The Mighty Logo

How ‘Only Murders in the Building’ Nailed Dissociation With This Analogy

The most helpful emails in health
Browse our free newsletters

My entire life I’ve had what I can only describe as a type of dissociative amnesia. I have periods of my childhood in particular that I cannot recall at all. It always bothered me and made me feel like something was desperately wrong with me. I understood logically that trauma can result in dissociation as a coping strategy enabling us to tolerate an experience during which we feel unsafe or out of control. However, it was difficult to explain to others why I don’t have any memory of their wedding, 16th birthday party or the time we performed at a special event at Disneyland when we met XYZ celebrity.

• What is PTSD?

It is through the prism of this lens of my own dissociative narrative that I viewed Season 2 Episode 7 of the Hulu original “Only Murders in the Building” entitled “Flipping the Pieces.” This episode follows the traumatic childhood of character Mabel Mora, played by Selena Gomez, and her own history of repeated dissociation whenever she feels like something is too much or too difficult for her to handle. Her trauma began as a child when at the age of 7 her father passed away due to stomach cancer. Her parents chose not to tell her what was happening because they thought that would protect her.

It had the exact opposite effect by causing her to flip the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle in her mind so she couldn’t see the memory anymore. She notes that throughout her adult life she has continued this process of pushing traumatic things away and that it may have worked as a child, but it certainly hasn’t served her well as an adult.

As a jigsaw puzzle aficionado myself, I thought this description of dissociation as an upside-down jigsaw puzzle was absolutely brilliant. The image depicted by a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle takes tremendous patience and commitment on the part of the person assembling it to reveal itself. But if the puzzle is upside down, the revelation is even more challenging. Not only are you not working with any clues, you are basically operating within the confines of a blank slate. Extrapolating this to the concept of dissociation… if the puzzle itself is our memory and each piece a fragment of that memory, rendering the memory blank with just fragmented pieces that don’t make any sense together in any kind of narrative way offers an extremely tangible means of explaining what dissociation feels like to someone who has never experienced it.

The jigsaw puzzle concept continues to be useful in terms of processing traumatic memories, particularly where eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) is concerned. I found that the EMDR protocol itself involved identifying a traumatic memory (the puzzle), carefully addressing specific fragments of the memory, such as a smell or taste associated with it (flipping the puzzle pieces), and then slowly putting the narrative of that memory together to understand it more completely and help it feel less painful (assembling the puzzle). This process is lengthy, exhausting, and can often be frustrating as we begin to work through the process, first working around the edges of the memory and then bit by bit finding patterns and colors that go together eventually revealing the whole picture.

And often with someone who has complex post-traumatic stress disorder (C-PTSD), or multiple traumatic experiences throughout childhood, this process has to be repeated over and over again. It’s like doing one jigsaw puzzle after another after another until all the memories and puzzles have been completed. And even when you feel that you have finished the big puzzles, smaller puzzles might emerge, or even three-dimensional ones linking multiple memories together.

And if doing puzzles isn’t something you enjoy, think of your therapist as the puzzle master. They are there to help you sort through the pieces and group them together so that assembling them is easier and less overwhelming. You just have to trust that even if they don’t have the final picture to look at to guide them along, they are uniquely trained and skilled at identifying patterns that link together, eventually bringing the whole image into stark relief. And once you are finished assembling the pieces, they will reflect on the image with you without judgment, admiring your tenacity and courage to persist in spite of the difficulty level of your personal puzzle.

I’m kind of geeking out here, but honestly this analogy just hit me in my sweet spot. It synthesized a very complex idea in a very clear way that has eluded me up until this point so I want to share it with the world. No matter your affinity toward or disdain of puzzles, there’s no denying that this way of describing dissociation could be a game changer where communication with our loved ones who may not have any experience with it is concerned. I hope you find it as useful as I do. And, I hope it helps you to view your own experience in a way that might help dissociation feel less like there’s something wrong with you and more like you have a brilliantly clever brain that is capable of protecting you when being in the here and now is too overwhelming.

Lead image via Hulu’s Youtube Channel

Originally published: August 20, 2022
Want more of The Mighty?
You can find even more stories on our Home page. There, you’ll also find thoughts and questions by our community.
Take Me Home