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This poem describes my experiences of dissociation. I have dissociation problems that are hard for me to explain to people. I thought describing the events of two days when I was dissociating might help people understand dissociation better. During those two days, I was having flashbacks and having difficulty orienting myself to the present. 

I’m currently in grad school studying to be a counselor, and I am doing well in the program. Six years ago, I was in a different program, and essentially kicked out of the program when I shared with my professors I had mental illnesses. Planning to meet up with a professor in my current program triggered a flashback to a meeting with professors at my old college six years ago.

When I have a flashback, I experience the memory vividly again, I travel back in time and relive the painful memory. The poem also describes dissociative problems when the world feels unreal, and I have difficulty grounding myself in reality. These experiences are frightening and difficult to understand and deal with. I wanted to help people understand these types of experiences better, since other people on the dissociative disorder spectrum experience similar things.

Two Days of Dissociation

An old friend calls me,
And as we speak memories of 2011,
I flicker within the circuits of my mind.

I write to a professor, explain,
I need someone to talk to.
But as I press “send” on the email, a switch flips.
Suddenly, I see myself in a dim room,
At a long table,
While a wall of professors
Tells me I am too crazy to make it.
I feel the tears of the memory,
Wet against my cheeks.

My thoughts swim in circles,
A cacophony of fears floods my head.
I imagine going to my new professor’s office,
Finding an impossibly long table inside,
And a long chain of professors inside saying
I’m too broken to be a counselor.

On the drive to class, I become a past self.
I feel sharp anger inside me,
And an impulsiveness that scares me.
I’m a loose cannon waiting for something to shoot.

I grip the steering wheel tighter,
Feel the texture against my palms.
I study the dashboard,
The way the windshield angles,
Against the afternoon light.
I press newer memories into my mind.

I tell myself,
Remember when you drove this car
On your New England honeymoon?
Remember when you took this car
To the cabin last week?
It is 2017, and things are OK.

During class, I become myself again.
I think maybe it’s over.

Then the next night,
The flashback hits again with a vengeance.
I am back in the dim room with the wall of professors.
I feel the chair rolling against my shoe.
I feel my hand on a spiral notebook.
I keep crying and I don’t understand
Why their hurtful words won’t stop.

As I come out of the memory
I think of my school,
And my new professor I started to confide in.
Suddenly fear sucker-punches me,
And I’m breathless.
I’m terrified to go to school,
Afraid everyone will notice I’m broken.
I send long desperate texts to friends who don’t answer.
My husband calls and I’m crying too hard to talk.

After my husband is home, I calm.
But after dinner, I feel drawn to the highway.
I feel stronger than the other cars,
Like no one can hurt me.
The cars form a stream that parts
To let me through.

I merge onto the highway.
I watch myself accelerate
And glide among traffic.
I feel a strange coolness within my mind.
I am trying to figure out
Whether I am driving
Or the car is taking me?
My body does not seem like my body.
My mind is dancing through skies.
At the same time, I am scared.
I am breaking apart.

I force my body to turn the car around.
On the way home, I wonder,
Am I moving, or are the trees?
I think maybe I am watching a movie
Of trees that slide forward
Like ocean waves
To a mystical soundtrack.

No, I scold myself.
I am driving.
Those are just regular trees.
This is real.

I keep frightening myself.
I stop at a store on the way home
But the people inside all seem
To be multiplying and splitting
And not staying in the right places.
It’s no use trying to understand them.
I go home.

I pray I will be back to myself tomorrow.

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Thinkstock photo via megamix


Articles about anxiety and depression are all over my news feed. Even bipolar disorder and panic disorders are popping up. I appreciate the awareness and destigmatization they are bringing to mental illness and personality disorders, but these are not the only ways in which functional people experience mental illness.

Besides well-managed bipolar depression (bipolar II) many people will just now be learning I experience extreme dissociation events. Dissociation occurs when your brain cuts itself off from reality. Believe it or not, almost everyone has mildly experienced this — perhaps in the form of a daydream, or even that autopilot moment when you are driving and realize you cannot remember the last minute or so.

Most people recognize the word from the highly stigmatized dissociative identity disorder (DID), previously referred to as multiple personality disorder. This is a result of very real and severe trauma. However, other dissociative disorders exist:

– Dissociative amnesia involves a dissociation from reality with a loss of memory.

Dissociative fugue results in a loss of self, often causing one to flee and forget who they are.

– Dissociative disorder NOS (not otherwise specified) is a form where dissociation does not necessarily fit the criteria for the other labels.

Dissociation becomes a problem is when it becomes your primary defense mechanism — if your brain uses it to hide from real life problems, and you are unable to face emotion or conflict head-on.

I have dealt with this for all of my adult life, without actually putting a name to it until more recently — as with many mental illnesses and personality disorders, it can be improperly diagnosed, or disregarded entirely. Having read almost every list about mental illness on The Mighty, I realize no list is all-encompassing, nor is it even accurate for every person who experiences that particular disorder. However, I have learned some things, personally and through extensive therapy, which I think any partner or loved one of someone with a dissociative disorder should know:

1. Do not bother us with reality when we are dissociating.

This seems like a strange request, but until we have thoroughly worked through our disorder and are able to find healthier defense mechanisms, please do not bother us with reality. We dissociate because reality is too difficult for our minds, which is why we shut off or retreat. It is likely quite tempting to offer logical solutions to a glassy-faced, tuned-out person dissociating, but this will only cause agitation, and perhaps even further dissociating. No, we cannot just snap out of it.

2. Do not try to argue with us.

Seriously. We are not there with you. We cannot participate in an argument. At best, you will be ignored; at worst, you will cause us to retreat even further into our minds. More embarrassing still (and I hate to even type the words), but you could rouse a child-like version of ourselves who will be in full-out tantrum mode. Again, no, we cannot just snap out of it.

3. Please stop acting skeptical about amnesia.

Most people who experience dissociation experience amnesia. As I mentioned before, you have likely experienced it yourself. Frequently, it goes unnoticed. It how our brain protects us from difficult or traumatizing events and emotions. If we do not remember, we do not want to remember, unless it is part of our recovery. If dissociation protects one from traumatic experiences, this is an appropriate defense mechanism. Do not act skeptical. Those of us who struggle with a multitude of mental illnesses and personality disorders are used to skepticism, but it is unhelpful. If you are skeptical, just keep it to yourself and support us.

5. Do not get angry.

Sorrynotsorry if my dissociation is an inconvenience. We dissociate to protect our brains from things that hurt us. Anger is likely at the top of that list. You are not doing anyone any favors by becoming angry with us. We did not ask to struggle with this. We do not want to retreat from every conflict or difficult emotion. We cannot just get up and get over it. We cannot do this. Once again, no, we cannot just snap out of it.

6. Learn how to help us ground ourselves.

If we are in recovery, grounding may be a technique we use to prevent or minimize dissociation. Take the time to learn about it, and how we do it. Talk to our counselor or medical professional. Grounding usually involves rooting the five senses in the here-and-now. Finding something to feel, to smell, to see, to hear — things that maintain presence in our minds and prevent us from tuning out. I recently learned my dog snuggling up to me can help bring me back if the world around me is calm.

7. Know I am not dangerous.

When I dissociate, I am a danger to nobody. In fact, I have possibly perceived danger to myself, which caused the event in the first place. If you remember my requests to not become angry, or try to force logic and reality, I will not even be very irritable. It is 99% likely I will not even move or speak. Use the techniques that are available, and follow number 8:

8. Find a kind and gentle voice.

Or maybe just be silent. Sometimes silence is enough. Support us with your patience. Support us with kindness. Maybe even support us with a soft blanket. Your kindness and patience is all we truly need.

No list is a one size fits all. Through my recovery, I have learned many ways to deal (or not deal) with my dissociation. I have become aware of its presence, it happens less, and I have even headed it off a few times now. Recovery is very slow because it is hard to teach an old dog new tricks, but I am grateful because it is possible.

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Fading in and out of thoughts but especially fading out of reality. I look through two windows, as if I’m a house with eyes.

The house is full of many different things. As you walk in, you’ll see childhood memories scattered and the echoes of a happy little girl. The room on the right shows many books but also cobwebs. If you gently glide your finger along the binding of a book, you won’t feel a single thing. It’s almost as if you’re touching nothing at all. Startled by the lack of sense, you head into the room on the left.

This room has music playing; many different genres sing simultaneously. If you concentrate hard enough, you can make out each genre and the words it speaks. Once you can bear the madness of the music, you notice you’re walking on letters that were never sent and lyrics to songs that were never finished. You try to read, but once your eyes focus, nothing seems to make sense. Startled by the lack of sense, you wander into the bathroom to splash some water onto your face.

You lean down and turn the faucet on. After splashing some cold water in your face, you raise your head and look into the mirror. You frown and squint trying to depict what is going on. The mirror is warping, and it is almost like the fun houses mirrors you looked into as a kid. Shaking your head, you try to remember what you truly look like. All of a sudden, you snap out of it. You are staring at yourself in the mirror as you take a deep breath, and your heart rate decreases. The water finishes dripping off your face, and you decide to take a drink. You feel the cool water in your mouth, then throat, then running down into what feels like your heart. This reminds you that you are still here. You are indeed alive.

Time to head up the stairs. They creak with every movement. You think to yourself, “How odd it is that a newer house has so many fresh wounds?” You listen to the shower run and wonder if you’re in this mystical place alone. You knock lightly on the bathroom door, but there is no response. Convinced you are alone, you turn the handle to investigate. The shower is in fact running, but the question is for how long? The water gradually exits the bathroom and soaks the carpet in the hallway. Do things like this truly happen? Things seem a bit peculiar around here.

You’re curious to find the person who ran the shower. You head into a bedroom where you hear sniffles and an exchange of conversation; but this conversation is being held with a single person. She is staring at the wall and demanding to know, “Why me?” You look around to see photographs of what appears to be her friends and family. The shelves are organized with teen and romance movies. Her phone is lighting up from text messages. What could possibly be the reason she is crying?

You sit next to her and rub her back, but she doesn’t move. You just want to tell her, it’ll be OK. Tomorrow is a new day. You are loved. But you know she won’t hear you. You frown in frustration and head over to the window. You take both of your hands on the curtains to pull them aside and let the sunlight shine through.

Then it hits you. You are the person sniffling in the room. You are the house with windows for eyes. Forever viewing things from afar and against reality. Switching back and forth, not able to distinguish what is real and what is not. Some good things, some bad — but nothing you can’t handle. Some things are broken, but you fix each thing one day at a time. It is best to be patient and hold on to the sunlight that shines through your curtains. This is what your mind has made home: your little house of dissociation.

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Photo by Margo Brodowicz, via Unsplash

To discover the name of an affliction is to be slightly reassured. If a problem can be bound and encased in words, it is not bigger than words. If it can be described, it is, by extension, not beyond our understanding, and can, in theory, be managed.

In 2000, I typed my new and unnerving symptoms into the new and unnerving internet. “Sense of distance,” I wrote. “Things aren’t real.” “Senses dulled.” The web, which from its early days excelled in diagnosis, gave me the title I was looking for: dissociative disorder.

If discovering the name of a problem can be comforting, capturing the essence of it in a decent metaphor can bring further solace, a further sense of mastery. For this reason, I’ve tried, over the years, to capture the essence of the disorder in less clinical language.

I have thought of it as a mist, a veil worn on the inside, covering all the senses. It is doubt made palpable. When I explain the disorder to someone who has not experienced it using one of these descriptions, they seem to garner a loose impression of what I mean. They hold a fragile, vague, incomplete understanding, patched up with guess work. This description can also be used to explain how the person with a dissociative disorder experiences the entire world.

One morning I woke up and my surroundings had taken two steps back. I’d had dreams more vivid and convincing than this. I got dressed and went into the living room. Intellectually, I knew my sister was in the arm chair, nibbling a piece of toast with jam and watching “The New Adventures of Superman,” but I felt as if she was galaxies away. I knew I was as “present” as I had ever been, but it was as if my skin and eyes and tastebuds were no longer tools for experiencing the world but thick, downy duvets I had retreated behind.

I must just be tired, I thought. I drank Red Bull on my way into school the next day and got an early night. The following morning, I felt the same. In school, I stared at the graffiti on my desk. I tensed every muscle in my skull and tried to shatter the screen with force. It bent but did not break. I felt frightened, but at the same time anesthetized. The emotions which were so intense a few weeks ago were now blunted.

This anesthetized feeling is the entire raison d’être of the disorder. It does not begin life as a problem but as a solution to the problem of overwhelming emotion. Faced with the tidal wave of unpleasant feelings that were part and parcel of adolescence, my mind built a sea wall. It rejected the sources of these emotions, but it lacked the precision to single them out, and so issued a blanket ban on everything.

Vladimir Nabokov wrote: “Unless a film of flesh envelopes us, we die. Man exists only in so far as he is separated from his surroundings … Stay inside or you perish. Death is divestment. Death is communion.” Dissociative disorder is a mind’s admission that the film of flesh is insufficient. It is another layer of separation to prevent the peril of communion.

The significance of the change hit me one weekend. My family and I went on an outing to Rivington Pike. This is a Lancashire landmark, and we loved to fill empty Sundays by climbing it. Hundreds of other local people did the same. As a kid, I decided it was distinctly less boring than most other hills. Half way up, there was a hidden Japanese-style garden with fountains and a pond. The garden and the rugged woodland which surrounded it created a pleasing contrast between wildness and gentility. At the hill’s base, motorcycle gangs in leather sipped Earl Grey inside a tea shop, echoing this contrast.

My family and I would reach the top and sit on the side of the hill just below the summit to dodge the wind, which was usually strong enough to lift a greyhound off its paws. We would eat our sandwiches stoically, silently, in formation, pointing out landmarks across the county: The Reebok stadium, Blackpool tower, the sprawling, curling housing estates of Bolton. That particular Sunday, I came to a disturbing realization; my mind hadn’t just shrunk away from the boring bits, but the beautiful bits, the awe-inspiring bits: the height, depth and breadth of the entire world. This familiar, beloved view was now as moving and engaging as a sound stage.

When the panic receded, I realized it wasn’t quite as bad as all that. It was not the disorder itself that caused the most distress, but my belief in its power. That day on Rivington Pike, I believed I had lost my chance to experience any of life’s riches. I had not. I have had the disorder for half my lifetime, and it has not prevented me from making lifelong friends, from falling in love, from learning or growing. It is not bulletproof glass, as I first feared, but a “semi-permeable membrane.” Love can get through. Joy can get through.

A few months ago, my friend Laura called me from London. After swapping news, she sheepishly asked me, “Do you ever feel like the world is a million miles away? Like… you’re not really here?”

She was expecting blank incomprehension followed by a weak attempt to empathize. What she got was an abridged version of this post.

That day on Rivington Pike, I would never have believed the disorder could bring me closer to anyone or anything. But 15 years later, a friend had found herself lost in the mist and I was able to reassure her there was nothing, really, to fear. It was a peculiar paradox: we were 300 miles from one another and had been brought closer by our shared sense of isolation. It was comforting to learn that friendship, and the desire to connect, can outsmart anything the mind can produce to prevent connection.

The fog of dissociative disorder may disappear one day, and it may not. Even if it never shifts, it will not have had the final word. The mist can be isolating. It can be terrifying. But I merely had to look around to see I wasn’t alone within it.

Follow this journey on The Cellar and The Stairs.

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 Unsplash image via Andrew Neel

Over the years, it feels like I have been diagnosed with everything. I keep being diagnosed with things, and then the psychiatrist changes his mind. My current diagnoses seem to fit. Bipolar I, generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), panic disorder and social anxiety.

But then there is a piece of my mental illness that doesn’t seem to fit a diagnosis. I have dissociative problems. Sometimes, I’ve had symptoms of amnesia, where I’m unable to remember a traumatic event for up to years later. Occasionally, I have gotten in a car and “woken up” in another city, with no memory of my drive there. Sometimes, nothing feels real. I get confused about what reality is and where I am. Sometimes, I feel like I’m floating in the air watching myself below. Sometimes, I feel like I have multiple selves all wanting to speak. Sometimes, I feel like I change — I shift between parts of myself. Sometimes, I find myself talking and acting differently because I am speaking from a different part of myself.

These experiences are hard for me to understand. I am still trying to figure it all out. They are even harder for me to explain to my husband and friends. I wish I had a diagnosis that fit them. It would make it easier for me to explain myself to myself and others. But no diagnosis fits.

I’ve tried to connect to other people with similar symptoms. But I can’t ever quite find people who relate. I’ve met people online with dissociative identity disorder (DID). I can relate to parts of that disorder. It’s nice talking to these people. But in the end, I felt different from them. I didn’t seem to fit.

Recently, I found another online group for people with DID. I asked the group leader if I could join. I explained I don’t have DID and I shared my story with her. Her response moved me deeply.

She welcomed me warmly and said I would fit in the group. Then she explained by writing, “Dissociative disorders are on a spectrum. There are people with a variety of dissociative disorders in this group.”

Those words shook me to my core. On a spectrum. So maybe I wasn’t alone with my strange group of problems. Maybe I still fit. If there is a spectrum of people experiencing dissociative problems, then I can find a place on that spectrum. Then I can find a group of people who I can relate to. Our stories are all different, but we have experiences in common. “On a spectrum” means I am unique, yet I fit into the puzzle of dissociative disorders.

These words have given me so much encouragement. Now I just need a shorthand way to say, “I’m on the dissociative disorders spectrum!”  Well, for now, that phrase is enough and I am content.

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Thinkstock photo via Transfuchsian.

It can be hard to know what to say when someone you love is dealing with anxiety. Part of the problem is there’s no magic combination of words guaranteed to make anxiety go away — and how you support someone who’s anxious depends on who they are and what they need.

But when Callie Theodore told her boyfriend she was feeling insecure about their relationship, his answer was pretty much as perfect as you can get.

Callie posted a screenshot of their conversation on Facebook, and his response — and her message — has been shared over 130,000. Her post also appeared on Love What Matters.

“Someone with anxiety is inclined to assume everyone is going to leave. The truth is they battle something they can’t control,” she wrote. “Find yourself someone who doesn’t make you feel like loving you is a job.”

Callie said she decided to share this conversation on Facebook because she wanted others who are in a dark place to know they aren’t alone.

 “This post was never meant to go viral, but I am so blessed in did. People from all other world are telling me my post saved their life and that it gives them hope,” she told The Mighty.


Her entire post read:

Someone with anxiety is inclined to assume everyone is going to leave. The truth is they battle something they can’t control and there is a sense of insecurity within themselves when it comes to relationships and simply, just life. They know it’s difficult and they don’t want to burden you with their irrational thoughts and worries. So instead, they try to push you away before you get the chance to leave yourself. That’s the reality.

It’s hard loving someone who suffers from anxiety. They will be over sensitive, they will make up scenarios in their head causing an argument, and constant reassurance is needed.

Find yourself someone who doesn’t make you feel like loving you is a job. Someone who will assure of you the little things. Someone who doesn’t tell you that you’re overreacting. Someone that will rock you on the floor in the dead middle of an anxiety attack. Find someone that no matter how hard you push them- they do not leave.

There are people out there like that. People that calm you and bring you a sense of security- that will be stronger than any dose of medication that can be prescribed.

You may have anxiety, but anxiety doesn’t have you.

Inspired by her sweet post, we wanted to know what other people needed to hear from their significant other when a rough moment with anxiety. So, we asked our mental health community.

Here’s what they told us:

‘You are not your anxiety.’ He reminds me of this all the time. He reminds me how much fun he has with me, how he loves me unconditionally and how he would be so unhappy without me. He has to do this so often thank God I have such a patient and supportive husband.” — Megan R.

“I used to be in a relationship with a person who didn’t understand my anxiety, so when we had fights he would tell me, ‘Why do cry so much?’ ‘Why do you overreact about a single discussion.’ So if I had a mental breakdown in front of him I had to hide it because he would tell me, ‘Why are with me if you’re going to end up crying and shaking like that’… eventually I’d hide from him if I felt anxious and made me feel ashamed of my illness… it’s hard to feel judge from the person you love… I guess the best thing to hear is I don’t really understand what is going on you but I support you… and be there in the mental crisis, just holding my hands can make a difference.” — Daniel S.

“‘We’ve got this! This isn’t my life or your life. It’s our life. We are in this together today, tomorrow and forever.’ I cried like a baby when he said this to me.” — Tracy K.

“When I get lost in doubt, he reminds me that he loves me and if he didn’t still love me more than anything in the world, he wouldn’t still be here. The evidence is important to me. When my fiancé proposed, the first thing I said was, ‘Are you sure?’ Anxiety likes to be a doubting jerk, but my fiancé is pretty awesome and smacks it out of the way real fast.” — Erin W.

I am humble enough to admit I don’t understand what you’re going through, not a slightest clue, but let me assure you I will be by your side no matter what happens. I love you and it is important for me that you feel that and see that from me. Help me help you get through this. We are in this together.” — Mark T.

‘I am so proud of you. After everything this life has thrown at you, you’re still here. You have fought like hell to be the woman you are today and nothing can take that from you… not even your anxiety. I’m right here and always will be.‘ I’m so blessed.” — Mary C.

“No matter what, I will always be here for you. If you need a shoulder to rest on, I’m here. If you need someone to talk to, I will listen, I will understand and I will hug you until your anxieties go away. No matter what, I loved you..” — Azis N.

“My husband usually tells me, ‘You’ve been my Crazy Lady from the beginning and it’s never bothered me before, it’s not about to start bothering me now.’  Then he kisses me on the forehead and runs me a bath.” — Amanda K.

“I’ll always love you for who you are.” — Erik H.

“Ask me if there’s something they can do, and be content if I say there’s nothing. Sometimes all I need is a hug for something small… just being there without making me feel bad for getting anxious is the most important.” — Maddy F.

“They aren’t going anywhere. My boyfriend (now husband) would tell me, ‘I don’t know what it’s like to have anxiety but I’m not going anywhere.’ He would do this while holding my hand. He instantly calms me with his touch. I do the same for him when he’s stressed. Just his acknowledgment of my ‘freak out; in such a calming and understanding way meant a lot. He just listens and doesn’t have to say much.” — Kylie A.

“He always helps me determine if it’s my anxiety or something else. No matter what I say he knows just by the look on my face when I’m anxious. He’s very in tune with me and my emotional needs. He always tells me he loves me and how I feel isn’t wrong, even if it sometimes is lol.” — Juli K.

“‘I love you babe’ the most powerful thing she says to me. It makes us seem more real and a certain thing rather than what my anxiety wants me to believe.” — Ethan H.

“I feel like sometimes I don’t want to hear anything from my significant other when I am doubting our relationship. All I really ever want is to just be held. When he’s calm and he hugs me, I begin to feel calm too…” — Alex T.

‘I understand’ would be greatly appreciated and not being told to ‘calm down’ or start pointing out all the embarrassing things I am doing…. That’d be grand. — Jenny W.

“I remember once I was driving home from a date with my boyfriend, and I had a huge anxiety attack. I felt convinced that he was over me and the relationship was over. I cried and cried and we had a long talk about it all. The one thing I remember him saying to me was, ‘Your anxiety tells you that you’re this awful person that doesn’t deserve to be loved, but maybe it’s what makes you the most beautiful woman I know.‘ It really resonated with me, and it helped me a lot that day.” — Carolyn A.

“Even though I’m married, I’m always ashamed of how I have breakdowns over the most littlest things. I automatically feel like, who would want to be with me, willingly? Thankfully, he’s always there to remind me that I’m perfect in his eyes and I’ve conquered a lot in my life.” — Leeann L.

“‘I love you and we can get through anything together!’ He doesn’t always understand my anxiety or why I doubt myself or us, but he reminds me that he loves me and I’m not alone in my struggle.” — Bree C.

“My husbands magical weapon for me is laughter! Make me laugh and all my anxiety goes away, instantly. I pretty much just drop whatever was getting me riled up. Great life hack.” — Christa C.

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