Dissociation (in the wide sense of the word) is an act of disunion or separating a complex object into parts.
Most people have experienced mild forms of it. Have you ever been driving a car, and suddenly “woken up” without remembering anything of the last five minutes? Your brain switch off and on like this when necessary, and it feels like we zone out for a bit. Some might have felt intense anger that flared up, making them act in an uncharacteristic way. Some might have had a sudden memory popping up. It can be the smell of timber, that brings back a memory of how you worked outside with your father, or your heart starting to beat after you see someone who reminds you of your first love. We still feel like one person with one identity, because we know our minds sometimes tune out, but we have no problem with coming back to where we are at the moment. But what if this happens often? When large chunks of time evaporate, so that you can`t remember what happened the last four hours, the line is crossed and often leads to problems. That being said, a lot of people can have some pieces of their history dissociated, or hidden away from consciousness, and still live a normal life. One example from the clinic, is about a man who experienced war when he was a little boy (before he came to Norway) and who completely forgot about this. He married, got three wonderful kids who did well, and was happy. But then he had a accident where he almost died, and suddenly a lot of hidden memories came forward again. He remembered how it felt, and could even feel the pain in his head that he had then. The part of him that had safely stored this away before, showed itself, and sadly this made a huge impact on him. Now he could not forget, and when he thought about what happened, he became as helpless and afraid as then. Logic coudn`t bring him out of this.
PTSD is the most common form of dissociation. Most people know about veterans from the war, and how they still feel as they did in a war. One man remembers how an umbrella poking outside a window, made his heart beat wildly, activating his fear-system. In one second it looked like a gun. When the body and mind are at different places (in a war-zone/ in safety), dissociation has occurred. The body still remembers, and feels in danger, even when logic knows no bomb will suddenly explode. This might lead to irrational fear, that spills over into real life. I just saw a documentary about children growing up with parents who abused drugs, and one of the girls said: The experiences still affect my life: If my boyfriend turns his back to me, I instantly feel bad: It reactivate the fear of being abandoned, that I had when I was little girl
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Dissociation is often about feelings. Its a defense mechanism, often at times of trauma, to handle something that feels overwhelming. Maybe it was a situation where your kid was about to choke, and you had to split of the feeling of fear because it could not help you. For people who have gone through trauma, this is usual: To “survive” a rape or violence, you can`t cry, because then mummy will hear and something bad will happened. But the sadness, fright or anger has to go somewhere, and usually it is hidden away in small pieces that “take care” of that information. If this happens often enough, it can lead to different “personalities” who take care of life in different situations. In the book the “haunted self” they write about how one part might take care of work, and one part your personal life. In the book “not telling” a girl marries a man who cheats on her, but doesn`t care about it. She puts on her “sunflower” mode, that is happy and not affected by anything. Its hollow, and devoid of emotions, but at least it gets her through the day. But when the original feeling or memory is reactivated by some trigger (for example the umbrella for the PTSD-patient) it can feel like it did then: All hope is lost, you forget everything else that logic normally harbors, and when you feel anger, you just see the slight in front of you. Some become a little girl again, and I even had a woman at my office who started shaking because she believed somebody was in the room. She took a little toy I have on my table, and held it tight. She could not talk, just nod when I asked her if she was afraid. To get her back, I had to ask her how it felt to sit on the chair, if she could remember how many kids she had, or make her focus on some detail in the room. That was the only way to bring her out of the mode she was in, because at that time she actually was this little girl, afraid of being hit again.
How does this feel for those affected? Some can feel unreal, like they are watching themself from outside. It first gets problematic when it starts to disturb us and the people in our vicinity.
At a lecture I went to, the therapist told us about a woman he treated who appeared quite normal until one morning when she was at the office. It was as she walked in her sleep, her eyes was nailed to the floor and she kept calling a name: The name of her dead kid. It was just that in this moment, her kid was not dead; She had gone back to the situation when he was still alive. The therapist had to put her down in a chair, and make her come back to reality.
People with Borderline PF often dissociate. People outside might notice they suddenly become angry, after something they don`t quite understand. It might have been trying to joke about something in their life, but that reactivates a memory of being ridiculed as a little girl.
They feel the burning shame, and helplessness as they did then. It does not matter if this person is different from the person who used them in the past, because the body still reacts like there is real danger or not. The body has learnt, and to protect itself, feels like it did then. Actually most people will sometimes react in a way thats irrational, and that they regret afterwards. People can become so angry that they start yelling, throwing things and come with accusations that doesn`t make sense for the person getting them. Usually this is not about what happened there and then, but about a memory from the past that come alive again.
People often call people who switch fast from one emotion to another, or from one “mode” to another, weak. Why can`t they control themselves? They just have to pull themselves together. What is forgotten, is that this is based on automatic reactions who often can`t be stopped once they are activated. Some people cut themselves, because blood and pain force them back to reality. Some just break down, crying, feeling the bad conscience that was gone two seconds ago. This can be confusing for people around, and you get the characteristic “walking-on-eggshells” problem. I will write more about trauma, Borderline PF and dissociation later. This is meant as a introduction into a important psychological phenomena, that is shrouded in mystery, often thanks to hollywood movies portraying the extreme variants of multiple personality disorder. The milder variants are much more common, and is often about your brain trying to make sense of feelings who sometimes can be hard to integrate.
Feel free to comment, maybe you have experienced some of this yourself, or know about people who have?