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When I Dissociate as Someone With PTSD and Autism

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I was most recently diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, something I am told is fairly common among those of us with autism. I think it’s because sensory input is a bombarding force we constantly absorb rather than deflect and ignore. Those who are neurotypical have a means of directing the traffic, attenuating to desired stimuli and blocking out the rest. But for people with autism, things that may have just seemed like everyday events or “part of growing up” are processed altogether differently, because the executive function of our brains is different. This is a topic I often think about when I’m driving.

• What is PTSD?

On a drive a few days ago, a streetlight went out as I passed it.

Dissociation is often part of having PTSD and autism. It can take different shapes and forms depending on the person. For me, it comes with complete physical and emotional exhaustion — often after days of too much work, too many people, too much change, too much stress, or a combination of all of that and more. It has happened while I’m by myself, usually the day after the culmination of “too much.”

When I dissociate, the world around me shuts off. I am unable to camouflage among people any more. Simple sentences that are often metaphorical or idiomatic are lost on me completely and communication becomes difficult. I once hit that point at an unexpectedly raucous family get-together while I was in the middle of a group of people. Someone there told me I got a “thousand-mile stare.” I don’t realize it at the time, but if I experience a dissociative episode in public, my brain automatically stops attending to stimuli. I see, but I don’t know what I’m looking at. I hear, but it’s all noise.

The streetlight goes out.

It’s strange what our senses will catch. It’s one streetlight among dozens, but if it goes out right next to you the darkness overtaking the light is instantly noticed. This is true of dissociation. My friends can tell when I’ve had enough and frequently ask me how I’m doing if we’re hanging out together. When the streetlight in my head goes out, I feel nothing and sense little.

As someone who is usually processing emotional states and trying to intellectualize them because they don’t make sense, it is disturbing when I have a dissociative episode and feel absolutely nothing. It’s not a calm amidst a storm. It’s standing in the circle where the light used to be and trying to make sense of the dark. There’s an inherent background of panic because dissociation takes everything away from me.

I don’t want to leave without a message of hope. I have been doing my best to seek treatment and work through these issues. I changed therapists and now see a therapist who specializes in autism and trauma. At least two to three times a month I have EMDR sessions to help reprocess the unhealthy thoughts and moments in my life. I’m working with my psychiatrist to find the right medications I should and should not be on to help with the anxiety and social issues. I’m working. It’s hard, yes, and at times I stay in my apartment, put something mindless on the TV, and try and stop thinking about everything or take a nap. Other times, I sit down and write.

Until recently, I didn’t realize this was something I did fairly regularly. It has caused a significant amount of stress just trying to realize the “not feeling” part of it is only temporary. Within a day or so, the wall will come back down.

The light will come back on.

Getty image by Gyro.

Originally published: January 1, 2019
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