It’s kind of strange to describe dissociation to people because although its something I experience frequently, I’m often too dissociated to even know how to describe it when I’m in the grips of an episode. I feel the strong pull of depersonalisation and derealization as part of this jumbled up brain I’ve got between my ears. What I do know, is what it feels like when you start entering one of these episodes (which, for me, last a few hours to a full day, but some people experience it for much less time and some, much longer).
Multiple times I’ve turned up to an appointment and I’ve been going through a tough time and as soon as we start talking about any of it I will rapidly start to space out. It feels like slowly losing a hold of reality and drifting away from the present. My thinking is slowed down and my brain just kind of sits there until the perceived danger it thinks I’m in has passed. Another way I’ve described it is like watching the world around you through water or dense fog. It’s like my eyes can see all around me, but I can’t make sense of what I’m seeing and I can’t fully *observe* (oh wow, I think that may have been a Sherlock reference). It’s like being in your bedroom and looking around it, but my brain isn’t able to go ‘oh that’s my bed’ or ‘that is my wardrobe’. I’m in the room, but I’m not really there. My senses are dulled sometimes things go slightly quieter, also, I notice I can’t smell very well and I often find anything I can smell unpleasant.
Dissociation is technically a symptom of an illness, but I do have first hand experience with derealisation/depersonalisation. When derealization takes hold I feel like the world is flat and almost 2 Dimensional, it’s duller and it feels almost cardboard and like I’m not fully present in it. Quite literally, the world just doesn’t feel real. Derealization can be quite alarming and so can depersonalisation. Depersonalisation is also something that differs from person to person but I notice that when I shut my eyes I can see images of my limbs and face getting really really small and then really really big again. I don’t quite feel things properly like my legs are numb (but not really physically, just perceived that way) and it becomes hard to recognise my own reflection in the mirror. Imagine watching your own body as if it’s from above- it’s kind of like that.
A part of learning to manage dissociation (which is really bloody hard) is knowing it’s our body trying to shield us from something painful/ distressing, something that our brains can learn when we’ve been through trauma. As in my case, it can happen after a particular traumatic event that happened when I was 16 and prolonged distress when I was young. (People tend to throw around the word dissociation sometimes but it’s actually a response to real or perceived trauma, as your body detaches you from that distressing situation it’s in- it’s a confusing and frustrating experience, but it’s actually our brain trying to keep us safe). But it’s important to remember that dissociation is a spectrum, which ranges from what people without a mental illness may experience as ‘feeling spacey’ or ‘spaced-out’ to an amplified version where you dissociate, or when you feel you ‘blacked-out’ or have missing parts in your memory. And as always, every person dealing with dissociation deserves healing and help <3.
I only really get it in episodes but some people can have it as a permanent presence in their lives which must make it so hard to get stuff done when you feel like you’re not real. Reaching out for professional support can help with the actual route of the dissociation (but you probably already know that). But some things that I’ve noticed can keep me more present are:
- Grounding techniques- I find these really hard to do but they work with practice. This can be doing things like listing 5 things you can see, 4 things you can hear, 3 things you can touch and so on. Or it can be going from head to toe and noticing all the sensations every part of your body feels.
- Sensory- spraying a little perfume and really focusing on the scent can help you tune in and remind you of where you are (especially if there are good memories associated with the smells. (If you’re out and about spraying a sleeve of your top that you can smell could help). Also clapping your hands to feel the slight sting in your palms and the noise it makes to keep you present. Keeping something small like a shell or a pebble or a stone that you can feel in your hands.
- Preventing stress- If you can feel yourself getting more stressed than usual or you begin to get distressed try and self-soothe or talk and resolve things with people.
- Sleep- I’ve found dissociation whilst being tired can be 10 times worse, so sleeping in when you can and making yourself comfortable before bed so you sleep well (hot water bottle when it’s cold, or with a light sheet when it’s warm). Having said this, once you’re already spaced out, I’ve found napping doesn’t work for me, I wake up feeling much more confused and weird.
- Using alcohol a lot and drinking when you’re already spaced out is not a good idea (it has led me to get way more distressed and way more spaced out) and sedative meds may be making things a little more sleepy during the day if you’re finding things are getting worse (but always take your meds as you’ve been told and talk to your doctor if you have questions).
Hope this helps you understand dissociation or can help you cope with it 🙂