To dissociate is to let go of an awareness, to disconnect our attention from one thing and focus on another. On a mild level we all dissociate frequently throughout the day shifting our awareness from thoughts to senses and back again. Some of it is conscious, some of it habitual. Its a common strategy to deliberately dissociate from uncomfortable feelings by distracting ourselves.
For example I use the internet, comforting food and sports radio when I want to distract myself. Modern consumerist culture encourages us to dissociate in this relatively minor way and it can become quite addictive. One could argue that intellectualising is also a dissociative action we need to take care with. By over-thinking we can protect ourselves from emotions but at the same time this disables us from compassionate thinking and the wisdom we can glean from our sensitivity.
In frightening times the switching off of an awareness is more automatic than the deliberate act of distracting ourselves. When we are overwhelmed switching off our emotional experience acts as a reflex. In enduring a vicious attack people can completely lose awareness and have a blackout. This emergency switching off process protects the person from the overwhelming distress of the situation.
I have met people who have had repeated and severe traumatic experiences in their childhood (such as recurrent sexual abuse) and to survive they have had a much more profound experience of dissociating. Many people I have met who have gone through such challenging and abusive experiences in their childhoods, have split off into different personalities that appear very disconnected from each other.
Within the hearing voices movement there is a growing interest in the process of dissociation. Its an alternative way (to medical understandings) to understand the disembodied personalities that emerge in people's consciousness. However having said this many people who have dissociative identities (or identify with having dissociative identity disorder) do not identify as hearing voices or relate to the hearing voices movement.
However some people I have met who hear voices, find a useful way of understanding their voices is to see them as parts of themselves that have become separated off to manage difficult situations. Some people's voices seem to be dissociative parts who have the power at times to take over people's consciousness and body, while other voices are not able to do this.
While 'dissociative identity disorder' is a recognised diagnosis, in the UK, in my experience many mental health professionals have a fairly limited understanding of dissociation and others are sceptical about people's reports of having dissociative identities. People who report losing time and not remembering how they have behaved are often treated suspiciously by mental health staff.
Because of my experiences of medicalised language being associated with misunderstanding and fear, I am keen to move away from talk of disorders. I am therefore keen to find non-pathological ways to understand trauma reactions like dissociative selves. However I do not want to diminish the suffering and disability that can be experienced by someone with dissociative selves. I would like to be part of a movement that argues for more compassion and understanding for dissociative identities and the diverse ways these can be experienced.
Dissociation is a challenging concept. It crosses over traditional diagnostic categories and therefore rocks the diagnostic boat. I have met a professor of psychology who argued that it was a myth that some people have dissociative identities choosing to believe it was a construct created by overzealous therapists. Maybe therapists can have a role in how difficulties are construed and worked with but in my experience dissociative identities are real.
Why might people in authority deny the power of dissociation in people's lives? I don't know. I do know that when we start to explore how dissociation is impacting in people's lives its a delicate process and we may uncover painful emotions and memories. Perhaps the status quo does not want to hear the violence that has occurred under its watch. Perhaps we are all a little addicted to denying uncomfortable truths.
The growing enthusiasm for mindfulness encourages us to become more aware of our dissociation styles and develop ways to come back to our senses. I think as we become more curious about mindful awareness, we will also become more aware about dissociation and the different ways it affects people.
I have found in my work with people diagnosed with psychosis, that dissociation appears to be much more a feature of people's difficulties than most mental health professionals seem to be aware of. In the hearing voices movement there is a campaign to get people to realise how real the experience of voices are for the person experiencing them. I have a badge given to me by Kevin Healey from the Toronto hearing voices network that reads 'the voices are real'. Inspired by this I now want a badge that says 'dissociation is real'.
I was recently in our local Hearing Voices group when a new person described how his voices could involuntarily make him move at times. He called it being nudged. I asked the other nine members who else has had similar experiences and 5 or 6 people raise their hand. It seemed a tremendous relief to him that he was not the only one going thorough this intrusive experience.
The new person explained he thought his voices were people persecuting him from afar. I asked him what mental health professionals had suggested to him. He said he had been told its part of his mental illness and that he has intrusive thoughts. He didn't look impressed with this explanation. I asked him if he wouldn't mind me sharing an alternative psychological understanding of his experiences.
I said that when shocking and difficult things happen to us we may dissociate. So that for example, if we are viciously attacked we may automatically dissociate which means we switch off our awareness of what is happening. While we switch off, however part of us takes the difficult experience. This has now become a split off part of ourself that we have no knowledge of. These split off parts can later come back into our awareness as voices, or as intrusive thoughts or parts which can take over our body to a greater or lesser degree. They are often reliving difficult memories and trying to share them with us. This can feel persecutory but if we can try to help them with the memories they are struggling with they often become less agitated and obstructive.
Not all voices fit this understanding and I suggested it not as the truth but as one way of understanding certain voices.
This explanation seemed to make sense to him and he could relate it to some difficult life events he had been through. It made me think again how we need to talk more about dissociation and how it affects us all to varying degrees. And so I wrote this blog. Spread the word: “Dissociation is real”.
Note: We are planning to run a series of grounding and centreing courses that aim to explore techniques that can help us come back to awareness. Contact me if you would like a workshop to come to your area.
I reccommend Sarah Reece's blog which includes writings about dissociation and grounding strategies. Also the Dissociative Initiative a forum for and by people with dissociaiton, amnesia & multiplicity.
The PODS website looks at Positive Outcomes for Dissociative Survivors ... 'making recovery from dissociative disorders a reality through training, informing & supporting.'
Finally the Psychcentral website has this straight talking article looking at the myths around dissociative identities.
Thanks to Elisabeth Svanholmer for creating the 'Dissociation is real' image