Help or Hinder?

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.

Time

Time heals all wounds. But what is time? I’ve read philosophy articles and evolution articles that describe time as a human invention, that before we came with a need to track and record our days here the universe was oblivious to time passing, and everything that occurred over the billions of years relatively happened in a single moment. It’s an interesting perspective, and could fuel many hours of discussion without reaching any conclusions. All history is happening at once, and yet time heals wounds; life is short, and yet for the young time stretches out before them.

For people with a dissociative disorder, particularly DID, the meaning of time is very important, and discussions of what time is take on a very real dimension.

My primary coping strategy is my routine. I wake up at the same time, leave the house at the same time, take the same route to the same place. My appointments are fixed, my meal times are predictable, all my plans are made in advance. Time plays a major part in my life, I know where I will be at 4pm on Wednesday or 11am on Friday. I know who I will be likely to see and speak to. The benefits, and therefore the reasons I have this routine are simple; I needed to find a way to cope with time loss.

Time loss is arguably the most debilitating aspect of DID. You are at home at 10am, you blink or ‘drift off’ and it’s 3pm and you’re in a town centre somewhere. It’s frightening, confusing and at times quite frankly dangerous. People will tell you the things you’ve done and said during those missing hours, but to you it is simply missed time. The confusion and chaos this caused me in my adolescence was extreme. Of course these are the times my alters take for themselves, either triggered by something upsetting or else I was simply feeling weak and they strong. I have no memory of their activities, as explained in a previous post I am not them, we are like flatmates, sharing space but very separate individuals. It is the hardest thing for other people to understand. Feeling detached, numb, robotic or paranoid other people can understand and relate to on some level. Who hasn’t felt overwhelmed at some point in their lives? Who hasn’t experienced a bad shock and gone into a trance like state or autopilot as a temporary way of coping? But losing time? It isn’t really something you can compare with any normal experience  It is the essence of abnormal, and yet it is my life, and the lives of many others who have DID.

As I said, my primary coping strategy is my routine, if I suddenly find myself at 2pm on a Tuesday when a moment ago it was 8.30am, I have got to carry on with my day, I cannot afford to fall apart as I have done on previous occasions in my adolescence. I am an adult now, I have children, I must cope and function in this world or I stand to lose everything. So at 2pm on Tuesday I know my children are in school and I have 90minutes until I need to collect them. Now there are 3 things I must immediately do – 1. check my phone for text messages and phone calls 2. check in with my partner 3. check my purse and online banking.

Checking my phone gives me an idea of any conversations “I” have had, so if anyone says they spoke to me I can at least pretend to know what they’re talking about. This doesn’t help with any face to face conversations of course but it’s something.

My bank is an important record to check as spent money can give a clear idea of where I’ve been and what has happened. Bus tickets and receipts in my purse can also paint a vivid picture. Finances need to be watched closely as someone else might spend my water bill money if I’m not careful with the budget.

Once I’m sure everything is as it should be and nothing drastic has happened I can simply slot myself back into the day, continuing to follow the routine wherever I happen to be. The overall result is a relatively seamless transition, but without that routine and tight schedule I would be lost and easily become disoriented and “zone out” after a time loss experience.

All this must seem very strange and hard to follow to anyone who doesn’t live their lives with “shared time”, but to anyone who does live with this and is perhaps struggling to cope and function independently due to the time loss I can only recommend this strategy – a well controlled routine with all appointments and meetings, all shopping trips and errands, written in a diary and kept with you at all times. Anytime you ‘come back’ and are unsure what’s happened you can prevent a distressing situation by picking up your routine and finishing your day as planned. Later, safe at home, you can figure out what you missed.

This is the life we must live, it is complex, it is difficult, it is shared but it does not have to be completely debilitating. A job might be difficult to keep but that doesn’t mean life cannot be lived. After all, a fair share of time belongs to you too.

Meeting Inner Child

I haven’t posted anything in a while, it’s been a difficult time lately. A difficult and detailed conversation with my eldest daughter about puberty and sex triggered a week of vivid flashbacks and disturbing dreams. No longer being in therapy and having no faith whatsoever in the crisis teams I didn’t know where to go for help and hoped the situation would simply die down and return to normal soon. Yesterday the problem came to a head, or rather exploded, when I experienced what I can only describe as an age regression. I forgot everything from childhood onwards. Professionals may class this as an extreme case of Dissociative Amnesia, I class it as Personal Hell.

In previous posts I have explored the idea of dissociation being a means of coping and surviving rather than suffering as one would suffer other illnesses. It is our minds way of protecting, of damage control and ultimately of healing – though it certainly doesn’t feel like that at the time. Today I feel as though a breakthrough has happened, but I’m not fully recovered enough to appreciate the extent of it yet. In the short-term, after a week of enduring several intrusive flashbacks per hour, since regaining my present day memory in the early hours of this morning I haven’t had a single one. That’s nearly 17 hours with no flashbacks. This episode of explosive amnesia seems to have wiped my slate clean, ready to pick up where I left off, though I’ll wait and see how the next couple of days go before breathing my sigh of relief.

A very wise man said to me recently that life should be lived in reverse. I believe my recent experience couldn’t offer more truth to this statement. I awoke yesterday morning already exhausted from another disturbed night, wondering if I had the energy and resources to face another day, wondering if I could keep fighting the flashbacks and keep the past separate to stay in the here and now. It was mid afternoon when the “explosion” occurred. I don’t know what specifically triggered it, I can only assume it was one more flash too many. I felt as though I was just waking up again, only I had no idea where I was, it was a strange house, and next to me on the strange couch was a baby and a woman I’d never seen before (my friend had been keeping me company). I panicked and ran upstairs and locked myself in the bathroom. My friend, or to me at that time the stranger, came upstairs and started talking to me through the door, reassuring me, telling me I’m safe and I’m home. I didn’t feel safe and I certainly wasn’t home, I did what any frightened child would do – I cried for my mother.

At this point it’s important to explain the significance of that childish act. When the event at the root of my condition took place, I didn’t tell anyone. The memory blocks came down like bulletproof flood/fire-doors and on top of that, I didn’t have the language, the vocabulary to explain what had happened to me or what was continuing to happen in my mind. As I grew older the symptoms of DID came through, the “leakage” as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, tends to build up over the years and manifest in many ways – depression, self-harm, panic attacks, mood swings etc. but still, I didn’t tell anyone anything, least of all my parent and unfortunately for all concerned, these things are also easy to hide, especially when they coincide with the joys of adolescence. What teenager doesn’t have mood swings? Weird phases of attitude change, appetite change, fashion sense changes, they all come with the territory. There are few people who don’t look back at their own adolescent years and cringe, fewer who would want to repeat them. The freedom you didn’t know you had, the lack of responsibility, the simple pleasures of a new album, latest film or the excitement of a new crush, yes we’d all like to relive that, but preferably without the hormones and insecurities. So as a parent, how are you supposed to distinguish between the mood swing and depression? The need for privacy and the fearful secrets? Unless you know what you’re looking for the signs are well camouflaged – except with hindsight. With hindsight I can see the difficulties my parents faced, just as they can see what they missed, but neither of us can go back. I can’t go back and make it clearer or speak out. Except for last night, when the child took over and cried for her mother. And her mother came.

I don’t know how long I was shut upstairs, but my partner did call for my mum, and she came to get me. She held me, she let me cry, she soothed me, and then she took me home to my dad. She took me away from the strange things that were scaring me and took me back to the safe and familiar. It was there that memories started coming back bit by bit, the fact that we’d moved house, that my siblings had moved away, that I’d switched bedrooms, memories from older childhood and early adolescence bringing me closer to myself. The rest was done through sleep, I basically dreamed my life back, waking confused but myself.

My dad suggested that my mind, having endured a week of relentless flashbacks, reset to an earlier age in an attempt to put the memories back to where they’re supposed to be in my past, then relive the rest of my life to put the proper distance between the traumatic memories and my adult self. It’s a good theory, it makes sense to me, it also makes me marvel yet again at how the mind works, the lengths it goes to to adapt and protect. But something even more important happened as consequence, my inner child finally got to tell her mother that she was scared, and my parents finally got to comfort their little girl. And I think that is the biggest breakthrough of my life. It couldn’t have happened without hindsight, for them it was knowing what they didn’t know then, knowing what had happened years ago, for me it was spending my adult life finding the words and then the confidence to communicate them, for all of us it was a patience borne of many years frustration and confusion, of mistakes and misunderstandings on both sides.

There are themes here that I will be coming back to explore further – how to recognise a teenager with mental health problems for one, and the importance of your inner child for another – but for now I shall simply dedicate this post to my mum and dad. The little girl is still in here, and the adult me will pay more attention to her needs from now on.

A question on medication

I’d like to start this post with a disclaimer: I am not a medically trained professional. I have never studied medicine or psychiatry. I have studied child and adolescent mental health but not in connection to medications or the biological effects of conditions and treatments. All my thoughts and theories are exactly that; thoughts and theories and speculation based on my own personal experience and the experiences of others I’ve spoken to.

That being said, I would like to pose some questions and invite some discussion on the effects medication has on a dissociative person. To my knowledge there has been no study or research on this topic at all and psychiatrists tend to be quick to prescribe anti-anxiety tablets to distressed patients. I’m going to focus this on three types of medication which I have had experience with – anti-anxiety/psychotics, sedatives and painkillers/anaesthetics. Each of these groups of medication have side-effects in common; they numb the emotional/physical senses and force a feeling of calm or sleepiness, they can bring on a feeling of being spaced out or slightly drunk, the aim of course being that the patient doesn’t feel upset or in pain. This is, however, a very dangerous position to put a patient who has a dissociative disorder in.  The reason is simple; that numb spaced out drunk feeling is what being dissociated (can) feel like. Anyone who has had an operation and been under general anaesthetic will know how it feels when you wake to be not fully connected to your body or your surroundings, not quite sure of where you are or what has happened, how long have you been asleep and is everything OK? For a dissociative person that is how our minds make us feel naturally, so add to that the effects of a general anaesthetic or strong pain-killer and you can see how it will logically end. I have had minor surgical procedures which required me being put to sleep, upon waking afterwards it took me far longer to recover from the anaesthetic than the doctors thought it would. I believe this was because my mind embraced the “spaced out” feeling of the drug too easily and freely, adding it to my natural dissociative state and not even trying to “come round” like none-dissociative patients do. My mind wasn’t trying to reconnect with my body or make sense of where I was, my mind was happy to float and be numb, and it doesn’t need drugs to do that.

Now the example of the effects of painkillers and anaesthetic is one of side-effects which we need to be aware of, but since the reason for taking that medication is usually a physical problem, a surgical procedure for example, we can’t avoid taking them when they’re needed. We, ourselves and our doctors, simply need to be aware of the mental effects and have extra help on hand. Other medications however, are prescribed to treat our mental health but in my experience only do harm when it comes to dissociation.

I once went to the local crisis team in a very distressed state, I kept “losing myself” and couldn’t keep focus on anything I was doing, I was paranoid of being attacked and couldn’t keep my memories straight, thinking that the past was now and vice versa. When I told the nurse that I had been diagnosed with DID she didn’t believe me (complaints were later filed and ignored) and when she consulted the doctor he prescribed anti-anxiety tablets. Those made me far worse and within a week I had stopped taking them, unable to cope. I’ve had similar experiences with anti psychotics and sleeping tablets. They all seem to trigger my dissociative symptoms and make it nearly impossible to keep grounded and cope with day-to-day life.

One medication I have had success with is antidepressants, which tend to level out emotions and hormones rather than sedate, but that’s just me personally.

Therapy, particularly psychotherapy which goes deep into your past and almost dissects your triggers to allow you to process everything slowly, has shown itself to be an effective treatment for dissociative disorders. It doesn’t cure the condition, I doubt that anything ever could, but it can in time help to control the symptoms and lay to rest the memories behind it.  Most people I’ve spoken with have found therapy to be helpful, even essential, to their ability to cope with day-to-day life. But medication? Until some real scientific studies have taken place, until doctors and nurses have a clear understanding of what dissociation is and how it affects the individual, how can medication be safely given as a form of treatment? If you suffer migraines you don’t take medication that causes headaches, if you suffer eczema you avoid things that irritate or dry your skin. Different medicines affect each of us differently but their common properties make them generally reliable for the majority of people – if they’re prescribed for the appropriate problem. Medicines affect our minds as well as our bodies, our hormone levels and emotions are altered and controlled through medicine the same way our cholesterol is controlled or our blood cell count altered.

If no one knows or understands how the hormones and emotions and mental facilities of a dissociative patient work in the first place, then how can they possibly prescribe medication safely and confidently to treat the condition?

7 things you shouldn’t say to someone with DID

When you’re talking to someone with any mental health problem the language you use can mean everything. Whether you are a friend, relative, employer or health professional. the language you use when discussing a persons condition and their needs can say a lot more than you intend it to. You may think you are being understanding and open-minded, but you can easily come across as the opposite. I know this condition can be very difficult to understand, especially the concept of being ‘plural’, but please don’t tell me that it isn’t possible just because that hasn’t happened with you. It’s like saying to someone with asthma they can’t possibly have trouble breathing when they have 2 lungs like everyone else. I will happily try to explain my condition to anyone who has a genuine interest or concern, I won’t go into the personal stuff such as causes and triggers perhaps but I’m glad to discuss the day-to-day aspects if it helps spread awareness. This can be difficult to do however when the person I’m talking to is using words and terms that twist what I’m trying to say or make assumptions and conclusions based in misinformation and ignorance. So here’s some things I’ve heard countless times by many different people from teachers to friends to welfare officers to doctors/therapists, some of whom where just being ignorant idiots, but some of whom where genuinely wanting to help but unable to understand.

“When you’re the ‘other person’, how do you feel?”

A classic from the health professionals, the ‘other person’ refers to an alter of course, and the answer to this question is simple – I don’t. I am not the alter, I do not know what the alter feels. Asking me this question you might as well be asking me to explain my sister’s emotions and thoughts, and since I’m not her I can’t do that. I can give you an interpretation of her actions and what she’s said to me, but that would only be my opinion not what she’s feeling. If you want to know what she feels, ask her. If you want to know what my alter feels, ask them. I understand how to someone with no experience of living with alters the lines can seem blurred but in asking me this question you are inadvertently saying you don’t see us as separate people, thereby implying you don’t believe me. You can understand how this can put a strain on the conversation, not understanding is one thing and we can talk about that, but if you don’t believe me then why are we having this conversation? As a health professional I come to for help, I shouldn’t first have to prove myself (or ourselves).

“Your alter said some unkind things – why didn’t you tell me you think that?”

This is one that I’ve heard off a few friends and partners alike. What I’ve found is that people are willing to believe you as their friend (or tell you they believe you to avoid a confrontation), until it directly affects them and then all belief goes out the window and the blame lands squarely on you. It’s a similar situation to the one above; you’re asking me to account for someone else but I didn’t say anything to you, I didn’t think anything, I wasn’t me. People think this is an excuse, and until you realise myself and the alters are different people who think individual thoughts and have individual emotions an excuse is what it will sound like. You will never understand me if you compare my mind to yours, although I know that’s the first reference that anyone makes when trying to relate to someone else. Alters don’t say things that you think, they’re not a mask or a character to assume when it suits, they are separate people within us and we must live with them as best we can.

“Snap out of it”

Oh OK… I think everyone with a mental health problem has heard this and I doubt anyone has found it anything other than blood boiling. I mean really?? Snap out of it? I must have misplaced my magic wand a long time ago because this has never been an option. I can try to hide it, I can slap a smile of my face and do an Oscar-winning performance of normality if that will make YOU feel better, but why should I? I can never ‘snap out of it’. It will always be there, and since hiding it has proved in the past to make it worse I’d rather not. You can snap out of worrying or dwelling on trivial things in life, like what such-a-body is saying at work or weightless paranoid suspicions of your partner cheating on you, you can’t snap out of mental illness. Whether its depression, anorexia, schizophrenia or DID, we can’t snap out-of-the-way our minds work and function. Can you?

“You don’t act like any thing’s wrong”

Dissociation is a survival mechanism, it blocks out what’s wrong and keeps you going like a robot until the leakage of emotions and thoughts gets too much and floods out like an avalanche. So unless it’s a flood day, of course I don’t act like any thing’s wrong. I may not even be aware that anything is  wrong, but that flood is imminent, and how long I’ve appeared normal can indicate how bad the flood is. The month I spend crying a little everyday and having an angry rant every day and having mood swings and essentially acting like some thing’s wrong, is probably the month I was healthier and my condition more improved than those months where everything was “fine” and I was going through the routine as a robot not showing anything.

“There’s plenty of people who’ve been through worse and they don’t dissociate”

Firstly you don’t know what I’ve been through so how can you possibly compare me to anyone else? Secondly that’s like saying to someone who’s developed cancer after never smoking that they shouldn’t have it because someone who smoked all their adult life hasn’t got it. It makes no sense, it has no relevance and it certainly doesn’t help. Our bodies react to diet, environment and atmospheric changes in different ways. Some people will go a foreign country and be ill for a long time due to the change in diet or climate, whereas another person will adapt to that change seamlessly. Our minds work in a similar way, we all change and adapt and react in different ways. 1 million people could go through the same type of trauma and not one of them will react the same. A certain percentage of them may develop the same/similar conditions such as PTSD but again, that condition will not manifest in the same way for all of them. Some of that 1 million will not develop any condition at all, but be shaken up for a few days and make a full recovery. Why? There must be lots of reasons to do mental faculties and hormone balance and DNA, but I doubt if anyone can give a direct and concise answer.

“We’ve all felt like that/had days like that, you’ve just gotta get on with it”

I refer you back to the snap out of it comment. Are you implying by this that what I basically have is the mental version of man flu? I often try to describe mental health problems as an exaggeration of ‘normal’ mental functions, balances gone out of control, small issues and experiences magnified. I don’t know if that is medically accurate but I find it a good way of explaining to someone in a way they can relate to. That does not mean what I experience is the same what you experience. I’ve said before that everyone dissociates and it is a normal and necessary mental function, but what makes it a disorder is that the majority of people don’t experience it on the debilitating level that I do. And it is indeed debilitating. And to make another point, “just getting on with it” is what has gotten me into countless messes in the past. I can’t reconnect my broken wires AND just get on with it. Either you want me to work towards good health by reconnecting and integrating or you want me to get on with things, you can’t have both believe me I have tried. Saying something like this is completely invalidating and makes me feel that my problems don’t matter, just get in the way and should be pushed aside which, as I’ve said, is what got me into this mess in the first place. Instead of trying to fit me into your sphere or experiences try to understand what it’s like in mine.

“So will you forget you were here?!”

This is my personal favourite, I had this off a job centre disability interviewer a few years back and I was so close to laughing it hurt! No, I will not forget this conversation as I am having this conversation, I won’t forget I was here because I am the one who is here. this goes back to the whole understand the difference between me and my alters thing. It works both ways. I know what I’ve said and who I said it to. The only time that recalling personal information and recent events becomes a problem is when I’m zoned out, at those times I’m in danger of forgetting my name and need someone with me or I’ll get lost. However once the fog lifts and I’m grounded again, all information will come back to me quite easily. If you were talking to me whilst I was zoned out I may not remember the conversation but that’s because I wasn’t focussed on it in the first place, it’s like talking to drunk person; the info never makes it passed the short-term memory. If I am focussed and grounded when I’m talking to you then I will remember that conversation with all the same clarity as anyone else. I have DID not dementia or amnesia.

Thoughts, feelings and the missing link

What comes first, the emotion or the thought?

Are your emotions triggered by your thoughts?

Are your thoughts born of your emotions?

Is it all of the above and then some?

I’m far from being a psychologist but here’s my theory:

thought.emotion flow chart

Basically thoughts and emotions trigger and feed each other, allowing for small changes until eventually the initial responses have merged into rational responses, which are kept in your long-term memory. There’s a lot of back and forth, rethinking/analysis and memory replay in this process. The overall length of the process will depend on the event itself. A happy event will take less analysis than a upsetting event will. An expected event will also take less time as your mind will have prepared for it and essentially done half the work already, whereas a completely unexpected event will take a lot of processing while your mind makes sense of it and works out where it fits into your life and other memories. People who hate surprises will take even longer to process their emotions and decide how they really feel. I never cease to be amazed at how complex our minds are; we go through this process with every single thing that happens – a hug from your kid, a chat with your friend, a spilled cup of tea, everything provokes a thought and emotional response that needs to be processed and made sense of before it can be filed away properly – your mind really is one hell of a computer!

Now imagine this – the connections between your thoughts and emotions aren’t there. How do you go through the process then? Look at that flow chart and take away the arrows – doesn’t really flow anymore does it? How do you get from initial emotional response down to hindsight emotions and ‘processed’ thoughts? You can’t,  you’re stuck with the initial emotions. Put it like this, if you spill a cup of tea the first thing you feel is surprise, the hot tea may burn you causing pain. If you could follow the chart with this scenario you would quickly get past the surprise, realise it was an accident that is easily cleaned up and your burn can be soothed with some cold water. Your hindsight emotions may be slight frustration at your own clumsiness and your thoughts rationally acknowledging that these things easily happen and no real harm done. You’ll have forgotten it within a day. Take away the connections and you literally stuck with the initial surprise and pain of hot spilled tea, unable to get passed it, think logically or forget. What do you do then?

If you have thoughts and emotions just floating around in your mind, unprocessed and unrationalised and unconnected then how can you function with new information constantly coming at you from day-to-day life? Easy answer – you can’t.

I have thoughts about certain events in my life, and I have emotions from those same events, but the two are not connected. When I do manage to connect a thought with an emotion it’s like a sudden avalanche! That flow chart kick starts into overdrive as if my mind is trying to make up for years of being static. It is a highly painful process because in order for it to work you have to start from the beginning, which means experiencing the initial emotional response and the first thoughts it provoked, and then analysis it all and then going through it again and again until it’s “processed” and I can look at with hindsight emotions and store it away safely in the back of my mind.

The biggest obstacle I’ve had in opening up to people and building relationships etc. is explaining this absence of connection between emotion and thought. I’ve often been accused of lying and keeping secrets, when the truth is I really don’t know what I’m thinking because there are no thoughts! Yes I feel depressed/anxious/angry/paranoid today – why? No idea! When did it start? Not sure. What started it? Nothing. I’m not lying, I honestly don’t know why I have these feelings. I don’t know what they relate to or where they come from or who they’re directed at because there is NO link between these feelings any thoughts. In other words – I have no words. Whats more, I don’t know what the external event is that triggered it all off because that link was broken too. All I have is seemingly endless and very powerful emotions (initial emotional responses) that make no sense. Some days I feel like a scared child, some days I’m an angry teenager, some days I’m a broken worn down adult. And then some days I’m virtually a robot, because the flip side of this is whilst there are emotions with no thoughts, there are thoughts with no emotions. There are observations of painful events that seem almost meaningless, there are clinical cold heartless truths with no empathy. Which side will show itself today? It’s a flip of a coin.

Is it any wonder that I hate surprises? I’m living with emotions from every stage of my life that have nowhere to go, every surprise especially bad surprises adds to the pile. Every time something happens I’m immediately trying to adjust thinking “what am I supposed to be thinking now?” “how am I supposed to feel?”. I like the familiar and the predictable, it’s been done before and I’m safe because I know I can cope.

Of course all of this is invisible. You never can tell what a person is thinking or feeling – but in my case it’s almost never both.

 

Rambling thoughts on “normal dissociation” and health.

What is ‘good mental health’? I know I don’t have it, I know I’m aiming for it, but I don’t know what it is. Is it one of those terms like the word normal which has so many meanings in so many contexts to so many individuals that it’s almost impossible to define?

Some aspects of my condition are obviously not symbolic of good health – panic attacks, for example are not healthy, nor is depression, paranoia or being so spaced out you don’t know where or who you are. Those things we can all do without but there are some aspects of my condition that I can’t help but wonder about.

Dissociation is a natural mental function, it serves to protect you and helps you multi-task. On a simple level and one that everyone can understand, dissociation is what allows you to drive home at the end of the day whilst thinking about a million other things that you need to do, have done, will do, people to talk to etc etc. When you get home you can’t remember the journey at all, why? because you didn’t need to be fully conscious to make that journey, you’ve made it so many times it has drilled into your subconscious and unless something out of the ordinary happens like a crash or a traffic jam or a diversion, you don’t need to give it your full concentration and you can think about other things. That is a form of multi-tasking, also known as auto-pilot. Your brain can do many things at once, but only one or two things at a time can be in the spot-light of conscious thinking.

On a more complex survival level, dissociation kicks in during any shock to the system such as trauma or grief. If the worst happens, such as a family member dying suddenly, the grief can be overwhelming. This is natural and you need to go through that grief, but you can’t straight away because there’s the funeral to plan, the legalities to sort through, people to speak to, all of this requires you to function and if that tidal wave of grief hits you, you won’t be able to function for some time. So you dissociate from it. Most people say they go into shock, they go numb, they “just get on with it”. If you didn’t do that you wouldn’t survive the legal and social processes that come with a death in the family, I guess the measure of a persons mental health comes from the balance between dissociation and feeling; after the funeral, when they can finally give in to their grief – are they able?

Many other factors will dictate what is healthy and what isn’t; social class, gender, age, culture, religion, ethnicity, all of these will determine how much you are expected to show and express or hide and deny, reactions to painful situations will vary from person to person but the expectation and required self-control will be dictated by the society that suffering individual is in. I often think what would my life have been like if I had lived in different age? Society today is both open and judgmental, I’m encouraged to talk about my problems but I’m not guaranteed acceptance, however if I can ignore the criticism and just be myself I will be applauded. I can raise awareness and speak openly on this blog but if I reveal my identity I risk confrontation and rejection from some of those who know me. It is a society of extreme contradiction where everyone can be themselves yet everyone is held to a strict code of normality based on what is considered “healthy”.

600 years ago my life would have been seen in an utterly different light. After my young experiences I would have been encouraged to forget, to hide, to deny the feelings and pretend it never happened. The controlling and abusive relationship I went through several years ago would have been considered normal, unfortunate that I couldn’t have affection but no cause for complaint. The ending of that relationship would have been scandalous rather than cause for celebration. I may not have been considered a happy and enviable woman back then, but I wouldn’t be considered unhealthy, ill or in need of any help. Sometimes I wonder if that would have been an easier time for someone like me, if the openness of today’s society somehow works against me in the sense that I know how bad things can get, I know that what happened to me was not normal was not acceptable and was in fact horrific, I know that I’m not supposed to think and feel the way I do. By telling me I do not have “good mental health” you are in fact feeding my condition, setting me apart and making my journey that bit harder. Yet to say I’m fine and normal would be denying what happened and the effect it had, invalidating my experience and making me unimportant so to be fair to you cannot win! And nor can I. All either of us can do is continue down the path our society has made, fight for changes where we need them and hope for the best.

I think dissociative disorders are some of the hardest mental health conditions to live with because we need awareness and we need help, yet by nature we need to hide and try to forget and we can’t have both.

I apologise if this has been a rather rambling post I have many thoughts and idea’s tonight and can’t quite get them in sync. Hopefully these thoughts will make sense to someone!