I keep saying, “I don’t remember.” “I put it behind me.” “I put it in a locked box and forgot about it.” How can any of these statements be true, when all I’ve been writing are my memories? Let me tell you a little about my go-to coping mechanism: dissociation.
Dissociative disorders are a type of mental illness that creates a lack of continuity or a disconnection between identity, memories, surroundings, actions, and thoughts. They are an involuntary and unhealthy means of escaping reality. They usually arise as a reaction to trauma; they’re a method of coping by putting difficult memories and experiences aside, and can cause dysfunction in the sufferer’s everyday life.
Symptoms of dissociation can be mild or severe or anywhere in between. Times of stress can make the symptoms worse. There are three major dissociative disorders: Dissociative Amnesia, Dissociative Identity Disorder, and Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder.
Let’s start with the one I definitely don’t have and have never suffered from: Dissociative Identity Disorder. This is commonly referred to as “Multiple Personality Disorder.” It’s when a person suffers such trauma they can’t internalize it or accept it or process it, so they kind of go away in their own mind. This is not just losing yourself in a little daydream; it’s when you ‘check out’ for a while, a very VERY strong version of the Blue Screen of Death, or a Stop Error, that occurs in a human brain. An event occurs that leaves a person so shocked that they check out for more than just a few minutes. A different, separate personality emerges and takes over the body while the main personality takes a break.
Sometimes more than one alternate personality may develop: in a sense, the main personality hires people best equipped to deal with a particular type of trauma. Or the personalities may be different ages, depending on when the main personality first needed them. Sometimes the ‘original’ personality is aware of other voices or people in their head; other times the original personality is merely aware that time has passed since the last thing they remember.
When I’ve gone to see a therapist or psychologist about my depression, anxiety, or nightmares, they ask if I hear voices. I do! The difference between me and a person that suffers from DID is that I know all the voices are me. I sometimes feel like I have several people inside of me: a daredevil, a mom, a person who disapproves of everything, a person who just wants to go away. But they are all me, having a conversation with myself. I’ve assigned personalities to my self-talk.
The daredevil me says, “Go ahead; race that train, see who’s fastest!” The mom me says, “Don’t you dare!” The escaper me says “it doesn’t matter; we’re all gonna die one day.” This is normal self talk; mine may be a little more dramatic than others, but hey, I’m a theatre person, what can I say? It’s very crowded in my head. But a person with DID may just check out when the self-talk starts so they don’t hear it, or they hear it and believe someone else is talking. You can call the crowd of people in my brain ‘intrusive thoughts.’ I have friends that call them ‘brain weasels.’ My therapist calls them ‘The Shitty Committee.” I call them Karen, so I can shout (in my mind–I’m not crazy), “Shut the fuck up, Karen!”
A person who suffers DID loses time while the other personalities are in charge; that’s the point: to not have to deal with or remember trauma. People with Dissociative Identity Disorder usually have Dissociative Amnesia, and sometimes they have something called Dissociative Fugue.
I have Dissociative Amnesia. The first instance of this I remember is when Lynne beat up Tonia. One minute I was being pulled away from Tonia while Lynne dragged her down the hallway and the next minute in my experienced time I was in Larry’s room with him, telling him to make Lynne stop or I’d call his mother and tattle.
The main symptom of Dissociative Amnesia is memory loss that can’t be explained by a medical condition or physical injury and that is far more severe that normal forgetfulness. This can be specific to certain events or spans of time. It can be specific to certain types of events so that every time that kind of experience occurs, you just don’t deal with it.
Episodes of amnesia can last a few minutes, a few hours, a few days, a few months. They occur suddenly, without warning. The person suffering the dissociative amnesia will continue walking around, talking, seemingly living their day-to-day lives. But their brains take the events and hide them away somewhere so the person can continue living when they are ready to come back. During the dissociative episode, the dissociating person may not be able to remember facts about themselves or people in their life. But when they come back, all that is lost is the triggering event.
In other words, when I saw Tonia being dragged away from me and realized I couldn’t save her, I checked out. I apparently continued to argue with Larry, trying to save Tonia and Sean. The thing is, my brain did continue to record the events, it just labeled them with a bad file name and then filed them somewhere I couldn’t easily find them.
Dissociative Fugue is when the dissociating person wanders away from their life. When they ‘wake up,’ they don’t know where they are or how they got there, but they know who they are and where they belong.
Because I also suffer from anxiety, sometimes when I haven’t heard from a close friend or one of my kids for a while, I’ll start worrying that I had a dissociative episode and did or said something horrible. My therapist assures me I’d remember the leadup to the dissociation and I would recognize the missing time because I have in the past, suggesting this is how my Dissociative Amnesia behaves. Also, I seem to surround myself with outspoken people who would ask me what the hell THAT was all about the other day.
The last major type of Dissociation Disorder is Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder. The main symptom is a sense of detachment. You feel like you’re divorced from yourself or your emotions, like you’re watching someone else instead of experiencing your own life. When this happens to me, I tell people I don’t know if I’m real. Everything feels a bit dreamy and empty of emotion. My friend Loren used to assure me I was real and I‘d tell him that’s exactly what someone I’m dreaming would say.
I think during the first year of the pandemic, many people suffered a little bit of Depersonalization-Derealization Disorder. The experience was so outside our realm of experiences it didn’t seem real; being locked up inside and away from the world exaggerated that feeling. A Depersonalization-Derealization event may last for only a few moments or can come and go over many years.
For me, these Depersonalization-Derealization events come not in moments of great stress, but in periods of prolonged stress. The elevated alertness that stress brings to me alters my perception of reality if I don’t get a chance to step out of the stress for a while.
Dissociative disorders are treated mostly by talk therapy. The memories and experiences aren’t gone forever; they’re just locked up in a safe place. I describe it as putting a memory in a ziplock bag, putting that bag in a lockbox, putting that box in a locking trunk, putting the trunk in a closet and locking the door to the closet, then locking the door to the room the closet’s in, which is one of many unmarked rooms in a long hall. It’s there, just safely hidden away.
But if someone tells me a detail about that missing time, I remember it. Sean and Tonia remembered everything so they would let me know what happened. Sean would wait until I asked, Tonia kept surprising me with the contents of the ziplock bag, which I’d snatch from her and put it back in its hiding place.
A therapist usually takes Sean’s approach and lets you lead the way to unlocking the memories, and then helps you find healthier ways of coping.
I’ve passed out, or fainted, at least 3 times that I know of in my life; the first time was when Larry told me I was no longer his daughter. It was like my body had its own dissociative episode. I was so overwhelmed with emotions and reactions that my body just stopped dealing and I went down.
I sometimes think the reason I survived and Tonia did not is because she had to live with her pain and grief and sense of betrayal all the time, while I simply filed it away and moved on. I don’t want you to think it hasn’t affected me. I suffer depression and anxiety. I have screaming nightmares that I truly believe are memories demanding to be remembered. Because you can’t heal if you can’t remember what it is you’re trying to deal with.
That’s why I’m writing it all down: capturing it while I remember it, preserving it in case I try to forget it all again, and laying it all out in the light to be examined and dealt with.
If you deal with any of these things, seriously, get thee to a therapist. Leaving painful things hidden is like inviting your soul to rust. Go find someone who can help you safely deal with your trauma.