I’ve said it again and again, dissociation is a coping mechanism, it is a method of defence against the traumatic experiences your mind cannot handle. Everyone dissociates to some extent, and I am utterly convinced that there are genetic links which make some people more susceptible to developing dissociative disorders than others. I myself come from a stoic family, we just keep going no matter what life throws at us and why? The answer is always the same; we have to. Recently life has tested me yet again with another event out of my control, this time affecting one I love. And so my question today is simple – in times of crisis, does having a dissociative disorder help or hinder?
Your loved one goes out for pizza, but instead of returning you get a phone call – they’ve been hit by a car. Panic, fear, worst case scenarios all run through your head as you scramble round making phone calls, finding babysitters, getting your shoes on and running to the scene. I think all my initial reactions were normal and healthy, I did what I needed to and kept a “strong” appearance in front to my children. I can pin point the moment that all changed to when I saw him lying in the road. It wasn’t shock, it wasn’t panic, it was a nothingness, it was a trap door snapping shut, it was an emergency flood door thudding into place and firmly locking out the ensuing flood of emotions and thoughts. I shut down. I imagine there will be two reactions to that explanation – the first will be people thinking, well of course you did that’s normal, what makes that different to anyone else’s reaction? The second is the opposite, how could you not feel anything? You must have felt something , you mean you did go into shock.
To the first I say yes and no – that’s the point I’ve been trying to stress throughout all my blog posts here, everyone dissociates. Just like everyone experiences depression, anxiety, paranoia, these are normal emotions and thought processes triggered by hormones and life experience. What makes it a disorder is when the hormones are abnormal and the triggers are erratic, minimal or imagined, creating emotional and irrational responses that last extended periods of time and are difficult to control and explain. Many people would, seeing their loved one in the road hurt, dissociate from the emotions triggered. I guess the difference is how long you dissociate for, and to what extent.
To the second I say no I did not go into shock, I dissociated, there is a very big difference. Shock is an emotion in its own right, dissociation is the absence of emotions.
So what is helpful and what isn’t? It is essential in crisis situations to stay calm and do what needs to be done. Any phone calls, arrangements, decisions need to be carried out with assurance and self-control, both of which would be hindered if emotions were strong and overwhelming. But after all that is done. after everything is taken care of and the dust settles, that’s when you’re supposed to stop and think and feel and react. You cry or you rant and rave, you talk to your loved ones or friends, you figure out what comes next and you start looking for that inner strength you need to face it. I didn’t. I was dissociated. What that meant for me was I didn’t cry, or rant, or feel. I planned what needed to be done next but I didn’t relate to any of what was happening. It was nearly 2 months before I started to feel emotions and finally cried, prior to that I had short “bursts” of feeling that would build up rapidly like a flood or an explosion starting in my stomach and moving up to my chest, hitting my throat making me choke with dry sobs but then immediately shutting down and leaving me confused, numb and frustrated as hell! Because I wanted to feel, I wanted to cry, I wanted to express something besides a robotic autopilot response of just carrying on no matter what. I’m sure I appeared very strong and calm and like I was in control of myself and taking care of my family, but I needed that release just like everyone. It just wasn’t there yet, the emotions weren’t there to be released.
It’s been three months now and I’m slowly getting back to myself, I’ve cried, I’ve ranted, I’ve felt. So did dissociating from the situation help? At first, yes; it meant I was able to get on with everything and be there for my kids. It also meant I was able to hold his hand through the emergency treatment and keep him distracted and calm without getting upset myself – you can’t show emotions you don’t feel. Afterwards however, it became a growing hindrance as I lived through that first month in a dream, nothing was real and therefore nothing could hurt me, everyone with DID knows that feeling, it’s what makes us us. No matter what form it comes in, the heady fog, the far away “out-of-body” distance, the sleepwalk sensation, our bodies know how to go through the motions of everyday living but our minds cannot cope with the associations, whatever they may be.
Therefore it’s my vague conclusion that a dissociative person can cope very well in a crisis, possibly better than most other people, especially when others are depending on them to help and keep calm. But afterwards the price is high, it takes far longer to adjust and recover from the crisis. I think you could throw anything at me and I would cope, I would steer myself and anyone else through the crisis – but afterwards?
The aftermath of this crisis will take a long time yet to settle and readjust back to normal life. The aftermath of my personal reactions may be much longer.