Saturday, February 8, 2014

Dissociation - Both a blessing and a curse

Written by: Fenna Vlekke

A common coping mechanism for people who are being abused, is to seperate their minds from their bodies. This means they don't have to consciously go through the violence they're subjected to. This coping mechanism is called dissociation, and it manifests itself in a lot of different ways. When I used to dissociate, I had no idea what I was doing. I didn't choose to do it, it just happened. Although it was a good coping mechanism, and it probably prevented me from being too overwhelmed, it also prevented me from physically protecting myself. 

What is dissociation?

When you dissociatie, you separate your mind from your body. Your body experiences something your mind doesn't (fully) register. In a lighter form it is something that everyone experiences from time to time. It's when you're driving and suddenly realise you don't remember what happened the past five minutes. You did drive and respond to traffic situations, but you can't remember any of it. In a more serious form it is something people use when going through a traumatic experience. It's not something they do consciously, but it's something that happens. How disassociation manifests itself as a coping mechanism will differ from person to person.
Over the years I've heard different stories from survivors who used to dissociate. Some would focus on one point in the room and just stare. Others would think about the things they would do after the abuse, like doing groceries. Others would have an 'out of body experience'. They did see what happened to them, but couldn't feel the physical and emotional pain. As if it happened to someone else. I personally just focused on 'after'. I thought about what I wanted to do when it was over, and told myself it would be over soon. Then I just blacked out. Some people may go into fantasy worlds, but I just disappeared. Like being asleep.

The good and bad

The last couple of years I've tried to accept that I dissociated for good reasons. I don't know what would have happened if I wouldn't have used it. I probably would have gone through a lot more physical and emotional pain. Because, not only did it prevent me from physically feeling everything I went through, it also prevented me from remembering what had happened afterwards. So I could live my life quite normally, even if I was going through horrible experiences regularly. I could still study or go out. I could still laugh. Who knows what would have happened if I would have been aware of everything that was going on.
But, as many other survivors I used to beat myself up over having dissociated. Because by using this coping mechanism, I couldn't leave the situation I was in. My disassociation was triggered by the feeling that I couldn't do anything to stop what was happening to me. However, looking back,  by not being present, I may have robbed myself of any opportunity that might have come up during the abuse to stop what was going on. Also, because I couldn't remember everything that had happened, I didn't realise the level of abuse I had been subjected to until after the relationship had come to an end. If I had known, I might have walked away sooner.
Also, when some fragmented memories came back, I wanted to know the full story. I wanted to name what had happened to me, I wanted to know my role in it. But I just couldn't make it into one consistent story. There were only flashes of times I shortly came out of a dissociation episode, or situations leading up to me dissociating. It was really difficult to not blame myself, if I couldn't exactly remember how I tried to stop things, or if I even did. Just like driving in a car and not remembering the last five minutes, I may have automatically responded to things. I just can't remember. 

Dissociating when triggered

Although dissociating during an abusive situation might have been the best way to survive, a lot of survivors also start using it in other situations. There are triggers that take them back to the trauma they've been through and they automatically use this response again. This can really interfere with their day to day lives. Some survivors may lose a couple of hours. They don't remember what happened or what they did in that period. Others don't totally black out, but just feel unable to respond properly in a situation, because it feels like they're floating above their bodies.
This can be quite dangerous, because if survivors find themselves in a threatening situation, they will not be able to defend themselves, because the triggering situation makes them immobile. That's why it's good to realise, that although using dissociation in the past may have saved you, it's now only working against you. It can take a lot of time and therapy to actually start being present in triggering situations. Also, there are survivors who needed to seperate their mind from their body for so long, that they've developed a Dissociative Disorder. You can find an article about dissociative disorders on the PsychCentral website.

I think it's good to realise that what your mind can do in an abusive situation is nothing short of extraordinary. Actually surviving the abuse in that moment is the most important thing. You can't help the automatic reactions of your body when it feels threathened, so don't blame yourself for it. Just remember that your body and mind aren't concerned with you being able to remember or name your experiences. Although that may be very important for you now, and although it's frustrating to not be able to, you're still here. Body and mind's mission, accomplished. You survived. 

*I'm curious about the experiences of other survivors. How did you use dissociation as a coping mechanism? And how do you feel about having used it? You could let me know by (anonymously) commenting on this article. You can also leave me a message using the contact form on the right.*

Do you want to read more about dissociation? This is a good link.
A survivor told me this link was very helpful as well. It gives advice about how to control dissociation.

Written by: Fenna Vlekke


  1. I'm not certain I would describe it as something I've used. I don't feel in control of it at all. Certainly, like you pointed out, some part of our brain controls the conscious thought/memory of what is happening.

    I've disassociated in many ways. Getting stuck by staring off into nothing. When this happens the room goes white. I feel like I'm under water and if someone is talking to me, like my therapist, I can hear them but I can't understand or respond.

    I've disassociated during traumatic events. I only have little blips of memory from stuff when I was a kid. During abuse that has occurred as an adult, pieces are missing, and always the beginning of the abuse.

    On one hand I'm thankful I don't remember it all. But when it comes to stuff from childhood I wish I knew everything so I wouldn't be terrified of flashbacks all the time.

    Very interesting post. Thanks for sharing.

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      I do understand you wouldn't describe it as something you used. It is something that feels out of our control. It's something that happens to you. But I do think it's something our minds/bodies use as a coping mechanism. That doesn't mean it it something we can control. It's just an automatic response to trauma/triggers.

      I totally understand the mixed feelings about not remembering. On the one hand it may be better to not remember. But on the other hand it is scary to have forgotten.

      Thank you so much for sharing your experiences. Wish you all the best in your healing journey.

  2. I disassociated during parts of what happenened to me as a child and as an adult. But I wonder if it's normal to lose sections of life where there was no specific trauma going on as such, just general misery and pain over what happened previously. I've lost so much time and hate not having clear memories of events. Thank you for this blog - very very helpful to me to read this.


    1. Hi Sue,

      Dissociation doesn't only happen during (or because of) traumatic experiences. It's not weird at all that you dissociated from all the pain you felt. I'm really sorry you had all that misery and pain to deal with. And I understand the frustration of not having clear memories of events.

      Thank you so much for your input Sue. I'm glad you found this blog helpful.