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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

33 responses to “Disassociation”

  1. Thanks for sharing your experience with disassociation. I had no idea that the trauma I experienced after my then-husband abandoned me and our sons in Brazil had a name. Your comment, “Externally you might see a human being responding calmly to a person shouting at them, internally I wouldn’t even be present,” describes so well how I reacted the day my Italian boss shouted diatribes at me, in front of other members of our department, the day I made a mistake.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. There is lots to think about in your insightful piece. For starters, it’s more than interesting that the innocent ability to do things subconsciously becomes such a vital defence mechanism, that we can learn to slip in and out of that state, that it becomes habitual to survive. There is of course much much more to think about.
    Got to fly now, work is calling.
    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks Emma. My thoughts have returned several times to the same issue – how to apprehend when you are slipping into flight/freeze/fright? It seems to happen so quickly and reduce flexibility of response.
        (Im currently involved in pay negotiations and get annoyed by some on the management team ‘trying it on’. I think coolness is essential in this situation but their dissembling pushes me to ‘bite my tongue’, a form of freezing that is not helping. Thankfully it’s a team so I’m covered.)

        Liked by 1 person

      • I think that the first step is obviously recognising that you’ve slipped, which is huge by the way. But recognising it doesn’t mean you can immediately overcome it. Something that I am learning to do is to give myself time in situations similar to the one you describe. If I feel myself slip, or I’m biting my tongue, if I feel that discomfort wash through me then i might say something like – I need to take some time to think before I answer or I’ll get back to you. Something along those lines just to step away from the intensity, give yourself a chance to ground yourself and pull back to consciousness and really think and feel what you want to say or respond with instead of just trying to keep the peace. I think we try so hard not to ‘rock the boat’ or upset and offend other people sometimes that we forget it’s perfectly reasonable and acceptable to advocate for ourselves.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Good thoughts, thank you. That team support will make it easier to take that time to ,’sober’ my feelings/ emotions and take command of my thoughts/ response. Very kind of you to comment. I will tell the team about my need to do this and reckon they will give me the space to practise and do this.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I have lived much of my life in this state. I learned to freeze as a young child and it was so normal for me I didn’t know that was a problem. I called it living in my head. Now that I date venture forth into my body I am living through all the memories my body stored all those years. It’s awful, but it is the way forward for me so I take those baby steps as I can and keep growing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s so easy, I’ve always struggled with this since being a young child. Giving those memories a voice might really help. I’ve spoken things out loud this past year that I had promised myself as a young child that would never say. It’s tough, but no one should live a half life. The problem with always being safe and frozen is that you never let yourself experience the wonderful things either.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I can so relate. I lived in an abusive relationship in my 20s and did this same thing, disassociated. The weird thing is that he would apologize and apologize the next morning but by evening he had forgotten, or pretended that he’d forgotten all about it. So glad we both got out of those unhealthy relationships. Unfortunately it’s more common than we think and you being so honest about it is so helpful to others who are afraid to uncover the violence.

    Liked by 3 people

      • “Distancing” comes to mind. As do “isolation, withdrawal, seclusion, focus, and regrouping.” Not denial or disassociation for me, anyway. All the while [save the red lights that surely interrupted my daily drive that I cannot recall] I am keenly aware of what has upset, disappointed, burned, or chafed, but plotting recovery, revenge, or both, or mustering up smarts to outwit, outmaneuver, or subdue what outwitted, outmaneuvered, or subdued me. The red lights? I have to book that to autonomous reflex, akin to the rote actions that make me regulate my speed when I leave the city to the country and on returning, or picking-up my coffee cup for another slurp without looking or thinking.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Thank you for sharing you heart. I’ve found my salvation near the water, watching the waves come to shore then drifting back into the ocean. This repeated motion gives me a sense that the water does not always come the same place twice. It’s healing power reminds me that I too follow the same pattern, learning and understanding to heal and grow within this state. Much peace and light to your heart 💕🕊💕

    Liked by 1 person

  6. It is a safety mechanism but not a healthy one … as you continue to have these ‘episodes’ even after ‘escaping’ … well done you for achieving that!

    Nice to meet you Emma 🙂


  7. Hi Emma. I’m so glad I’ve found your blog. You liked my recent post, so I thought I’d look at what you write. As soon as I read the title and saw the image, it instantly seemed so familiar to me. I, too, have been in that place of dissociation for most of my life. I went through awful traumas, also, although mostly in my childhood. They were constant, and I think dissociation was the only way I could survive the absolute terror and the pain. That fear stayed with me for so many years, although, through a good therapist, I’m learning to ‘ground myself’ for want of a better expression.

    At one point in my adult life, I was diagnosed with DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) because this was happening all the time. Later, I was then diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder (I hate that term!). Thankfully, I no longer fit that criterion and am healing, but it’s taken most of my life to do so.

    I still dissociate sometimes when I’m under extreme stress about a scary situation and I use many of the techniques that you mention, my most effective being using a mantra. When I feel I’m dissociating, I repeat my mantra (a purely abstract sound) and this distances me from what I’m feeling for long enough for me to be able to cope with my feelings. So … on thinking, I guess I do still dissociate, but I’ve just learned a relatively healthy way to cope with it. Thanks so much for sharing such a sensitive, honest and personal experience. Take good care of yourself. Sending you peace of mind, healing and comfort. Ellie xx 💜

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hi Emma,

    I came to your blog because you liked one of my posts.

    This post resonates deeply. I dissociated during childhood abuse and later in life during a sexual assault.

    I also found myself in an mutually abusive relationship. Re enacting family of origin patterns. I turned into someone I didn’t even recognize.

    It took me six years to remove myself from that trauma bond because I tried to make it work just like I saw my parents do.

    Except deep down, I knew. That still small voice knew. I didn’t want to listen to it so I silenced it.

    There’s a fourth component to adversity: fight, flight, freeze and fawn.

    I’m glad you had the courage to get yourself out of that relationship.

    Thank you for your words, keep writing xo

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I hope you are getting the support you need to recover from an abusive relationship. We stay for a complexity of reasons that many may not be able to fathom. Our nervous systems can take years to heal and your disassociation is very normal. Take care dear soul

    Liked by 1 person

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