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Dissociation

This page created March 2004
By Petey Essdee

Anxiety and fear are the demons which chase the soul around the confines of reality, they are personalised and invisible to almost all but the person who invented them.

It is a natural reaction when these demons arise for us to look for a hiding place or a strategy with which to outwit them, and when these resources run out then dissociation sets in. Dissociation is the magic spell that renders one invisible even to oneself in the face of absolute terror with nowhere to go.

Pierre Janet described it as a hysteric somnambulism; it resembles the hypnotic trance, and the state described by eastern meditation gurus as 'empty mind'. Interestingly, in all three, one remains in control of just how deeply and intensely the mind stays in that place, and withdrawal is as simple as a conscious decision to pull back into the present moment. However, unless the mind then has comfortable options and worthwhile strategies, dissociation can seep back.

Dissociation is also not a single dimension wide; experience shows that there are differing levels of dissociation and that intensity waxes and wanes during a single session. It can be a comfortable altered state of consciousness, where time means nothing, or it can be a living hell, where one is distanced from reality so much that only painful feelings remain, and become a benchmark on which reality is quantified. It is my experience that dissociation is the most dangerous aspect of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), for it is in this place that suicidal ideation has the freedom to dance seductively well away from the grounding forces of reality.

In anxiety disorders it becomes a natural option which appears only when other options do not seem available, and a clue to breaking through or avoiding dissociation lies in this fact.

There is always some consciousness involved in dissociating, and thus the same must be utilised in order to reverse the spell. One will commonly hear people with PTSD saying "I just can't", something which they believe with every fibre of their being, and "I can't" becomes the switch precipitating dissociation. I propose that reversing the "can't" switch to the "can" allows focus on realistic options, and the dissolving of dissociation.

One needs to find the ability to conjure up options at a time of crisis during which time a space is created allowing one the time to strategise. These options can be self generated or sought externally, and often serve more than a single usage. So a list of options to be considered in crisis, prepared in advance, can be a worthwhile tool to have on the fridge door.

A simple metaphor to illustrate this is the windscreen of your car, when it starts to rain the road becomes difficult to see, and if one continued to focus on the raindrops the reality on the other side of the windscreen would not be visible. Visually this is overcome by consciously extending the focus past the raindrops onto what is important to be seen. Dissociation seems to work in the same way, with a conscious re-focusing on something more positive and enabling acting as a wiper.

Having mastered the windscreen wiper technique early on in PTSD it has become a useful tool, however I still awaken each morning in a fully dissociated state, which takes an hour or two to thaw. My understanding of this is that during sleep there is no need for a dissociative state, thus the floodgates of experience, emotion and feeling are opened, resulting in dreams that reflect an image of war on the soul. Waking up brings one into immediate contact with this free-flow of caustic feelings and memories, and the result is cognitive shut down (an early morning dissociative state). The numbness and inability to think lasts until a clear plan of the next thing to do emerges; this then takes focus and the mists of dissociation part.

Dissociation then demonstrates that we are capable of having at least two very separate streams of thought, each embroidered with its own set of sounds, visuals and feelings, each able to over-ride the other at any time, with consciousness being the key to change from one to the other.

I know I may seem to have simplified what for many is an impossible task; in truth I must admit that I cannot always make it work for me. However, if we are working with dissociation rather than being rendered powerless by it, then we are acknowledging that power resides within us rather than somewhere external.

As a long-term sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder I wrote the above to try to give some first-hand insight to both those people who find dissociation a problem as part of their illness, and to their helpers.



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