Beside Myself: The art of dissociation Part 2

Photo by Jessica Felicio on Unsplash

I’m no expert. Let me just make that clear–unless we’re talking about being well-versed in struggling with mental health issues.

Sharing my experiences In Pursuit of Mental Health takes some deep breathing. Shame seems to clutch tightly to most mental health issues. We sufferers can feel broken beyond repair, too different to fit in with what we see as the “regular” folk. As if the struggling isn’t enough on its own, many of us have been beat over the head with our struggles in our relationships. A convenient scapegoat, those pesky, life-altering problems.

My own mental health has been saved by time spent with several therapists I’ve known, most notably the one who has walked me through the past almost 20 years! So here is my biggest and best advice: if life seems unmanageable in some way, talk to a therapist. Mine has saved my facon. (I’m a vegetarian, so…no real bacon.)

Last week I stepped out in trepidation to talk about one issue that has haunted me throughout my life: dissociation. If anyone was thinking they’re alone in this experience I want them to know it’s more common than they think. (Just don’t ask me for percentages and such–I tend to only use numbers as absolutely necessary, like to play Sudoku.)

As a way of coping, dissociation occurs when the brain compartmentalizes traumatic experiences to keep people from feeling too much pain, be it physical, emotional, or both. When dissociation occurs, you experience a detachment from reality, like spacing out. Part of you just isn’t there in the moment.

Psychology Today, Fragmented Child: Disorganized Attachment and Dissociation by Robert T. Muller, Ph.D.

Dissociation is on a continuum. It can be as mild as getting lost in a book, driving a familiar path and not remembering what you passed, or even simply daydreaming. At the opposite end is the kind of dissociation that affects a person’s whole life, as with Dissociative Identity Disorder.

This detachment from reality is what would happen to me when I was faced with seeing my parents act like schoolyard bullies as they pushed and hit each other. My young mind couldn’t make sense of it, and I would go blank into a darkness of not seeing, not feeling. I would step out of my reality into a “safer” place of forgetting–but without realizing.

Many people will experience dissociation at some point in their lives. Lots of different things can cause you to dissociate. For example, you might dissociate when you are very stressed, or after something traumatic has happened to you. You might also have symptoms of dissociation as part of another mental illness like anxiety. For many people these feelings will pass over time.

What does dissociation look like for me now? I’d love to say I’m healed and over all these “small” hurdles like depression, anxiety, and dissociating. But life is a journey, right? And that journey for me includes learning skills needed to manage the issues, then practicing, practicing, practicing. All the practice has helped those hurdles become more like speed bumps.

When I’m stressed–think new or unfamiliar situations like conferences, moving across the country, even expecting myself to be the perfect friend–I may be interacting with people but I feel like I’m watching my life on television. I hear my voice say something and I’m thinking (as if standing beside myself observing) “Oh yeah! That makes good sense, what she said.”

Since trauma is our brain telling us that we aren’t safe, it tries to find a way to feel safe. Apparently for me, that looks like watching a not-very-interesting show on TV, starring me.

I’ll leave you with some articles that can explain the specifics of symptoms and the types of dissociation in case you’d like to learn more.

Oh but first? The good news! Like I mentioned above, there are tools and skills to help you change the channel on that lousy TV show you may be watching when you’re “beside yourself” in anxiety or fear. I’ll share some next week. Good news is worth waiting for, right?


  • Fragmented Child: Disorganized Attachment and Dissociation This is a good one about children and attachment styles and the ways abuse and neglect can cause dissociation.
  • What Is Dissociation? From every hypochondriac’s favorite online source, WebMD, an easy to read explanation of dissociation and its symptoms.
  • Dissociative disorders From the Mayo Clinic, a great explanation of how dissociation can come into being, along with symptoms and pointers for when a person should seek medical attention.
  • Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) The CDC’s page on what ACEs is, including the original study done by Kaiser. This sort of early childhood trauma is one of the big causes of dissociation and the study is fascinating.

If you’re in a relationship where someone uses your mental health struggles to put you down, love yourself enough to talk to a professional! That can make a world of difference! (I’m proof!)

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