One of the hardest things I’ve struggled with is dissociation in healing from trauma. It was my form of survival when I went through torture and abuse.
Dissociation happens so quickly that I usually don’t notice it. In fact, it took me several weeks in my last experience to even begin understanding that I was checking out in therapy and life.
My Dissociation Experiences
For me, as I look back now, I can see some of the things that were taking place that I was not aware of at the time.
- In the therapy session, I thought it was only lasting 5 to 10 minutes, although it was an hour. My mind could not make sense of the time frame I was in during the session. Even with proof of a clock, it didn’t make sense because I was checking out early.
- I was not truly feeling anything in my body during the session even though I thought I was. It was as if I could feel the intense physical pain, but nothing below that. While that may sound like I was feeling something, it was the way-over-the-top pain that I could feel. When you’re really in your body and not in dissociation, you can begin to feel and notice other things.
Therapy Was Not Working
- When I would leave the session, I felt like I had rested, but I wasn’t relaxed. However, I didn’t know that I had not relaxed because the “resting state” felt like relaxation. There is a big difference. Rest can be relaxing but relaxation, peace, and calm are more than rest.
- I was beginning to dread going to the therapy but thought it was because I was working through difficult things. Little did I realize, this was all part of a horrible progression of events taking place and I was living in triggers and PTSD Flashbacks. Healing was not happening, retraumatization was.
- For me, if I get pushed into the depth of the trauma too quickly and relentlessly, my body rebels and shuts down. It happens before I can even think about it. (See My Story) It is better if someone takes me a little into it and then backs off, then repeats that process. The little steps in a session go further with me and result in a better outcome rather than trying to push and force me into the horrible stuff.
My Dissociation Symptoms
- I was having more anxiety episodes in between sessions. I was having more moments of severe despair and depression. Anger was increasing. My mind kept focusing on suicide and ways I could end everything. All of this was my body trying to balance the therapy not taking me far enough with the level of dissociation I was experiencing. It had me in the trauma, not moving through the trauma. Being the person going through this, as aware as I am and as many tools that I have, I was not able to recognize it.
- Aches, pains, and physical struggles were not resolving after the session. It was almost as if they were still in the perpetual state of unwinding. They were not in the repair state, but in the intermediate step before that, so my body was stuck in the survival loop of trauma. The dissociation was preventing me from moving through the trauma.
- While I thought I was getting somewhere in the therapy, I realized that I was getting nowhere. When you’re in the middle of dissociation, it is almost impossible to tell that you are. The view in life and everything you experience seems normal even if it is not.
So what is dissociation in technical terms? According to the University of Washington, dissociation is being disconnected from the here and now. Dissociation usually happens because of trauma or abuse. It can include the following but is not limited to this list.
- Spacing out
- Glazed look
- Mind going blank
- Sense of world not being real
- Watching self from the outside
- Detachment from self or identity
- Out of body experience
- Disconnected from surroundings.
According to VeryWellMind.com dissociation disrupts the following areas.
- Self-awareness and awareness of surroundings.
Often dissociation is an overload response years after the traumatic event occurred. Sights, sounds, smells, touches, and taste can set off or trigger unwanted memories and feelings. Reactions can often happen which cause an adrenaline-charged fight-or-flight response or dissociation.
For me in this last experience, the therapy was bringing me into the moment of the trigger. Normally this is fine in the therapy I was undergoing, but the session wasn’t bringing me through it. There was no resolution.
Triggers I Faced
On top of it, there were two main triggers for me that just set a series of events cascading into dissociation. One was the house fire across the street including the sights, sounds, and smokey smells. The other was when my new little kitten got his paw hurt and the painful cries he let out.
These moments caused me to react in a way I could not see. While I was aware of the connection, my body systems in survival mode were already trying to fight off the attacks. Yet, nothing helped. I was afraid of everything but didn’t have a clue as to why I was.
It was very difficult for me to come out of this and required me going to a doctor that I knew could help me. However, in the process of reaching that point, I almost gave up.
I was so overwhelmed that I remember telling Dr. Canali on the phone, I feel like there is no hope for me. Fortunately, he was able to get me out of it as I had spiraled way down.
Therapy With Authenticity
When people are in dissociation as I was, it is very hard to tell it. If someone asks them questions that would assume you can see things in a real way, you only make it more frustrating for them.
A therapist needs not only to recognize what is going on but also ask questions and relate to the person in a way that helps bring them back to reality. Never should anyone be left hanging out on the tree branch all alone. In these moments, that is the worst thing you can do.
If you’re working with trauma/child abuse survivors, you need to be able to spot disassociation. These people will struggle to spot it in themselves when they are disassociating. If you’re not careful, you can retraumatize them just by not seeing that they are disconnected.— Don Shetterly (@mindbodythought) September 28, 2019
One important thing to note is that when someone is in the moment of dissociation and trying to heal from the trauma they’ve been through, what you do matters. If you push them off to the next appointment, you’ve burned any trust they may have in you. If you act as if they have to find the way to explain all that is going on, you’re pushing them into despair.
In addition, if you don’t allow them to lean on you at that moment, you’re pushing them into the world of feeling like they are completely alone. This is a horrible place for anyone who is in dissociation to be.
PTSD, Flashbacks & Triggers
I’m glad I came through what I did, but this experience almost pushed me over the edge. I’ve been working for years through the PTSD, flashbacks, triggers, and all the trauma I’ve been through in life. None of it is easy and it is more difficult when you’re stuck in this part of healing.
For me though, I made it but I know how hard it is when you’re in this spot. When it feels like no one cares even if they do or that there is no way out, this is when you need someone skilled enough to help. It is then you need someone to be present for you until they can help you connect back to the present world of your life.
He Truly Listened
One of the things that helped me so much was when I talked to Dr. Canali on the phone and he listened. Just the fact that he truly listened meant the world to me. I shared with him how horrible I was feeling and he didn’t judge me or tell me to think of some platitude. He just listened.
The last thing he texted me before I was able to make it to see him was, “I believe in you.” Those words gave me so much encouragement and hope which I badly needed at that moment. They were simple words but the most important part was that they were authentic and from his heart.