Mental Illness Awareness Week: Dissociation

Dissociation is a Psychology term for a group of symptoms, usually caused by trauma, that include depersonalization, amnesia, feelings of numbness and disengagement.

Dissociation (a poem)

Dissipation of tangible

Thoughts

My throat caught

Mid-cough

I’m choking on

Clenched teeth

Grinding

Body frozen

A puppet

I don’t know how to steer.

You’re speaking to me

I can barely hear

Behind glass

Muffled

Sounds

Ruffled

Too fast

To answer

Smile and laugh

Molding clay

Skin strained

Mind deterred

Of control

Hold

Me

Down

I

can’t

Breathe

Poem by Angela Castillo

What is Dissociation?

Dissociation is a Psychology term for a group of symptoms, usually caused by trauma, that include depersonalization, amnesia, feelings of numbness and disengagement. See the Wikipedia page here

For years, I have tried to explain to people my sense of “floating” that I sometimes wake up with. It wasn’t until I was diagnosed with BPD that I actually heard a term for it and learned that other people experienced it as well. I’d often explain it as feeling like a live ghost or spirit; like feeling completely disconnected from the world but longing to connect with it. I’d feel like I was fading away, and all my memories and sense of self would fade and I’d feel this profound sense of loneliness and disconnection.

Loss of identity or sense of self is the symptom of BPD that I experience the most, and it is strongly related to my common bouts of dissociation.

I’ll wake up feeling like a mannequin, like an empty blank slate with no direction and no history. It’s unsettling and terrifying to say the least. It makes me terrified of interactions with others and makes me feel physically sick. I’ll often feel the sensation of a hard ball in my throat, like I’m choking on a jawbreaker. My jaw will be clenched tight and it will hurt to move my mouth, like I’m trying to pry it open to talk or smile. It hurts. It’s like the pain in my heart has taken a powerful form that controls my face and head, and I feel like I have no control of my face. When people talk to me, I can hear them, but it’s like I’m asleep and I hear them in my dreams. I can’t move or respond and I’m panicking inside even though I physically look calm and quiet.

Tears will stream down my face but I’ll make no sound except for the occasional gasp for air or deep sigh because I feel like I can’t breathe. I’ll avoid eye contact with anything, because looking at people and knowing that they can’t see the terror I’m in makes me feel childish and alone. I’ll be screaming inside for help but my mouth feels wired shut. I’ll feel my soul being ripped from my body and my insides will twist in the pain. Being alive will hurt. Existence will hurt.

How Do I Cope?

I’m not very good at coping with dissociation, but I’m doing my best to learn from DBT Therapy and speaking about my feelings when I can. Writing is a big help. I’ll write in my journal or write poetry since the feelings are so abstract that they can only make sense through abstract poetry or art. I’m working on building my skills as an artist so that I can use it to cope. The best thing I can do is have no expectations for controlling it, only freedom to express it. If I try to explain how I feel while I’m feeling it, it only causes me more distress, so it’s best I communicate nonverbally or not at all. I’m very lucky to be dating someone who is very kind and gentle with me, and often times just holding my hand keeps me grounded enough to bear the pain of the episode. Feeling a loving touch can remind me that I exist, that I’m real, and give me a sense of self long enough for the feeling to pass and I can get back to baseline.

There are ugly parts to mental illness that can be much more intense than simple anxiety and depression. Please be aware, be kind, be understanding.

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