I have chosen to write about my own experience of this, for a couple of different reasons. To raise awareness of what it is, and how it can manifest in someone, to help those who either have symptoms and struggle to describe them or explain them find the words needed. Also, to help spread the word that having any form of mental illness, when it is managed, and when you are looking after yourself and recognising all of your own symptoms, red flags and aware of when you need to ask for help, there is nothing stopping you from being able to do what makes you happy. To work towards your dreams and reach your goals in life.
First of all, let me explain what dissociation is. The official definition of dissociation is the feeling of being disconnected from the world around you and also from yourself. (Thank you mind.org.uk). My explanation of it is quite simply, when you feel like you are living in time but not in reality. For that period of time nothing seems to fit, and nothing describes it accurately.
Everyone who has experienced this will have different experiences and will describe it very differently. This is my own personal experience, it is not to be used as medical advice, or in place of any form treatment. Please keep that in mind, me sharing my own experience is purely to raise awareness and share that at times, despite the fears, challenges, and hurdles it is possible to work through it all and see hope.
I first started to experience symptoms of dissociation 4 years ago. At the time I never knew what it was. I would get times when I would be doing something and this wave of ‘funny-ness’ would come over me. This feeling would leave me quite scared. I never really knew how to describe it. I would be doing the simplest of tasks, yet it was almost like I was on auto pilot, the room around me would almost feel like it had clouded over, and I was very suddenly alone. The task I was doing was all of a sudden going on at 100mph. Yet it wasn’t. The sounds around me seemed to be playing as if I had been submerged under water. It was so disorientating, yet I was unable to move my legs. I was fixated in that moment in time, just functioning. That was how it just carried on.
This went on more than once a day. Sometimes it would only last for a few minutes before I would almost ‘snap’ out of it. Other times it would ease enough for me to be able to move around, but that cloudy feeling in my head stayed. I wouldn’t notice if I walked into the edge of the door frame or stood on a toy as I walked across the room. Doing the simplest of tasks was exhausting and would feel like it took much longer than usual. To the others around me though, there was no difference. I looked fine and there was nothing visibly different about me. So, what was the big deal?
I thought for a long while I thought I was going mad, that is genuinely what it felt like. This kept happening though, only it was lasting longer and longer. There were times when my legs would turn to jelly and the only way I would be able to make this feeling stop was to sit on the floor. Taking long slow, deep breaths helped me. I still had no ide what was going on. I was glad that at the time this was only happening at home. It meant that I knew nothing bad could happen, and that if it ever did happen, I was always safe. I tried to not let it bother me for a long time.
Only then on day after about 8 months of having these at home I had the shock of my life, it began to happen elsewhere as well. In random places, walking down the road, in the supermarket, at work, while driving. It was at this point I was now getting really scared. I needed to know what was happening, was there something really wrong with me? Was I going crazy? Was I imagining this all happening to me?
I started some therapy and in giving an unbelievably bad description I was able to explain these little episodes, and how they made me feel. How they would happen, and how that when they did. I explained how I could walk around like I didn’t exist. Nothing could touch me or harm me. I was simply floating through the world like a ghost. Having the expectation that I would be laughed at when I said all this, I was surprised when I was told that there was a name for this. I was not expecting that at all, I was not imagining it, I was not going crazy, I was not really sick, and it was something that could be managed.
This was when I first heard the term dissociation. I was explained that it is the brains way of managing with stress. That I was basically detaching myself from reality for a period of time and although it is scary, it was going to be ok. To be able to hear those words was really reassuring, even though I had the fear there to know that I should be ok was good.
Over a period of time, I was taught some grounding techniques. So, if I started to experience those symptoms again, I would know how to try and stop them quicker. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. I learnt a some breathing techniques which helped me focus my breathing, so instead of me looking around I would concentrate on counting the seconds I was breathing in for, then waiting, and then breathing out. Being the geek that I am, I loved the use of numbers and this gave me some focus. I also learnt the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Name 5 things you can see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things you can hear, 2 things you can smell, and one thing you can taste. This was extremely useful when out and about. Especially if I was in the car, there was also now always the perfect excuse to have a packet of sweets or mints nearby.
I still experience dissociation today; it has never gone away completely. I get a good period of time where I don’t have any signs of it which is amazing. Then I will have weeks where I get day after day of that ghost feeling. I have learnt over time that it is my brains way of telling me to take a step back. There is too much going on for it to handle. To think more about my coping skills as something isn’t working. I look at my time more effectively and add in a little extra self-care, some reading, writing, a movie night, a long chat with a friend about absolute rubbish, or even just an early night.
I have, over time been able to learn the early signs of this for me. I now know what they mean and as a result I am able to carry on with practically all my every day things that I wish to. Not always, I make sure I remember to tell someone if the symptoms are too bad, sometimes I still have days when I feel like I can not handle them. On those days I get gentle reminders that I can, because I have done it before. Several times, I know what works for me. I know what to avoid. Keeping the symptoms secret, not sharing them, and hiding away doesn’t benefit anyone. By breaking down the stigma around this, we shatter the fear associated with it, we spread the understanding, and we make it easier for everyone to manage better.
If you have experience of dissociation, what have you found that has helped? What hasn’t helped? If you find that you have moments of these feelings where you just feel disconnected from the world, I would definitely urge you to get some support. As this is something that can be managed. It isn’t something that you have to just put up with. It isn’t something that you have to go through on your own. If you know someone who experiences dissociation talk to them if they want to. Ask what helps, no matter how long these episodes go on for they remain scary. Having that support and knowing what helps for definite makes them less scary. Mental health conditions shouldn’t be a reason to be isolated or lonely.
Listening to what our brains and bodies are telling us is one of the hardest lessons I have had to learn in order to take a step forward in caring for my own mental health. Understanding that it is not selfish, it is nothing to feel guilty for. It is in fact something to be proud of, and it keeps you functioning and running close to 100% as you can. Being aware of your own mental health is just as important as being aware of your physical health. Dissociation is one of those things that is not as well spoken about as other mental health conditions, yet it affects more people than we realise. I have dissociation, and I am not hiding from it any more.