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8 Things I Wish My Loved Ones Knew About My Dissociation

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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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Originally published: May 9, 2017
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