There have been a few times in my life that I have fallen into a state of intense dissociation, and it’s been fucking terrifying.
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), symptoms of dissociation include “feeling as if one is outside one’s body, and loss of memory or amnesia.” Dissociative symptoms can often be found in people suffering from dissociative identity disorder, dissociative amnesia, and depersonalization/derealization disorder.
Luckily, my dissociation never became a full-fledged disorder (at least not one I was diagnosed with), but I have spent weeks and months of my life where I have had overwhelming symptoms of dissociation and depersonalization that outright terrified me.
My experience of it is an overwhelming feeling that I am awake but dreaming, and that nothing around me feels real. The problem is, I feel stuck in the dream, like I can’t snap out of it and I will maybe never feel normal again. Then I start to feel like I’m “going crazy,” and the detached mood is mixed with a feeling of sheer terror.
It makes no sense, I know. But neither does anxiety and panic disorder, other mental health issues I have struggled with. Sometimes our bodies and minds do strange fucking things. It’s partly how we are wired, and partly the stress and traumas we have been faced with in life.
I can trace my times of intense dissociation and depersonalization to traumas – and psychologists have found that dissociation is strongly linked to traumas, particularly childhood traumas. It makes sense when you think about it: detaching from a painful or traumatic situation is a common defense mechanism. For some of us, it’s the only way to survive the damage.
The first time I fell into that dream-I-couldn’t-snap-out-of state, I was about 9 years old. A few years prior, my father had left my mother, and for a few years after that, my parents were trying to maybe work things out. He was in and out of our lives, and I had hope that things would get back to normal.
But then we got the sudden news that he had met someone else and was going to marry her. It happened quickly, in a matter of months. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the shock of that news swept me into a state of dissociation.
I remember walking around the schoolyard at recess, feeling as though everything and everyone I looked at wasn’t real. I looked down at my hands and arms. I remember being able to see my veins through my thin skin. And I just felt … like even I wasn’t real. This terrified me, and I was too scared to tell anyone. I didn’t even know how to describe what I felt.
The feeling passed, but I entered that state a few more times during my childhood, often in response to a traumatic event. I never told a soul about it. I felt like just talking about it would make it turn out to be true (which is bonkers, because actually talking about it has only helped to make it go away!).
Fast-forward almost 20 years. I was thirty years old, married, with a two-year-old son. My son passed out suddenly in the bathtub one afternoon, and although he ended up being fine, I didn’t know WTF had happened. I called 911 because I was convinced he had died. Two weeks later, in unrelated, but equally distressing news, I found out I was miscarrying a baby I didn’t even know I was pregnant with.
All of the loss and stress – coupled with a horrible conversation I’d had with my father a few months prior – threw me into a panic. And then, for the first time in a long time, I spiraled into a state of dissociation. It was the worst it had ever been, and was especially hard because I was a mom now and had to care for my son.
I went back to therapy then, and for the first time ever, I was able to describe the dissociation and detachment. I was surprised at my therapist’s reaction: while she didn’t discount how horrible the experience was, she didn’t make too big a deal about it.
I expected her to tell me that I had, in fact, gone off the deep end. But she told me that what I was feeling was just a response to stress and trauma, and that all I needed to do was talk. Oh, and also, that if I was aware that I might be “crazy,” then I wasn’t really “crazy” at all.
I still experience moments of dissociation. But as soon as I feel myself “going there,” I tell myself, “It’s okay, Wendy, you are just feeling hurt or scared.” Then I let myself really feel the sadness or pain or whatever it is I’m feeling, and I don’t spiral into a dissociative state as easily.
I have written a few times about dissociation and I often get messages from readers telling me that it is so reassuring to hear someone else’s story. Experiencing dissociation or depersonalization is a scary, isolating experience. It’s common for people to keep the experience inside and suffer in silence.
I’m here to tell you that you aren’t alone. If you are experiencing those symptoms, it’s probably because something really difficult happened to you, and you never got a chance to properly process it and feel the hurt of the experience. If it’s feasible, get yourself to a therapist or counselor (here is a guide for how to find free or low-cost counseling). It really helps just to talk to someone about what you are experiencing – it makes it less real.
Most of all, remember that dissociation is only a state of mind. It’s not an easy place to be in, and it can really hard to move out of, but it’s possible to feel well and whole again. I promise.