My mental health has taken a hit recently. Unfortunately, I am person who will struggle with my mental health all my life. In the beginning, it was difficult to accept that I would never be ‘cured’ but, now I have, I am able to work on levelling out my peaks and troughs, while taking comfort in the knowledge that when I am down, I will come back up. In a way, this acceptance has helped me manage my chronic illness too, but that’s not the point of this post.
Today I want to talk about, not what caused this bought of depression, not how I’m managing it, but how I experience it. Today, I want to talk to you about dissociation.
When a brain is exposed to prolonged, sustained trauma, it will often learn to dissociate as a coping mechanism. That is, it will remove your consciousness from your body, from the time and place where you are, and give you an alternate reality to focus on so that you don’t have to endure what is happening to you.
For those of us with CPTSD (Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), even after the trauma has passed, the brain can continue to employ this technique to every day stressors. This can be a blessing and a curse. It means that when traumatic events do occur, we are better equipped to deal with them than the average person. We are often calm in high-stress situations because we are able to emotionally and mentally remove ourselves from it. But it can also caused severe mental illnesses such as DID, OSDD, sociopathy, psychopathy, psychosis and others. In me, it has distorted my sense of reality. The more stressed or anxious I am, the more I dissociate, so I struggle to remember some of the biggest moments in my life, like my wedding and my graduation.
Before I was able to name my problems, I always knew that I had difficulty distinguishing the difference between truth and lies. And not just the lies that others told me, but the ones I told myself too.
When I was a child I had imaginary friends who I sometimes forgot weren’t real people. Sometimes I even heard them speak to me. It didn’t help that my real friends and I would talk about them as if they existed in the world, but nobody else ever got confused like I did.
When I was a teenager I was a pathological liar (I’m sure I’ll get into the reasons for that in another post some day). In order to make my lies believable, I would envision the made-up scenario in my head. I would submerge myself in every detail so that if I was ever quizzed or questioned about it I would be able to give accurate, consistent information. However, the more I told a lie the more I began to believe that it was real. There were a couple of times when I was presented with witnesses and hard evidence that a thing had not in fact occurred, and I flat-out could not believe it.
As a young adult I became fascinated by conspiracy theories and repeated to myself the mantra “question everything”. I became paranoid about everyone and everything I thought I knew. During this time I was also romantically involved with an abusive narcissist, and by the end of the relationship I genuinely believed that he could read my mind.
When that relationship ended I tried to commit suicide by overdose. The drugs made me dizzy, hazy, and sleepy. For about year after that, I was convinced I had actually died from the overdose and that everything I was experiencing from that point onward, was some form of afterlife.
There was a time where I hadn’t slept in several days and my skin was itchy. I thought that if I cut my skin open then the itch would be able to escape and I would feel better.
Often I recall things, and I’m not sure if they actually happened or if I dreamed it. I have been wrong in both directions too (thinking something did happen but it turned out to be a dream, and thinking I dreamed something that turned out to have actually happened).
The pandemic has been the definition of a stressful/traumatic experience for everyone. When it first began, I basically ignored it, thinking of it like another swine flu that is blown up by the media but will ultimately not effect my life in any real way. When lockdown began, that was when I realised my own vulnerability and the immensity of the destruction this virus could cause. That was when I started to flip-flop between “this can’t be real. It’s not really happening” to “this is the most important event of my lifetime and everything that happens now will effect our lives and the lives of generations to come.”
I need to explain though, the “this can’t be real. It’s not really happening” thoughts are not the general disbelief that everyone feels in these kinds of situations. The kind where they don’t want it to be real but ultimately they know it is. This is the kind of disbelief where I am questioning my own existence and the existence of the world around me.
The first time I saw people wearing masks out in public, I thought that it was a simulation. I thought they were holographic projections of what a futuristic world could look like. When I went outside during the first lockdown, the streets were abandoned. There was no traffic and no people walking around. I thought I was in a post-apocalyptic film or game, I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing did.
I’m not completely detached from reality though. If I was, I wouldn’t be able to communicate these things to you. It’s like I have a split brain and while one part believes that nothing is real, the other part is well aware of what is actually happening. It’s difficult to explain the disjointed feeling of unreal and real at the same time.
Here’s an example from the other day: I saw an electric scooter abandoned in the middle of a green area between roads. I saw it there a few days in a row and it became part of the scenery, so I stopped noticing it. The next time I saw it, it was laying on its side, on the verge of the green rather than in the centre. The most obvious explanation for this is that somebody moved it. Maybe they used it and returned it to a slightly different place. Maybe it was in their way so they pushed it to one side. Maybe some kids were messing about and it got shoved a little way away. However the exact movement came about, it was most likely a person that caused it to move. But I didn’t see that happen. From my perspective, it was in one place, then it was in a different place. So what if it disappeared for a day or two, then on its reappearance, it misjudged the time and speed of its arrival and ended up in the wrong place? What if it teleported to somewhere else entirely and when it tried to come back it got it’s co-ordinates wrong and missed it’s spot by a few feet? You see, even though it’s highly unlikely that this is what happened, I didn’t see it, so I don’t know for sure. I can’t know for sure, so in my mind any of these scenarios are equally possible.
It’s like man landing on the moon. We know that’s probably what happened, but we didn’t see it happen ourselves, so how can we know for sure that it actually did?
My most recent dissociative thought was that I was a game character that was stuck in first-person mode. I found it irritating and wanted to switch to third-person so I could see where I was going better. I know I’m not a character in a game, but if I was, would I know?
For a long time I thought (because my psychiatrist told me) that it was caused by my having an “overactive imagination”. But I’ve been thinking about this recently, and I believe it’s actually because people close to me have been fucking with my sense of reality all my life.
It started with my Mother. With things as small as “you did ask for a cup of tea, I wouldn’t have made you one if you hadn’t”, all the way to keeping the details of my Father’s illness a secret. I knew they were going to hospitals a lot and I knew he was in pain all the time, but they never told us what was going on. Maybe they were trying to protect us, or maybe they are terrified of being vulnerable in front of us. Either way, the outcome was the same. I have many memories of my childhood that my Mother completely denies happened, but I know that they did because my brothers can confirm them.
Then came a whole series of people who would tell me one thing, then do something else. My first boyfriend who said he loved me, then hit me. My school friends who said that we would all go to Sixth Form together, then left me on my own and went off to college together instead. The narssacist who lied about pretty much everything and made everything my fault some how. My best friend in the whole world, who I’d known and loved for 10 years who told me that no matter what his new girlfriend did or said, he would never lose me from his life because I was too important to him, who then ghosted me at the worst time in my life (I only knew he wasn’t dead because his Mum would have told me if he was). The girlfriend who played the domestic abuse victim who was actually an abuser herself. The boyfriend who told me he loved me, then took it back the next day. Everybody I ever trusted, lied to me. Is it really any wonder that I don’t know what’s real and what’s not?
My husband knows how important open honesty is to me. In our marriage hard truths are a sign of love and respect, even if they hurt us both, because it’s a demonstration of trust. Promises are a rare thing between us, because we won’t make one that we can’t be certain we’ll keep. All too often people will say things like “I promise I will always love you/will always be here/will never hurt you/will keep you safe” but people change and no-one has that much control over life.
I am a scientist and I believe that empirical evidence can prove or disprove the existence of something. I am religious and spiritual, and I know that there are some things in this world that we cannot explain, but that doesn’t make them any less real. I am a fiction writer and I spend a lot of time “off with the fairies” imagining made up people and places and events. I am a philosopher and continue to “question everything” in order to find deeper meaning. I am a survivor of trauma and abuse, I know that sometimes things that you didn’t believe would ever happen, do happen. I am neurodivergent and the world is not how I was taught it should be. I also have minor prosopagnosia (face blindness) so strangers all look like generic NPCs to me. All of these things effect how I experience the world around me, and inside of me. Sometimes I wonder how many other people experience the world like I do.
From time to time this dissociation can cause an existential crisis in me, but I am aware when that is occurring and can take the time and space to reconcile this. For the rest of the time, as long as I’m rational and not a danger to myself or others, does any of it really matter?