Beside Myself: the art of dissociation

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

I was young–maybe 8, 9? Humming to myself, I had left my bedroom, heading to the living room in our house in Portland. I’d been building little rooms for my fashion dolls, a lace hanky for the rug, a jewelry box for the chair. What could I find that would be longer like a couch?

As I turned the corner from the stairs into the kitchen I could hear scuffling feet, angry voices. When I reached the dining room doorway I looked up, startled. There in the wide space between the dining room and the living room were my parents and my big sister. My mother’s eyes were narrowed and dark with anger. My father’s back was to me in his red plaid shirt. He was swaying a little, off-balance on his feet. My mother looked like a cat ready to pounce on a mouse as she turned to my pre-teen sister.

“Here, hold my glasses,” she said, anger still firmly on her face.

My sister Patti put out her hand to take them. Our mother turned back to the fray.

Startled, I stopped dead. And started to scream.

Then blank–my world went blank. Nothingness engulfed me.


It saved me from what my child mind could not make sense of–the grown-ups who fed me and bought me clothes and made sure I got up for school, these two grown-ups were fighting like cats on the street, kids on the playground. And what my mind could not make sense of it protected me from–like a heavy blanket thrown over my head.

There were other such times. My sister told me that she would have to slap me to make me stop screaming because these fights would cause me to scream and scream and not stop.

You can imagine the thoughts I have about the fact that my sister, not quite 4 years older than me, was the person to attend to my meltdowns, and not one of the parents facing off like tomcats in the yard.

I suspect from here that my father was drunk. Why my mother was ready to fist-fight with her spouse I can’t say. I wish I had some inkling of what went on in her head that kept her from seeing my pain, my sister’s codependence. But I know how the stories of our lives build and grow, and how we can miss the signs right in front of our faces of our children’s struggles and grief.

The art of dissociation.

As Lisa Ferentz LCSW-C, DAPA says in an article in Psychology Today,

“Clients often report feeling disconnected from the environment as well as their body sensations and can no longer accurately gauge the passage of time. Clinically, this is called dissociation, and it’s best understood as a well-honed childhood coping strategy; mastering the ability to mentally escape when it’s impossible to physically escape a potentially threatening situation.”

Lisa Firentz LCSW-C What You Need to Know When Clients Dissociate Part 1, Psychology Today, March 18, 2018

I experienced dissociation throughout my #marriagefromheck in times where I had no understanding of how to protect myself from verbal assault. The badgering words of my ex as he would vehemently repeat over and over how I was unsupportive and useless and enumerate the ways felt too similar to my childhood, and nothing I said could change his mind. I remained powerless in my fear. I dissociated, losing time, thinking fifteen minutes had gone by when it had been an hour and a half of his clenched fists and angry voice.

Powerless. Not recognizing the choices I had left me powerless.

The necessary and creative coping strategy that enabled them to survive a traumatic past is the very same strategy that now re-traumatizes. Being a deer in the headlights means they can’t use their voice, formulate an escape strategy, or advocate for their best interests.

Lisa Firentz LCSW-C What You Need to Know When Clients Dissociate Part 2, Psychology Today, April 4, 2018

I used to be horrified, embarrassed, that I could have continued to do in my adulthood what I had done unconsciously in my childhood to cope. It didn’t help that I was mockingly told I was being that “poor little girl” I once was. It didn’t help that I became emotionally exhausted from those roarings from someone else who was supposed to love me.

Ashamed. I felt ashamed of my “childishness.” Somehow I overlooked the fact that this person who had sworn to love me and care for me used my traumatic childhood against me, even though he’d had one too. I took on all the shame. I buried my anger. I didn’t stand up for myself, take my children safely away from the insanity. I repeated my family of origin dynamic. And I didn’t see that till decades into the marriage.

Dissociation is still a battle for me. I’m a fear-based person. Scared of change, scared of confrontation. Afraid people will see me as that weak child I once was. Afraid of being Less-Than. Of being human.

It should have been okay to be weak as a child–the adults were supposed to teach me how to cope with my fears and weaknesses. It should have been okay to be imperfect in my marriage–the other adult was supposed to be on my same team, working together to grow and learn.

The fact is, those weren’t the facts.

So let’s review:

  • 1- Dissociation happens. There’s no shame. It’s our body’s way of taking care of us when we don’t know how. A good friend once said to me that it seems like God was taking me to a safe space when I needed one. I love that visual. I mean, I’d rather go to the beach, but in a pinch…
  • And 2- once we’ve so firmly imbedded a coping mechanism we will continue to use it until we learn otherwise. Again, no shame. You aren’t a mindreader!

Next week I’ll outline some skills we can use to teach ourselves to make use of our pre-frontal cortex and stay with the power we can have to deal with our fears and frailties.

Meanwhile, be kind to you!! You deserve it.

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