blurred people in street market

Dissociation is a complicated thing to explain to people. Even when I attempt to, it usually results in me triggering myself. Explaining dissociation to someone is the equivalent of explaining the color red without starting off a sentence with a direct comparison. The closest I’ve ever gotten to having a friend understanding dissociation was when he compared it to astral projection.

For those of you who don’t understand what dissociation is, click here. I’ve actually spent an alarming amount of my life dissociated without even knowing it until fairly recently. This had gone unnoticed for so long because it likely began in my early childhood and I had nothing to compare it to. I didn’t know things were very, very wrong until I committed to therapy and meditation in late 2014. Things haven’t improved 100 percent since then, but I have now spent almost an entire year feeling like an actual human being. Below are some of the things I use within my self-care routine to help keep me grounded.

Side note: These are things I have figured out through a lot of trial and error. Creating coping mechanisms/a self-care routine takes a lot of time and persistence. Don’t give up.

1. Practice acceptance. 

Acceptance is the hardest thing to do when I find myself experiencing an episode of dissociation, but for me it’s the most important step to make. My immediate reaction has always been to try and bully myself out of it even though doing so makes it 10 times worse. The best approach you can make is one out of compassion. For example, I try to react to my episodes by saying, “It’s OK. I understand a piece of me had to go and disappear for a bit. It’s fine.” And if you feel frustrated, allow yourself to feel that way, but don’t beat yourself up for being triggered. Sometimes triggers happen out of the blue (which sucks), but I’ve found that these episodes are decreased in length if I am genuinely nice towards myself. Recovery takes a lot of practice and patience. You’ll get there.

2. Create and repeat affirmations. 

Affirmations are what I consider a controversial type of “tip” because they’re grouped together with things such as yoga and meditation, and these things don’t always work when it comes to treating a mental illness. I think the key to this being effective is to choose a phrase that really means something to you. When you choose/find a phrase that means something to you, make sure you say it with a sense of weight and purpose. In other words, “say it like you mean it.” Treat it like a verbal anchor. Creating an important go-to phrase like this can become a helpful anchor during difficult moments.

3. Go to therapy.

Do your homework and find a therapist that specializes in trauma, dissociation, etc. — whatever it may be that has contributed to your situation. Most importantly, you don’t have to go beyond your comfort zone when you first start going to therapy, or push yourself to discuss the trauma. If you begin to dissociate during a session, let your therapist know, and begin to back off from the sensitive topic. There is no reason to rush this. Trust yourself, trust your boundaries and make sure your therapist respects them as well.

4. Flashbacks will happen. Sometimes you have to let them run their course. 

And they might make you feel sick and overwhelmed, but you have to try and remember they aren’t happening in real time. Try to think of it as a plug that has been pulled. The memories are being drained from your subconscious and they’ll finally be gone once you’re able to sit through them. They’re like a bullet train just passing through the station on their way to their next destination, which thankfully happens to be somewhere other than the back of your mind. Your body may react in ways that makes it feel like everything is happening again, and I wish I could tell you there’s a quick fix to turning those sensations off, but they’re something you have to allow to run their course. Do whatever you can to ground yourself, but do not make yourself the enemy during this phase. Write about them, talk to a friend, run and listen to angry music, anything that will allow you to treat them like they’re just a loud thunder storm that will inevitably end.

5. Exercise. 

Do something that mentally engages you. Focus on the plants/trees around you when you run, focus on your body during yoga, focus on your breathing during lifting weights. Try to be present instead of allowing your brain to rummage around in the darkness. Exercise on foggy/dissociative days too if you can. You don’t have to be in a good mood to exercise. Be honest with yourself about how you feel and put that feeling into the movements you’re doing. Feel angry? Run hard. Feel sad? Move gracefully with compassion during yoga.

6. Let the people around you know what to do in a crisis.

They may not understand what you’re going through. Personally, I’ve tried so many times to explain dissociation to the people around me and only a couple understand what it’s like. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to not feel anything and everything at the same time. Put what you need into terms they’ll understand. Chances are they want to help any way they can. You just have to spell it out for them.

7. Be kind to yourself if you relapse. 

Relapses happen. Do not hate yourself for them. Do not hate yourself for any of this. The reason your brain developed this coping mechanism/disorder is so that you could survive the situation(s) you were in. You might wake up one day feeling like a new born baby, and it’ll feel weird and great and scary all at once, and the next day you might wake up and be back at square one. This is a natural part of the process and it will be like this for a while. Do not be mad at yourself for these ups and downs. Focus on the fact that you’re even having these ups and downs. That is progress, no matter how big or how small it is.

8. Accomplish things at your own pace.

Regular life things tend to take a backseat when we’re dealing with a mental illness. It’s not the end of the world, though. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your situation to everyone around you, especially people who fall under the “neurotypical” category. You are not falling behind, you are not failing and you are not going to be stuck in this place forever. You are allowed to take time to figure things out and to take care of yourself. Think of it this way: You cannot build a house on a rocky foundation, and you can’t construct a steady building with a rocky foundation. Write a list of things you want to accomplish and then write baby steps you can fulfill that will lead up to that main goal. (P.S: Don’t worry if you’re completely frustrated by taking things slow either, it’s OK.)

9. Understand that people are limited. 

Not everyone is going to understand what you deal with and you shouldn’t rely on those people for support if they can’t give it. There will be people who don’t understand dissociation, but they will be open to learning about it and what they can do to help. On the other hand, there will also be people who don’t understand dissociation and they will make zero effort to do so. Do not expect the people who fall into the second category to change their minds. Do not continue to put yourself into a position where you are constantly relying on people who do not have the capacity to offer the support you need. I realize this can be a hard thing to accept, especially if it’s your immediate family, but it can also be a freeing thing if you let it. By approaching people with this mindset, you will be able to gage who can and will offer you the best type of support.

10. Forgive yourself.

Whether you have a full-blown dissociative disorder or you experience minor episodes, you have to forgive yourself for the time you have lost. This has never been and will never be your fault. Understand you are trying your hardest to cope with your situation. Understand this likely resulted from a situation your brain could not process/handle. You are doing your best. You are surviving.

The Mighty is asking the following: Create a list-style story of your choice in regards to disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.


I have severe anxiety. I take medication and I have panic attacks daily.

But that does not mean I am shy.

That does not mean you should be afraid to approach me.

I am not afraid to talk to you. I’m not afraid to get up in front of the class and present my work or my essay. I’m not afraid to order my food alone. I am not afraid to do things alone, nor am I afraid to interact alone with other people. But that doesn’t mean my anxiety isn’t severe. Which may be what you misunderstand.

You see, I’ve always struggled with random panic attacks and an endless amount of thoughts that run through my head. I’ve always struggled with feeling like I was going to pass out because I walked up the stairs too fast and my heart was going a mile a minute.

The first time I realized my anxiety was bad, I was doing a solo in my chorus class. I messed up a note and almost passed out. I couldn’t breathe, I felt like there was a huge weight on my chest. I stopped hearing what I was singing and time sped up. My face went white, and everything got so bright, yet dimmed out at the same time. I could only hear my heart drumming a terrible tune in my chest. A constant fast drumming as loud as it could be. And the next thing I know, the song was done and everyone was just staring at me. And I sat down and didn’t say I single thing throughout the class. I thought I was having a heart attack. And this is where my depression kicked in. I felt so stupid for doing the solo, because why would I, a terrible singer, get up there and try to sing? And as soon as my anxiety got worse, with the sweating, the beating and the fast pace, I started to feel numb.

Eventually the bell rang, and I snapped out of it and went about my day — but with the fog floating over me, and this tiny little ocean sitting behind me, ready to create a tide to drown me at any moment. That day was when I realized there might be something wrong with me. I had no idea what anxiety was. I thought anxiety was just being afraid to do things. I thought it was feeling adrenaline from a fear you’re facing. I never knew anxiety was so bad, you literally feel like you’re dying.

The “attacks” kept happening. I was in and out of the hospital four times until they finally gave me medication to treat my anxiety. The medication helped. I could finally eat and sleep a little more. But it didn’t help entirely. I had multiple visits with a therapist and psychiatrist, and they just kept upping my doses. It took an entire month until I was able to go back to school and actually walk a foot away from my house.

I got bullied because no one believed I had anxiety — people assume having anxiety means you’re afraid of social situations and freaked out by people. But that’s not true at all. Anxiety takes so many forms. I’ve been through so much with my anxiety, and none of the stereotypes about anxiety are true for me. However, I felt like a burden because there was no telling when I would have a panic attack. And I felt anxious all the time — I just hid it. As I’m typing this I feel like there’s someone clenching my throat, making me unable to breath. And that’s what I live with. I’ve lived with this constant suffocation and random attacks for an entire year now. I’m on a large dosage of two different pills and I’m still not OK. But, I’ve learned to live with it.

With everything I face, things aren’t impossible for me. I’m still afraid when my heart races a little faster than a resting heart rate, but I learned to tune it out. I learned to completely shut down my attacks with the cost of being tired every second. Because every day is a war with my own body. Every single day I feel both the ocean over me and a fog covering my vision. It’s terrifying. But that’s my illness.

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us a story about a time you encountered a commonly held misconception about your disability, disease, or mental illness. How did you react, and what do you want to tell people who hold this misconception? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Dear students,

As your teacher I’m supposed to keep a boundary between professional and personal life. There are things to be shared and things to not share. My anxiety has always fallen into a gray area.

I feel like you need to know I am a teacher who has anxiety.

My anxiety is constant but occasionally spikes to panic attacks. I try to hide these moments from all of you and put on a brave face. My mental illness is not for you to worry about, but I would love to help you understand it looks different to everyone. Remember, I’m your teacher, but I’m human too.

1. I like routines. Routines make me feel comfortable. I like having a schedule. I understand field trips and assemblies are great for you because it means you can get out of classwork, but these days normally set my anxiety off, and this means I don’t always enjoy the events as much as you do.

2. I worry about what you think of me. Although my self-worth is not based solely on your opinion of me, I want to be liked. When you make comments about how so-and-so is a better teacher, it makes me feel more anxious. It would be great if you could phrase it as, “I understood so-and-so better when they did this… do you think you could try it?”

3. When I sit in my rocking chair, it’s not about avoiding you. It’s about getting my anxiety under control so I can walk around the room and not feel like I’m going to die. Please know this is my personal trick, but other teachers have a different safe place, like their desk.

Rocking chair

4. When I see you anxious, I want to make it better. I know how anxiety can feel, and I want to give you the tricks I know that help me. I can’t promise it will work, and I can’t tell you it’s a cure. But I wish just one of my teachers would have helped me identify simple techniques for controlling my classroom anxiety. I’m not a medical doctor, and I won’t force my strategies on you, but if you’re anxious, know I understand and wish I could do more to help. I recognize what each of your faces look like when you get anxious because I know asking for help isn’t easy.

5. My panic attacks and anxiety are not your fault, but the rules I put in place help reduce my anxiety. One of my triggers for feeling anxious is when students have food allergies that could be life-threatening. As a result I don’t allow food in my room. When a student sneaks food, I freak out because it could be dangerous for others. The no food rule keeps others safe but also keeps my brain from going to the worst-case scenario.

I’m not an anxiety expert, but I’m an expert on my anxiety. People make me anxious, and I don’t enjoy social gatherings, but I love being your teacher. I love seeing you learn and grow. I’m your teacher, but my anxiety is a huge piece of me.

The Mighty is asking its readers the following: What’s one secret about you or your loved one’s disability and/or disease that no one talks about? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

I am autistic. While being on the spectrum comes with many challenges, my different way of thinking and being in our world has played a key part in my many successes. With a diagnosis came answers and an identity, which brought a sense of belonging, within which I have found friendship.

Mental illness is different. The challenges are many, the strengths and advantages are few. For me, there is no sense of pride in identity, and the self-stigma is huge. Anxiety has been a lifelong challenge, but more recently the appearance of “stupid,” the voice of a restrictive eating disorder, or anorexia, has plunged me into the experience of living with mental illness.

In the last couple of days I came across a quote on Facebook: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.” I love the ocean and I think for this reason I drew meaning and strength from this quote. I described my analogy to a very special friend, who asked, “How did you get out there?” I’m not too sure yet of the answer, but this is my story.

For some time I had been paddling at the water’s edge and into the shallows. Friends, and people who care for me, came to the beach, calling me back when I had gone a little deep, but I was OK. I was in my depth. I was coping. Occasionally the wave that came was a little bigger. I wobbled, but regained my balance and carried on. I was OK with being there and told them I was fine. They would check on me occasionally but had no reason to be concerned.

Then, there was a much bigger wave. I fell and went under. I couldn’t breath. I came up and called out for help and they tried, but the current pulled me out into the ocean, far from shore.

Out there it was calm, it was still and for some time I floated, looking back. I was OK. I felt safe.

After a little while though, I realized I needed to get back to the beach, but I didn’t know how. I called out and asked for help. They answered, but I couldn’t hear what they said. I tried so hard to listen, but was too far out. The sea was no longer calm, the waves were small at first, but I no longer felt safe. I needed help, but I couldn’t reach it. A big wave pushed me under again. I came up beside a plank of wood. From the beach they told me to hold it. I wasn’t sure at first, but I trusted them, and was able to rest just a little.

I wanted to get back to the beach but was tired, and put my head down. The waves continued, they weren’t big, but the calm was over. Though unsafe, each one pushed me just a little closer, and as they did the voices from the beach grew louder.

Now, I can hear them more clearly, but as I near shore the waves are bigger. They try to push me under, and the current tries to pull me back out. Sometimes the noise of the waves drowns out the voices, but they call out again, a little louder, until I hear. They are teaching me to surf — to ride the waves — and I know now how to make it to the beach.

There are more people there, encouraging and believing that I can do it. I’m exhausted but I’ll make it, and I know that when I reach the sand they will help me up.

I’m drawn to the ocean, and I’ll walk on the beach again, but if I go into the water, even just paddling in the shallows, I’ll call out for someone to come with me and hold my hand. And just in case, I’ll learn how to surf. If I do fall I’ll know how to make it back, and if I see someone else struggling, then maybe I’ll be able to help them.

To the people who have “come to the beach” and to Nicky particularly, who was there when I fell, has called out to others and hasn’t left, thank you. I will walk with you on the sand soon.

The Mighty is asking the following: For someone who doesn’t understand what it’s like to have your mental illness, describe what it’s like to be in your head for a day. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Having anxiety isn’t something to be ashamed of, but one doesn’t necessarily want people to witness an attack first hand. Sure, it’s important to talk about and inform people regarding the challenges, frustrations and solutions associated with it, but that is far different than having a panic attack in front of a group of strangers or even friends who may not know how to act or help with the situation other than to stare, thus, making things worse. 

Personally, I think letting people see my anxiety only makes me focus on the panic more while I’m trying to work away from it. I’m sure I’m not the only one who puts on a face to negate the attention of those surrounding when anxiety decides to suddenly place a firm grip on the mind. These disquiet disguises or masks for my anxiety are something I use to work through a situation as gracefully as possible without anyone noticing that behind my eyes, some serious stuff is going on. While I’m sure there are better answers for how to deal with anxiety attacks in public this is just one of the ways I found helpful in dealing with mine.

The Cool Disguise

This is probably my most used disguise because I found if I appear calm and collected my brain sometimes eventually follows suit. It’s a face of casual disinterest. I nod and smile and appear to be listening to the person speaking to me while inside my head I’m saying, “OK. Calm down and breathe. Perhaps we can order a glass of water. Everything is cool.” Sometimes everything is cool, and sometimes it isn’t, but the people around me won’t know the difference.

There is only one time this didn’t work for me, and it was when I was on a date with the man who later became my husband. I’ll never forget him sitting next to me and suddenly asking out of the blue if I was all right. I gave him a small smile and insisted everything was fine. Something in my eyes told him all was not well, and he called me out saying, “You’re having a panic attack aren’t you?” I don’t know how he cracked the code, but I guess this has something to do with why he’s the guy I’m married to.

The “I’m having a fantastic time” Disguise

To everyone around me, I’m just another girl having an amazing time. Big smiles, laughing and shaking my head while inside I’m thinking “get me off this ride.” I liken it to getting a tattoo done. You’re smiling because “you’re really doing it!” but it doesn’t feel good, at all. The energy behind this face definitely assists in my focusing on what’s in front of me and less on what is going on inside, but really it’s just a disguise in hopes the feelings of panic pass without anyone ever knowing they were there. No one is really paying attention to me enough to know anything is wrong. I’m just another smiling face, and I feel safer knowing that.

The Phone(y) Disguise

When there isn’t a heck of a lot of energy on hand the old standby of seeming engrossed in the phone is another mask helpful in hiding episodes. This is when the anxiety has gotten to a point where I really don’t want to talk to anyone around me, yet I don’t really have the ability to up and leave. Perhaps there are too many people to say goodbye to or perhaps I know there is going to be that one person who gives the third degree about the early exit, but whatever the case, there is something important going on via text or email so please don’t bother me until I’m done addressing it. Sure, it seems rude, but I find people are reluctant to snoop and interrupt this phone play by asking who I’m conversing with or what I’m reading. In reality, I’m probably not reading. I’m probably scrolling through old photos or writing a grocery list in an effort to divert my anxious attention elsewhere.

The Exit Strategy Disguise

When all other disguises fail, I am just not feeling the surroundings and the room is starting to close in, it is sometimes necessary to remove myself from the situation.  I’m either tired with a busy day in the morning or I have a zillion things I need to do that I’ve ignored all day long and can’t possibly wait another minute. I need to grocery shop, vacuum my house, feed the cats, finish drying my laundry, etc. If I know I can get in my car and get home fast, this is the best way of doing it. Thankfully this only happened to me a handful
of times, and I’ve otherwise been able to wait things out until the feelings

I’m sure there are many others out there who use similar systems to help break through public situations. There are probably a whole slew of disguises I’ve seen but never recognized before. Having anxiety is tough, and for me, having someone in my face asking if I’m OK and staring with that look of “I have no idea what to do right now” has not proved helpful. Perhaps for others it’s different and the support of another person, even one unsure of how to help, is comforting. People mean well. I’ll admit dealing with a friend having a panic attack isn’t a simple thing to witness or to help with. I’ve been on both sides of the field, and there is no definitive easy way of working through it.

We can only do our best, and if that means hiding for a little bit behind a façade then so be it. This doesn’t mean I don’t share the experience with my friends after the moment has passed; it only means I needed a brief period to collect myself. The best thing to focus on is the episode will most certainly pass, taking the disguise along with it.

 The Mighty is asking the following: Coin a term to describe a symptom, characteristic, aspect, etc., of your diagnosis. Then, explain what that experience feels like for you. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

I used to think I knew what being brave was. I even used to naively and arrogantly think I was already brave. To me, bravery was all about grit and determination, taking on a challenge yourself without a safety net. It was about charging full steam ahead into the abyss of the great unknown with a ferocity nobody could deny. It was about pushing that fear down deeper, swallowing it whole and throwing another helping onto your plate unflinchingly. But that was before.

Be brave. Be brave. Be brave. I whispered it to myself as I quickly walked down the long white hallway. Be brave. Be brave. Be brave. I swallowed hard, stuffing the rising fear and hysteria down further. The nurse stopped at a door and motioned to my husband and me that this was the one. I took a deep breath and swung the door open and felt all my notions of bravery on the verge of being thrown up. There lay my 1-year-old son Emmett. He had been in surgery for seven hours and 26 minutes having his entire skull broken apart, removed and reassembled correctly in order to give his brain enough room to grow. There were wires, tubes and lines everywhere. His entire head was wrapped in a massive amount of white gauze but nothing could hide the deep red blood soaking through the back of it. His broken skull. Bleeding through everything, staining the sterile white pillowcase. I stood over his bedside and wept into his chest. My sweet, fragile, helpless little baby boy all torn apart in the middle of the ICU. I stood still. Time itself stood still.

Kathy looking at her son, who lays in a hospital bed. His head is covered with gauze.
Kathy and her son.

To watch your child suffer so greatly, it does things to you. That was only the beginning and the very first surgery. There would be more. There would be hours upon hours spent watching my child suffer. There would be seizures, tests, scans, hospitalizations, ambulance rides, additional surgeries, medications,and therapies. Round and round we would go on this out of control ride we so desperately wanted off of.

And all along, I knew. I wasn’t brave no matter what people thought. I was still scared. I was just pretending. My first true admission of defeat set everything in motion. I had insomnia. I was having panic attacks. I was losing myself. I was falling apart so noticeably, I couldn’t ignore it any longer, so I went to see a therapist. Here I was this wild eyed woman with unbrushed hair, deep, dark circles under her eyes, nervously bouncing my leg up and down with tears streaming down my face and he called me brave. The therapist told me he could see how hard it was for me to ask for help and admit defeat. He thought I was brave. Me. Brave. The woman on the floor next to her son’s crib each night, not sleeping. The woman who throws vases, pictures, remotes and keys at the walls and breaks them in fits of sheer desperation and anger at these circumstances I can’t change. The woman who left her phone in the fridge, threw the clean clothes in the trash can and can’t remember what month it is no matter how many times someone tells me. He thought I was brave because I told the truth and because I asked for help. I pondered it for weeks. That sure wasn’t what I had thought bravery was. This was the opposite, I felt weak and like a failure for needing to be in this office in the first place. But he was a licensed professional, who was I to disagree?

Slowly, with the therapist’s encouragements, I began to take the walls down. To tell the truth more and more often, even when it was scary and unflattering. Even when I was worried people would judge me or laugh at me. And something amazing happened. The more I told the truth, the braver I began to feel. I was facing a completely different kind of fear head on and I felt stronger for it.

I still can’t say for sure if I’m actually brave. Sometimes, I’m so sure of my place in this life and sometimes I’m just that desperate, scared woman all over again. I suppose there is bravery in that admission. To truly be brave, first I had to admit how truly scared I was.  

Kathy and her husband pose with her two sons.
Kathy and her family

The Mighty is asking the following: Tell us about the first time you reached out to someone about your mental illness. Whether it was a friend or a professional, we want to hear about why you opened up, how it went, and why you’re glad (or maybe not glad) you did it. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Real People. Real Stories.

150 Million

We face disability, disease and mental illness together.