You know that feeling when you arrive at a destination, you park the car, and then you realise you have absolutely no recollection of the drive there? Or when you leave the house, get ten yards down the road and have no idea if you shut and locked the door, so you turn back and see that yes in fact you did but you don’t remember doing it at all?
That’s disassociation. We all do it. You might call it zoning out, maybe you’re tired or distracted, have a lot on your mind, or it’s such a monotonous journey that you make all the time so you do it on autopilot.
When people ask me, and trust me they do, why I stayed in such an obviously abusive relationship for so long, the easiest way to explain it to them is to explain to them the concept of disassociation. It’s obviously not the only reason, but it explains how a person can suffer extreme violence and then five minutes later walk to work, or do the school run as if it didn’t even happen. You operate on autopilot.
Disassociation means to disconnect. It can be a symptom of complex trauma, it’s a way of creating a safe place for yourself when there is no safe place physically.
We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response. Well, there is a third option when faced with a life or death situation and that is to freeze. It’s a bit like playing dead in the wild when a predator is trying to eat you. Except the predator is your partner who, instead of being loving and carful with you, wants to hurt and abuse you.
Fight, Flight, or Freeze.
Disassociation is to freeze. It’s playing dead when there is no safe place, when there is no escape, and when you aren’t allowed the luxury of becoming a snivelling wreck on the floor.
It can mean that you black out and have no memory of the traumatic event, it can mean suddenly you feel no pain. Some people lapse into another version of themselves, like an alternate personality.
It’s a response that kept me safe and stopped me from shattering during some dark, dark years. For me, disassociation is like retreating. It’s a numbness. I don’t disappear into my own little world and live out a fantasy, I become an automaton. I breathe, I blink, I hold still when required.
The problem I have found more than a year after my freedom, is that the dissociative response is still so strong in me. If a stranger came up and started shouting at me in the street I would retreat. Externally you might see a human being responding calmly to a person shouting at them, internally I wouldn’t even be present.
You wouldn’t believe how minor the triggers are either, as soon as something threatens my peace I can float away into the warm numbness of nothingness. If you know me in real life I wonder how many times you’ve communicated with me in this state? Maybe I’m slow to respond, seem distracted or distant, maybe even a bit rude? That’s me in my dissociative state. The problem with learning to do it to survive is that it becomes so easy to sidestep into that I don’t even realise I’m doing it.
Things you can do to bring yourself back include measured breathing, box breathing, which makes you aware of your body again and to bring you back into it. Focusing on something in front of you, like a chair, a lamp, a bus, a person, and describing what you can see -is it colourful? Pretty? What is it shaped like? What does it do? Another thing you can do is think about your senses, what can you hear right now? What can you smell? What can you see? What can you taste? What can you touch? Having something in your pocket that you can grip like a soothing stone, a cornered keyring, anything textured can help if you don’t have time to sit and breathe or focus, gripping that little thing in your pocket can ground you. It’s all about sensation and being aware of your body and physical existence again.
These exercises help to ground you and pull you out of that dissociative state by making you aware of what’s around you and what’s happening in your body. They are useful techniques for survivors of complex trauma who don’t need to escape anymore but keep disassociating anyway.
Disassociation is what helped to keep me sane while I was suffering, it was how I could endure the abuse quietly. I could freeze. There was no flight available, I couldn’t simply run away, and I couldn’t fight. That way lay even more danger. It was safer to freeze, be still, let it happen, and then carry on.
Sometimes it was like sidestepping into another personality. I can’t tell you how many times I walked out of my home in tears, shaking and shuddering, only to walk into work ten minutes later smiling, calm, and collected. It’s no wonder everyone was shocked when my truth finally came out.
Disassociation can become really serious, it’s linked with what people typically and mistakenly think of as schizophrenia with the multiple personalities. There is lots of help out there for people who are suffering with this and can’t seem to hold on to reality anymore. Reach out to healthcare professionals if this is you or someone you know.
I don’t pretend to be an expert in any of what I write about, I believe that it’s important to share my experiences in case it touches just one person who needs to hear it. Learning that you are safe is really, really scary. Having to face the world upfront instead of through the glass of disassociation is terrifying, because it means you truly have to feel it instead of watching it from a distance. I get it.
© Emma Stead