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I Wish I’d Known I Was Experiencing This Dissociative Disorder as a Kid

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced domestic violence or emotional abuse, sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering.

You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

You can contact The National Domestic Violence Hotline online by selecting “chat now” or calling 1-800-799-7233.

You can also contact the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741741.

When I was young — perhaps 8 or 9 years old — I started to have a recurring set of nightmares that felt different to any other. The features were always the same — a garden; flower beds; children; some kind of accident; people screaming. When I woke up, though, the nightmare would continue.

I’d be unable to move in my bed, and I could hear a cacophony of voices all talking at once, overlapping each other, right next to my ear and in my head but so clear that I could almost make out their conversations. They were mostly calm apart from one or two; those were screaming in fear or fury, it was hard to tell which. It was so terrifying; I was desperate for it to stop. At the same time, although my eyes were open and I was by every description awake, I could still see the nightmare playing out, almost superimposed on my vision. I didn’t see anything or anyone in the room, but it was like a double-exposure photograph; I could see both.

When it finally began to fade, the world felt… wrong. Things felt either too big or too small. I was the size of a pea and my bed was an ocean, stretching beyond the horizon. Then I was too big; I could grasp the sheets in my giant hands but they felt minuscule, or I could feel something small in my hands that wasn’t actually there, quickly changing, again, to something big. All the while, I was absolutely awake, trying desperately to grasp onto some semblance of reality.

“I almost believed something supernatural was happening to me.”

The final aspect was how everything looked; depth was warped, everything looking too big or too small, too close or too far away, or somehow all of these things at once. Everything looked too vivid, like someone had turned up the sharpness of my vision, making everything seem brighter.

Eventually, the experience would fade and I would lie awake and terrified until finally, exhausted, I’d fall back to sleep.

This went on for most of my childhood and teen years, happening maybe several times per year. I don’t know why, but it’s been a long time since the last episode. I tried talking about it to my parents. They didn’t listen, so I stopped mentioning it. I told a few friends, but they had no answers. It’s only in the last decade that I’ve discovered what I may have been experiencing, and in the last few years, I discovered the possible reason.

It seems, to the best of my knowledge, that I was experiencing a combination of sleep paralysis and derealization disorder, a dissociation disorder common in trauma survivors but which can occur regardless. I have no official confirmation that this was what I was experiencing, but while it can happen to anybody, Marlene Steinberg, M.D., author of “The Stranger in the Mirror: Dissociation — The Hidden Epidemic,” once told The Mighty that:

“Dissociation is an adaptive mechanism promoting survival within a severely stressful, inconsistent, or chaotic environment … People who have experienced repeated severe emotional stress or traumas during their childhood or adolescence are most likely to experience recurrent derealization episodes. Derealization can also arise in those who have experienced profound acute trauma.”

As you may know from reading my work, I previously discovered that I was (probably) sexually abused by someone for whom my mother worked. I was also experiencing daily emotional abuse at home, bullying at school, and other aspects of an unstable household, like my wayward half-brother who had a drug addiction and a tendency for violence.

Looking at everything I was experiencing, it’s no wonder that I was having these episodes of derealization. I can’t quite put a finger on the sleep paralysis — which likely caused the auditory hallucinations — but it was so scary to experience all of this without the language to describe it or seek help.

I wish I’d been taught about sleep paralysis, dissociative disorders, or any of the ways my mental health might have been struggling. I wish I could’ve communicated this in a way that made sense. Or, maybe it wasn’t entirely on me. Maybe it was on the adults in my life to listen to my cry for help and try to delve a little deeper beyond “he had a nightmare.”

It just stands to show why mental health education is so important. We need to listen to children when they experience something odd, and we need to get them the help they deserve — the exact help that you and I, as adults, deserve — and the answers they need. I felt so utterly alone in my experiences, but it didn’t have to be that way. In the absence of answers, I almost believed something supernatural was happening to me. It made those experiences all the more terrifying.

Remember: dissociation disorders are common for abuse survivors, but anybody can experience them. They exist in a spectrum of dissociation from everyday daydreaming to dissociative identity disorder (DID). If you believe you’ve experienced depersonalization or derealization, please talk to a mental health professional.

Getty image by Marta Nardini

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