Happy holidays from sunny San Diego!
The 9th symptom of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) is dissociative feelings. As defined by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), dissociating can be described as “disconnecting from your thoughts or sense of identity or ‘out of body’ type of feelings.” Before I was diagnosed with BPD, I didn’t know that dissociation existed as part of the human experience, and it has been one of the most mystifying parts of my journey with BPD.
We’re all familiar with “fight or flight.” However, the phrase should be “fight, flight, or freeze.” Freezing, which can be expressed as dissociation, is my brain’s way of protecting me from a traumatic experience. The smallest thing, such as a point of conversation, something on tv, an object, a memory, a person, ect. can remind me of past trauma. Most of the time, it’s not obvious what the source of trauma is, and my brain’s decision to dissociate happens incredibly fast. I say “my brain’s decision” because dissociation is not an action I have control over, though I work every day on methods of controlling it.
There are several ways to experience dissociation. In less severe instances, it’s kind of like spacing out. I’ll have a conversation with someone or listen to a speaker, and suddenly my mind will wonder. I can remember a past event, or imagine a future circumstance, but either way, I feel as if I am at this other point in time. It’s like getting lost in a daydream. When I realize I am dissociating in this manner, I bring myself back mentally, and focus extra hard on what I am doing in the current moment. I’ve learned not to place negative judgement on myself for these moments of dissociation. I simply acknowledge that it happened, and move on.
Dissociation can also be experienced as memory loss. A couple nights ago, my boyfriend Tyler was planning on going to the store to pick up some groceries. I remember him cleaning up a few things before leaving, but I have no recollection of him saying goodbye to me. I was suddenly listening to the sounds in the house to see if I could still hear him, because I genuinely wasn’t sure if he had left or not. I finally called to confirm that he said goodbye to me and gave me a hug, and was at the store. The pain my brain was trying to hide from me was my struggles with attachment (which is a huge topic for another blog post).
Other instances of dissociation, while less frequent, are scarier. I feel as though I’m watching myself live. I’ve somehow floated away from my body, and I don’t have any control over my own actions- I can only watch myself. In early October of this year, I had a series of days where I was extremely anxious. I was jumping wildly back and forth between not being able to feel at all and being so anxious that I was tapping my feet rapidly, scratching my legs, scratching my hair, fidgeting with my fingers, and any other minor activity you can think of to exert nervous energy. Simply put, my emotional reservoir was drained.
I was home alone, watching some show where the main characters were looking up at the stars. Growing up in a small town, I took seeing the stars every night for granted. Now living in a city, the stars are something I really miss. This memory must’ve triggered something in me emotionally, and my brain decided I could no longer handle it. So, I dissociated. Before I knew it, I was in my car driving from downtown Sacramento to the Foresthill Bridge in Auburn- a total distance of about 35 miles. I just needed to see the stars! I felt as though I had no control over my actions, even while I was driving. I was disconnected from my body, watching myself drive. I was not safe.
Not all episodes of dissociation are this frightening. I know now that the combination of being incredibly anxious, stressed, and burnt out emotionally can be dangerous for me, and I shouldn’t have been alone. If, and when this happens again, I’ll call a friend to physically be with me, and help make sure I don’t do anything destructive.
Calling a friend is one of my coping strategies for more extreme situations. I also use “grounding techniques,” which employs the use of my senses to keep me in the present. I like to light candles when I start feeling a little hazy, or I can wash my hands with cold water to shock my system. I can also touch all the fabrics in my clothes and think about their individual textures. Anything that employs the use of my senses, and forces me to focus on the moment at hand is helpful. A couple weeks ago, I was feeling dissociated during my walk to work. When I got to the office, I sat down and listened to a meditation exercise for about 2 minutes, and was able to continue with my day.
Dissociation is a learned behavior. At some point when I was younger, I learned that dissociation was an effective way to avoid feeling pain, and it became a habit. With grounding techniques and other healthy coping skills, over time, I can replace dissociative behaviors.
Till next time, y’all!