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24 Signs You Experienced Dissociation as a Child

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As children, we often don’t quite understand what’s happening as it happens. It’s hard to find the words to describe that feeling — a deep lack of connection, an extreme disconnect with the world, a distance from our sense of self. When we’re older, we may realize these seemingly indescribable feelings might have been signs of dissociation — a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory, and sense of identity. 

While experiencing some level of dissociation is fairly common, and not everyone who dissociates has a dissociative disorder, more frequent dissociation, or dissociation that occurs because of trauma — can interfere with your life, and especially if you’re a child, it’s important to know what to look out for.

That’s why we asked our Mighty mental health community to share with us some things they did as children because they experienced dissociation. Because looking back at the past to examine what we experienced can help inform why we do what we do today. It can also sometimes help us move through the struggle and into a place of healing.

Here’s what they had to say:

1. “I would make up different stories or versions of what I wished my life was like. And I realize now I still do this a lot even as an adult. I didn’t even know that was a part of disassociation! I also use to shut down and learned to become emotionless or else I would get punished as a child for showing emotions. This has complicated my adult life and [my] ability to connect with anyone — friends or family.”  — Christine K.

2. “I pretended to be someone else for most of my childhood. I wanted to be anyone else but myself. If you believe a lie long enough, it eventually becomes true.” — Justin E.

3. “I would make a new world for myself every night to help fall asleep, it was one of the few ways I could escape and quiet my brain.” — Cat P.

4. “I read books. Anything to take me away from where I was. My parents used tell me I needed a 12-step program for books, but in reality I just needed more help.” — Mackenzie C.

5. “I would spend hours in my mind, acting as different ‘characters’ in their own stories and living their own lives. I was more them than myself, and found it hard to return to the ‘real’ world, to the point where I’d answer real people as the characters.” — Corin P.

6. “I got really philosophical as a kid because of dissociation. I had periods where the world around me didn’t seem real, like I was watching through a screen; and I would start panicking about dying and what happens after and if what I was experiencing was real or fabricated by my brain. I also convinced myself that if I told anyone about what I was feeling, the world would disappear.” — Jessica C.

7. “I lied literally all the time. It wasn’t until I was in my early 20s that I realized I lied my way through my childhood. Even now at almost 33, my parents still think I am lying about everything. Unfortunately, neither one of them are ready to hear about the details of how this disorder affected me as a child or how it affects me now. I am no longer a liar, thank God. I actually have quite the guilty conscience now. It took years and years of intense intentionality. I am one of the most honest people all my friends know.” — Nicole P.

8. “I used to sit in front of a mirror and stare at myself for hours. Typically in the evenings after everyone was already in bed.” — Julissa R.

9. “I can’t remember — really — certain sections or parts of my life; some weeks, some months, some years. I am perturbed by things I don’t remember experiencing, therefore I question why I’m reacting the way I do.” — Muneeba Edwards

10. “I learned to be quiet. I would lose pieces of time, and once I realized I was back in the real world, I wouldn’t know what was happening. I would sit in class and nod — never talking unless directly asked to. I was terrified someone would realize what I was doing and ask me about it. I became the nice girl in class who never speaks. — Darcie B.

11. “I tried not to breathe, because if anyone knew I was breathing they would hurt me in some way. To this day, if someone says they can hear me breathing, I’ll stop. I also escaped into books and always wanted to live other lives. There are large chunks of my childhood, and even my adult life, that I simply have no memory of, or only bad memories of. And I don’t trust anyone. I know being happy leads to misery. Because I don’t deserve good things.” — Elizabeth W.

12. “As a young teenager I would frequently ‘shut down’ — catching myself staring into space for hours, gripped with depression, disassociation and depersonalization” — Jess H.

13. “In childhood and my teen years, I imagined inanimate objects were my secret, caring guardians, who supported and comforted me when I needed it. If I had to sleep on the floor, the carpet fibers ‘held me up’ and provided as much fuzzy comfort they could muster. ‘Mister Couch’ cradled me when I had to sleep on it for a couple of years. It looked like a smug, lumpy, humble being where the creases and buttons were put. He was warm and protected me at night.  And sometimes, when I’d cry, I noticed streaks of light reflected off of my eyelashes. If I squinted, looking toward a warm streetlight, they looked like bright, gentle hands reaching down to let me know they were with me.” — Ryan P.

14. “Every single report card said that I was ‘a good girl, but daydreams too much, can’t complete work.’ I wasn’t daydreaming. I couldn’t explain to my mom, who would spank me for bad reports because I didn’t know what was happening. I now believe it was disassociation.” — Amanda E.

15. Self-harm. I needed to see the blood to make sure I was real. Read in the bathtub for hours. The sensation of floating and reading would make me feel like I was in another world.” — Anjuli H.

16. “I would spend time playing with dolls, but more in ‘creating my own world’ that escalated into not just dolls — it went into my head. I was more them than myself, and trying to be me wasn’t an option. As I got older, finding myself was a battle and my anxiety became worse each time I left the house. I have issues with a personality disorder now. I was diagnosed at 13 and I’m 17 now. It’s still a battle every day. No one knows though.” — Tiana O.

17. “I had a terrifying out-of-body experience brought on by anxiety one day at school and for quite a while after that I did anything I could to avoid school.” — Mark V.

18. “I attempt to overcompensate about how wonderful my life was/is. I still do this to this day. And I don’t apologize to people about it. But of course no one really understands unless they do or feel the same. So now I just try to keep my mouth shut. But it just comes out like word vomit.” — Sara E.

19. “I used to splash cold water on my face to try to get me out of it. It actually helped sometimes.” — Kayla D.

20. “I taught myself not to shiver. At age 5, I walked to school in the cold with a sweater instead of coat. There was a coat for me, I saw it every morning before going to school, but Ma wouldn’t let me wear it.” — Kathryn P.

21. “I shut down emotionally. This is usually for about 24 hours, where I need time to ‘reset’ without talking to people. People used to say I was dead inside, but after a while they understood and gave me the space I needed. I don’t do this as often as I used to luckily.” — Richard H.

22. “Made up a whole lot of friends who had strikingly real personalities, biographies and looks. Also I was a compulsive liar in means of these ‘people’ and scenarios.” — Bailey S.

22. “I sat in a closet for two hours listening to the same song because I had no sense of time. I remember staring at my hands trying to figure out whose they were.” — Madison B.

23. “Lay in bed tossing and turning unable to sleep. Talk to the radio. Ramble sometimes in words that were made up. I really thought I was comforting someone. It took hours to fall asleep.” — Jen H.

24. “I hid in my room a lot as a child, scared by the smallest noises. Usually I would act rebellious and uninterested. I thought that by acting uncaring toward my abusive father, I would be saved from the heartache. In the end it caused more because I separated myself from my mother and siblings. So I acted out frequently.” — Sarah R.

Thinkstock photo via Alex Linch

Originally published: October 24, 2017
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