Throughout this account, my memory is at the mercy of my disorder.
Until my senior year of high school, I hadn’t realized I had been living the majority of my life in a dissociative state. Even feeling it then, I didn’t understand what dissociation was or how it was affecting me. I was on my senior trip in Disney World, riding the tram with a few of my closest friends when I looked out the window, glanced back at my friends, and simultaneously felt the world stand still as the surroundings passed us by. In that instant, I felt like every part of me — thoughts, feelings, body, everything — was perfectly aligned in the present moment. And as far as I could tell, this was the first time I had ever felt this way. In my realization, I turned to my best friend and said, “I feel present.” Although, maybe I was speaking more to myself. I didn’t know what it meant at the time, but I knew this reality was good, important, and true somehow. I wouldn’t feel like that again for several months.
After high school, I attended art school on a whim — a panicked decision that led me to the first and worst mental breakdown I’ve ever experienced in the spring of my freshman year. It was there that I was diagnosed with chronic depression and began counseling for what I thought was just that. My meetings with dissociation were addressed, but not diagnosed until almost two years later.
The difficult thing about counseling is that it’s often dependent on the most pressing, present issues. At the time, that was depression. However, this two year gap acted as time for me to reflect on moments of dissociation and collect a variety of experiences. I was involuntarily building a history of dissociative happenings now that I was somewhat aware of what was going on. This was a really strange time for me because symptoms were all over the board and often contradictory to each other and what others with dissociative disorders seemed to experience.
- I felt isolated within my mind as being disconnected from my body.
- I had trouble focusing, visualizing my thoughts racing around me.
- I saw my surroundings as soft, blurry versions of what I knew they really were.
- I felt like I was watching myself from afar, like an invisible entity.
- I felt energized yet terrified in moments of intense dissociation, like I didn’t exist.
- I often lost touch with time and space where it was difficult to ground myself.
Counseling kickstarted my efforts towards effectively explaining how and what I was feeling. Being able to talk about my experience was essentially what allowed others to understand what I was experiencing and helped lead to my diagnosis.
It’s difficult to explain, but my dissociative experience is something I’ve been working towards communicating for over three years now. This ability, or inability to communicate, great impacts a person’s opportunity to receive help. How can someone help you if they don’t know what you’re saying? Both in and out of counseling, I began analyzing my ability to feel as well as relay those feelings. It became a kind of experimentation for me.
- I would vary my breathing, slower or faster, through my nose or mouth.
- I would pay attention to how things felt — a pen in my hand, the warmth of tea, the mattress under my back.
- I would exercise more or less through running or yoga, activities that made me feel like I inhabited a real, functioning body.
- I would listen to music, all kinds — vocaloid, foreign language music, rap, screamo, nightcore, smooth jazz — in the hopes of feeling a connection to any one of them.
The problem is that I found connections, just not in the way that I wanted. I enjoyed the process of exploring the feelings that arose from each trial, but none of it seemed to bring me to a safe reality for more than a short time of few minutes.
I had only ever had one experience where, for two weeks straight, I felt present. Looking back, it seems like it had been a long time coming.
I n the fall of my junior year, I studied abroad in London, UK. But my experience of living didn’t start when I arrived; it started at the airport. It was then that I thought my relationship with dissociation might be circumstantial, environmental, consequential. Why now? Why here?
That plane ride was one of the coolest spaces I’ve experienced. Everything looked fantastic, like the movies, except it was real. The lights dimmed for passengers to sleep, and as the sun was setting, the purple light filtered into the cabin in a royally radiant cosmos speckled with the colored glow of each overhead button. That vision is forever engraved in my mind. It’s moments like these that make me want to talk about it — to share my experience — both the feeling of dissociation from myself and the world around me, and of the rare association with moments like a simple plane ride.
S o much of our lives are tied up in being spaced out these days, not there. Despite the fact that this describes the majority of my life experience, many people can perceive a dissociative state in which they see little glimpses of the disorder. Young adults especially are subject to pressures where dissociation as a means of escape from those pressures is viewed as desirable and effective, if only achievable. This is of course a romanticized view, but nonetheless can instill passion, fear, confusion, and isolation, just as dissociative symptoms occur. I sometimes find myself slipping into this mindset — that, wanted or not, it’s an aesthetic escape. A lot of my free time goes into practicing mindfulness and other techniques to bring me out of listless dissociative states, but I’m also visited by the temptation that I could make this escape my excuse. In the way that mindfulness helps bring me out of daunting dissociative episodes, attempting to perpetuate my symptoms through transient tunes or lack of exercise has the ability to plunge me further into a purely aesthetic, isolated reality. In times like these, I’ve taken photos of my surroundings, turned the lights on or off as necessary, walked on tip-toes, and wandered the house, feeling absorbed by aesthetic alienation.
What keeps me in check, whether that means practicing these techniques or not, is that many psychologists have researched and written on a self-serving functionality in many dissociative disorders and mental illness in general. The specific duration and persistence of certain symptoms — described as being overwhelming, restricting, isolating, confusing, frustrating, disorienting, distracting, alienating, and scary — may be the result of a unique and traumatic experience (though scientifically diagnosable) and serve the purpose of comforting, protecting, organizing, or focusing. Charles Silberstein goes as far to assert, “Dissociation is an essential and necessary skill. You can’t concentrate unless you can dissociate,” that “Dissociation is always intended to serve a purpose, and is a tool that enables people to function” (Silberstein 2018). The function is to focus. With such uniqueness and variability in symptoms complex personal and scientific understandings of these disorders are inevitably created. Thus, focus begets insight; insight begets personal understanding; understanding begets communicability; communication begets public understanding.
One specific disorder known as Depersonalization/Derealization disorder, of which I am affected, holds this complexity at its core, as it is comprised of two parts — two different categorizations in one. First, Depersonalization is characterized by a detachment from one’s thoughts or physical and mental being. It draws attention to the estranged relationship with and to one’s body and mental processes, making them feel distorted, unreal, or not belonging to that person. Likewise, a person’s senses may become numb or blur together, making it difficult to rejoin their identity. Lastly, Depersonalization can cause one to detach from their own memories. It is not only a forward- or present-thinking disorder. This may cause the person to ask: Did that really happen? Did I really do that? Who am I? What is happening? Often times, that person may not be able to answer these questions, at least not on their own.
Derealization deals with a different kind of disaffection. It’s characterized by a detachment from one’s environment in which the world around them feels fake or that they themselves feel like an illusion to the outside world. Both cases are subject to distortion where length of time and depth of space are shortened or lengthened, stretched or squashed, according to personal perception. This can also affect someone’s relationship with objects and other people. In the sense that feeling disconnected from the world makes them feel disconnected from those who inhabit it, this is truly an isolating experience.
Both sides of the disorder are complete in themselves, but the fact that they are scientifically joined together is fascinating. Further, the fact that patients suffering from Depersonalization/Derealization disorder may not, and are likely not to, exhibit symptoms of both Depersonalization and Derealization. It is a give and take, a have or not have. For the most part, it comes down to tests and percentages which do not complete each other. They are analyzed independently so that, hypothetically, a person may experience Depersonalization side effects 67% of the time and Derealization effects 91% of the time. Their very nature does not add up.
Before this point, this essay has been my experience and that of psychology, but there’s something strange yet comforting in the fact that about 50% of the general population will experience some form of dissociation at least once in their lifetime. Whether from stress, fear, or lack of focus, the mild disconnection one may feel is, in today’s world, a shared experience. However, the pleasure of the problem is the sharing, the thinking that we understand or that we can relate. On the one hand, any bit of understanding is a good thing — it makes a connection. On the other hand, strips away the severity and cause for concern. Because while this majority has some type of connection with dissociation, only 2% of the global population exhibits true dissociative symptoms (Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy 2017). Rather than brief encounters with dissociation from anxiety or depression, someone with a dissociative disorder can experience long episodes or even a majority of their life in such detached states. Yet, the aforementioned percentage is only taking into account patients clinically diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. The problem, then, is confusing a shared experience with a rare illness.
In some ways, this mainstream out of body experience is something many relate to or can identify with, even if scientifically incorrect. Most people can recall daydreaming in math class, forgetting why they walked into the kitchen, or glazing over instructions their mother has given them for the fourth time. But what if that stubbornness and curiosity towards these trivial hang-ups could be transferred to the realm of those who, instead of daydreaming, feel like they are alienated by dissociative non-dreaming? For those with one leg or even half a leg in the mental health community, we know that awareness does wonder. Patients, practitioners, allies, and others to this community all benefit from the conversation because communication, at its core, demands focus.
Even though I’ve been experiencing severe dissociation for a majority of my life, undergoing therapy for Depersonalization/Derealization disorder for just under a year, I’m just now glimpsing the function of it.
- It allows me to better appreciate rare moments where I feel present.
- It helps me focus on my bodily functions through practicing mindfulness.
- It forces me to take care of my physical self through sleep, food and exercise.
- It lets me see the world in many unique ways.
- It allows me to think critically about complex topics.
- It allows me to be a communicative voice for others struggling with mental illnesses.
And as an established function of dissociation is focus and communicability, relaying the complexities of those experiment and experiences is the most I could hope for.