Dissociation: The Curious Case of the Missing Heart


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 dissociationPTSD, 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 dissociation 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.dissociation

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

  1. 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 storyline of dissociationyour 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/


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18 Replies to “Dissociation: The Curious Case of the Missing Heart”

  1. I have never thought about this until you wrote it and put a name on it Alice. This is an incredible piece of self-awareness. Now I understand the delay of my reaction even it’s absolutely annoying or hurt me. Then when the real emotion kicks in, I regret to being numb about it and blame myself for being naive. I will play a dialogue in my head like “I should have said this or that..” It isn’t helping me to become honest to myself and to other people. All of your written points ring true to myself. Will keep this post as a reminder. Thank you and keep writing!

  2. Wow, thank you for sharing this. Dissociation is not something I’ve heard much about by name. Thank you for making me more aware!

  3. I had that happen to me a LOT when I was younger – the only way for me at that time to survive….

  4. You provide an important educational service, and do it well !! Thank you for including the Ephesians 1:18 reference. Blessings to you and yours, Tammy

  5. wow, this was an amazing post. I have learned a lot.
    Thank you for making us more aware

  6. Someone in our family was going through this as a child. It was heartbreaking to watch. We had her go to therapy until she was ready to begin processing and talking to us again. Thankfully, through Christ, she began valuing her emotional responses, understanding them more, and was better able to find the balance.

  7. Love this post. So real and transparent. It’s a beautiful thing what God did for you. This post will help many who have suffered this same thing.

    Blessings ❤

  8. This is definitely not something that I struggle with (my problem is being too in touch with my emotions if anything, haha) but I think this will help me to comprehend some of my friends better. Thanks for writing!

  9. You have no idea how much I can relate. I have been diagnosed with complex PTSD. I have just recently started EMDR a couple of months ago. Suffered child abuse of many kinds from tiny till 18 (when I ran away to hide in a domestic abuse shelter). I had no idea how connected the mind is to the body, though I have a degree in psychology ha. It is different when it is you! My body has dissociation seizures when I am around a trigger. I have to be careful of environments and am on a handful of medicine to get through EMDR without seizures. Complex PTSD affects the entire life until dealt with. I actually had to take an emergency pill last night from being triggered. I cried reading your post. So good! Thanks!

    1. I feel you so wholeheartedly.I used to pride myself on being able to withstand abuse until my body started to give out. Then as I got more and more emotionally healthy, it was a challenge to allow the pain to come in. I am so glad I did, but I will say that the Lord has lead me slowly and gently down the path of healing. He will lead you too. I wanted to get it over with but now I realize healing is a journey and it takes as long as it takes. Bless you. I will hold you up in prayer. For me, recovering from early childhood neglect due to the illness of my parents was hard to access. I learned the the absence of good things was a painful as the presence of bad things. Worse in a way, because you just don’t know what you don’t know.

      1. Yes, “you just don’t know what you don’t know.” I thought abuse was normal because it was all I knew. Thanks for the prayers. I am subscribing after I post this. I would like to know your experience with EMDR, as I said I do weekly. Maybe you can email, ( or pm me on Facebook) if you don’t mind. Love your blog. Thanks Alice!.

  10. katiedeckert says: Reply

    This information is helpful and I will indeed follow it up with more study

  11. I think it is so wonderful that you have found a way to come out of this and begin to heal. I think so many people do not even realize anything is abnormal about them emotionally and the realization alone is a big step!

  12. Such a beautiful post with a wonderful message tied back to God. Keep writing because this was great.

  13. Alice, you paint the most beautiful, color-drenched, heart-baring pictures. You are so real! This helped me to see someone close to me in a different light. Thank you!

  14. Yet another post of immense value to me.
    I love gaining understanding of myself through reading your posts.
    Like you, I was married to a bully, but before that I was the daughter of a bully mother.
    There are so many things I cannot remember, like getting badly burnt at age 3.
    I lost 6 babies between 24-26 weeks with zero emotion.
    Then I had a stroke at age 40, and gradually God brought things to the surface to be dealt with, but only when He had brough exactly the right person along side me to unwrap each thing.
    My husband has Asperger’s and a social disorder so was not emotionally involved at all.
    After the stroke God showed me that my heart had a pretty garden surrounded by a white picket fence, but that the gate was padlocked.
    He said I must FEEL the PAIN before I could feel JOY.
    It was a long process!
    It still takes me several days to process something that has touched a nerve, but wonderful Christian counsellors have taught me how to process rather than bury under the carpet.
    I am so grateful to them, and to you.

  15. This is a great post, Alice! There are whole chunks of high school that I don’t remember, particularly for about a year after my brother died. I can’t remember names of teachers, or really, anything from that whole year! I can also relate to the image the Lord gave you about your heart. I had a few images that came from EMDR sessions that have been immensely helpful!

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