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Hello Dissociation, My Old Friend

I've always been a daydreamer. As a kid, I spent hours in my own created worlds, whether it was swirling around in an inner tube on the lake, or staring out the car window, lost in some internal medieval landscape with fairies and unicorns. In fact, all of my "good" memories of my childhood are the dreamy ones. As an adult, I formed a career around the those worlds I created. Most of my friends are creative types who live in their own worlds, too. When I need to unwind from a long day, I can get lost for hours thinking about what it's like to live in other places and times. When I'm driving, I'm never actually on the freeway. I'm composing stories to be written until somehow I arrive at home. You could say I have an active imagination. You could say I live a creative life. You could also say that I dissociate.

Dissociation is a coping mechanism, common among abuse survivors. When someone experiences an intense threat, the brain splits off from traumatized areas as a form of protection. It's especially common among those who were psychologically or sexually abused as children. The brain can't reconcile the event, so it shuts a door on the memory or related experiences. This is why so many trauma survivors retrieve memories later on in recovery.

There is a wide range of dissociative responses, from  simple daydreaming to developing multiple personalities. In extreme cases, dissociative people will black out and those personalities will take over. But before you get too spooked, hold up. It's important to understand that for those with Dissociative Identity Disorder (previously called Multiple Personality Disorder) this is actually a very smart way for the brain to manage trauma. Usually there is a "strong" identity which handles the big stuff, and there is an "angry" identity which is allowed to express an emotion that is off-limits to the "good" persona. The goal in treatment is to integrate these different parts into one whole identity that feels safe to express a full range of emotions. The experience is usually not as dramatic as, say, a certain Hitchcock movie, but it does require professional help.

Most people who experience dissociative traits do not develop multiple personalities, and very few are actually diagnosed with DID. However, when I catch myself escaping into hours of "what would life be like if..." thoughts, I've learned to recognize that's my "check engine" light. I need to get grounded and put my thoughts in the present. As someone who works professionally with all sorts of fictional stories, I am finding I need to take more breaks from those worlds in order to remind myself of the here and now. The potential problem with creating any kind of fictional story is that the brain experiences those worlds as if they were real. This is why actors, directors, and writers in particular are at risk for dissociative traits.

While I don't experience multiple personalities, I do experience that different aspects of my personality show up for different people in my life. My in-charge, "professional" self goes to work. My vulnerable, "abuse survivor" self writes the blogs. My therapist sees much of the hurt "child" me. My silly, "wacky" self is the friend, wife, and mom, and so on. While everyone wears different hats to some degree, I find that I tend to protect myself by allowing some people to see a limited side. Very few people have experienced the wide range of who I really am, and it's by design. While it is important to be guarded around some people, it's equally important for me to integrate more around those who've earned my trust.

Being present, and being intentional about being wholly me sounds easier than it is. Thankfully, I live in the kind of home environment that is safe to be present in, though everyday experiences, such as kids quarreling, or too much noise, can set me off.  Usually what I find once I'm present is that there is, indeed, some sort of emotional pain I'm avoiding. Usually it's something from my past recently unearthed from therapy that is needing to be felt and released. Retrieving these locked away parts of myself is exhausting, but important work. It's no wonder my brain needs a break from the work and wanders off from the task.

Healing from trauma is a daily, intentional commitment. It's a worthy commitment. It can also be an exhausting commitment. I've learned to have more compassion for why and how I daydream. And while it can be a useful tool in the short term, I know it cannot be a constant way of life. It's a security blanket, which I am learning to use occasionally.


  1. I dissociate, but what I've discovered recently is that if I'm imagining a story where the character gets a chance to act assertively, or state her boundaries clearly (like in a teaching environment) then I can, for a little while, act like that character. Integration of course is the key, but at least for a little while I can experience what it feels like to be calm and confident. Being a substitute teacher in middle school was very helpful with this--very clear boundaries and consequences. It's too much to do every day all day though.


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