I had a comment on a recent post at Health Central that described an experience the writer called dissociative.
During a therapy session she had become so remote that she couldn’t focus on the discussion or even remember in mid-sentence what she’d been saying. She wasn’t fully present and couldn’t bring herself to come back into the therapist’s office.
Dissociation isn’t a condition I’ve thought or known much about, and I rarely, if ever, use the word. So I spent a while looking it up – not that I care that much about psychiatric jargon – but I do like to understand what people mean when they use these terms. “Dissociation” and “dissociative disorder” seem to cover a lot of ground, and I guess I’m in the dissociative ballpark when I write about “disappearing.”
That’s what I call the feeling of being absent. Sometimes it’s like watching a group of people from a distance, even though I’m part of whatever is going on. I feel so detached that I might as well be seeing the action in a movie. Or I’m at home but emotionally gone, hardly in touch with my wife or kids. I’m there, but I’m not there. Here’s how I put it in a 2007 post about a business meeting:
I’m supposed to be running this meeting … I’m watching from a distance as these people argue with each other around the big table, talking the same words I’ve heard before, heading into the same traps of crossed purposes. But I’m watching only, aware in each moment of what to do to keep the meeting going toward a useful conclusion, but I am not doing it. … All that I see is happening to them out there, as if on a screen. I become an onlooker.
Apparently, the psychiatric jargon for my disappearing act is depersonalization – just one of the many possible symptoms of dissociative disorder. And there’s another one of these symptoms I’ve also lived with: derealization – or the sense that the world I’m in is unreal.
That’s happened to me in the most familiar surroundings – a college dorm room, a neighborhood street, a car, an office building, an open field. Everything looks familiar, but it’s not. It feels unstable, as if it could all dissolve away or be pulled apart like a stage set or change shape when I’m not looking. What I’m seeing or touching no longer seems trustworthy – I can’t count on it.
At least the “dereal” experiences are brief and infrequent, but the “depersonal” ones can go on for days or weeks at a time.
It may be important for psychiatrists to pull these apart and give them different names, but in my experience the two states of mind fit together. Either I’m estranged from the world, or the world turns strange.
The separateness, the split, is what counts, and it’s been a big part of the depression mix. When I add in the periods of not feeling much about anything and of isolating myself physically, it’s clear how destructive “disappearing” can be to my family as well as my work life.
But that’s not all. I started disappearing very early in my life. It was a shield from the most intense and painful experiences I had when growing up. I suppose that fits more closely with the idea of dissociation.
As a teenager and even into college, my emotional life – apart from the safe feelings of daily living – survived somewhere but had lost its home inside me. My world was safely rational, and I was usually observing myself from a distance when violence of any kind broke out. I could be in the midst of a family fight yet completely absent, despite the raging intensity that was burning everyone else. It was like looking through a window at people fighting with each other. But the barrier was a lot stronger than window glass, it was more like invisible steel.
Dad and my brother stood face to face, but I could hardly see them as my eyes fixed on the 16 gauge shotgun in my brother’s hands. It was aiming right at my father’s chest, the end of the barrel no more than a foot away. … I could almost hear a switch flipping off. I felt and heard nothing but just floated there in my own distance. Anything could have happened.
When I got to college, I could joke with friends about a broken family life as if it had been a tragicomic play full of odd characters and bizarre scenes. I had no sense of a deep emotional connection to that past. It took a couple of weeks in a sustained panic and my first visit to a psychiatrist’s office before I started to unwrap all those hidden feelings and the pain I had deferred.
Thanks to the mercy of a nightmare a few years later, I could finally feel the presence of my family in every breath and heartbeat. But after splitting myself in two for nearly 25 years, I’m still working at reconnecting with all that happened, trying to get free of its hidden control. Here’s one shadow that followed me for years, a complete shutdown whenever an intense and creative energy tried to break out. As I put it in another 2007 post:
I try to write, I get pretty far into something that feels good, feels like it’s coming from an amazing source of – what? a kind of power, a creativity that swirls things into life, a well of discovery – and then… I stop. What’s wrong? My mind is blanking out, I can’t seem to concentrate, I’m distracted, or I start to get sleepy, actually dive into unconsciousness for a while. What’s happening? What was that I was trying to write? Trying to imagine – no, it’s gone! Why can’t I do this? Why does this happen over and over again?
The emotional splitting and its worst effects gradually diminished as I recovered generally from depression, but I have to stay alert. At the first sign of drifting away from the people I’m with, I have to cut in, refocus and bring myself back. It takes so long to break the emotional habits I’ve lived with for decades. It would be great to be done with it all forever.
To use the jargon, have you been depersonalized, derealized, dissociated from yourself as part of depression? Or have you just disappeared from your life?