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How I've Learned to Appreciate My Brain When It Dissociates

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Dissociation is one of the worst symptoms of my condition, borderline personality disorder (BPD), but at the same time one of the best. Let me explain…

Before I was officially (and finally!) diagnosed with BPD just over three years ago, I had spent 20-odd years not knowing what my dissociative episodes were; terrifying myself and those around me when my eyes rolled back, and my speech stuttered. Since learning what dissociation is and why it happens, much of that terror has been removed, though in the early stages of an episode the fear is still very real.

Urgent racing thoughts whip round my mind, such as, “What could I do to myself or others when I’m out of it?” “Will this cause irreparable damage to my brain?” “How much time will I lose?” The episodes are much shorter these days. Now that I’m in possession of the skills to ground myself I rarely totally “disappear,” though some past examples of total dissociation stay clear in my mind. These range from the hilarious, such as cleaning the house from top to bottom (very unusual behavior for me!), the funny but financially damaging, such as coming round to discover £80 of takeout food on my kitchen counter, to the life-threatening, such as finding myself knee-deep in a river or on the bedroom floor. 

Dissociation will occur after I have put myself through an extended period of stress, often due to days of berating and punishing myself — seemingly usually for nothing in particular — by binge drinking, getting high, starving myself and not allowing myself the luxury of sleep. Then, suddenly, it will feel as if something has literally snapped in my head — my brain has been pushed too far. I look down at my hands, but they are not mine. The home around me is smothered in a foggy haze and all seems unfamiliar to me. My heart pounds, my breathing grows shallow, my brain is stuck like a broken record and words come out of my mouth as just mono-syllable sounds. Either my legs will go to jelly or just won’t stop pacing; the decision is not mine but theirs. I am cramped over in physical pain. I am so very cold, even on the warmest day, and desperately need comforting layers of scarfs, jumpers and blankets; my body is surely shutting down. I will reach out for my teddy bears as if a child again. Scared out of my wits, I hold myself tight, I count all the red objects in the room, I lie on the floor and stroke the carpet, I grip on to the bedhead for dear life, readying myself for the wild ride. Over and over, I tell myself I am safe — desperately trying to ground myself before I am lost, eyes white and head lolling, to a place I fully believe I may not come back from. Any rational thought has been erased by my tortured state of mind. But now my body has switched to survival mode, there is nothing to be done but let it complete its rescue mission. 

This is where I come to the good bit — yes, I promise you there is one! No one seems to talk about this bit, but surely it can’t just be personal to me. Since my diagnosis, I have armed myself with an understanding of all that is going on inside me during dissociation. I can therefore curl up safe in my bed and allow the experience to wash over me, cocoon me; because overall dissociation really is an awe-inspiring thing, a wonder. My brain, since experiencing significant traumatic events in my childhood, has worked tirelessly to learn life-saving mechanisms in a bid to protect me and keep me safe from harm.

Then comes the episode’s final stage, total dissociation, bringing with it freedom from mental and physical pain, a numbness and a rush of euphoria, often inviting uncontrollable giggles at the ridiculousness of the whole situation. These blissed-out feelings pull me back from the brink, and the high is heightened further by the certain knowledge from here on in, the only way is up. My brain has effectively reset, giving me renewed strength to climb out of my slump, albeit often slowly over the course of a day or so. I am now able to take a step back and see that during this recovery time it is imperative that I wrap myself up in self-love, well-fed and showered with all things comforting. And, thanks to my dedication in recent years at learning coping skills, the ever more impressive turnaround of these episodes — endured and handled all by myself — often leaves me beaming with self-pride and willingness to forgive myself for whatever misdemeanors brought me to the meltdown in the first place.

There are of course many things about the workings of my borderline brain that frustrate me (nowadays, I refuse to say anything about it is broken or wrong; it’s just built and developed a little differently — round of applause please for this gem of self-love!). But when my funny old brain perceives a threat to my safety, it truly never ceases to amaze me with its grand performance of dissociation. I now try hard to just take a moment or two when in the depths of these episodes to simply marvel at every part of it, and through this I have learnt to love and forgive this resilient, marvelous organ for its less favorable “quirks.” My brain and I have been through many tough times together, and we have survived it all. If someone were to offer me the chance to be without my dissociative episodes, it would be an offer I would turn down without hesitation. They are a truly special something I feel honored to own and experience.

Getty image via javitrapero

Originally published: May 16, 2020
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