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What It's Like to Experience 'Blackout Dissociation'

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I have borderline personality disorder (BPD) and for me, stressful situations can work like a potent, mind-altering drug. In small doses, stressors seem to tweak my physiology and impair my thinking to some degree depending on their severity, but will eventually work their way through my system, at which point I can then go about my life with some semblance of normalcy. But my experience is that large, frequent doses of stressors can send me into a dissociative nightmare that I would liken to stories I’ve heard about what it’s like to be “blackout drunk.”

To help explain what that is, here’s a quote from comedian John Mulaney:

“…blacking out is when you drink so much that your brain goes to sleep, but your body gets all ‘Eye of the Tiger’ and soldiers on.”

In another sketch, Mulaney went on to discuss how he used to wake up from a night of blackout drinking and hear stories about what he did the night before with absolutely no memories of the events. Sometimes he’d wake up and have no money despite the fact he had some when the night began. And then there were situations he described as “weirder.”

“It was even weirder, though, when I went out for the night with some money, black out and wake up with more money, because that means that I earned money. That means that I traded goods and/or services. Which is scary…”

My experience with what I’ve come to call “blackout dissociation” is all too similar to Mulaney’s stories for me. In one saga of my life, I experienced an onslaught of stressors, some of which were good, and some I hope to never see again.

In less than 10 years I:

  • Got married.
  • Lost several family members in death at the hands of roller coaster diseases that in one moment gave hope of recovery only to strip it away in the next.
  • Burned through job after job.
  • Had children.
  • Suffered loads of financial loss all the while navigating the woes of poverty.
  • Suffered quite a few traumas in addition to all of that.

And all this occurred before I knew that I had BPD or had any tools with which to deal with it.

There are parts of my life from that period I’m aware of not as lived memories, but rather like the memory of a dream, or the memory of a story someone told me. And other memories of some events or actions are just not there at all. Some of the missing memories are good, like those of my children when they were little, and some memories that are missing are, I believe, horrific. I believe this to be true because I can (a) remember hints and shadows of awful things I did during that time, and (b) because I’ve been told “stories” by others.

To get an idea of what that was like for me (without oversharing as I am prone to do), try to imagine you’re driving your favorite car. While driving from point A to B, unbeknownst to you, there are snipers waiting in ambush at various places along the route, and they are shooting at you with darts that are filled with a drug that is slowly stripping you of conscious action and self-control.

Though you fight it with all the resources you have, you don’t know of an antidote, and eventually you succumb to the power of the drug. You find that your mind is no longer your own. As a result, you begin taking turns you don’t want to take and would otherwise never chose to take. You go down roads where you would never go if you were wholly in control. But you are no longer wholly in control or aware that there are alternative choices. You’re just avoiding obstacles as best as you can and somehow ending up where you never intended to be. The fog deepens and consciousness only comes in waves of lucidity as disorienting flashes of scenes and people float across your mind. You’re being carried along, compelled to move forward at the mercy of some foreign volition.

When you finally wake up from your stupor (if you do wake up — from what I understand, some people don’t), you find that your beloved car is motionless and mounted on blocks where your tires should be. The car has seemingly been stripped bare of many of its parts. Wires hang down, and something seems to be burning. Strange stains are all over and awful smells emanate from the back seat, or what’s left of it.

A banner promoting The Mighty's new BPD Safe Zone group on The Mighty mobile app. The banner reads, Join the BPD Safe Zone -- a safe and nonjudgmental space for anyone living with borderline personality disorder to talk openly about their experiences. Click to join the BPD Safe Zone.

People you know pass by the wreckage and look at you askance. You want to explain but they just walk on by, and you don’t have the words anyway. Loved ones look at you like you’re a monster with pained expressions and maybe more than a little trepidation because their past encounters with you have been painful or terrifying or both.

In case it’s not obvious, this crime scene that used to be your vehicle represents your life where some really bad stuff has gone down… stuff that you’re about to have to sort through whether you want to or not. And deep down, you have the dreadful, sinking suspicion that you yourself perpetrated the whole damn thing, and that you’re going to own every bit of it.

Can anyone else relate to my story? Have you come back from something similar, or are you still muddling through?

Where did you find hope if you found any?

I’d love to hear whatever you’re willing to share in the comments.

Photo by Javi Hoffens on Unsplash

Originally published: October 5, 2020
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