Dissociation is a bit deceptive. Most of my adult life people praised me for being incredibly patient and calm in the face of difficulty. What they didn’t know was I mostly just dissociated from my emotions. Some level of dissociation is common for those who suffer from trauma or any level of PTSD, making it difficult to delve into painful memories and emotions.
For me, head and heart lived in separate rooms with the door kept locked.
I figured I was just easygoing.
In my life, dissociation meant that if someone offended me, I was the last to know! I registered the offence mentally, but then, two or three weeks later, I would realize I was quite upset, angry even. By that time, too much time passed for me to do much about the situation. Every emotional reaction was on a delayed timer for me. I was numb, but misinterpreted that emotion for peace. Feeling peace is however, very different from feeling nothing.
Dissociation also meant that I couldn’t remember much. My years with my ex-husband were very blurry. Some memories were distinct, but most of that time was hazy. In fact, about five years ago I reconnected with a fellow graduate from my MFA program. We sat in a small intimate group of twelve writers for a year, baring our work to each other for three hours a week. I retained no memory of him. I was a bit frightened when I realized that whole chunks of my life were missing. I had selective amnesia.
One of the benefits (or drawbacks) of a daughter with a PhD in psychology is the testing they administer on you for practice. One test she gave me showed a number of pictures depicting people in various situations and exhibiting various emotions. Obviously how you react to these pictures reveals how you perceive your world around you. When the pictures she showed me looked emotionally painful, I would tune out for twenty or thirty seconds and literally forget what I was doing.
My mind saw a representation of pain and distracted me from accessing those dangerous emotions.
Knowing something was not right, I sought out a variety of counseling and inner healing modalities, all of which were helpful in different ways. My seminal moment came when I had a vision of my heart. I kept trying to access some of the pain I knew lingered from years of horrendous abuse, but I would fade into numbness almost every time. My mind and my body worked against my heart in order to keep me “safe”. During a prayer time, I asked the Lord to show me my heart. He showed me thick aquarium glass, three inches thick.
Behind the glass lay my heart, red, beating, and beautiful, but inaccessible.
I gave Him permission to remove the glass. Over time He has done just that.
In fact, at a prayer meeting one time, the leader prayed that God would open the eyes of our hearts. I almost fell over because I felt it happen. I don’t know how to describe it except that suddenly my heart was very much in play along with my mind and spirit. Suddenly I felt emotions much more viscerally than I ever had before, even as a child. I felt such sadness and joy, too. I was able to receive love in ways that love would just bounce off before.
There is a difference between dissociation and denial, I believe. Denial is a willful turning away from the truth. Dissociation is involuntary, kicking in to preserve someone from trauma or extended abuse. Dissociation is a good thing at first, preserving the mind from taking in too much damaging information at once. But once that situation is over, it can be a challenge relearning how to be present. Not sure if you are dissociative? Here are some of the more obvious symptoms:
- You numb out. A lot. If you spend a lot of time just blank, then your head and your heart probably need reintroducing. If I am numb, I am not aware of my emotions or even of my body. I tend to get clumsy because I am not attending to what I am doing. If you can easily tell people what you think, but cannot for the life of you tell them how you feel, you may be a bit dissociative. If you spend a lot of time checked out of the present, you may need to investigate why.
- You forget things. A lot. Sometimes forgetting is an ADHD thing or just normal forgetfulness. If you are numbing out, however, you are not tracking events. Memory equals event plus emotion. If you don’t feel, you don’t remember. You do not recall conversations that others remember with clarity. When others bring up memories that you share with them, you take a long time to pull them out of the recesses of your mind, if you do at all. You flake out, not because you want to, but because you aren’t emotionally present when plans are made or questions are asked.
For the life of me, I could not remember when I grounded my children. They knew if they didn’t mention it, I would never remember it. But they also knew that if they wanted me to remember something, they had to nag me. We even had a rule to deal with my dissociation. They could only ask for permission for something if they had full eye contact. It was the only way I could ensure I knew what was going on.
- You feel like an observer of your own life. When you are detached because of trauma or other circumstances, one of the results is feeling removed from your own life. If you retell a traumatic event in your life without any discernable emotional reaction, you are dissociated from the story of your own life. It is only when you begin to feel the weight of your loss that you begin to re-enter the story line of your life. This detachment for some leads to very self-destructive behavior for some. After all, if your life is not yours in any real sense, what does it matter what happens to you?
These symptoms are pretty much garden variety dissociative traits. Dissociative Personality Disorder takes these to a whole different level where alternative personalities live within one person. But that is pretty rare.
The important thing to remember is that for every person who struggles to control their emotions, there is another set adrift from their own emotional core.
Remember God is an emotional God. He describes His love for us in the most emotional of terms; as father and child, as lover and husband, as brother and friend. The crucifixion is called the Passion for a good reason. Our minds retain knowledge, but it is our hearts that are enlightened with understanding. To be whole, we must live with heart and mind connected to one another and to Christ, in whom is our hope.
I ask that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you may know the hope of His calling, the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints. Ephesians 1:18
A helpful link: https://www.healthyplace.com/abuse/dissociative-identity-disorder/definition-of-dissociation-symptoms-causes-treatments/