“I thought I’d gone mad”: Your guide to dissociation

By Emma Simkin

CN: Dissociation, trauma


Reading about dissociation can potentially worsen, exacerbate, or introduce symptoms for those who suffer from it. Read mindfully. 


The first time I dissociated was in my first term of first year.

I was sat in the library, drinking coffee and procrastinating with another habitual scroll through Facebook. I clicked on a Guardian article. Next thing I knew, I was back in my room, curled up in a ball underneath my desk, spilt coffee all over my clothes. Checking my phone, I realised that over two hours had passed. I was there, in the library, then suddenly I wasn’t.

I tried to retrace my steps. My last clear memory was of clicking on that Guardian article which, unknown to me at the time, was related to a childhood trauma of mine. Past that, it starts to get much more hazy, but I have little flickers of memories of what it felt like to dissociate.

Time ran slow like black treacle, until it stopped altogether. I felt like a pair of eyeballs floating without a body, floating above space and time and reality. Sounds came through muffled, underwater. Colours started to fade. I completely lost peripheral vision, like I was looking through a peephole that kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller. Objects appeared to close or too far away, like an artist had drawn a cartoon world but had got the perspective entirely wrong. I had no thoughts, no feelings, no awareness of how I left the library.

 

legs-face

 

Over the next six months, this happened more and more frequently. In third term, I was dissociating for a few hours a day. I missed lectures, supervisions, birthdays, meals out and half of my final exam paper – not because I didn’t turn up, but because my mind disconnected from where I was. I thought I’d gone mad and was terrified to tell anyone.

 

“I felt like a pair of eyeballs floating without a body, floating above space and time and reality. Sounds came through muffled, underwater. Colours started to fade.”

 

For a month or so, I didn’t even realise this state had a name – dissociation. Dissociation can be a way that the mind copes with too much stress, anxiety, or even boredom, and describes an experience where you feel disconnected from reality or from yourself. It can be experienced in lots of different ways:

Derealisation:

  • Feeling as though the world is unreal
  • Seeing objects change in shape, size or colour
  • Distortions of time
  • Perceptual abnormalities might also extend to the senses of hearing, taste, and smell
  • Feeling like an observer of your life, like you are separated by a glass wall

Depersonalisation:

Feeling like you aren’t real

  • Feeling like an outside observer to your mind or body
  • Feeling not in control of speech or movements
  • Limb distortion
  • Emotional or physical numbness

Dissociative amnesia:

Not being able to remember information about yourself or what happened in your life

Dissociative fugue:

Sudden, unplanned travel, accompanied by memory loss and/or change of identity

Identity disturbance:

Occurs in dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously known as multiple personality disorder

  • Different aspects of your identity are in control of thoughts and behaviour at different times
  • Each identity state may have different patterns of thought and behaviour, and span across different ages and genders
  • May have one main identity state that feels more like ‘you’, sometimes call the host identity
  • Sometimes accompanied by amnesia about the actions of other parts

 

plaid

 

Grounding techniques

Luckily, there are lots of strategies called ‘grounding techniques’, which can help you manage dissociation and keep you in the present moment. They are not only useful to use when you feel you are about to dissociate, but can be also practiced when not in a dissociative state to help prevent future dissociation. These techniques work best when practiced regularly, outside of dissociative episodes – remembering grounding exercises in a moment of panic is difficult if isn’t done on a regular basis.

1) Use physical sensations

Push your heels into the floor, literally grounding them into the earth. Notice the pressure on the heels. Remind yourself that you are connected to the ground, that there is earth beneath your feet. Shift your feet and notice the pressure change.

2) 5, 4, 3, 2, 1

The ‘5, 4, 3, 2, 1’ technique is a way of taking an inventory of your senses.

Describe:

  1. five things you can see
  2. four things you can feel
  3. three things you can hear
  4. two things you can smell
  5. one thing you can taste (Note: this needn’t be food. Taste sensations can include the taste of your own mouth. Encouraging eating as a grounding technique dissociative episode can lead to disordered eating habits)

For the best results, descriptions should be as detailed as possible. For example, merely stating ‘I see a wall’ is not very grounding, compared to ‘I see a wall covered in orange wallpaper that is wrinkled like a clementine.’ Try giving a more detailed description, one that requires full attention to the present moment.

3) Affirmations

When dissociating, it’s hard to remember where you are in time, and who you are. Come up with some affirmations to help ground you in the present. Try repeating simple statements about yourself, such as your name and age: ‘My name is _____; I am safe right now. I am in the present, not the past. I am located in _____ the date is _____.’ This is particularly useful if the dissociation occurs as a result of a past trauma, because it can help to separate you from it.

4) Grounding objects

Carry a small object (a small rock, clay, ring, piece of cloth or yarn) that you can touch when you feel you are about to dissociate. The grounding object provides something sensory to focus on, and also becomes associated with calmness and safety over time.

5) Call a loved one

Let someone know about your experience of dissociation, and explain to them the techniques that can help get you through it. Ask them if it’s okay for you to call them in a dissociative state so they can run through grounding exercises – for example, they could ask you to describe what you can see around you. If engaging in conversation isn’t possible, just listen to their voice.

 

step

Get grounded

 

Whether you have a dissociative disorder or you experience minor episodes, it can be incredibly distressing and disorientating. Try to employ grounding techniques, and, just as importantly, forgive yourself for the time lost to dissociation.

📘


All images by Lauren Wisnewski

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