What It Really Feels Like To Dissociate

by Kimberly Zapata
Klaus Vedfelt/Getty

Have you ever been driving and suddenly realized that you don’t remember the last ten minutes of your ride? Have you ever been in a meeting and completely zoned out? What about school? Have you ever daydreamed through a lecture or gotten lost in the space between your classroom window and the world? If so, you have a vague idea what it feels like to dissociate, or disconnect from a thought, memory, moment, or feeling. But there is more to dissociation than separation. There is more to it than detachment, absence, and loss, and I can tell you — from personal experience — dissociation isn’t just spacing out, or zoning out. It is all-consuming and overwhelming.

Dissociation is mental, emotional, and physical.

When I dissociate, my skin tingles. My limbs become paralyzed, my fingertips numb. When I dissociate, everyday noises become dulled. It’s like I’m listening to the radio, but the dial is stuck between stations. There is a constant buzz. A drone. But I can’t understand a single word or sound. When I dissociate, I “leave” my body. There is a sense of weightlessness. A vacantness. Like I’m floating in an open ocean or drifting beneath a sheet of ice. When I dissociate, I feel as though I’m watching a movie, or peeking through a window. I see people. Actions. But I don’t experience any feelings. I’m not “living” my life, and when I dissociate, my body doesn’t belong to me. I see my hands wrapped around a hot coffee cup — my arms wrapped around my children — but there is no sensation. No warmth. No love.

I’m a rabbit in a magician’s hat. I move. I breathe. But I am, more or less, a prop.

Ironically, you wouldn’t know it. From the outside looking in, I live an ordinary life. A “normal” life. I walk, talk, work, parent, and function. I smile and laugh and regularly crack “mom jokes.” But a barrier has formed between me and the world. I’m standing behind a two-way mirror. I’m looking through frosted glass. And while I’m safe in this state — I’m protected from both people and my past — I’m not present.

Dissociation stands between me and my life.

Of course, I am not alone. Many people have experienced (or will experience) dissociation during the course of their lifetime. In fact, dissociation and mental health disorders go hand-in-hand. According to Very Well Mind, most dissociative disorders are the result of trauma, particularly child abuse and neglect, and that is the case with me. My dissociation has been brought on by a series of traumas which I am only now beginning to understand. But Dr. Gail Saltz, an associate professor of psychiatry at the NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine and the author of The Power of Different: The Link Between Disorder and Genius, tells Very Well Mind that “dissociation doesn’t just happen after a traumatic event. You could have [non-trauma-related] panic attacks with dissociation, or you could have a dissociative disorder if [dissociation] is the only thing you’re experiencing.”

So how do you live with dissociation? How can you cope? Grounding techniques can be particularly helpful when you feel a dissociative episode coming on and/or are dissociating. “Taking advantage of every sense you have and rooting your mind in something very concrete can be helpful,” Dr. Saltz tells Very Well Mind. “So, for example, starting at 100 and counting back in your mind or out loud by threes. Holding something cold, like an ice cube, or smelling something like peppermint oil can help derail or shrink a dissociative episode.” Therapy is also integral. You can and should work with a mental health professional, one you feel safe with and trust, and for some, medication is key.

I take an antidepressant and antipsychotic to keep my symptoms at bay.

That said, these things and techniques do not prevent you from dissociating. I regularly drift away, usually before realizing it. But when I catch myself slipping — disconnecting and disengaging from my mind, feelings, and life — I work hard to pull myself into the present. I run my hands along solid objects, brushing them against the wall, my son’s hair, a nearby evergreen tree. I step in the shower, turn the knob to the right, and let the hot water engulf my face and shoulders. It runs down my back, past my buttocks, and to the ground. I light candles with strong scents that root me in the present moment, in a tangible space and time. And while I wish there was more I could do, knowing I am doing something is more than enough.