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My Experience With Dissociation: Definition, Symptoms, and Recovery

Dissociation is a strange thing. Strange when you know it's happening, but stranger still if it began when you were a baby, leaving you with no knowledge of what life without dissociation is like.

What does dissociation feel like? Like being hollow. There's a shell there, and people see the shell, talk to it, and act like it's you, but it isn't. It's just a mask. A cover. A defense mechanism carefully calibrated over the years. It includes a razor-sharp antenna to read social signals and react to them. It is ready to be whatever it is it needs to be on any given day.

Inside, though, there is nothing more than a great, gaping hollow space. A chasm. A vortex. A bottomless pit. If you look too closely into it, you spin and spin until you separate into a million little particles, becoming an indistinguishable universal substance.

I know where my real self is. She's off over there, to the right, and a little in front of me. At times, I have used dissociation to deal with pain. When I was giving birth, I pushed my pain out to my real self; out to the right and a little in front. Labor become much more bearable out there, away from me.

But who is me? There is not even a me to run away from. There's nothing.

Deep behind my heart in the direction of a fourth spatial dimension, there is another world–the spiritual world. When life gets unbearable, I can take my shell and retreat to that place. Nobody can see me there or shape me to suit their needs and desires.

Illustration by Nicole Linde

Illustration by Nicole Linde

What is Dissociation?

Dissociation is not limited to the extreme cases, which are sometimes identified as multiple personality disorder or dissociative disorder.

Mild dissociative experiences are relatively common, with 60 to 65 percent of people saying they have had a dissociative experience, according to a recent study. (Waller, Putnam, and Carson, 1996)

A common dissociative experience is daydreaming. An example of this is when you've driven home, but can't recall the journey.

Dissociation is often used as a defense mechanism when traumatic events occur. People who have anxiety disorders, such as panic attacks, often have dissociative symptoms when the panic attacks come on. It is often considered a coping mechanism.

The Panic Anxiety Disorder Association website describes dissociation or dissociative experiences in different terms, such as:

  • Depersonalization: Feeling like you are detached from your body, standing alongside, or having an out-of-body experience.
  • Derealization: Feeling as if you or your surroundings are not real. Looking at things through a fog. Feeling as if the ground is moving under your feet. Stationary objects appear to move.
  • An experience that may be accompanied by a sensitivity to light and sound. People can feel as if they are losing touch with reality and are going insane.

Like many defense mechanisms, dissociation can cause problems if it kicks in under inappropriate circumstances. Daydreaming while operating heavy machinery comes to mind.

Chronic dissociation occurs when there is sustained trauma in infancy and/or early childhood. Severe abuse can produce the extreme cases made famous by books and movies such as Sybil, but other, more common traumas, such as a mother with post-natal depression, can cause a milder form of chronic dissociation.

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If dissociation started before the age of nine months, then rather than having a sense that the world is not real, the affected person feels that they, themselves, are not real. It seems that life is taking place behind an invisible pane of glass: everyone else is participating, and the affected person is on the outside, looking in. Their body may be participating, but their soul is absent.

If the affected person identifies with the real self, which doesn't inhabit the body, they can display a great disregard for what happens to the body, and in the extreme cases they believe they can continue live without their body. According to Laing, this is a key component of psychosis.

If the affected person identifies with the body, they often feel empty and hollow inside. Where there should be feelings, there is either nothing or the feelings of the people around them. These are usually people pleasers, the downtrodden mothers, and, sometimes, the most driven and successful business people. If you don't feel the emotional impact of an unbalanced life, you can sustain it much longer than ordinary people can.

How to Discover If You Are Dissociated

It is a huge challenge for sufferers of chronic dissociation to diagnosing their condition. After all, most have never known anything else. Why stop to wonder if something is wrong?

In my case, it took meeting someone who was so empathic she could tell that I was repressing emotions, even though she found it hard to pick up what they were. Once I started on my quest to find out more, it quickly became apparent that I was emotionally crippled. Then, the healing journey began.

The chronically dissociated are survivors. They suck it up, put on a straight face, and get on with their lives. They soldier on, because they feel that to stop, even for a brief rest, could be fatal.

Talking with others, I compiled a checklist of symptoms which many dissociated people have in common.

Although I am not a medical authority, I am a chronic sufferer of dissociation. Here are 20 symptoms I have observed in people who are chronically dissociated:

  1. You are always cold, especially in the fingers and toes. You wear jumpers even when the temperature is over 20 degrees (73 F). You shiver and huddle while others are completely comfortable.
  2. Other people describe you as "very conceptual," "cold," "distant," "intellectual," and a person who "lives in their head."
  3. You feel as if your bodily home is between your eyes, rather than in your chest or around your heart.
  4. You require a vivid mental fantasy to become aroused (at least for women). You are rarely aroused by touch alone.
  5. You feel driven, but stopping for a break feels unsafe.
  6. Having other people around is difficult, because you can't relax.
  7. Being alone is difficult, because it's intensely lonely.
  8. You are impatient with people who say they can't do something for emotional reasons. You wonder why they don't just suck it up and get on with it like you do?
  9. You have difficulty reading nonverbal emotional signals and have hyper-vigilance and hyper-responsiveness toward visual signals.
  10. You think, analyze, and watch others like a hawk, but do not feel their presence.
  11. You take several months to bond with newborn children, finding it difficult to empathize with and comfort them.
  12. You want everything put in words to be precise about exactly what was said.
  13. You have the ability to remember situations and conversations in great detail, or, alternatively, space out during important conversations and are unable to remember them.
  14. You often have the feeling people just do whatever they want, but you have to survive.
  15. You love and repeatedly invoke the quote, "What doesn't kill me, makes me stronger."
  16. You feel that you never belonged in your family or anywhere else.
  17. You talk yourself out of being angry when people cross your boundaries, making excuses for them.
  18. You feel that you have no right to exist, and sometimes doubt whether you do exist.
  19. You have heavy periods and a lengthened menstrual cycle.
  20. You feel that anything good in your life is about to disappear.

Recovering From Dissociation

Even the most extreme cases of dissociation and multiple personality disorder can be healed, so that the person can reintegrate and reach a degree of normality. The path to integration requires a deep reconnection with the non-rational, non-linear, physical, sensual, and childlike subconscious mind. For this to happen, the subconscious must be convinced that it is safe to come out of its shell.

For me, the triggering event was trying to work out what I really wanted. My loving friend said, "If your inner child could do anything at all right now, what would she do?"

I tried to think about it. Occasionally, I would get a stirring, that feeling you have when a thought is on the tip of your tongue. But then I would be hit by a wall of panic, and the thought would shatter before it even formed.

Having studied psychology, I was aware that I was watching classic Freudian repression in action. Still, I couldn't force myself to complete the thought. It was as if knowing what I wanted was life-threatening.

Being the driven, determined person I am, I gave it everything I had, including NLP (neuro-linguistic programming), psychotherapy, emotional conversation, inner child work, the Artist's Way program, meditation, sitting at the beach watching the ocean, writing, and exercise.

After a few months, I made my first breakthrough. I encountered someone who was so in tune they could pick up on how I felt without my having to put it into words. After 45 minutes of having my every move and feeling anticipated, I felt it might be safe to be alive, after all.

At that moment, my true self moved from somewhere out off to the right and in front of me, and took up residence around my heart. My skin became intensely sensitive, and running my fingers over a rough stone surface became almost orgasmically sensual. My ability to empathize sprang into existence, and I was as receptive as an infant. It took a bit of chaotic adjustment before I learned how to dial down my sensitivity and respond like an adult again. Over the next few months, I went through a process of growing up emotionally. Again, my knowledge of psychology came in handy, because I could identify what emotional age I was, and make allowances for myself.

There were some positives to my dissociative experiences: I wasn't present when a lot of bad parts in my life took place, such as high school. My feeling of self wasn't covered in scars like most people, and whenever I wanted to, I could pick up on how others were feeling with a high degree of detail and accuracy. Because I only had my intellect, I got very good at observing, analyzing, and picking up on what was happening in someone's subconscious from clues like their posture, word choices, and eye movements.

Most people don't put that much energy into observation because they can feel other people directly. But that was all I had, so I pushed it to the max, a bit like a blind person who learns to click their fingers to echolocate.

Now, I have both: observation and direct feeling. Putting those two capabilities together is pretty awesome, and not much gets by me these days.

What Was It Like?

I won't whitewash this. It felt like walking through the valley of the shadow of death to recover from dissociation. For about three months, going through the door of my therapist's office felt like a death march to the electric chair.

I dissociated because life was terrifying, and the only way to be free is to process that terror. After my first breakthrough, I discovered how to release fear in a way that feels good. That helped. The textbooks call it self-soothing. This was far too passive and peaceful for my experience, but there you go.

The experience of safety–of being seen and responded to appropriately–was also a vital part of the healing process. Don't try to heal yourself on your own. Get help.

By separating ourselves from our feelings, dissociation cuts us off from our deepest selves, but it also cuts us off from all the people around us. We feel we can't trust anyone. But a whole new life is waiting for you if you are willing to put in the effort, a life you can't even begin to imagine. It's a leap of faith, to step off that cliff and trust that it won't kill you, to depend on someone else and let down your guard. Take it.

It's terrifying. But it's worth it.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

Questions & Answers

Question: Not sure if I could still ask a question. First of all, thank you, I resonate a lot with what you're writing. I'm in the progress of coming out of dissociation. Right now I feel so sensitive to everything within and around me that it is sometimes so distracting (related to the chaos you described). Do you have any tips on how to deal with this?

Answer: Yes, it's tricky. In the long run, having the CAPACITY to be sensitive is a huge gift. In the short run, we need to be patient with ourselves and keep reassuring ourselves that it's OK, and we can cope with the intensity, and we are big now. Even sometimes visualizing myself getting bigger and bigger until I could contain it all inside. You will make new neural pathways if you just keep sticking with it.

Question: Can you provide more information as to why dissociation starting before the age of nine months has effects?

Answer: It is not that dissociation starts before the age of 9 months - it is that trauma occurs before that age. The sense of self does not develop fully until much later, so there is nothing to dissociate from at that age. What is developing in those first 9 months is a sense of basic trust that it is safe to be alive. If that is disturbed, the fight-or-flight system is on permanent overdrive, which produces various symptoms, and makes us more prone to developing PTSD and stress-related conditions later.

Comments

ZooKid on August 24, 2017:

This is the most accurate article on dissociation I've ever read. Thank you so much, it helped me understand myself better. I can't get out of it and it's very frightening, because I haven't been in this state all my life and I desperately want to feel things vividly but I just can't. It's crazy how I relate to ALL of the things you've mentioned about people with chronic dissociation. I'm craving feeling anything and feeling safe. I just wish I knew what to do.

Emma on June 30, 2017:

Hi I'm 20 and I have been dissociating my whole life and just the last 2 years I started having panic attacks followed by generalised anxiety until just recently I have been experiencing these dissociative episodes of depersonalisation/derealization. It came on quite suddenly and at first I thought I was having a psychosis of some sort or that I might be schizophrenic because I simply didn't feel myself or that things around me were real and I couldn't trust my own thoughts or feelings. I even went as far as getting MRIs and bloods etc thinking it was a brain infection. I ended up in hospital after I showed signs similar to having an absence seizure but was discharged within the same night after talking to the doctors who came to the conclusion I was having a dissociative episode. After talking to my GP I finally came to terms that it was a psychological issue and now I'm just started my journey to recovery. This is all in the space of a couple weeks-month. I have this constant intense pressure around my head and random body aches which feel emotional except I can't target where they come from (like heart ache and chills down my neck and spine) but after reading this I discovered they are probably suppressed emotions slowly making their way out? I'm having trouble sleeping even after taking natural sleep aid tablets I still toss in my sleep and wake up unable to go back to sleep. I find I have this constant gut sick feeling which feels something out of a horror movie but I can't seem to target where it comes from. Sometimes I feel a kind of nostalgia like I'm in the body of my younger self and I feel home sick for my old possessions and life. Does anyone have that feeling? It does scare me at times because I feel lost to myself and afraid I'll never return or forget myself completely. At the same time I feel like my body is just trying to get in touch with my inner child to find resolution. I can't find an exact traumatic moment that may have instagated this but rather a life subject to emotional and physical abuse, bullying and general neglect. I think the recent series of panic attacks and anxiety is what more closely led this though. Now that I look back on my first panic attack and all the ones that followed I think it might have occurred because of how emotion wasn't present to me specially my lack of fear for death, and for anyone who has had a panic attack you are really facing death front on.

Anyway I just wanted to share my story if anyone has any advise as I'm just starting my recovery. I'm also wondering does anyone else feel very body numb, like when I touch parts of my body I can feel a heat source but can't seem to feel my skin like its desensitised. :( and I always find myself picking at my face and tummy wondering if I even exist.

Please if anyone has any techniques or advice just to keep a positive mind. I will be starting psychotherapy and seeing a psychologist but I am a bit financially unstable so if anyone has any techniques their psychs have shared please help me out.

This page really helped me hearing everyone's stories :) thanks so much everyone xxx sorry for the long read

v on March 25, 2017:

Thank you. you're helping me take my first steps forward.

Marykatd on February 27, 2017:

This is a gift. Thank you. I am a psychotherapist working predominantly with complex trauma, PTSD, and trauma-induced psychological symptomology and pain. Although I have treated and studied dissociation and related phenomena, it has been difficult to understand/create perspective. You are a brave a beautiful soul to share your light and joy in this way.

Stephanie Kunkel on December 31, 2016:

Thank you so much for taking the time to write this. I have been feeling like I was going crazy. After years of abuse and frightening things i have seen, had happened to etc I began disassociating. It was like need to make myself numb in order to endure anymore of this thing called life. Its like if it can happen it will happen to me. I actually believe i am like Job in The Bible as i lost everything too. I also suffer from traumatic braon injury and unfortunately my illnesses parallel in the symptom aspect anyways. It helps to know not alone but im so afraid of facing the abuse i endured and that part scares me. I dont trust anyone because it seems right is now wrong but after reading your article i know i need to seek help. Thank you again.....

I don't really but this on December 28, 2016:

For three months in therapy things were hard? How long did you dissociate? How did you cope with the reality that someone else's actions forced you into a state of mind where you couldn't feel yourself? Your recovery seems a little contrived. I dissociate constantly and when I do become more aware there are generally tears shaking and a great deal of confusion.

Olivia on December 18, 2016:

Hi ! Thank you for writing this article about dissociation and there being a way for healing. Since June, I have been battling living with this condition and had to quit my job. I think isolation and stress is the reason. I wish to overcome but don't know where to start. Therapy and how to ask for support from friends. (I don't have a family available to help). Any guidance would help! Thanks :)

shafiq on December 09, 2016:

This is exactly like I was in 2002/2003 but unlike you I had a bully in my home who wouldn't leave me a lone or wouldn't let me get better.. so things got worse..10000 times worse and now I have complex-ptsd with dissocation that has multiplied by 1000...

Leela on December 03, 2016:

Gosh this was helpful!!!

Kate on December 02, 2016:

Hi, I am fully integrated now and remember every day, never dissociating anymore. I feel floaty when severely stressed but manage it very well and quickly. It was so hard to begin with, the silence and having to deal with everything alone. Now it's easier, but I don't know where to go from here. My personality has drastically changed. I'm the complete opposite of my former self because parts of me weresdo strong in personality. I've been asleep 28 years and I feel like a child. I used to function really well at times, I was obsessive with housework etc. Now I don't care but i want to. I'm glad I don't get ridiculously inappropriate emotions anymore but now I feel so boring and grey. Everyone expects me to be this person I once was but they don't understand I wasn't even aware of my life before now. I literally do not know what to do with my life from here. Anyone have any advice about life after recovery?

Shaun Baxter from Las Vegas, Nevada on October 04, 2014:

Reading this was good for me. I feel most of what you listed as symptoms besides the female body related stuff. It's nice to know that people understand this and I can be more sure about this. I'm in a weird state right now. I'm sort of in between being dissociated and having a small amount of feelings. And that leap of faith you used as a metaphor for leaving behind this defense mechanism was something I already thought of!! Great minds think a like. I feel much more encouraged just by reading this article, but my friends and family don't understand and don't encourage me how I would like. :( It's scary giving in to feeling. I also have been very hyper aware of body language and stuff but I thought I was just delusional and doubted I actually knew what I was thinking but it turns out I'm actually really good at reading people's feelings and stuff just by reading a text they send. As a self hating and self doubting person this really helped me. Sorry for being all over the place, I'm lazy and I think I'm not saying all I want to but yea.

Johnf175 on May 15, 2014:

My spouse and I stumbled over here by a different internet address and thought I might check items out. I like what I see so i am just following you. Appear forward to checking out your web page again. eabdgacaeadc

Gabor86 on September 14, 2013:

Inspirepub, I'm after a recovery from 2 years of depersonalization, and now processing my traumas. You're saving my life with this article. You're right on point.

I want to ask, what would be your advice if I still want to do it alone? I'm okay with every negative feeling, recovered from panic disorder and DP feelings, I'm okay with pain, not afraid of it.

mike on September 07, 2013:

Helo all, I am the husband of 11 years. my wife has just been diognosed with d.i.d. finaly after so long I have answer to what she has been dealing with and what I have been so confused over. can any one give me some insight on how to be the best husband possable in this type of situation. as one may be in my shoes you will understand the sense of rejection and hopelessness at times. I am searchering for answers and want my wife to experiance the inner peace that she desires. thank u!

anon on June 11, 2013:

this is me well the first half not in recovery from it yet

auspicious12day on September 23, 2012:

An Excellent, informative, helpful Hub.

Enlydia Listener from trailer in the country on October 24, 2011:

Very well written, with excellent description. I can relate to some of this.

Kim Harris on September 22, 2011:

interesting and well written hub, inspirepub. The comments are interesting too! Thanks.

Liu on June 05, 2011:

Hello,

Thank you for your article and sharing your story. It made me a bit sad and dreamy.

I never could overcome dissociation.

Typically everytime a therapist would try to work with me on this I would dissociate, making any intent useless.

After some months they either gave up or I ran out of money. Then I would try again and it was all the same.

I just cannot see what to do anymore.

Fiona on June 04, 2011:

Hi all,

I've just come across this site and like other's I am very grateful that it is here. I to suffer from this horrendous condition. I am only coming to understand myself better within the last few months than i have in an entire lifetime due to a new counsellor that I am seeing and informed my of my condition. Before that I saw countless counsellor's with none of them helping me any bit and even telling me to pull myself to geather. I just counld'nt understand why I was feeling so panicky and depressed. I am young, pretty, had a job, own car and house, yet I was still miserable. I just couldn't feel.

To day has been a horrendous day for me. The reality of my caregiver's has become very aware to me. Not there reality but mine the truth. I am very hurt because the one person, who I thought was there for me I now see just wasn't, my father. I've just realized that he choose himself over me and my sister's, and it was a counious choice.....that's the part that hurts so much. He played the victim to my mother's chronic schizophrenia yet we had to live with the horror. We looked after him,cared for him, while no one looked after us. pure emotional neglect and abuse. I just hurt so much right now....but at least I'm feeling, this journey is soooo soooo tough, but coming across this site, has given me some ray of hope,

fi.

Lloyd on June 04, 2011:

Wow! All of my life I have been alone. Even if all of my family is around me, I am still alone.

I have been given many labels but my favorite is "Odd". He's a great guy but, he's just a little 'odd'. I never was able to get an explanation from anybody on what it is to be "Odd" until reading this article. I have turned to many different types of spiritual practices thinking that I would find my answers there. Certainly I did gain great insight by taking different paths and learned many things that most people are too scared to delve into.

Today I had an epiphany on why I abuse drugs and hurt myself physically. You see, I have deeply hurt every single person that I have ever loved. And it wasn't by any one single act. Those hurts were tailor made for each person. My realization today was that I do these things to myself because I do not feel worthy of having a serious relationship with anyone because I will only bring them pain.

I even changed careers from a lucrative programming field to becoming a truck driver. At the time of my decision I had plenty of good reasons that really were just BS but I actually believed them. I now know that this field only served to further isolate me from those I care about.