Skip to main content

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.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

No, There Are Not Two Sides

I was in a meeting where a mediator was trying her best to stay impartial to a situation where a large volume of well-documented verbal and emotional abuse had occurred. She was a trained professional, but professionally speaking, she didn't want to be in a position to take sides on the issue. She offered the worn-out platitude, "Well, there are two sides to every story..." I let it slide the first time she said it, but when she said it again, I stopped her.

"Actually, when it comes to abuse, there are not two sides. There is abuse, and there is the recipient of abuse. The recipient of abuse is not at fault for the actions of the abuser."

Her jaw dropped a moment, then she nodded slowly. She knew I was right, and in this moment, a light went on. The situation she was mediating was not about two people having a disagreement. It was about a serial abuser attacking someone else who had done nothing to provoke the attack. She couldn't stay impartial. It was h…

Codependent or Empath?

There are a number of resources and articles for survivors of narcissistic abuse, and taken in all together, are extremely helpful in better understanding the abuser and our own role in the abuse. There is a certain type of person narcissists, psychopaths, and Cluster B abusers tend to seek out. Terms like "codependent" and "empath" are tossed around, sometimes interchangeably, but they are not the same.

A codependent's core issue (like the narcissist) is low self-esteem. They attach themselves to an alpha personality for their identity, and are constantly looking outside of themselves for validation and definition. They are helpers and fixers. Many people in the caring professions, such as teachers and nurses, tend to be codependent. They crave external praise and will go to great lengths to enable others in order to be liked. A codependent's sense of happiness and self-worth can be entirely dependent on the moods, actions, and feelings of the alpha. Code…

The Difference Between Trauma and Anxiety

I've been living with the effects of complex trauma for a long time, but for many years I didn't know what it was. Off and on throughout my life, I've struggled with what I thought was anxiety and depression. Or rather, In addition to being traumatized, I was anxious and depressed. 

All mental health is a serious matter, and should never be minimized. If you are feeling anxious or depressed, it's important and urgent to find the right support for you. No one gets a prize for "worst" depression, anxiety, trauma or any other combination of terrible things to deal with, and no one should suffer alone. With that in mind, there is a difference between what someone who has CPTSD feels and what someone with generalized anxiety or mild to moderate depression feels.

For someone dealing with complex trauma, the anxiety they feel does not come from some mysterious unknown source or obsessing about what could happen. For many, the anxiety they feel is not rational. Gene…