It Hurts So Bad I Can’t Feel It

I’m going to talk a little bit about dissociation today, or more importantly I’m going to talk about dissociation when it gets out of control and becomes a problem in everyday life. I say this because we all dissociate, everyday, all the time and it’s important to remeber that it’s not always a problem.

What is dissociation?

In psychology, dissociation is any of a wide array of experiences from mild detachment from immediate surroundings to more severe detachment from physical and emotional experience. The major characteristic of all dissociative phenomena involves a detachment from reality, rather than a loss of reality as in psychosis.

At the milder end of things we have the everyday dissociation;

  • drifting off while reading or listening
  • feeling numb when dealing with difficult news
  • going through rote motions with no thought
  • creating sub-personalities (this is work Bob, this is party Bob and so on)

At the more extreme end of things then it can take on more distressing forms;

  • finding yourself in a strange place, unaware of how you got there
  • amnesia
  • depersonalisation – feeling like you aren’t in, or fully in your body and you are watching it act
  • derealisation – feeling like the world around you has changed, be it in appearance or in deeply held feeling
  • identity disturbance – this can vary from not being sure who you are or what your feelings are (usually because of a mix of the above) through to fragmenting into multiple alternate personalities.

Why does it become so extreme in some people?

The most common reason for dissociation to become a pathological issue is psychological trauma. This occurs when someone is placed in a situation where they either witness or experience a situation that threatens their mortality. This might not always be witnessing a murder or experiencing near death. This can also include a serious threat to ones physical integrity such as in rape or assault.
The vast majority of people with dissociative disorders have experienced trauma in their childhood or adolescence. The younger an individual is when they experience trauma the less well-developed are their psychological defence mechanisms*, and the more likely they are to fall back on dissociation. In the face of overwhelming negative emotions the child’s mind will protect them by repressing, forgetting, and distracting with fantasy. It will even do this when the child is simply given occasion to remember the traumatic event. Over time, and especially over repeated traumatic experiences, the child’s mind will fall back on that defence more and more regularly. Eventually it becomes second nature and the default way of dealing with psychological stress. That’s the point at which it becomes an issue. The child grows up without learning how to manage stress in more mature ways and continues to just shut down and retreat.
Of course, this doesn’t just happen to children; people who develop PTSD have developed a disorder that is in part a dissociative one. They repress and avoid the trauma and continue to do so even when in safe situations. The only difference is that those developing PTSD as adults will often have other defence mechanisms in place to help stop it from becoming as all-encompassing as it can become in children. This is why Dissociative Identity Disorder (once called Multiple Personality Disorder) pretty much only occurs in those who have experienced multiple traumatising events in childhood.

dissociation by emiliano grusovin

“Dissociation” by Emiliano Grusovin – a black and white photo of a woman with a second exposure of her  at a different angle super imposed over the top

My Experience

I had some bad stuff happen when I was a child I don’t like to talk or think about. In fact I’m on the verge of being sick having written that sentence so I’m going to leave that there. Needless to say, it meant that I fell back on dissociation as a protective and defensive measure. As a child I would just decide not to feel something and then it was gone, like magic. Well, I thought it was; these days I can tell that it was just buried with a protective layer of amnesia and depersonalisation. When I couldn’t sleep from fear I would tell myself a “story” which involved falling into a meditative state** until I was relaxed/exhausted enough to fall asleep. It wasn’t just emotions I’d shut off, it was all bad feelings, such as pain. That’s one reason that I had an appendix rupture and then leave me with peritonitis for ten whole days because the medical professionals I saw didn’t believe I was in sufficient pain to have that condition. It’s why people didn’t believe I was being abused in later life. It’s why people didn’t see the drug addiction. It’s why people didn’t see the suicide attempts coming.
In my future I’d be burned, then domestically abused, beaten up, suffocated, threatened with death, threatened with burning, raped, sexually abused, and then have trust seriously betrayed by loved ones when I was in seriously low psychological health. Every time something bad happened I’d bury it and gladly choose to be numb over feeling the hurt. Why would someone choose to feel bad when they had the option not to? Of course I didn’t just do it defensively, I did it protectively too. I would choose part of myself to blame for the bad thing happening and I would strip it from me. Anger? That doesn’t help stop the abuse, in fact it’s worse if I fight back, best be rid of that. Sadness? There’s no time to feel sorry for myself. Gone! The notion my needs rate above others? Gone! The notion I’m deserving of basic human rights? Gone! All of it gone. Ok, you and I know better, not gone but buried.
There comes a point where you are trying to bury more of yourself than you are allowing out. You don’t know who or what you are any more. You can’t even really remember how you got here. You’re just existing, but strange things keep happening. You can’t think. Your brain just shuts down over the simplest things and people say you were staring into space for five minutes but you are sure you were only like that for a few seconds. You’re sleep walking, sleep dressing, suffering with sleep paralysis and crippling nightmares. You don’t recognise yourself in the mirror to the point you only look at the floor in the bathroom so as not to have to see your reflection. You have these horrid flashbacks that terrify people around you, then they go. You lose time and get told that you were just really suicidal, or full of rage, or determined you were running away to start a new life. You’re told you look and sound upset when you feel fine, because fine is what you now call numb. You’re hearing voices, and after being assured they are your thoughts you realise that they are just of different parts of you that seem to represent all the bad bit’s you lopped off over time. They seem to want to kick you out and take control but you’re not having that, they’d ruin it all, so you keep them back where they belong.
Eventually, with access to a psychiatrist and psychologists I’ve been able to start tentatively working on this stuff, but I’m nowhere near succeeding yet. Probably because part of me still thinks, why would I want to feel that hurt when I could not? Is looking odd better or worse than dealing with it?

Managing it

As I’ve learned, you don’t just stop dissociating. It’s become a subconscious reaction and no matter how hard you mentally tell it to stop it won’t. However you can learn to manage it. To shorten the episodes and make them happen less. The end goal of course being to finally deal with trauma and to learn and put into place better defence mechanisms, stopping the dissociation from being the de-facto response to stress. Until meeting that end goal we can look into coping/management techniques. One way of doing it is grounding. This is when you do things to remind your brain of where you are, examples include;

  • smelling strong pleasant smells
  • feeling different textures
  • feeling different temperatures
  • instructing yourself to focus on things you can see that are definitely real around you
  • eating/drinking/licking/sucking something with a strong taste

If the option is open to you, the right therapy with a trained therapist can help a lot. Mindfulness can be very hard when you dissociate, but finding ways of noticing when your body is getting stressed is very useful. If you can notice it before you get so stressed you dissociate then you can use grounding or try to self soothe. Being able to soothe or comfort yourself is super difficult, especially when you might be feeling emotionally numb at the time or simply lack the requisite knowledge and experience to know what self compassion looks like. Still, it’s a very important skill to learn. As is learning how to recognise when you are in a stable, secure, reciprocated relationship with another so that you can turn to them for support.

I hope this has helped explain dissociation a little bit and provided some ideas for dealing with it. One thing that is important to remember is that it is in response to something that hurts so bad the individual can no longer feel it. It is holding back some serious unprocessed pain and therefore is not something that you should try to strip away on a whim. If you can, leave it to experts.

 

*these mechanisms develop as we get older, they start off as basic dissociation, denial, splitting things in to good or bad and eventually develop into acceptance, sublimation into more helpful reactions and anticipatory strategies designed to minimise future discomfort.

**I didn’t realise this until later in life when I was introduced to guided meditation and I realised that was what I had been doing all my life

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  1. Thank you for writing this, it’s helped me as I continue understanding the extent to which I have dissociated in the past and still do to some extent even though I’ve been getting better at spotting it and managing some kind of self-care. I wouldn’t have spotted putting oneself in stories in your head as dissociation before, but it obviously is now I think of it. i also used to use number patterns, especially doubling numbers, I have vague memories of doing that with 2s until I got in to millions.

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