Dissociation is not something I could ever name, or would be aware of happening to me until the last couple of years or so. Like many internal mechanisms that formed in childhood, it was completely obscure to me, an ingrained element of my emotional weather systems. The first time I became aware of it was when another person (i.e. not me), pointed it out. I (we) realised that it was most likely to happen in tense interpersonal situations, although the definition of ‘tense’ here has to be applied loosely. A tense situation could be an argument, or if I felt embarrassed or ashamed for any reason, but it could also be pretty much any social event. My brain is not picky when it comes to having issues.
The first time I understood that dissociation was a ‘thing’ was when someone asked me ‘Where have you gone?’ in the middle of an argument. I was confused; I was standing directly in front of them. ‘No’ they said, ‘You’ve gone away somewhere in your head, you’re not really here.’ I couldn’t disagree with them. I mean I literally couldn’t, as I wasn’t able to speak (lol), but also figuratively. The description fit perfectly. But before I was gifted a name for this phenomenon, all I was vaguely aware of was that at a certain point within an interpersonal conflict (for example if I feared that a relationship would end), my body would become immobile and mute. This would happen very much without my choice, may I add. How rude! I would simply go into a state that resembled stillness, but with my muscles all tight and frozen and I’d find myself unable to speak. At this stage the other person would usually become alarmed and proceed to try to cajole some semblance of spoken word from me (bless them.) Alas, I could not speak.
All I can say (now that is, not then lol) is that when I find myself in this state I am overcome with indescribable emotional and physical feelings. We could boil it down to a mixture of pain, rage and this felt sense that I am being ripped open by some kind of fucked up internal claw-demon. All I’d be able to do is cry bitterly (at most) or continue to stare (barely). All the while I’m hovering somewhere slightly behind myself, watching myself trying to communicate and not being very successful at it. I’d be desperately searching for some words that could help me break out of this state, but my mind would be completely useless at articulating anything even remotely similar to language. After a point I guess I would get too tired and stop crying and come back in some slow-mo process of painful defrosting. Like a badly behaved fridge-freezer.
This is where I want to emphasise the immense power of naming things, of finding a name or a word or some language for what feels utterly confusing. I guess the name I currently use for this fun experience is dissociation. I borrowed it from psychology. I have learnt that dissociating is a self-protective mechanism, where the brain basically takes you away from your experience/surroundings if it senses that things are getting too overwhelming for you. It isn’t good or bad, but it is quite literally a life-saver in unbearable situations like childhood abuse or a traumatic event. However, eventually it can become a bit over-zealous and kick in at times when you’d rather not space out and drift away, for example when you’re trying to have a chat with someone in a pub. These are the times when this self-protective mechanism becomes a little less helpful, turning you into Spacehead McSpacebrain, which is not your best conversation partner. Before we get too excited, I have to point out that (at least according to my experience) the mere act of naming something like dissociation does not magically resolve it or make it go away. Wouldn’t it be neat if it did? Wouldn’t that be nice and simple? Well, ‘tough luck’ my human brain says to that, ‘I’m not here for your convenience.’ Cheers, brain. Don’t I know it.
So what CAN a name do? I suppose it helps us recognise what’s happening to us. It also helps us to differentiate between the various shapes, shades and temperatures of this shitstorm we call emotions. It helps us say a thing and therefore recognise it – in other people’s words, in books, in art, in songs, in Instagram posts, or even in TikTok videos if you’re much younger/cooler than me. It helped me explain my experience to a therapist. It helped me learn about this issue. And I so desperately want to know things (preferably everything tbh), but I especially want to know the darkness that overcomes me sometimes like a rapidly rising flood.
Fast forward an absolute fucktonne of hours of learning from myself, from books, from relationships, from professionals. You know, just generally running the fool’s errand of trying to comprehend my own mind by using the only tool at my disposal, which is its own self (so easy and not at all bewildering) – and yesterday I had a fascinating experience. I was hanging out with some pals and I started to feel a bit tired and spacey. What do you know, I started dissociating. My eyes glazed over and I felt this pull to stare at nothing in particular, somewhere away from the conversation, roughly in the direction of the Tesco Express just behind my friend’s head. I felt myself drifting off somewhere – but this time I actually noticed it happening!
What?!?!? Shut the front door, you say. Who is she? I know, right? Even more amazingly, I was able to name what was happening as dissociation. This enabled me to ask myself if I could try to come back instead of drifting further and further away. I’ve never been able to make this decision, to have some choice over dissociating. So I came back, looked at the faces of the people I was talking to and voilà! I was back, baby! Just like that, dropped right back into the conversation, socialising like it’s nobody’s business.
I ask again: who IS she?!?!? And how did she acquire these bare skills of actually staying present in a social situation? My friends, (almost) everything is possible! May this be a reminder of how important language is and how we can learn so much if we spend enough time trying (and to be fair also crying) to understand. Is ‘crying to understand’ a thing? It is now. I love you and hope you’re enjoying some lovely social times – whether it comes naturally to you, or whether you’re trying on this thing called socialising like an awkward, slightly uncomfortable, scary and ill-fitting jumper.