You can almost hear the void around the hurting person as everyone steps back and waits for an expert to come along. In other contexts, we call this ‘the bystander effect’. It’s not a good thing. Friendships and relationships have a language of their own that should be respected! Communities have been finding ways through trauma – well and badly, for thousands of years before we invented therapy. Therapy is one of many tools, and it does not ever replace community and a sense of belonging. (many trauma therapists know this, of course!)

I’ve sat in talks about multiplicity that were so concerned to let us know we may be triggered, we were welcome to leave partway, caring staff were on hand if we needed to talk to someone etc etc that I seriously wondered if they’d considered that I manage pap smears, nightmares, losing people I care about to death and suicide – on top of the various traumas in my more distant past. The focus on my vulnerability left me extremely angry and unseen –  my strength, my coping, my competency were all invisible in a space that marked me as a trauma survivor and permitted me to leave the room where the important educated people were discussing the difficult topics of the life and recovery of people like me.

There’s a fantastic looking conference happening later this year I would love to attend and speak at. It’s being held by the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation. Unfortunately it’s happening the month after I’m due to deliver our baby, so I’m not going to put an abstract in. But reading the front page of info really made me want to, because its called Broken Structures, Broken Selves, and describes “The very structures given the responsibility to protect these children, broke down their basic trust in the world, and therefore their very essence – Self – so necessary for their future development.” And I so want to go there and talk about the harm we do when we constantly refer to people as broken! The number of times terms like fractured, broken, fragmented, and developmental failure turn up in books and articles about multiplicity is absurd. People are harmed when we constantly describe them this way! People are harmed when there is no concept of healthy multiplicity, non-trauma-origin multiplicity, or healthy dissociation. I KNOW there is a profound need for awareness and sensitivity to the impact of trauma, to normalise and support people especially when their only other framework is “I’m crazy!” People are harmed by trauma, yes! But when inbuilt defense mechanisms like dissociation act exactly as they are supposed to, I would argue they are a very long way from broken. It is those who harm people who are broken. That is the inhuman behaviour.

I can’t go along this time and say any of that, I’m hoping that someone will anyway, there’s a diverse group of people interested in this field and I don’t but heads with all of them! Some of us have fought so long and hard to have trauma recognised as important, we need to be careful of what happens when it does gain that recognition and becomes the dominant framework. It can be inconceivable that something so fundamentally respectful of people, something so essential and good could be misused or harm people. But such is the risk when any perspective becomes dominant. There’s more to us, to our stories, our lives, and our selves than trauma. Part of what it is to be human is to feel broken, to be aware of our own incapabilities and limits, to mourn what we could be. That story isn’t just about trauma, it doesn’t cut us off from those who lived blessed lives. We don’t have to sit on our side of the fence hating them, watching them live in the sunshine while we drag our mangled hearts through the darkness. There’s pain in all of us, loneliness, brokenness, and hope. This is the human story. It seems so deeply important to me to place trauma in that context, to – if you will – integrate it with our stories of what it is to live and love and be a breathing living collection of fears and dreams all wrapped in skin.

What’s the deal with Integration?

Integration can be a Hot Topic for those of us with multiplicity. It used to be (and sometimes still is) pushed as the cure for our illness, our only chance to be a normal person, and have a normal life. People who couldn’t integrate, didn’t want to, or tried to and had it fall apart on them were seen as more sick, less recovered, less committed to recovery, treatment resistant, or basically in some way a failure. So it can be loaded topic with heated diverse ideas and often some firm opinions and rough experiences for people. Hence why in 3 years of blogging about multiplicity I haven’t wanted to tackle it before now!

It doesn’t have to be so divisive of course, the issues really aren’t about integration, they’re about this idea of failure. If integration is an option rather than a cure, a lot of the heat and stress goes out of this topic. That’s certainly how I prefer to talk about it.

So, let’s start at the beginning, what the heck is it? Well, that can be tricky to define, because different people and different books use the word to mean different processes.

Fusion or Merging

This is the most common use of the word integration. It refers to the combining of two (or more) parts into one. Separate consciousnesses, or selves, become a single self, combining memories, skills, and attributes of both. For those who use a clinical dissociative framework, an analogy might be the dissociative walls between parts coming down, so that every part can be out together, all the time, sharing all of life, all the memories, and all the energy. Generally speaking integration is only used to describe the merging of all parts into one, but sometimes I have come across variations in that too. There’s a experiences of fusion shared in the biographies The FlockKatherine It’s TimeA Fractured Mind, and Not Otherwise Specified.

Retirement

Some people use integration to describe a system where all the parts but one have been retired from coming out. One part now runs all the life, and the rest live inside where they may be sleeping, playing, advising, or doing their own thing, but they don’t come out any more. An experience of retirement is shared in Today I’m Alice.

Passing On

Some people use integration to mean that all the parts except one go away. People might pray away parts, have them exorcised, experience them ‘die’ (without harming the body), or simply find that they have fulfilled whatever function they were needed for and disappear. Sometimes passing on happens spontaneously, sometimes it is the specific goal of therapy or an intervention of some kind. There’s experiences of passing on in Little Girl Fly Away, Fractured, and A Life in Pieces.

Co-operation

While most people see this as an alternative to integration, sometimes this is described as integration, which can really be confusing! With co-operation the parts work together as a team, sharing the body and life and making decisions together. Basically, it’s a multiple system that functions well with parts looking after each other, sharing information and resources, and putting effort towards common goals. There’s experiences of co-operation shared in First Person PluralWhen Rabbit Howls, The Sum of My Parts, and Five Farewells.

Several of these outcomes are described in In Two Minds. Most of these books can be borrowed from the DI Library.

So, if you’re reading or hearing someone talk about integration, it can be really helpful to know what they’re using the term to mean! Of course, a person with multiplicity may use all of these approaches, at the same time but with different parts, or at different times in their life – perhaps they work on co-operation which leads to fusion, or perhaps some parts fuse, some retire, some pass on, and the rest co-operate.

Integration is a word that also has different meaning in other contexts. It’s often used in trauma therapy to refer to someone’s ability to process, think about, and link into a personal narrative an experience that has been jarring and out of sync with their sense of themselves and their story about their life. In that context it is always seen as a highly positive thing, and that may be part of the challenge about the way it is used with multiplicity – because in this case it describes a process that people experience in diverse ways, ranging from profoundly welcome and life-saving, to highly distressing, destructive, and disabling.

Integration can mean a connection, as in technology or biology when we’re talking about different processes working together – for example “visuomotor integration” – how well our sense of sight and our muscles work together. Integration can be about harmony in difference, such as architecture that integrates well with the landscape. In science integration is the inverse of differentiation – one example of differentiation from biology is the process by which cells change from being generalised (such as the stem cells that start off building an embryo) to being specialised – becoming nerve cells, muscle cells, and so on. Integration is the opposite of segregation when we’re talking about civil rights or putting kids with disabilities in mainstream schools. When we’re talking about immigrants and culture, the word integrate is often used to mean assimilate – that is, the minority or inferior group should adapt and conform, to become absorbed into the dominant culture.

I see some obvious parallels in these various uses of the word integration and how it is experienced by people with multiplicity. Some people see either fusion or co-operation as the best goals for people with multiplicity. Some see passing on as the only possibility. Some people with multiplicity deeply desire fusion, while others are aiming for co-operation. Some people are terrified of losing parts. Some systems have different parts with very different goals, which they may try to impose on each other and team up with other people such as a therapist, to try to enforce.

Where the big issues come into play is often not what the goal is, but who chooses it and how it is defined. If a therapist, healer, priest or so on chooses the goal for a system then their efforts to create that may be highly traumatic, no matter what the goal is, or how well intentioned that person. If a goal is presented as the only possible option for a good life, then people can be devastated if their system simply doesn’t fit it or can’t sustain it. There is not one experience of multiplicity out there, there are hundreds of thousands. There is not one experience of integration either. Here are some diverse stories I am aware of:

  • A person with multiplicity who works hard in therapy to fuse back to one part, and discovers that for them, a great deal is lost in the process: memories, skills, and so on.
  • A person with multiplicity who experiences a part telling them that they have done what they were here to do, and their lifespan is over. A ritual goodbye is performed, and a small private funeral. The part ‘dies’ at peace.
  • A person with multiplicity who draws upon their faith to pray with a trusted person in authority to have deeply distressed or disturbed parts taken away, and experiences relief.
  • A person with multiplicity who found a new, more calm and grounded part formed in adulthood and guided their system through stress and conflict.
  • A person with multiplicity who over many years, without therapy, learns about their other parts, negotiates their way through differences, and comes to work together as a team.
  • A person with multiplicity who works hard in therapy towards fusion, who’s other parts experience grief at their loss of separate self, but who finds deep wholeness and relief in integration and embarks on a new life direction with zest and hope.
  • A person with multiplicity who transitioned and went through sex change surgeries so the part of that gender could have time in a body they felt comfortable with.
  • A person with multiplicity who has no intention of fusing but finds that fusion happens gradually and naturally as part of trauma healing, and comes to term with their new single identity.
  • A person with multiplicity who is convinced by someone in authority that an exorcism of demons is their only hope for a good life, and finds it ‘works’ for several years as the other parts are deeply alienated and buried in their psyche, but then they return even angrier and harder to communicate with than before.
  • A person with multiplicity who is thrilled to fuse with their other parts, only to find that when they are stressed they split back into parts again.
  • A person with multiplicity who thinks that all the parts have gone, only to find a batch of new ones they didn’t know anything about.
  • A person with multiplicity who fused, split, fused, split again, and finally fused for good!
  • A person with multiplicity who had parts die only to come back to life some years later.

As you can see, people’s experiences are diverse!

So the stress about integration comes from many places, people who want to fuse but can’t seem to, people who are frightened that parts may die, people who are being strongly pushed into a process that doesn’t fit them well, or who are being told they cannot be whole or healed unless they do a particular thing or do it in a particular way. For some people fusion is amazing. I have seen it and it’s a marvel. For others it is akin to gay reparative ‘therapy’ for people who don’t want it, where people are trying to ‘cure’ something that is a natural difference in how people are, in the process making them much more vulnerable to suicide and self harm. I believe the risks of harm are higher when people are afraid, made to think one way is their only hope, and when they have no exposure to peers and diversity and are vulnerable to the ideas of a person with power in their life. I think the risks of harm are lower when people are able to sit with the idea that there may be many paths for people, and one is not necessarily better or worse than another, that what is supposed to happen for them will happen, and that whether you have single or multiple selves if you are decent to people, animals, and the planet, you are not a failure.

It is entirely possibly there is more than one form of multiplicity, some of which respond well to fusion or other types of integration, and some of which don’t. Certain philosophies and branches of neuroscience consider that it is a sense of having a single self that is an illusion and that all people are a collection of multiple selves and processes. The mind and consciousness are simply amazing. Please be reassured that if you have had bad or frightening experiences trying to navigate multiplicity that you are not alone in that, and that people, parts, and systems can recover.

Personally, when I was first diagnosed with DID in 2007, I had a plan. I was going to be a model patient, obey every instruction, and integrate within a year. I wanted more than anything in the world not to be multiple. I wanted to have a life, to finish my degree, to have a job, to be a parent – and I didn’t think I could do that if I was multiple. Putting my system under that pressure knocked us around badly and our functioning started to fall apart. We’ve ended up walking a much more roundabout route, focusing on specific challenges such as accepting our sexuality and rebuilding our social support, and figuring that if fusion is supposed to happen for us, it will happen in its own time. I’m okay with that! I don’t need to be multiple, it’s not what makes me special or gives my life meaning or gives me an identity. I’ll still be the strange mad creative oddball we are now. I also don’t need to be single to be whole, healed, or have hope. I don’t think single is the best, right, or only way for people.

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

Hypnotherapy and Dissociation

I see myself, standing in the forest of Princess Mononoke. I’m robed, head down, hands outstretched, holding a wide, shallow basin which holds dark red blood. I’m offering it.

In my mind, silently, I say the words over and over “this is not something you’re taking, this is something I’m giving.” It’s done with the full awareness of pain and distress, of past trauma. They are not gone or silent, they are present, and yet it is still done. It is a choice, it is a cost in pursuit of something of value, an exchange, a sacrifice. These are things I understand.

About 15 years ago a traumatic incident triggered a sudden phobia of blood tests and drips for me. I’ve battled it mostly unsuccessfully since then, seen trauma specialists, dissociation specialists, and anxiety specialists. Nothing much has worked. Sometimes it’s been so bad I can’t sleep the night before a test. My hands sweat, I tremble, go white, dizzy, weak, and vomit. My head explodes with distress, people screaming and crying, begging us to get away and get the nurse away from us.

This week we went off for a session of hypnotherapy with a woman who’s particular interest is blood or needle phobias. Of course, we had to do some work to calm her anxiety about working with a multiple, as she was quickly overloaded by the complexity of our situation, and embedded in a ‘dysfunction’ model of multiplicity. We said to her “forget all this, this is just details. We’re still human. We have the same needs and fears.” She said to us “hypnosis is just dissociation by another name”.

She did a session, talking about safety. We switched a lot and had an intense inner conversation, figuring out what the block has been (the parts who are not afraid do not inhabit tender body places such as inner elbows), which part is needed (our night poet who is deeply familiar with ‘strength in vulnerability’), what the challenge was (they live in night, in solitude or under stars, fluorescent lights and a blood clinic are about as far from their territory as we can get), and some work arounds for it (draw on the skills we have in theatre to take over and own a space, dress in their clothes, they don’t have to be present for long, use a character or setting that fits to focus on).

So we did, and it worked. Yesterday was the first blood test I’ve had in 15 years with no trace of phobia or trauma reaction. The shrink didn’t do it to us, or fix us. She came into a space with us, that’s all. It’s the same space our night poet inhabits naturally, it’s the same space we access when we do focusing. In that space, we connected with each other and had a complex conversation that lead to answers. We can do this ourselves. We will start a new journal for focusing. This is powerful. There’s hope in it.

There’s also risk. The phobia has been sustained by many things, including an attempt to prevent self harm. We made a call that stopping self harm was no longer going to be our focus, that it was not the real problem. Pain, loneliness, and self hate were the problem. So the phobia isn’t needed. Other things are in this box we’ve tipped over, like traumatic memories of medical procedures as a child. Like a desire to claim and own our own body. Like fear of and fascination with the medical. Like a history of Endo and Adeno that involves a lot of pain and blood. I don’t know where it will take me, but I’m ready to find out. I don’t want or need this bogeyman, this self induced nightmare to try to protect me anymore. I’ll risk disruption and self harm to be able to actually engage with this territory and make some progress through it. I’m not finished, it’s not over. I’m just beginning.

The Void: dissociation, amnesia, and identity

Dissociative amnesia is not often spoken of. It doesn’t have the fascinating glamour of other forms of dissociation such as ‘multiple personalities’ or fugue states. It seems at times that there’s little to say of the losses of memory, of how frail our sense of the world is when we can’t recall it. It’s subtle but insidious, far more important and powerful than people think.

Some people with multiplicity also have very high levels of amnesia, a form of dissociation in memory. In this case, memories are laid down and stored in the brain, but the dissociation between different parts prevents access to them. So people can live in this surreal twilight world of ‘coming to’ and trying to figure out from context where they are and what has been happening. Life is a bewildering series of changes, something that slips through your hands as fast as you try to grasp it. Other parts live according to their own values, needs, fears, and understanding of the world, and you return to inherit their choices. The world of cause and effect can become brutal when you cannot recall the causes but must live with the consequences. Between skips of memory can pass hours, days, or years. Like Rip Van Winkle, you can wake to find your whole world is unfamiliar.

Other people experience amnesia without multiplicity. Sometimes it gets forgotten that this is very possible. People are told that if they cannot remember great chunks of their day – or their life – that they are probably multiple and other parts must have been living them. It’s actually very common to have amnesia without dissociation in identity, trauma both physical and psychological will often affect our capacity to remember, as can a massive collection of physical illnesses and injuries. Emotion is a key aspect of memory, so dissociation or disconnection in emotions can also affect our capacity to remember. Our ability to remember is also linked to our awareness of the passing of time. Memory is very complex and not particularly well understood.

We’re familiar with the challenges of minor memory loss, the scattered way of life when you’re constantly looking for your shoes, keys, car, phone. It’s not hard to extrapolate that to bigger, but still tangible losses – having found my car at last in the shopping centre car park, I can’t remember where I live. Standing at the checkout desperately trying to remember my PIN number, crying with frustration because I’m 19 but it feels like I have dementia. Trying to fill out welfare forms and having to ask other people what my birth date is. These bigger gaps are like black holes in the world, only in your world. Other people walk over an unbroken path, I fall through, into an emptiness. I float in a void and hope desperately I’ll find the other side of it, pick myself up quickly, dust myself off and keep walking, hoping no one notices my lack of normal functioning.

Other losses can be profound, harder to imagine. People who recall nothing of their lives before the age of 35, except small scraps. People who find that amnesia follows them, at a distance, like a stray dog, eating recall of all memories older than two years previous. People who wake in the morning next to their partner of 20 years and find they don’t recognise them. People who look in the mirror and are bewildered and surprised by who looks back at them. That moment of panic as a stranger approaches you in the street with an easy smile and greets you by name. For some there’s an overwhelming sense of shame, of being damaged and desperately trying to pass for human. For others the loss takes even the grief of loss, there’s a shrug, or a little wistfulness, or even relief. For some, behind the shield of amnesia, dreams and nightmares and all the things they once felt deeply about lurk in their shadows, haunt their sleep, beat against glass walls in their mind, evoking terror.

Without memory, it is difficult to have a stable sense of self. State-dependent memory cuts off a sense of connection to other parts. Each part has their own memories of life and draws their own conclusions based only on their own experiences. Mood dependent memory is the way we recall with ease our happiest moments when happy, and drown in all our saddest when sad. For people in the grip of intense, flooded emotions, such as some who are given the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, their whole lives and sense of self changes with each feeling. We sparkle when happy, and our whole world is beautiful! We are generous, kind, loving, full of good humour and good will. We bathe in the milk of human kindness, nothing is too big to forgive, too much to ask. When sad, the world is black, bleak, dark, terrifying, choked with misery, full of bad omens and evil portends. We radiate despair and flood everyone near them. We are preoccupied, desperate, overwhelmed by a sense of doom, like prophets who understand the world is ending and shake our warnings at people too blind to stop their partying and take up the ashes and sackcloth. When threatened we are sharp toothed, short of temper, we jump at shadows and see danger everywhere. We bite hands that come too close and nurse the aching wounds of all the wrongs ever done to us. We see the world as violent, unpredictable, deceptive. We look for the trick in every gesture, the hidden meaning in every word. We live with our teeth bared and bite before we’re bitten.

There are a thousand shades of emotion that people don’t even consider, like shades of colours. We are swept from heights to valleys, through quiet contemplation, deep sorrow, burning rage, cheerful spring mornings, restless wild moods, agonising pain, mischievous playfulness. When these states are split off from each other, people’s sense of self changes with each of them. Our sense of the world completely changes, our values and goals change, our expectations of the future changes, our approaches to our relationships change. The thread of consciousness that gives us our sense of stable self is snapped and chopped into bits. What has the potential to be a deeply lived, vivid experience of life becomes fractured, tormenting, and without growth.

For people with parts, fractures along these lines are common – one part will remember all things wonderful in life, another all things painful. When switching and trying to understand the self, multiples get lost in the many versions of self that leave evidence in their lives, the many handwritings in their journals. As a child I sometimes asked other people to describe me, feeling devoid of clarity about myself and seeking to use their eyes as a mirror. There’s an empty feeling beneath shattered memory that can make people feel like they don’t exist. Switching can be like forever walking into a room at the moment someone else walks out.

I once watched a documentary about Clive Wearing, who suffers from chronic severe amnesia due to a virus that damaged his brain. He has almost no recollection of his past (although he has what is called procedural memory, that is he can still do things he once learned to do, such as walk, dress himself, and play music). Clive cannot hold onto to new memories for longer than about 30 seconds. He lives entirely in the moment. He has a diary that moves me deeply. Each previous entry he crosses out, as he cannot recall having written it. Each new entry is achingly similar.

8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely awake.
9:06 AM: Now I am perfectly, overwhelmingly awake.
9:34 AM: Now I am superlatively, actually awake.

There’s an agony here, an awareness of loss and a claiming of life that turns out to be without permanence or meaning. It’s deeply painful to see his distress and be unable to knit back together the damaged areas of brain that leave him in the void. The process is familiar to me, I recognise echoes of the same voids in myself and others.

For those of us with multiplicity, even when co-conscious, the emotional distance of watching but not living all our lives can create subtle breaks in our sense of self. Disconnection in emotion can fragment our ability to emotionally process our lives. Switching can be our own version of suddenly feeling awake. We sweep aside all the knowledge of other parts, sometimes even of our own previous memories, with this sudden conviction that now, I am truly awake. That now, I am really alive. This time, I understand. That this time, I’ll make it work. We do the same things, with the same tools, from the same values, backed by the same seeping aside of our history, and are horrified, surprised, and devastated when we get the same results. We cut ourselves off from our own wisdom, learn nothing from our history, disregard all previous insights. We make abrupt, unsustainable life changes, that change only the names and places, but repeat the same crisis dynamics over and over. When we are briefly aware of this sense of being trapped in a cycle, we feel so helpless and ashamed that it’s a relief to let amnesia or switching sweep it all aside. It’s like having an internal reset button, we go back to the start of the maze and go looking for the cheese all over again, often with the support of people around us and mental health staff who are pleased we’ve stopped being paralysed by our awareness of our futile cycles and are tackling our lives with vim again.

Health and recovery is sometimes sold to us as stopping this process. Limiting the extremes, preventing the switching, shutting down the states. A single part is chosen to be the ‘real’ one, a single emotional state or small collection of them are selected as the ideal, calmest and most rational. All the knowledge in the rest is discarded, all the wildness that gives life deeper mythic meaning, the wrestling with angels and demons, the being moved by things we can’t name are suppressed instead of connected. The goal becomes staying still instead of learning how to dance through them. Life becomes staid, the suppressed grow wilder and stronger, we find ourselves fighting not only with our weaknesses but also our strengths. We dissociate more and more from ourselves and our experience of life.

These processes are not unique to multiples. We all use dissociation to contain memories and feelings, to compartmentalise our worlds so that we can function. Not enough dissociation, being unable to contain emotions and memories can be just as destructive. It can be very difficult for any of us to step back and see the whole, to watch our own patterns and honour our history. We are all partly dependant on the stories we’ve told through which we understand ourselves and the world, and the perspectives of others. Sometimes they help, something they make us blind or tell stories that do us harm. Step back too far and we become numbed observers. Remain forever utterly in the moment, and we fall into the void. In that place, we run to anything that makes us feel better, calmer, safer, no matter how crazy. We self destruct with passionate, spectacular indifference. We search for a sense of self that the search itself destroys. The experience of the void can induce a sense of absolute panic, a desperate, frantic need to DO something, anything, to feel like you exist. Even blood, agony, the fireworks from your whole world being destroyed can feel better than the void.

For me, my journals – and now this blog, are the trail of breadcrumbs I leave for myself to help me see my selves. I write, and then I read, and re-read, seeing my selves through different eyes, charting my life. I find causes for effects. I learn about those people who have the most profound impact upon my life, but whom I have never really met – my other parts, the rest of ‘Sarah’. I am startled by the complexity of life, all the things I do not see that they do, the vast spectrum of colours I cannot perceive, of feelings I know only as words. There’s a sense of being blind, but learning life and self by its feeling in my hands, its taste in my mouth. Sometimes someone comes out who is missing so many threads of information, so much of what we have learned and how we have changed. Sharing our history connects them back to us, to the present moment, to all the gains and losses of our life.

I reconnect the thread of self by honouring that I am alive now, and that I have always been alive. All the parts are real, all the emotions are meaningful, all the experiences are important. I look for the common ground between all the states and parts, and I also learn to celebrate such wildly diverse ways of experiencing the world. I find the things that stay the same no matter what – a fear, a value, a need, a tiny chip of identity. I look for ways to carry them with me through all the changes, I notice the way that feelings or switching changes a value like kindness, the way different light sources make a gemstone look like it’s a different colour. Ideas are refined. A sense of self is not so much found as created. The void remains, but it no longer consumes everything, and my life is no longer spend running from it in fear and back to it in need.

New resources

Another day working on my free community resources. I’m still crook but able to get things done, albeit slowly. Very focused on the work today but also very dissociative and spacey. Hoping tomorrow will be easier.

Today I have

I would love to hear your thoughts. The DI site is almost to the point where I’m happy with it and ready to move on and properly flesh out the Hearing Voices site, then I can get on to the Homeless Care site and back to my own Business development. Tired! But happy with the progress.

My new brochure!

image

First print run of my brochures advertising a talk I give! You can read it in full on my business website sarahkreece.com.au. Very excited. I was sick all night and spent the morning in bed, but wound up having a really nice day. Lunch with a friend, tremendously excited about my brochure, and returned all my overdue library books. 🙂 Very successful day. 🙂

Do you need a ‘DID expert’ therapist?

This is an assumption I come across a lot. People with dissociation or multiplicity are supposed to need extensive, painful therapy, by an expert in the condition, to stand any chance at a decent life. Hogwash!

First, the caveats: can therapists be awesome? Oh you bet your last cup of coffee they can! Can experts who have trained highly in their field, who are passionate and informed, be a huge damn relief to talk to and learn from? Hell yes. I’ve already written a little about what the point of therapy is and how to recognise good therapy.

Having said that, I tend to beat the drum of ‘you don’t need a shrink to have a life’ quite a lot for a person who sees shrinks. Why? Isn’t this ridiculously hypocritical of me? Do I just not want to share my shrinks? Well, it goes like this. I used to see shrinks because I was scared and overwhelmed and had no idea what the hell was going on in my head/relationships/life. It was SCARY. Super scary. I was terrified of everything about the process and used to sit frozen on my allocated seat, hanging on every word uttered by the shrink who was almost godlike in status and had the power to uplift or doom me with a word. I discovered over time that the idea that psychiatry is a science, that diagnosis is an accurate and sensitive tool, and that shrinks are infallible and highly knowledgeable about the complexities of life and how people work on the inside is pretty laughable. I collected diagnoses like some people collect shoes. Pick your shrink’s speciality, pick your diagnosis. I’ve seen a lot of shrinks over the years. Some have been great, some have been average, some have been horrible. Most have been at least a somewhat mixed experience – partly helpful and partly not. Horrible shrinks have been as much, if not more of a threat to my mental health than other horrible people in my life.

Going off to see shrinks meant I had ventured into a world that was selling me a bunch of ideas about myself and my life such as: I was sick. That someone else’s ideas about me (after a 45 minute conversation) were more accurate than my own. That all shrinks should be trusted, immediately, and any reluctance or failure on my part to engage in that proved that I had problems. That massive power imbalances in relationships are helpful for people with trauma/abuse backgrounds. That having a good shrink is the most important thing you need in order to have a decent life after crap has happened (not friends, or housing, or access to a really, really good library, shrinks). That I needed ‘expert therapeutic help’ to be able to function. That I needed someone in my life who could take control away from me and put me into hospital. That multiplicity meant I was broken, damaged, or in some way inferior to other people. That someone else can heal my pain. That my history and pain is about my choices and my reactions rather than a broader social context. That my suffering is caused by a random breakdown in my brain.

I haven’t found any of these ideas to be at all helpful. I see shrinks now, because I value having a safe place to talk about really tough or very personal things. I love to team up on thorny issues, to pick their brains about information I don’t have, and to explore difficult territory without shame. I do the same things with some of my closer friends.

I don’t give shrinks any power over me. If I disagree with them, I argue. If I’m not happy with their approach, I leave and find someone else. If they’re ignorant, narcissistic, or in some other way a person I really don’t like the idea of spending an hour with, I don’t hang around and let them start playing with my brain. I run the show. I choose who, when, and how to engage. My shrinks don’t cure me. They join me in my process, or they get out of the way. I employ them to help me achieve my goals. They are equals on an exploration, they are not a surgeon with a patient waiting numbed beneath the knife. Am I discounting their skills in describing them this way? No! It takes a lot of skill to be an explorer. Any old hack can cut into a vulnerable person, and every other bugger is convinced they can run anyone else’s life better than they can. But exploring? Now THAT takes skill. You have to be able to not know answers, to explore new territory, to listen – really listen, to be equally vulnerable and human, to be able to be present in the face of pain, to construct theories and ways of understanding the world, and be willing to turn them inside out when they don’t work. Good shrinks are highly skilled, wonderful people, and I love working with them. I’m aware of the context of the relationship – that is, the ideas embedded in psychology/psychiatry/counselling etc that I disagree with, and I make efforts to prevent them from taking up residence in my brain.

Frankly, interacting with shrinks takes a lot of skills, and this is often not acknowledged! You need to be able to tolerate the power imbalance. You need to be able to assess them for safety. You need to able to walk away from the bad ones. You need enough assertive skills to be able to give them feedback about their approach. You need enough articulation to be able to communicate with them. You need a whole stack of courage, a whole huge stack of it, to actually make therapy useful by being willing to get into some tough stuff. You need the ability to be able to keep seeing the shrink as a human being – either when you feel dependant on them, or pissed off with them, or really excited about them (or in love with them), it really helps the whole process if you can not turn them into angels or demons in your brain. (in some therapies, I grant you, that is the process) Basically, you do a lot of work! In fact, there’s a tenant of therapy I love which is ‘Never work harder than your patient’. The person who does the work, has the power. As imbalanced as the relationship is, it is still a relationship. Some of us are better at eliciting useful responses from our shrinks than others. This is also a skill. You also need to be able to grieve everything your shrink is not and cannot be for you, that they can’t be your parent or partner or lover or take away what you’ve come through. Sometimes this grief is so intense it overshadows every other aspect of the relationship.

Therapy is not useful for everyone, and not useful at every point in life. Even the very best therapy. Nor are support groups, or books, or meditation, or almost any approach to pain except keeping on breathing. Therapists are human. Even the best ones make mistakes, have areas they don’t know much about, or use frameworks and ideas that get in the way instead of helping. I’ve learned a lot from the good shrinks I’ve seen over the years and I really appreciate that. But no shrink has had all the answers or all the skills. I’m glad I’ve seen a few, as frightening and stressful as it was to lose or walk away from a good one. It’s been liberating to discover that I can find new good shrinks and get something useful from their different approach, and that I can cope without a shrink and look after myself.

I’m often contacted by people who are frightened they can’t navigate DID without a shrink. A good shrink will help this a lot, yes, but no shrink is way, way better than a bad one. If bad ones are your only options, get the hell out of there! It’s messy, but frankly, so is therapy. If you think trying to make sense of DID on the back of your book reading, some rudimentary peer support online, and a lot of slowly learning about yourself is really hard, then spare a thought for all the people dealing with involuntary hospitalisations, parts who hate the shrink and go berserk whenever an appointment comes around, and littles who bond to them as if they’re parents and are heartbroken when they can’t come over and hug them after a nightmare… it’s not all roses! Having another person involved with your system can be tremendously supportive, but it’s also a whole additional person with their blindspots and history and reactions and crazy ideas to deal with.

I’m often asked what kind of therapy is best for DID… and I can’t answer that question because there is no therapy for DID. There are a bunch of therapies for people. Some of them help shrinks to be better, more courageous, more patient and inspired shrinks. Some of them have frameworks and approaches that are more useful for more people. Often the type of therapy is way less important than your relationship with the shrink. Some of the most useful therapy I’ve had was counselling through a sexual health clinic, which has nothing to do with DID and yet – conversations about shame, development, desire, abuse, power, and love – everything to do with DID!

Experts are also often not all they’re cracked to be. Being an expert in something sometimes means it’s hard to see everyone as new and different. You get used to seeing the same patterns and using the same frameworks. You have blind spots, which over time you become less and less aware of. What was once a guide, over time hardens into dogma. As an expert therapist, you speak with authority, so less people turn up in your office and contradict you, so you don’t get exposed to new ideas. People get used to your ideas and approach and don’t feel like spending money to sit in a room with you and be told their approach is wrong. The expert position can be an ego boost, and a pretty comfortable chair to sit in. Dismantling it from time to time can take a fair bit of energy and courage. Great experts do this! They are proud of their work and passion and history with the topic, but they wear the label of expert pretty lightly, and they keep in mind that none of it outweighs the expertise in their own life of the person sitting in front of them!

One of the psychologists I saw for a year had no expertise in DID. I spent about the first 6 sessions having to reassure her that this wasn’t a problem. As I said to her – you don’t need to be an expert in multiplicity – I am! Sometimes there’s advantages to learning with a shrink, because you find and fit frameworks to your experience, instead of the other way around. Good shrinks that don’t know anything about multiplicity but are willing to engage it anyway are worth 100 experts who don’t click with you, listen to you, or understand your unique quirks.

So, by all means, go hunting for a therapist if you want one. 🙂 Look for someone who has heard of the word dissociation, and who can spell it… But don’t panic if you’re among the masses of people who can’t find this, or can’t afford it. You have lived with this a long time! You have a massive store of wisdom within you, and clearly, a will to survive. And if you’ve found someone good but totally out of their depth – great. Go exploring together. Don’t believe everything you read, try stuff out, be open to new ways of thinking about things, and go make a life. If you’ve fallen on your feet and have a great shrink who is helpful and knowledgeable about DID, awesome! I hope it’s brilliantly helpful, try not to be too surprised if things don’t go exactly as you think they will, and don’t be too scared if you lose them or things change at some point. Get the most out of it while you can. 🙂

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

Happiness

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Rose and I are away again, house sitting in the hills with Zoe. It’s bliss. Yesterday friends visited for fire baked spuds and card games. I’ve spent today sleeping or reading in front of the fire. Rose is spoiling me. Last week was busy, I’m still embroiled in tax paperwork, my cert 4 in small business management started and there were some stressful emotional days. By Friday night I was teary with exhaustion and pain was making me short fused. The effort of getting out of the house, especially with the dog crate and so on for Zoe, was almost too much. But we did it, and it’s been wonderful.

I was thinking the other day how normal it’s become to be multiple. When Rose I go shopping, and I switch to a little kid in the lolly aisle, we are both so unconcerned. Mostly people don’t notice, and we don’t draw attention to ourselves. But we’re not afraid or ashamed either. Those who do see something different probably assume that I have some kind of intellectual disability or delay. I’ve long stopped being distressed by that or feeling ashamed of being seen that way. So what? In some ways, I am ‘delayed’ at that moment, by about 25 years. 😉 I’m not afraid of being thought of as disabled because I don’t think about disability the same way any more. Me switching is so normal for us, not a big deal, not a source of shame or anxiety. (I switch many times a day, and my system ages range from 5 up and cross various experiences and expressions of gender – most who don’t know me well would not be able to tell that I’ve switched – Rose usually can)

This is such a difference from the years I was terrified of someone else finding out, from my first disclosures where people reacted so badly. So different to being diagnosed with a “terrible disorder” that would prevent me ever getting work, that would ensure I spent years in and out of psychiatric facilities, that would wreak havoc on my relationships and require thousands of excruciatingly painful hours in therapy for any hope of peace or happiness. I feel like someone who was told they would never walk again who goes dancing on Saturday nights. They got it all so very wrong, and I’m so glad I didn’t listen.

So I’m different, in some ways that people can’t see, and in others that are at times visible. So what? Welcome to the world, it’s a very diverse place. I’m not a freak show, and I’m not scared of a conversation about dissociation with a checkout operator either. I am so blessed, so at peace. I don’t live like a spy in a foreign land any more, watching everything I say, always concealing some truth of my identity that would destroy everything. How much of what we put down to the ‘mental illness’ is the stress of this way of living? The loneliness of it, the chronic, grinding fear? I’ll never forget having new members to Bridges, the group for people who experienced dissociation and/or multiplicity that I ran for several years, weeping when they first attended, because it was the first time in their lives they’d met anyone else like them. I’ve been lucky to know and care for and love and learn from so many people, and so many fellow multiples over the years. I’ve made mistakes, I’ve lost a few along the way, but I’ve learned, I’ve been humbled, I’ve tried to take the lessons with me, the hard won wisdom whether through success or terrible disaster.

I feel set free from those old, dire prognosis, and I hope my work, my choices, the way I live my life, also helps to set others free. My life is not without pain, I live in chronic physical pain, I have experienced extreme emotional anguish. My story includes grief, darkness, suffering. I live with ghosts and old wounds that are very deep. I am not ‘recovered’. But I’m also not waiting to get better before I feel alive, or at peace, or hope. All lives touch pain, tragedy, disability, loss. Some more than others, yes. I don’t have a good life in spite of multiplicity or illness. I have a good life because I’m here, present in it, drinking it in, the sorrow and the joy, the pleasure of driving myself hard at work, and the bliss of a day reading by the fire. The warmth in the arms of my lover. I love and I am loved. It is my heart that is the source of my greatest pain, and my brightest happiness, and in matters of the heart I have been fortunate indeed.

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

Dissociation is a super power

“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.

Using Anchors to manage Triggers – Multiplicity

I’ve been writing about triggers lately. This post is specifically about how triggers can affect parts for people with multiplicity, it builds on the information I’ve already shared in

  1. Managing Triggers – an overview of how triggers work and many different approaches to managing them
  2. Mental Health needs better PR – the risks and benefits of the different ways we think about triggers and why we want to manage them
  3. Using Anchors to Manage Triggers – exploring how anchors work and can be used to help with triggers around trauma, anxiety, and other distress

Sometimes parts get stuck, inside or outside, and this can cause problems. Sometimes a part may stop coming out when their trigger to do so disappears, and this can be a terrible loss. Perhaps a child part only came out around a favourite aunt who has passed away. Perhaps a quiet, studious part only came out at uni, and now that you’ve finished the course that part has gone missing. I have one who only comes out at night, down the beach. Wounded and different they have retreated from all the rest of our lives and it is moonlight and solitude that calls their name. When I was originally diagnosed and my shrink was hoping to make contact with some of these parts, we told them with despair that a counselling office was not their world and I had no idea how to get them here, or even if that was a good idea. The shrink was likewise baffled about how to engage with parts who only came out at school, or during storms, or in candlelight.

Two things lay beneath this dilemma – a fundamental question of the purpose and direction of therapy – was it about us making ourselves function and presentable in the shrink’s world, or about the shrink being able to follow us into our own… or some kind of collaboration and bridging of this Gap? Was it about illness or a Grand Adventure? The other was simply the lack of awareness on both our and the shrink’s part that triggers can be changed and wielded deliberately.

Sometimes it helps to change the triggers that call parts out. I have one in particular who responds to threat and manages violence. Parts with roles like this can become restless and destructive when things start to improve in your life, because they are inadvertently being written out of the life. As this role is needed less and less, they come out infrequently, sometimes inappropriately, and the rest of the system responds with frustration instead of gratitude. Heroes of the old regime, these parts find there’s no room for them in the new world order. Changing the trigger that calls them out can be a powerful place to start changing or expanding their role to have more life in it.

This can be a simple matter of forming a new association with being out. Every time they are out, to have a new chosen trigger present – someone calling their name, a piece of music, a bracelet, bare feet on grass, pink nail polish. It needs to be something they want and have chosen, something that resonates with them. A trigger that doesn’t evoke a response of some kind, an emotion, a feeling in the body, a memory, a sense of connection – is no trigger at all. In order to work as a trigger, it must evoke something, it must connect with something that is unique to this part and in some way represents them. Over time this trigger becomes more connected to the experience of being out. Once this link has been made, it can start to become strong enough to be used as an anchor, something that can be used to call them out and invite them to be present.

For my system there’s a sense of distance inside, sometimes some parts are close to the surface and easy to call out, while others are far out in the deeps and beyond any call. Some parts always respond to their triggers, others are unpredictable. Each system is unique, and the process is often more organic than mechanical.

Sometimes parts have a difficult time staying present when they want and need to. It might be that other parts are being triggered out, or that they habitually go away inside under certain types of stress. Sometimes some parts just seem to have a tenuous grasp on the moment, in the body, in the world. They are more like smoke on the wind than a plant in the earth. Anchors can help parts to stay present in times when switching would be dangerous, traumatic, or inappropriate such as driving, sex, or delivering a presentation at work. Clothes are an anchor my system often uses to help to keep a part present. If this part has her boots on, or that part her pearls, it’s much easier for them to stay present. Music is another powerful one, and it can have a lingering effect. An hour of listening to P!nk at high volume before leaving the house can be the anchor a part needs to stay present through the morning. Or the right music on the radio in the car can stop a child part switching out when we’re driving.

We were in some training a while ago and struggling badly. The facilitation was extremely poor, and most days at least one student became distressed by bullying behaviour. I spent a lot of time following people into toilets to offer comfort, and biting my lip during lectures. The group dynamics were being encouraged in such a poor direction that distressed students were maligned as ‘low functioning’ and probably unsuitable for study, rather than offered support. Each day that went by I became more enraged. The part who handles threats was constantly triggered, but their expertise is physical threat – violence, sexual assault and the like. This was an incredibly inappropriate environment for them because none of their skills were useful here. They could not physically respond, even by screaming, to the increasing sense of being trapped and forced to watch as people were hurt. In fact all their responses; their obvious pain, their supressed anger, their capacity for action, played against us in this setting. We lacked credibility when we responded this way, tongue tied, vehement, and desperate to escape.

It took a lot of thought but we finally were able to come up with a better approach. A different part who could handle this kind of ‘threat’ that was psychological and subtle rather than physical and overt. Someone who wasn’t afraid and therefore wasn’t sitting at a desk with their adrenaline thrumming. Someone who could speak up without anger in their voice, and who therefore couldn’t be told off for being rude. Someone who could laugh and break tension while speaking our truths. Once we figured this out, we changed which clothes and makeup we wore to the classes, changed where we sat and how we engaged. It was still a deeply unpleasant experience, like being a participant in a social experiment about power. We still had some troubles with the furious part being triggered out. But we had a better approach and were able to finish the course without being reprimanded for any behaviour, without self harming to cope, and without becoming compliant and submissive to the bully. Anchors can be powerful.

Sometimes they can be also be used against us in ways that hurt us. Multiplicity sometimes makes us more vulnerable.

Using Anchors to manage Triggers

Anchor is a term I use to describe deliberately using a trigger to help me function. Triggers get talked about lot in various communities – those of us struggling with various forms of mental illness such as eating disorders, those of us working on recovering from trauma, and those of us with multiplicity. For an overview of triggers and a range of different suggestions about managing them, please start by reading Managing Triggers. This post has stories about using anchors to help manage anxiety, trauma issues, and other ‘mental health’ problems. Information about using anchors to manage things that trigger parts for people with multiplicity is coming in a couple of days.

Some of us just drown in triggers. Our world feels like a giant pinball machine where we are constantly ricocheting back and forth, never able to be still or to direct our own course. Some of us are not this chaotic, but we find our efforts to reach goals and build a good life get randomly capsized by triggers we can’t seem to get a grip on. Sometimes this sensitivity is something we can harness instead of trying to overcome. Sometimes the best way to mental health is to find and use the strength that’s hidden in the ‘weakness’ or vulnerability that’s overwhelming you. If being less reactive to triggers isn’t helping, maybe you can use your reactivity in a useful way. Sometimes the goal isn’t to stop feeling things, it’s to feel things that are helping you build your life.

That’s where anchors come into things. An anchor is a trigger you deliberately use or cultivate to help buffer you from the effects from other triggers. It’s strong enough to overwhelm the impact other triggers have on you.

Here is one of my old anchors:

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Yep, it’s a bag of stones. But not just any stones, MAGIC stones! No, actually, just stones. Ahem. This started when a stressed younger part in my system stole a stone from a potted plant at our shrink’s office. It was something she could look at later, to remind herself of good conversations and a sense of acceptance that we experienced in that place when they seemed unreal and distant. It was a way of finding some Object Constancy. A few other stones were added later, such as one from the garden of the shelter we stayed at the first time we were homeless, as a reminder that we’d survived. They could be carried everywhere, tucked easily in a pocket or the bottom of a bag. They were tactile and comfortable to hold or rub with fingers. And they triggered something, they evoked a strong sense of connection to people, places, and times in my life. When I felt empty and hopeless, that sense of freefalling and disconnection, these anchors reminded me that all those things had really happened. They helped to connect me to my own life story.

I often use perfume as an anchor to literately and deliberately overwhelm my own hypersensitivity to the smell of strangers, which is a strong anxiety trigger for me. I’ve written about this before as part of ways to help manage Using Public Transport. Heightened senses can play a huge role in our sensitivity to triggers, and it’s common for people who have been traumatised or who have PTSD to find that certain senses seem to always be straining, very alert and very receptive. Instead of getting caught in the chronic hyperarousal, with all the frustration and irritability that a sense on high alert all the time can bring, why not see it as a superpower and use it to your advantage? For years the smell and proximity of strangers made public transport, crowds, shopping centres, and concerts almost impossible for me. I spent a long time trying to dull this useless, hypersensitive awareness, trying to make it normal again. I ricocheted between dissociative numbness and agonising sensitivity, flooded with sensation.

I finally started to realise that problem might also be the solution. Scents evoke memory in a powerful way. I once smelled a perfume that took me right back to my childhood, playing in the garden, so powerfully it took my breath away. I think my beloved elderly neighbour must have worn it. I have a bottle of it now myself. It’s very precious to me. When I smell it, I feel loved, and beautiful, and carefree. I started to explore scents. I bought an oil burner, essential oils, and books on how to create blends. I joined forums about fragrances, and discovered a whole world of people for whom scent is a complex ecstasy, people who visited perfume houses, who reminisced about perfumes now unavailable, who . I bought samples of strange perfumes from eBay and discovered that a heightened sense can be a source of delight. I grew fragrant plants in my garden and loved the way I could still smell them hours after brushing past them. I learned how to wear perfume as an anchor, to lift my wrist to my face when the smell of someone very afraid, when the odour of hospital cleaner, when the tang of blood overwhelmed me. Any Sensory Supports can function as anchors if you respond to them.

As a young person struggling in school, I used to carry my journal everywhere. It was one of my first, most successful Grounding Techniques, a place I could honestly express all the intensity that burned in me. I wrote myself into being, wrote myself through pain, back from the edge of self destruction, asked myselves questions and pondered the answers. Tried to make sense of my world. The actual journal itself became an anchor, a physical representation of all that writing meant to me. I could walk back into school with the weight of it in my bag. I held it to my chest like a shield. I used it as Artificial Skin when the world was unbearable.

When struggling with the overwhelming urge to self harm, one of my approaches is the Ink not Blood idea. In very bad times I have painted ink wounds on my arm and bandaged them, and that bandage has become an anchor, something to touch and hold, for fingers to worry at, a physical reminder of pain and of loving choices made when in pain. It is comforting in the way that a healing and tended wound can be comforting for some of us who struggle with self harm.

When I’ve written about managing chronic suicidal feelings, I’ve talked about things I use as talismans against death, things that keep me holding on.

They are my talismans against the dark, and they fail when the darkness is great. I hold one until its light goes out, then I put it back and take out another. The power of feeling suicidal is that it strips meaning from that which means most to us.

Some of these talismans are ideas or experiences or quotes or relationships. All of them trigger something in me, some courage, or hope, or acceptance. Some of them are physical things that could be understood as anchors. They are things that weight my soul in life, that help keep my boat here when the tide is pulling me over the edge of the world. The stub from a concert ticket. The peace lily my friend bequeathed me after she died. A poem on my wrist, or a Ray Bradbury book. A bag of stones. They are things that keep a good, healing story about my life alive for me.

Anchors are about taking your sensitivity to triggers and learning to use it, to hone it like an instrument and play beautiful music with it. They are not always the answer, they are not the only way to manage triggers, and they don’t always work. But they can be beautiful, turning what has been a curse into a blessing. Sometimes we live best when we embrace what it is to be human, to be vulnerable and moved, full of memory and feeling. If the only song triggers ever play in your life is the one of suffering, perhaps it’s time for some new music.

For more information about using triggers to support your mental health if you are multiple, go to Using Anchors to Manage Triggers – Multiplicity.

Dark bodypainting self portraits

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It’s been a rough few days. Yesterday, I barely spoke all day. I remember when I was living in a caravan park, this used to happen. Days in a row would go by in which I was silent, except for my journal, except for the weeping. There’s a relief in it, sometimes. I hide from the world, lock the doors, keep the curtains drawn. My paints sang to me and the day turned into a collage of sleeping, body painting, and photographing myself. When all else makes no sense, make art. I have my souvenirs from the underworld. Yes, it’s strange, but it’s cheaper than hospital. I’m still cleaning paint off the bathroom floor. It’s better than cleaning up blood. These are a small sample of the photos I took.

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So many questions. Why the psychosis? How is it linked to art? Why does creativity, not just any art, but the dark kind, help? How much of this do I need? Can I pre-empt the fraying? How do I fit this into my life plans – a job, sharing a house, becoming a mother, when it’s strange, anti-social, dark? I want to get my camera fixed, the good one, and buy a tripod. I’m supposed to be going back to college soon. I can’t fit it all in. My inks are singing to me. Is this how I heal? Ink not blood, and Wrist poems, and Making art. I don’t know. This is not about pain. There’s something else down the bottom of this well, this rabbit hole. Something I don’t understand. The voice of the night wind perhaps. Something – some one – needing a voice and a place at the table, even if the cup is chipped and the soup is watered down. A sense of freedom from the world, a place where my identity is solely that of ‘artist’.

On thin ice

Yesterday was an okay kind of day, some good stuff, some difficult. I’m home now at the end of it and I’m fragile. I’ve been doing a lot of things lately that asked a lot of bravery of me and perhaps I’ve misjudged somewhere. My head is full of parts who are screaming and I’m massively dissociative and in the early stages of a possible psychosis. I’m deliberately cultivating the dissociation in the hopes that will be protective against the psychosis. It’s a really weird feeling to go from being fine, to that sudden sense of being on very thin ice, where a wrong move will tumble me down a rabbit hole that’s cold, dark, lonely, and populated with nightmares.

I can feel my hands fraying into the night. There’s screaming under the water, and a shrill kind of silence that’s like pressure in my ears. And then, in the next moment, we switch, and there’s breath in my throat again and nothing seems more ridiculous than the suggestion that we’re in any kind of trouble. Breathing in and out and watching the night go from peaceful to terrifying. Not looking at the starless sky. I take three steps back inside my own skin. I pull the ash of the zombie years over my skin, use it to weigh me down so the wind cannot blow me away. I withdraw my consciousness from my hands. These are not my hands, not my fingers, these hives on my wrist are not mine. I am a candle deep inside a lantern of skin.

No crying now, just the little eye roll of the unperturbed. Someone who has to stay up all night with a sick child or creature. Someone stolid, who settles in with a book and a cup of coco, who has brought a blanket to wrap in against the cold, to do what must be done without trauma or exasperation. Tomorrow is another day, it’s another day.

Renovating the house (and bits of my life)

I am darn excited! As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, I’m a ‘change the furniture around’ kind of person. Part of my dissociation is that I find I numb and disconnect to a home that never changes (see Dissociation and tricks of the brain). It doesn’t have to be massive change – a new bunch of flowers or moving a lamp will do. I’m in the middle of a big shift and repair job inside and out that is making me very, very happy.

First off, a new fan! I was given a Bunnings voucher from a friend and went and bought this huge, almost industrial wall fan to hang over my bed. It’s amazing!! Far more powerful than a ceiling fan. When I get one of the other projects done – fencing off the window from outside so I can replace the screen without Zoe destroying it, it will be like a completely different room to sleep in. Happy happy.

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Another project is improving the airflow through the house. Two screens need replacing and the Zoe fence needs building for that.

Zoe free areas in the house – planning to buy child gates second hand online to keep her out of the kitchen and studio. This will also limit the dog hair to certain areas of the house! Well, ~ish.

Renovate my studio. Again. Hurrah! My whole studio has been clogged up by the dog crate, completely inaccessible and filling up with clothes I can’t reach the wardrobe to hang back up. Tonks knocked a set of hollowed egg shells from an old art project called Taboo over and Zoe kindly chewed them into very small bits and scattered them through everything on the floor ie most of my clothes and hats and scarves and shoes and many art projects. So! The new plan is – no pets in the studio, and no table making it hard to access the wardrobe. The table is now gone, as is the dog crate.

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Zoe’s dog crate now lives in the loungeroom where the people are and away from the art supplies. Hurrah! The dining table now lives in the studio where the pets and pet hair is not. This is also a good thing.

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This means Zoe inherits the little fan I was using in my bedroom. 🙂

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A new mattress! Part of a Christmas gift for Rose, I’ve upgraded my rather awful matress for a really nice pillowtop I found at a salvos store that begged me to bring it home and see what it would do for sore backs. So far, it’s been a huge success. 🙂 Upgrading old furniture is an important and fun part of the housekeeping process, especially when you shop in the hard rubbish collections.

The last of the lawn is going! I’ve been in the process of replacing all the lawn in my front yard with a mulched garden bed full of herbs and flowers. My Mum has kindly done most of the work on this as I’ve been crook or flat out busy with work. We’ve brought some more mulch down and the last of the grass is being smothered under cardboard. My first seedlings are planted in a mini greenhouse for sprouting, hopefully I will soon be adding chives, thyme, and other seedlings to the garden.

All the curtain rod hangers in the house need replacing to double hangers suitable for an extra rod for netting. This will stop my curtains falling down every other time they’re opened or closed, and keep the neighbours from watching me cook in the kitchen and so on. A small but important detail that I’m really looking forward to!

My new art studio at Rockabilly BODY is still under construction and coming along really well. Once the walls are up and ready I’ll be off there to paint them and start furnishing it.

So there you have it. A catalogue of renovations and exciting changes. My roses are in full bloom, my figs are fruiting, my home is a bit of a mess but will be good before my rent inspection, all going to plan, and my heart is happy. 🙂 I know it seems crazy that it’s so crowded when I live alone in a 2 bedroom unit but between the 2 cats, the dog, Rose being around a lot, entertaining friends and family, and that I’m living here, using a room as a professional arts studio, using another room for my Temporary Body Art business stock/kit/paperwork, storing my library, and running the DI out of the place, my challenges to fit it all in using cheap or free furniture and limited energy are more understandable. Hopefully the new arrangements and also the new studio might improve things a bit, not to mention Rose and my sister moving in nearby when they find a place! 🙂

On setting goals for a new year

2013 is finished. It’s been a mad, mad year. I’ve learned a hell of a lot. I’ve lost a couple of friends, one to suicide and two to fights. I’ve learned how to actually critique criticism that’s sent my way, to evaluate it on the basis of my own values – to take in what would bring me closer to my values, and ignore what would take me further from them. It’s only taken me 30 years and it’s not perfect but WOW what a difference skills like this can make. I’m finally starting to wrap my head around the idea of adulthood in a way that’s exciting instead of skin crawling. Awesome.

One skill I do have that I’m often asked about is goal setting. This is always fun for a multiple because there’s so many, and very divergent, goals, needs, and desires. Every year for the past 5 or so years, I write up a goal list. It’s not a list of resolutions. It’s about things I want to do or try or learn, and it’s there as a reference, partly to help guide choices, and partly to try and make sure no one part’s goals are constantly forgotten. Every year I get some goals done and others get added to the year after or left behind as circumstances change. Every year I’m surprised by some wonderful unexpected opportunities that open up that weren’t on my goal list and I go through those open doors and enjoy a life that isn’t always planned and doesn’t always turn out how I think it will. This is how goals work best for me – as guiding lights. They are the things that help me seek after things I desire in life. I’m always happy to be waylaid, and some goals remain frustratingly out of reach. But there are so many things I love and want to do, this isn’t the end of the world.

So, for example, back in 2011 my personal goals list included items such as:

  • Establish myself as an independent artist
    • get an ABN
    • make a website
    • start a blog
    • arrange business cards
    • attend MYOB training at WEA
    • attend any other available training about business for artists
  • Continue with ACA visual arts degree in Semester 2
  • Continue working with MIFSA/as a peer worker
  • try to pick up about 2 days p/wk total workload
  • Continue working with the Dissociative Disorders workgroup
    • possibly develop a talk for THEMHS
  • Arrange suitable short-medium term living quarters
    • shed?
    • caravan?
  • Apply for training with Lifeline to become a telephone counsellor
  • Apply for training with Radio Adelaide/Poets on Air
  • Take back up Sunflower Shop voluntary position if time permits
  • Publish or get ready for publication a booklet of poems and an introduction to managing DID
  • Investigate becoming a mentor or foster carer with Life Without Barriers
  • Take up learning Japanese
  • Explore Japanese style ink paintings and poetry
  • Develop my camera skills
    • create a portfolio of work based on Singapore trip
  • Develop work for exhibition
    • SAW
    • Mental Health Week
  • Continue to develop my health support system
    • find and begin work with a good psychiatrist
    • continue building my personal library
    • continue to investigate options for health, buteyko, chiro, massage, diet etc
  • Pick up at least one form of regular physical exercise
    • dance
    • pilates
    • martial art/self defense
    • cycling
    • walking
  • Continue to develop social networks – major goal to have at least one physical location (however small) and one person for each member of my system to feel safe and at home with.
    • goth community
    • alternative/hippy community
    • christian community (maybe salvos?)
    • creative community
    • DID/MH support
    • gay/queer/trans community
    • dating and friends

Some of these things were far easier to pull off than others. When life had so many barriers and so few needs being met, I found it was far more effective to focus energy on the goals that were proving easier to meet rather than impose my own hierarchy on them. I also found that sometimes obvious sequences of goals were not that way at all – for example I expected that I would find housing, do a degree, then get work. Things worked differently for me. Housing was phenomenally difficult, whereas I found many passions and work opportunities (usually unpaid, admittedly) first. So part of what makes goal lists work for me is that they are only ideas to navigate by, not things I MUST do or things to make myself feel shame about. I still haven’t taken up Japanese, and I’m okay with that! Maybe I will one day, maybe I’ll never get to it.

I also break my goals down into very small steps. If I try very hard to reach a goal and can’t, I haven’t made the step small enough. For example, I had a number of failed attempts to get back to uni after becoming very unwell and derailing my life plans. Each of these attempts took up all my time and energy, and each time the sense of failure was profound and massively eroding my confidence and sense of hope. I finally decided that this was too big a jump – from bed bound by illness to university. So I did smaller steps. I started to do one day classes at the local WEA. Then I took on two day classes. Then classes that lasted over three or four weeks. I got myself back into routines of travelling to a place to learn each week, of finding my materials from last week, doing homework, navigating parking and the lifts and new people. Then classes that ran over a term. Finally I graduated to term long Tafe ‘Short Courses’, and then I took on semester long classes as an external student, from the visual arts degree in college I wanted to get into. Finally, I enrolled in the degree. I have finished exactly half of my first year so far, and it’s slow and difficult, and I love it, and I’m often very sick and unable to attend. This process has been humbling and frustrating and time consuming, but ultimately far more successful and exciting.

Without To Do lists my life would be impossible. I’m a dissociative multiple who struggles to track information and I have many projects going at once in different life areas. My goals list is another way I check out how things are going in major life domains – social, spiritual, work… and to remind myself about important new journeys I want to take – whether that’s finding a friend to go to the goth clubs with, or exploring the local permaculture groups. Sometimes life is best navigated by going where it takes you. Sometimes you need to run into it, go exploring, try something new, and find new passions, friends, ideas, and experiences to speak to your soul. Goals are best when they are in service of a great life, congruent with your values, and easily cast aside when they come into conflict with values. It’s about living thoughtfully, giving consideration to the life we build every day, so often without thinking about it or realising that our ‘normal’ is a choice and we can make other choices. This is not about success or failure, it’s about maps and star charts and sailing the high seas, about tacking into the wind and setting forth to have a meaningful life.

Power shifts in a multiple system

I gave a couple of talks recently about supporting people through a dissociative crisis (more info and resources here). Some of this talk was focused on supporting people who have parts, and explored some common crisis points for people with parts. One of these I described as ‘civil war’ – ie major power shifts and fights between different parts.

Many people with parts or with DID are a mix of aware and unaware of other parts. An internal war like this can be very similar to the kind of massive conflict that everyone can also go through when there’s a lot of stress and contradictory frameworks for how to respond to it. Sometimes the fighting is as clear and overt as Paul hates the way Sky is running things and her choices about friends or career, and has decided he would do a better job. Sometimes the struggle is underground, messy and confusing and conflicted. When parts are at war with each other they can do a pretty effective job of tying the shoelaces of every other part so that no one can function very well and no one gets any needs met. If this is intense and continues for a long time, profound distrust, loathing, terror, confusion, and dysfunction can result. On the other hand, if one or two parts are more powerful and able to dominate, they can effectively become dictators to the rest of the system. If they are compassionate and caring of weaker and more vulnerable parts their leadership can create great stability and peace. If they are brutal and uncaring awful abuses can occur.

Power is an interesting concept to define in regards to how a multiple system works. It can mean different things. Sometimes having the most life skills gives a part power because all other parts will have to allow a switch at some point to be able to manage life. Sometimes it can be having the ability to stay ‘out’ in the body the longest. Sometimes it’s force of personality, or the capacity to be heard by all the other parts as a voice and so influence them, or the ability to chose which parts can come out and when, or being the most frightening part, or being a part most other parts trust and put faith in, or having a lot of environmental triggers that bring a part out often, or getting along the best with the therapist or other people with power in their world, or having been around a long time, and so on. Some forms of power are the same kinds of power we see in any group of people such as the person who knows a great deal and who’s opinions are therefore treated with respect. Some forms of power are quite specific to the way internal multiple communities can work with regards to switching and control over each other.

People with DID have often come through some pretty awful things. Many of us have had little or no experience with healthy communities. Many of us have had little or no experience with the responsible and ethical exercise of power. So it’s no surprise that sometimes our internal communities are structured in ways that partly work and partly cause harm. If all our role models for strength, leadership, and power were abusive, ineffectual, unaware, or disconnected, it’s a challenge for parts to use their strength and power in ways that are connected, insightful, and empathic. If all our experience of group dynamics is that the strongest get their needs met while the weaker ones struggle, the really vulnerable get humiliated and tortured, and the alienated ones rebel, of course we find similar dynamics in our own systems. One of the challenges of being part of a multiple system is to help the structure become one that brings out the best in each part. Many multiples are a complex combination of some great internal dynamics and some awful. The more awful the dynamics often the more intense the suffering, and sometimes the more severe the dysfunction.

In speaking of my own system, I’ve been through a number of major power shifts, some of which were extremely distressing and some of which have been brilliantly helpful. One of the first civil wars for us was when we were 10. 10 was a bad year. People died. Pets ran away and didn’t come home. We moved house. More pets died. Sarah, ie all of us, crashed. The rather fragile sense of emotional security we’d managed to develop was completely swept away. Death bowled us over like a flash flood through a house of sticks. We became paranoid and suicidal. We started self harming in a creative variety of ways. We decided that we could no longer cope with bullying and loneliness at school and did whatever it took to be ill enough to not have to attend. Chronic, severe tonsillitis led to recurrent hospitalisations, tonsillectomy, and severe secondary infections as our immune system struggled. Nightmares became intense, often we would be sleepless and walk through the house at nights checking on sleeping family members to make sure they had not died. We developed elaborate plans for fighting, restraining, or poisoning possible home intruders who might try to kill a family member. In short, it was a catastrophic collapse of the approaches we had been using to navigate life until then. Crisis.

War ensured. Two primary powerful parts with completely different frameworks tore everyone to pieces in a tug of war over who’s approach was best. One of the parts was primarily concerned with ethics and moral behaviour. She’d been educated in sunday school in a deeply unbalanced ‘turn the other cheek’ way where love, self sacrifice, self hate, and shame were deeply entangled. She was also highly empathic and intelligent and understood that surviving was more than a bodily thing, it was about remaining recognisably human. Her deepest fear was making life choices that meant she could no longer have respect for herself as a person. The other part was primarily concerned with survival. She was lonely and disconnected and made choices in the absence of grounding relationships. She had a pragmatic approach to philosophical challenges such as ‘is it better to be a dead pacifist or a live, lapsed pacifist’ and was unhesitating in responding to violence, deprivation, or abuse rapidly and without concerning herself with ethical frameworks to understand or justify her choices. She could stand up to any authority figure if she believed they were wrong on the basis of gut instinct, and either take punishment or run from it. Her deepest fear was death or being trapped.

We have since come to understand that these very different perspectives are both vital. They balance each other and are both needed. At the time however, all hell broke loose as we began to shift from being ruled by twisted ethics to being ruled by anything goes if it helps us survive. We radically changed our sense of what was acceptable behaviour, for example, parts began stealing, while other parts became suicidal with shame about the stealing which they had only the vaguest and most confusing of senses was not actually being done by them. The brain was a battleground while the body was under assault. The head noise was unbearable, and the sense of disconnection not only from peers or family, but from all other humans, became profound.

TW for religious content

We had terrifying experiences of co-consciousness and became secretly convinced that we were possessed by the devil. On occasions we’d lock ourselves in the bathroom and stand in front of the mirror and watch the switching happen, where the face was the same but the eyes were no longer my eyes, and try to work out how something that felt so profound internally as a switch could make so little visible change from outside. Some parts developed a terror of the mirror and became convinced that another girl lived in it and pretended to be us. We had a psychotic fear that if she walked out of the frame first we would be trapped within the mirror as a reflection and she would inhabit our life. Mirrors became fascinating and terrifying daily encounters with something deeply confusing about ourselves we had no language to explain. Religious experiences within a pentecostal Christian church deepened beliefs of possession and demonic power, and terror that we could not be cured, were personally directly responsible for all suffering and evil in the world and the crucifixion of god, and were beyond redemption. Self harm and painful medical experiences served as self punishment and torture for being evil, and helped to keep suicide at bay. Other parts took on nihilistic beliefs instead that made them suicidally depressed.

End TW

This particular war settled when the twisted ethics part won the upper hand again. A number of things led to this, intense experiences of shame, punishment, and a particular conversation with an adult who was desperately important to her who told her that due to her behaviour they no longer believed that she loved them, and she would have to work hard to be obedient and good enough to prove this to them. As this spoke directly to her worst fears she gathered all her strength in a desperate effort for dominance and won. Life returned to the profound dark/light split of the compliant and rebellious who operated independently and knew little of each other. Stable, but remaining profoundly unhappy, different parts gathering various symptoms of a person in a state of extreme distress, and chronically suicidal.

As an example of a different kind of power shift, we once found ourselves homeless and on the run from an abusive relationship. The part who had been running most of the day to day life was exhausted, broken hearted, and suffering from intense anxiety. The rest of us were becoming increasingly frustrated with her dominant role considering her incapacity. She was used to her role and did not trust anyone else to be as competent. (for more about this, see Understanding Roles) After a great deal of arguing, the rest of us teamed up and deliberately moved her to a place deep in the system, far from the surface, where she could not be triggered out. This was never intended to be permanent and was not done with malice. Then we proceeded to celebrate our newfound freedom and start learning some new skills and discovering what we liked to do.

After a short time things started to go badly wrong. Burying this part so deep had an unexpected side effect. Dissociative containment between her and the rest of us started to break down. Her intense anxiety began to flood the whole system. Parts who by their confident (some might say cocky) nature, simply don’t experience anxiety started having panic attacks. They were not only inexperienced and ill equipped to handle this, it deeply threatened their sense of sense and was putting the whole system at risk of extreme dysfunction.

We quickly brought the anxious part back out to the front of the system, and containment reasserted itself. But the experience was not wasted. Rather than being angry or frightened at her treatment, she was relieved that we’d proved we could function without her intense over involvement. Like a worn out mother of adult children who had displayed surprising capacity she began to step back more and more and allow other parts to take on more roles and skills. Many other parts were made eager by their taste of a life that was direct and personal rather than vicarious and second hand, and they keenly enjoyed the opportunity to develop and grow with more time out. This power shift was slower, but far more stable and effective.

As this is getting very long, I’ll continue in another post. The third power shift I want to share about was as a result of diagnosis and interacting with the mental health system, and it too has proved to be very stable and useful.

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

I am a Tardis

Yesterday was very hard. I woke early because my bedroom retains heat badly and after several days over 40C it was a sweat box this morning. I was weeping with frustration and exhaustion after efforts to rig a temporary screen so I could keep the window open overnight while Zoe was indoors (she destroys it when she’s outdoors) and to drag my small but awkward portable fan into the room, followed by a cold shower still left me dripping with sweat and sleepless.

Work was a 7 hour gig which turned out to be incredibly busy. Rose worked it with me and fell into all the traps I struggled with at first in this line of work, not stretching or taking enough breaks or moving her injured leg around often enough. By the end of the day we were both sitting in the car park in horrible pain and completely exhausted.
Some of the parents were depressingly scary and aggressive with their kids, and the last guy in my line, who’s kid I’m painting after my finish time, unpaid, because they had been in the line, laughs at me when I wince in pain and jibes about how ‘hard’ a job where you sit around all day must be.

Years ago during a time of crisis in my life, pre diagnosis with DID, I can clearly recall one of us saying to the rest of the parts – any of you who will not survive what is going to happen over the next few months, go. Hide in burrows and caves. Come back later. I’ll get us through this. At the time it made little sense to me, but sure enough all our inner kids and more vulnerable or hopeful and gentle parts disappeared for a long time, and severe dissociation descended.

Fast forward to the small hours of the morning now, several intense and distressing conversations with no resolution later and my head is finally almost calm. There’s been screaming and weeping and now a kind of quiet. No one has hidden in burrows. Things are not all okay yet either. Some of us are holding the fort. Some are deep inside, ships far out at sea where their pain can’t harm. Sometimes all us parts are close together, bunched up tight listening to each others thoughts and watching life over each others shoulders. Sometimes we’re spread far apart. At the moment I feel like there are whole deserts and jungles and oceans between us.

Tonight I am a Tardis, much bigger on the inside.

And so we hope. We hurt, safely. We bring what skills we can to the present, what gentleness this easing of pressure inspires. We drink bitter drinks to ground, lay naked in the dark, surrender to the demands of sleep.

Thoughts about peer work and DID and community

It is incredibly hot here again. It’s currently 42.3C and I feel like my face is melting. Hot weather and I do not get along since I developed fibromyalgia. So I’m home, in front of my little portable air con, preparing for my drive off to Mifsa to give the talk Supporting Someone in a Dissociative Crisis this evening. Apparently I decided the best way to prepare for this would be to spend the day on the net getting into big conversations with people.

I’m getting frustrated again that I can’t blog as much as I want to. I have so many things I want to share, my list of posts to write goes into several pages. I’m still hoping to find time to blog about all the great talks I got to hear from at the World Hearing Voices Congress last month. And I’m often in amazing conversations, taking down quotes to write about later but so rarely get to come back to them. I think part of the problem is that often the topics I’m wanting to write about are big ones – suicide, multiplicity, sexuality and so on – and I really want to do a decent job. Sometimes I let myself just spiel and post, but often, especially if it’s a post that I’m hoping will have useful information in it instead of just a bit of a glimpse into my own thoughts and life – it’s not something I can write in a moment. I need to get several parts to read over it, I try and edit it from very different perspectives, and I try and include links to other information or resources when I’ve found them. That’s not a short process. I wish it was. Or I wish I was paid for writing them so I could more easily carve out time each week for those kinds of posts. Which I guess kind of brings me back to my idea about writing a book…

What do you think? A book is a great thing. You can borrow it from a library or friend. You can pick it up and put it down and carry it around with you. You can underline bits and cross things out and write your own thoughts in the margins. But a blog is good too – it’s always free, especially if you use the net at the local cafe or library. You can even contact the author or write comments underneath. It’s a growing, evolving process, with small bites of information. I like the format, it has a lot going for it.

So, today I was talking online with a friend about internet safety, and scams, and how important it is for people to be aware, and I thought to myself I keep hearing this word awareness. I hear it all the time around the ‘days’ we have like the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women or raising awareness about MS, or how to talk with people in wheelchairs without driving them nuts. I have a whole stack of physical and psychiatric stuff going on, and my awesome friends likewise, I still have no hope of remembering everything I’m supposed to be aware of. I find myself wondering if a different approach wouldn’t be more helpful – like a ‘how to engage stuff you don’t know much about in a way that doesn’t drive people crazy’ approach. How to generally be a helpful person open to hearing new things you hadn’t considered instead of trying to be aware of every illness, condition, social concern, and so on.

Isn’t this partly what we’re doing in spaces like Hearing Voices groups – the facilitators don’t have to understand everyone’s different perspective or experience, they are just trying to hold a safe respectful space where everyone can speak for themselves and engage each other… maybe we can support better and more respectful ways of engaging with things we haven’t personally experienced that are easier than massive lists of things to be aware of? Even as someone working to raise awareness of mental health experiences such as multiplicity I think this. Maybe if we work together to create a model for engaging with our diverse communities we can relieve some of the burden of anxiety so many of us feel when we are aware we lack awareness and wind up not engaging or falling over our own feet with stress worrying that we’re being unintentionally wildly offensive or upsetting.

On that note… I read a blog post today where a person with DID is expressing deep frustration with some current ‘awareness raising’ stuff going on over in the UK that they feel falls so far short of the mark that it’s actually worse than the usual ignorance and myths about DID. I felt that Bourbon made some really good points about issues with sensationalism in the media, and misconceptions about how parts can function and overlap. I recommend going over to have a read of it – What is DID? (a response to media campaigns). When Bourbon started talking about their (gender neutral as I’m not sure of pronoun preference) perception of what DID actually is, I was concerned. Here’s a brief quote from the end of the article:

In reality, those with DID feel far from special and intruiging.  A life with DID is actually spent hiding away, keeping yourself as small as possible so you don’t get noticed.  There is often so much fear and pain and confusion coursing around you and the whole system it can feel like you are paralysed.  Of course there are teeny tiny moments when life with DID doesn’t feel THAT BAD, but that can only really be fully appreciated when you take note of the alternative extreme lows.

This is where I feel deeply concerned. I don’t know Bourbon, I’ve read a little of their blog today, some of the earlier posts have been made private but they’ve been writing for awhile and I can see a whole lot of work going into being open and supportive about a life with DID and all the challenges that can pose. It’s always difficult to try and respond as respectfully as possible to someone who’s clearly upset about something that really hurts them, while disagreeing with them. We had a bit of a conversation in the comments before they closed them for a break (which is brilliant, and something I wish I’d thought of with this blog instead of closing the comments entirely for the first 2 years. Although sadly that meant it ate my last reply which was quite long and thought through, sigh). I thought I’d share my thoughts about this here too, because there are some amazing people, like Bourbon, out on the net and in their communities, all trying to raise awareness and share information. And yet so often we make each other uncomfortable in some way, or somehow our stories obscure other people’s stories that are very different. It’s not an easy situation, there’s a lot of effort and goodwill and yet the community as a whole can quickly fracture instead of pulling together.

I was going to just pull a few quotes from our conversation in the comments, but then it seemed like that could be picking and choosing to make things fit my perspective best. So I thought I’d quote the lot instead, although I haven’t run that part Bourbon (as they’ve currently closed the comments and I have no way of contacting them). The comments and blog post are both public and I’ve linked to it so I don’t think that will be a concern. Correct me if I’ve got that wrong!

Sarah:

I get that you are really pissed off and feeling unheard but I was uncomfortable with some of the ways you were presenting DID too. I think for me (as someone with DID) one of the ones I wanted to speak to is your statement that having DID is primarily about suffering, with only tiny moments of relief. That really distresses me. I absolutely get that pain and distress is a HUGE amount of the picture for many, many people, but that doesn’t speak to my experience. I suffer when I’ve been hurt and traumatised, and I’m in terrible pain when things have gone appalling wrong in my life with things like homelessness, but it’s not my DID that makes me suffer. That’s a subtle difference but for me, an important one. When anguish and agony are presented as normal – even inevitable and inescapable daily realities for everyone with DID, that worries me. I think we accidentally set people up for much worse experiences when they don’t hear other stories and ways of thinking about their situation. When we expect suffering we miss opportunities for joy and hope and delight and wonder. I don’t think it has to be this way – and that certainly hasn’t been the story of my own life 

Bourbon:

I’m really pleased for you that your DID doesn’t cause great suffering in your life now and I am sorry that you feel distressed by me pointing out that a lot of DID is pain and confusion. Don’t think I don’t delight in the fact that one of my littles experiences true joy for half an hour when with my therapist, or I am not appreciative of the fact that I have an alter who reacts quickly to external danger from other people. But at the moment, whilst I am engaging in heavy duty trauma therapy, this is not what my DID is primarily about. I experience joy in my life that has nothing to do with my DID – and that is what is important for me. Life outside of a disorder is important to me.

I take your point that educating people with all the negatives/realities of DID MAY set people up for worse experiences in their own lives – but what I am not going to do is exaggerate and ‘liven up’ the positives in the eye of the public at the expense of showing what DID is like for a lot of sufferers. Like I said, there are little moments when life with DID doesn’t feel that bad; and maybe I could have actually given some examples, like I have done above, but that is as far as it goes.

Reality with DID is tough. Yes our attitude can soften the edges (because even a little having fun in therapy can be viewed as a negative to the disorder – who actually WANTS to be in a 26 year old body but behaving like a 5 year old?) but the public doesn’t need to be educated about our attitude. They need to be educated about the facts, the symptoms, the reality. Attitude is a side-line; not a focus.

Sarah:

What you’ve said here is that you’re doing heavy duty trauma work and that is painful as all out. I don’t see that as being about the DID, if you’d been awfully traumatised and didn’t have DID you would still be hurting like hell and having some horrible therapy sessions. For me they are separate things – the experience of being multiple and the experience of having been chronically traumatised. While they can be deeply connected it’s not the DID that is hurting. Reality as someone who has been deeply hurt is tough. That doesn’t haven’t to be reality with DID. Yes there’s confusion and shame and challenges, I’m really not making light of that. But then, there is for all life, however we experience it. Challenges like how to feel alive, how to connect with communities, how to learn more about who we are, these are universal quests and struggles, experienced as much by people with deafness, people from backgrounds with money and power, people whose babies die young, as they are for people with DID – and for people who used to have DID. The specific challenges might be unique but the call to find ways to live well with others and ourselves is the same. So I don’t see this as ‘just’ an attitude. It’s an essential aspect of what it is to be human. When we tell ourselves that suffering is our lot we lose the capacity to engage life in any other way. When we hold up as examples other people who share experiences with us and write off their lives as being primarily about pain we shut down other ways our communities can live.

Years ago, when I was early in the stages of diagnosis, deeply distressed and struggling to find a therapist to work with, I called Lifeline one night. I was in the early stages of working with a new therapist who’s approach I was finding deeply distressing. By luck I spoke with this guy who actually knew something about DID. He encouraged and supported me while I wrestled with this dilemma – keep working with a therapist who was approaching DID in a way that felt completely wrong for me, or go against all the advice I’d read about how you MUST have therapy to heal from DID and walk away knowing it might be months or years before I found another one? He said something to me that has always stayed with me “Just because you’re split, doesn’t mean they’re (other people) whole. You can choose to engage this experience as an illness, or you can go on a grand adventure of self discovery.” (which will of course sometimes also be painful and confronting and so on, like all adventures)

Being invited to think about DID in a different way has been life saving for me, in that I have a life with DID. I don’t think of myself as disordered because I have parts. I don’t think of my parts as symptoms of my illness, which made me fear and resent them. I struggle and suffer at times. I also have amazing and wonderful experiences at times. Playing co-consciously with a 5 year old part was a profoundly moving moment for me, because I’ve spent years getting over my sense of shame and humiliation about having a 5 year old part. So much of what we with DID are wrestling with are things that everyone who has been hurt are wrestling with, and things that everyone who is trying to be human are wrestling with. We don’t have to sell people an idea about DID that is about sickness and anguish, not to each other and not to the public.

Bourbon:

I understand the distinction you are making. I really do. I first started blogging on here saying that I was going to refuse to call it dissociative identity disorder because it isn’t a disorder. But since realising the turmoil me and my system are in day to day then I realise how much of a disorder it is. It seems to me your experience of multiplicity isn’t just about trauma. Fantastic. You’ve built a life outside of that. But my DID is all about trauma. We are riddled with it. My system operates by way of abuse. What I mean by that is abuse is still going on, internally because that is what we grew up believing was the norm. It sounds like you are so much further along your healing that you have made peace with your past and become close to your system. I’m young and only two years into my diagnosis. But I am in therapy with an excellent therapist who has been working with DID for twenty years and one who has written books on the subject. So maybe I will find a way to live with DID in joy like you have. Or maybe I will integrate and be cured of this disorder. Who knows where life will take us? Personally, I hope I’m integrated. But we all know, well all DID’ers do, that is a choice.

I appreciate your words. You are very uplifting and hopeful and maybe this post does need a bit of that so thank you for dropping some with us. It hasn’t gone to waste.

Moral of the story: there are positives and negatives to everything (however large or slight) and BOTH need to be expressed if you are wanting to educate the public about DID to give a fair picture.

This is such a thought provoking conversation for me and something I’ve given a lot of consideration to over the years. I really appreciated the way Bourbon heard me out and didn’t get defensive. I have such respect for that willingness to engage with opinions and difference. It’s not easy, especially when you’re already feeling hurt and unheard yourself. I see so much divisiveness in so many communities I care about. I’m coming to the conclusion that it is such a huge challenge to create and be part of healthy communities with diverse members because most of us have never experienced that or even seen it before. Many of the people I come across in my peer work are being abused or belittled by their communities, they are at the bottom of their family and friend social heirachies, low ranking at work or unable to work, isolated from people like themselves and suffering from the impacts of all of these things such as low self esteem, depression, and self hate – all of which are seen as personal deficits by the mental health system rather that social issues. I’m reading an amazing book The Still Point of the Turning World, written by Emily Rapp about her experiences having a terminally ill young child. She talks about her rage at being dehumanised and having her experience, and her son, treated as a case study, as an example of the worst possible thing that can happen to someone, something to make other people feel better about their own lives. She talks about life as a Dragon Mother, her description of the unique agony and priviledge of loving and caring for a dying child. And I think again of The Gap, of how many gaps there are. Of a world of people who are living and hurting, who are divided rather than united by those most human of experiences – pain, suffering, loss, loneliness. 

Then I think about how fractious so many of communities of hurting people are. Love and acceptance start to be treated as limited resources that everyone’s in competition over. The division of people into the camps – people with problems/people who can help – dehumaises both groups as the helpers burn out and the ones with ‘problems’ never have the opportunity to recognise their own gifts of love and compassion. I see a lot of these kind of fractured communities, corporations that work on what is effectively a class structure – with separate facilities, entrances, work and rest areas for each level of client/volunteer/worker/management/upper management and strict rules about how each class is to engage those ‘above or below’ their own. I am at times contacted by hurt and angry members of other DID support groups who want to inform me that a certain member has been removed from their network for ‘faking’ DID or not having ‘real’ DID. I see a lot of hurt, angry, lonely people desperate for someone to reach out to them who alienate everyone who tries to. I keep coming back to an idea – that those of us who are alienated, alienate. Having experienced abusive communities, we reject new ones, or we rebuild new ones with the same imbalances and flaws we’re familiar with and just exchange the roles. It’s such a risk for everyone who feels hurt and disconnected, including me.

Then I think about the challenges of the entire issue of how we as a culture engage with diversity and disability. I’ve written before about whether mental illness is a disability. I drew upon two other communities to explore some of my ideas – that of the Deaf community and that Autie/Aspie communities. I have had brushes but not extensive contact with either groups so my ideas may be uninformed and ignorant – but that’s partly my point – the impressions those of us who have little contact with the communities develop are based party on the most vocal peers who have engagement with the media (and partly on the media itself but that’s another post). So, in this conversation with Bourbon, am I the equivalent of a person with a disability who is not suffering because of it, accidentally drowning out the voice of a more vulnerable person who IS suffering and who desperately needs better supports and resources?

I’ve wrestled with many of these things on this blog – the tension in trying to be seen as a whole person in The Disability Tango. Challenging conventional and sanitised stories of recovery in Recovery is not a one-way street. The risks and usefulness of using labels to describe behaviour and vulnerabilities in Labels – helpful or harmful? About my ambivalence about the way mental illness tangles good and bad experiences together and the way mental health is presented as being ‘normal’ in Mental health needs better PR. I’ve also done my own getting really angry about the limitations of diagnosis and how DID is understood and presented such as Introducing DID brochure and unplanned rant.

So, what is my role? What is a responsible way to present DID? How do I make sure that the voice I have is being put the best possible use? How do we build diversity into the stories we tell about conditions and experiences? I do a few things already – such as whenever I give a talk about DID or dissociation or hearing voices (and so on, or facilitate a group) I love to present with another peer worker whenever I can, and for preference I like to choose someone who has a really different experience from me. I presented at TheMHS with Cary and we deliberately wrote our ‘my story’ experiences to highlight the ways in which we were different (eg. I’ve never been in psych hospital, Cary has had many stays; I find gardening grounding and hate the gym, Cary kills plants by being in the same room with them and runs every morning almost without fail even if she’s injured). I try to write a ‘People with DID are not all the same’ paragraph into every resource I create and explore some of the common differences to reduce the impact that the way my system works has on people’s idea of what ‘normal’ DID is. I love to do as much community consultation as possible when I’m working because so many other people have experiences or ideas I would never have thought of and I learn so much all the time. So that’s a start.

To this other topic – does me talking about DID as if it isn’t all about suffering help or harm other people with DID? As far as my own life goes – it just has to be authentic. I can’t pick an ideal ‘outcome’ and try to pretend my life story speaks to it, anymore than it’s fair to try and force an exhausted and overwhelmed peer worker to try and give messages of hope they can’t currently believe in. All we really have is honesty, as much of it as we are willing to share with each other. And for me, DID is a disability in that it is something about me that is different, for which I need care and support and room to function to the best the way I do. This is a little bit like the difference between creating prosthetic legs that are designed to look as normal as possible and help people fit in and help other people feel comfortable, and designing ones that look and function very differently to a human leg, but allow the person to run marathons. And that’s still coming from a DID is a deficit caused by trauma – model, which doesn’t fit everyone’s experience.

There is profound suffering for many, many people who have DID. The level of stigma for this experience is beyond anything else I have seen in mental health. When a psychologist was in the year long process of diagnosing me, I spent most of that time arguing and trying to convince him I had Borderline Personality Disorder instead. For any of us who know about the extreme prejudice which which many people with BPD and their families are treated by the Mental Health system, this should shock you. I’ve written a little more about this over at the DI page Why are we needed? My people, people like me, are in terrible pain, suffering appalling stigma and discrimination, living in secrecy and fear. Largely ignored and unacknowledged by the wider community and mental health system, people are stuck, in pain, and dying.

So why don’t I equate DID with this suffering? How can I be so indifferent to it? Because correlation is not causation. I do not believe that this anguish is a necessary result of having DID, while at the same time I acknowledge that it is the painful lived experience of many people. A massive amount of this pain is about trauma. Another massive amount of is about stigma and disconnection from community. And the last huge whack of it is about DID systems that are modelled upon dysfunctional communities. This is where my work comes in especially, because the framework we are currently provided to understand DID is, in my opinion, dangerously limited. People are being told they ‘must’ have an inner self helper. People are being told they CANNOT get ‘better’ without 5 years minimum of weekly therapy (and that if they can’t get it they are just screwed). People are being told that having parts means they are sick, that hearing voices means they are sick, that wellness is about being ‘normal’. People are being told that dissociation cannot be cured. People are being told that DID is all about suffering.

We know that there are issues with people living to their labels in DID as in other things. I don’t believe that DID is inherently about suffering, and I don’t believe that people are well served when this is the story we tell. The DID story is deeply tangled with that of suffering but I don’t believe that collapsing the two together helps people. I was utterly incapacitated by these ideas when I was newly diagnosed. I started off very gung-ho once I accepted the diagnosis – I was going to be one of those rare, wonderful patients who did everything right and progressed through therapy at a spectacular rate and was integrated and back studying my psychology degree in a year. I was terrified that most of the DID autobiographies I read ended with people still in a massive amount of pain and unable to work or keep their primary relationships etc. I was tied up in knots by the insistence on a ‘host’ or ‘primary’ or ‘core’ person and the way parts kept getting shuffled into a hierarchy when that felt so so wrong for us. I was scared and alone. I really wished I could talk to other people who had the same things going on, even better to talk to someone else who was maybe a bit further along than I was, maybe a little less scared. I decided to out myself and become a peer worker so that I could try and be that person for other people, to humanise and reduce fear – others’ fear of us, and our fear of ourselves. To some extent, choices I made such as refusing to give out a system map or let anyone know our individual part names was because we now perceived that the standard approach to DID was now the greatest threat to having the kind of life we wanted to lead. Where once that threat was experiences of abuse, it was now the treatment. We grasped onto the lifeline guy’s phrase – ‘A Grand Adventure of Self Discovery’ and used it to navigate every ‘treatment’ offered to us. When ‘trauma recovery’ treatment was more agonising than the original trauma we walked away. When ‘mental health’ was presented as a greyland of limited emotional range and hyprocritical superiority over all the other ‘sick people’ we built our own ideas about health and recovery. When DID was presented as the worst of all possible disorders, impossible to navigate independently, needing extensive treatment from experts, a humiliating, painful, and protracted process of recovery, we asked ourselves is this how we want to spend the next ten years of our life?

What I keep seeing is that when people are supported to find their own paths, instead of being fit into boxes, amazing things happen. I see people who get to have experiences of healthy communities and model their internal communities on those principles – love, fairness, diversity, respect – and these people are not suffering because of their DID. I keep seeing that when people are exposed to ideas about freedom and joy and community, where they are not alone any more, healing and hope can occur. I think that it is extremely important to make room for people who find the psychological model that DID is a mental illness and that they suffer from a disorder, useful and helpful to them. But there are so many people who don’t find that approach helpful, who get hampered by the illness model and can’t find hope or joy or relief from pain when their parts are presented as symptoms of a sickness, that I can’t use this framework in my peer work. Like telling people who’ve had two psychotic episodes they have ‘schizohprenia’ and will suffer from it for the rest of their lives – it’s not only inaccurate it’s such a disservice to the person.

If we struggle against the effects of stigma, if we build better resources and community responses to trauma, if we try to prevent abuse, if we create and model healthy inner and outer communities; I do not believe suffering has to be the lot for people with parts, or that not having parts any more is the only way to not be in pain. Pain is part of our lives, and how we understand it, the stories we tell about it, and the way we respond to pain as communities make all the difference in whether that pain consumes and destroys people, or can become one aspect of lives that are still rich, deep, meaningful, and connected. The same goes for disability, for illness, for trauma, for DID, for anything and everything that opens a Gap and challenges us to find ways of bridging it.

And now I have to run off and give a talk Supporting Someone in a Dissociative Crisis. Wish me luck. 🙂

For more information see articles listed on Multiplicity Links, scroll through posts in the category of Multiplicity, or explore my Network The Dissociative Initiative.

Bringing me back to myself

Last night, Rose was sick and I was coming down with another sinus infection – oh joy! So instead of roaming around Pride March with most of our friends, we stayed home and walked TV. Rose admitted to being a captive audience so I put on one of my favourite movies, Cyrano de Bergerac – the version with Gerard Depardieu. I love it so much, it’s been a couple of years since I watched it. It’s part of my ‘cannon’ of books, films, and poetry that I usually revisit about annually. I wept and wept through it. I know parts of it by heart and yet it still moved me deeply.

It got me thinking about this ‘cannon’ collection and what they mean to me. After Cyrano, I couldn’t help but take up my pen and write a poem about it, about remembering that for me, poetry is the meaning of life. It is how I live and feel and breathe and experience the world! I don’t mean the act of writing, or the ability to turn a pretty phrase. I mean something else – passion, frailty, beauty, something more bohemian. It’s about speaking from your heart, living life large, stargazing, nakedness, joy, grief. I’ve gone too far away from these values. I kept trying to fit myself into a world I will never fit. I miss my pen, my ink, my heart.

So I wrote and remembered what it was to write, I thought about the philosophy of Cyrano that so speaks to me – him admonishing a character who won by secrecy and deception – that he had not won but rather “gave up the honor of being a target”. His pride, his enthusiasm for struggle, his understanding of the emptiness of success and the great courage it takes to love. “Winning’s not the point. The fight is better when it is in vain!” These ideas I cherish. They strengthen me. They bring me back to my own heart, my own ideals. I weep and am restored. I remember what I have been fighting for and why.

This is what my canon of art does for me: it brings me back to myself. I spend my life in a world that does not think or believe or desire what I do. I am small, I lose my way. I imbibe, like poison, ideas that would kill me, would grind me into the dust. Ideas about life and poverty and value. My canon are my defense, they restore me to my own beliefs. They wake passion and courage within me. They remind me that all the ideas of the world are only that, ideas. Little prisons made by the small thoughts of little people. Whereas my dreams, they open up my world. They inoculate me, rejuvenate me, restore my heart to the place where it soars.

This is the difference between believing I am ‘white trash’ when living in a caravan park, and feeling lucky for my gypsy life. I open up my heart and all the world floods in, all life blows through my soul, with such pain and such untempered joy.

So I come back to them, over and over, to heal myself from the wounds of a world that does not live like this or understand it. It is about being deeply alive. It is a way of living that I treasure.

Beautiful Cyrano, who failed in so many ways, and was yet true to himself, lived gloriously. To live a life like his I would be doing well indeed. We measure our lives by standards that mean less than nothing to me. Worse – we get only so little time, so few Autumns, which are eaten by lethal ideas like – death is something that happens to other people, like – I’ll have time to do that next year, like – I must achieve to have worth. We get so little time and it is so easily devoured by the philosophies of the empty and deranged.

In poetry I find my meaning and my hope. It is a philosophy I cherish and must nurture more. It takes me beyond the pain of failure, the prison of sickness, the wounds of deep loss. Beyond nightmares and despair, the pit, the black sea, the place where all the world becomes blood. It is breathing far under that water, it is staring into the face of the nightmare, it is a scream that becomes a song. It is joy at the edge of death. A flower worn close to my heart. Sunlight on my skin, rain on my mouth, lover in my arms. All things, embraced, the cup drunk deeply from. Authenticity over positivity. Honesty over comfort. Passion over an easy life. I have not failed, I have lived. For someone fractured by dissociation, who once walked as the living dead, left numb, deaf, blind by it – this belief in life, this desire to be alive and to experience it is the antidote to my private hell. Learning how to protect it, how to run from buildings on fire, from lovers who carry cages, from hands that trap and bind, that is my task. Burning brightly, I walk in shadow unconcerned. I speak of hope to other hearts. I can remind people that pain does not destroy life, it is a dark thread in a tapestry. That even our tears have beauty.

Always coming home, then, a dance – back out into the world, home again to these keepers of my heart – Cyrano, Bradbury, McKillip. The artists who whisper truths in my ear and keep my heart from cages. How I love them. Bless them all.

Working on my talk about dissociative crisis

I’ve got 20 minutes to talk at the World Hearing Voices Congress about supporting someone through a dissociative crisis. It’s happening in a couple of weeks so I’ve been working on it recently. I met up with Bridges co-facilitator Ben, and we nutted through some ideas until it coalesced into a coherent framework. I love that process. I tend to need to bounce off someone else to think clearly and plan something like this. There’s such a sense of satisfaction about taking the amorphous and ephemeral and being able to find some kind of underlying theme or order to them.

When I asked other people about what they find helpful or not helpful when they have been in a dissociative crisis, I got exactly the answers I was expecting – which is to say, a very high level of contradictory responses. At first this seems hopeless – it’s so much easier to be able to give a straightforward answer – if A, do B. This is the medical model – if infection, give antibiotics. The nature of what helps with dissociative crisis is highly individual, so much so that what will be of great help to one person will make another drastically worse.

But it isn’t hopeless. Many people who have these kinds of experiences are able to be very articulate about what will and won’t work for them. One of the simplest things you can do is just to ask and invite information. If the person is a stranger to you and not able to give you any of that information, there are still many things you can try, within a framework of useful principles such as those of Trauma Informed Care. Having a broad understanding of the kinds of things that people may find useful gives you a bit of focus for a trial-and-error approach with someone in crisis, so I’ll be going into those.

I’m giving this talk free here in SA next week for everyone who can’t attend the conference. Here’s a link to the flyer with all the details. Feel free to share it around, it’s aimed at everyone, staff, people with dissociation, family and friends. You’re welcome to come along. 🙂

Edit: Update, this talk has been postponed due to illness – new dates will be provided soon.