Dissociative Disorders are complex, there are 5 catagorised types of dissociation – amnesia, depersonalisation, derealisation, identity confusion, identity alteration. And there are 5 dissociative disorders; Dissociative Amnesia, Depersonalision Disorder, Dissociative Fugue, Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and Dissociative Disorder not otherwise specified (DDNOS). DID is what I personally have and it is considered the most complex as it has all the elements of the other disorders. For more information on each of these I recommend you visit mind.org.uk as they have a pretty good break down of each disorder and available treatments etc.
As with any mental health condition/disorder your life can be turned upside down so often it’s hard to tell which way it was to begin with, friends often back away quickly, family will be reduced to tears, education can be a nightmare and don’t even think about holding down a responsible complicated job. Also, again like most conditions, it’s unlikely that your dissociative disorder is the only thing you have; panic attacks, depression, anxiety, OCD eating disorders, hallucinations, self harm to name just a few, are all commonly associated with dissociation. However there is one thing I’d like to clarify, and it’s something that many people with dissociative disorders may disagree with at first but hear me out.
Dissociative Disorders are for life, therapy can help and we learn to cope and make changes but we will have our disorder for life. Many people have lifelong health conditions and illnesses – schizophrenia, bipolar and personality disorders for example, and phrase usually used will be “they suffer from mental illness”. People with Dissociative Disorders do not suffer, we endure. There is a harsh fact about dissociation and that is we were not born with it, it was triggered. We did not eat unhealthily or excessively drink or do drugs, lifestyle has nothing to do with our condition (although it can have major effects on coping with it). What triggered our disorders was beyond our control; we were hurt. I don’t care to go into any details, others have attempted to describe the nature of trauma which causes these disorders (bearing in mind that it will be a different story for each person, none of our experiences are the same), so it’s not necessary for me to do the same. What I do want to discuss what the dissociation DOES, and then you can decide if I’m right when I say “suffer” is the wrong word.
Imagine a nuclear bomb exploding, its rare for anything to survive such a destructive blast at all let alone unharmed, and the effects of radiation can reach far beyond the blast radius and linger for years after the initial explosion. The bomb is the trauma, and the site on which it is set to explode is our mind. Not body, the body can withstand and heal from many forms of damage, but the mind will carry the scars long after the body heals. In most forms of trauma it is the damage to the mind which is the most difficult to recover from, in this case the trauma resembles the nuclear bomb. Our minds have many mechanisms programmed in to cope with almost any situation in our lives, some of them we’re born with – our instincts to communicate and emotionally attach to parents and family are just as important to our survival as food and warmth. Some of them develop as we grow, we learn how to cope with social situations, changes to our environment, what danger is and how to avoid it. It’s usually whilst these survival techniques are developing that the bomb hits, and in those first micro-seconds before/during impact our minds have a decision to make – how the hell do we cope with this?? There is nothing in our mental archives that explains what this bomb is, why it has hit or when it will stop. There is nothing to suggest we will survive the impact and nothing to stop it exploding again later. We cannot cope with it, we don’t have the language, the concepts or the basic information needed to get help – so how do we cope with this explosion? How do we survive intact?
We run. We hide. We make a huge concrete reinforced steel lined box and put the bomb inside, then we bury it a mile underground in the deepest part of the ocean, set a guard of the most vicious sharks we can find arm them with machine guns and leave it alone. We can now ignore it, forget about it, the bomb never existed and the damage never happened – life can go on. Or almost, but unfortunately it’s not quite as simple as bury it and it’s gone; the tricky thing about nuclear bombs is the radiation. Radiation tends to leak, it’s difficult to keep it locked away, it will creep through the cracks in box and escape, silently it will poison all those parts of your life and mind that you managed to save from the main explosion. You may not remember the bomb, but you will get the panic attacks, the random moments of fear or anger, nightmares that make no sense – I call this leakage, and this is where the everyday dissociation kicks in, that floaty numb feeling and temporary memory lapses that sometimes get out of control and get you into trouble, but remember it’s your mind’s way of protecting you. The Dissociative Disorder is difficult, even debilitating, it sometimes causes as much pain as it blocks, but it’s there for the sole purpose of keeping you away from what’s in that concrete box – that is why I say I don’t suffer DID I endure it.
A few years ago I decided I couldn’t carry on living like that, totally dependent on my routine, afraid of any change, living most days in a state of semi-awareness worrying about finding my way home. So I made the choice for my life – I dug up the box, forced it open and faced the bomb. It was a choice between continuing to survive, or suffer, truly suffer, but with the hope that the suffering would subside and I could start to really live. I’m not fully there yet, I still have a lot to work my way through, but I can already tell I made the right choice. It’s been through facing the bomb that I’ve come to appreciate what the DID enabled me to do, I couldn’t have coped with this at a younger age, it saved me and let me grow up – not undamaged for as I said radiation cannot be contained as easily, but I still got through my childhood and adolescence intact and gathered some happy memories on the way. Now I’m an adult and I made a choice for my future, it’s a risk, but I’m old enough to gamble. Everyone has to make that choice for themselves, some will decide that the bomb is too powerful and it’s safer where it is, some will decide they can face part of the explosion but keep the rest contained, we’re all different, we all have our limits, but what we have in common is we each have that box, and that box saved us, and now because of that box we don’t suffer as we would have done, but we do have to endure.