I often need to study issues which show up with loved ones in my office. So I was studying how people experience dissociation.
I paused to go out and see if the workers were finished with the new railings for our counseling offices. As I chatted with the general contractor, the boss of the metal workers came up on crutches with an amazing device attached to his leg. The limb was held motionless by about a dozen pins protruding from a cylindrical framework and into his body. The G.C. asked, “What in the world happened? Car accident?” He said, “No, I was shot three times in North Philly.”
I’m standing on Broad Street, humanity passing by, metal workers on my porch, then someone hobbles up who has been shot. The scene quickly brought me right back down to earth from the ether of my studies. Even more, the strangeness and horror of talking to someone about how they were caught in gunfire just up the street, helped me understand that much better why people dissociate.
There are reasons people dissociate.
You might relate. Have you ever “zoned out?” (That term is another new entry for my emotions list – a phrase tailor made for 2023). Most of us know how zoned out feels. Many of my clients take it farther. They have added “I dissociate” as a way to describe what they feel and do in certain situations.
It is small wonder they have learned to dissociate. Generally, dissociative disorders are clinically reserved for the severely traumatized. But it appears the defense mechanism and the disorder are on the rise. Just because “I dissociate” is entering common parlance does not mean more truth is being told. But there might be something to the new recognition that many of us use dissociative defenses or experience dissociative disorders to deal with the general trauma we experience.
Here are some elements of the general trauma coming at us this week. Israel and Gaza. Russia and Ukraine. The gold rush poisoning rivers in the Amazon (not to mention the parts being burned down as we speak). Biden and Xi. Inflation. Trump on trial. Mass shooters. People wonder, “Are drivers really getting crazier?” You might confess, ” I sometimes feel alone on my busy street.” You might say, “I’m terrified now that I know someone who has been shot.” Plus, “There really are neo-Nazis? Really?”
Some people criticize the soft, general public for not having enough gumption to cope with such things. (They are snowflakes). But that kind of bullying is part of the zeitgeist to which people arre reacting. My homeowners association meeting last night featured people yelling at each other and openly expressing their distrust. Most people were watching the meeting on Zoom (keeping their distance). But the majority of the condo owners would not have touched the meeting with a ten-foot pole on Zoom or otherwise (quite unassociated with the association). I think overwhelming forces are causing people to cope the only way the disempowered can, by turning off. Why vote? Why go to school? Why not shoot up?
Dissociation is a new thing on TikTok
The experience of dissociation is so prevelant, it was briefly written up in the New York Times last month. The author noted that most of us know what dissociation feels like. It is just the “ability to disconnect from our thoughts, feelings, environment or actions.” Jalen Hurts is doing it when the commentators say he is “tough as nails and will play through the injury.” Authors might do it when they forget what time it is (and the fact they have a family) and concentrate on the novel until it is done.
For us non-atheletes/authors, dissociation is a reaction, not an action.
“Rather than fight or flee in a stressful or threatening situation, some people ‘freeze,’” said Dr. Frank W. Putnam, a professor of clinical psychiatry at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine and an expert on dissociative disorders. “That’s the dissociative state where you shut down and you kind of go away.” (NYT)
1-3% of the population might have actual dissociative identity disorder or depersonalization/derealization disorder.
This defensive reaction gets diagnosed as a disorder when it begins to organize how people see themselves and habitually behave. Such disordered behavior usually occurs after experiencing overwhelming trauma; the dissociation used to cope with the trauma gets stuck and becomes habitual, even extreme. Severe dissociative disorders result from horrific, chronic, inescapable harm, usually before the age of 7 or 8 — You might say, “Of course the minds of little children must fragment to survive having breakfast every morning with a parent who assaults them in the middle of the night.” Lord have mercy!
Many people are surprisingly familiar with those disgnoses. The internet helps them “discover” them and adopt them as their own. They might even “perform” them. We all might zone out in reponse to troubling situations that don’t really qualify as trauma. But it seems many people are being trained for dissociation by the overwhelming experience of being alive in this era and are further lured into dissociative behavior by the isolation of the internet.
According to the Times,
People are capturing their experiences with dissociation and posting them on social media. TikTok videos hashtagged #dissociativeidentitydisorder, or D.I.D., have been viewed more than 1.7 billion times and #dissociation has drawn more than 775 million views. Some show what it looks like to dissociate, or use visual effects to explain the eerie feeling of living outside your body. In others, people describe their different identities, also called alters or parts.
I would add that much of what I viewed was in error, misleading, or click bait lies and misinformation. Whew!
Let’s have some grounded dialogue
Even though TikTok misleads people, I think the dialogue is relevant because I keep meeting people who describe some form of dissociative coping. It is not unusual to meet someone quite conversant about their out-of-body experiences or how they are accustomed to looking down on themselves as if they were observing their reality from afar.
While the article in the NYT was useful, the comments were priceless. They represent thousands of zoned out people who are searching for some connection while feeling desperately out of touch.
Tisha fromSacramento wrote:
I’ve been working with a therapist for the past few months to support me with childhood sexual and emotional trauma. I have been processing the ways in which I coped with the abuse. One way was through elaborate extensive daydreams. I would retreat into long complex storylines of my own creation like a Netflix miniseries in which I was a strong,competent, beautiful heroine. Often popular actors and singers were my romantic interest. This was a refuge for me and a way to role play a different way of being. Sometimes I would choose to do this instead of spending time with others, reading, doing a hobby. To that extent it fits into a possible category of disassociation called maladaptive daydreaming. I never talked to others about this because I knew it was a different behavior, but I realize now that I’m not alone in engaging in this coping strategy.
Jane Dough replied to Tisha
@Tisha, I had the same experience. I lived almost entirely inside my own head, Walter Mitty style, for over 25 years. It was a skill I developed in response to a childhood characterized by sexual, physical, and emotional abuse. I finally quit the habit because I was so ashamed of it, but it was just as difficult to release as any other addiction. Even though I see a psychiatrist and a trauma therapist now and have told them all the gruesome details of my abuse, I have been much too embarrassed to mention my years lost to “maladaptive daydreaming.” Thank you for sharing your story. Knowing I’m not alone makes me feel much less ashamed.
Alongside my compassion for these facinating people I noted two important things.
1) They found each other on their screens.
I am glad they found each other and probably experienced validation and relief. But I am concerned the means they used might have normalized and deepened their dissociation.
The internet is drawing more and more people into a dissociative, unreal world. Putting on an avatar in a video game, having arguments and making confessions anonymously are obvious examples of how the web grooms us to live outside out bodies and face-face community. I’m sure there is something on Netflix right now that celebrates someone’s capacity to not have a body (remember Altered Carbon?).
2) They were relieved to finally tell someone about what they thought was their peculiar coping strategy.
“Tisha” told her therapist about her defence and then the world via the New York Times. “Jane” had never told anyone before she anonymously told “Tisha” (and you and me and the world) on the Times platform. None of the comments were verified as coming from actual people, but I read many of them and now so have you. And now we share a common unreality.
I did not look for it, but I would not be surprised to find a worldwide “Maladaptive Daydreaming Network” forming on the web. But even if she were part of it, would “Jane” actually be less alone? Would she be derealized watching herself feel connected? I hope she feels more connected. But I have significant doubts.
“Jane” represents so many of us who have no one to talk to. The fact that she is talking to the Times anonymously shows how many of us do not know anyone we feel is trustworthy or capable of understanding us. We seem to have less solid ground to stand on all the time. Having a weighty conversation seems like a rare event — many people might not know what a “weighty conversation” feels like. You might also feel alone in a very threatening world — and the numbers appear to be increasing. I hope bringing the subject up helps jar a few people into having an in-their-body, self-caring, grounded conversation with someone real enough to help them heal the wounds they carry.
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