What does it feel like to dissociate?
Part of an ongoing series about life with complex post-traumatic stress disorder
Flashbacks get a lot of the attention from media and television when it comes to PTSD. But, dissociation is an incredibly common symptom that also affects millions of people with the disorder.
There are many types of dissociation, but they are all some sort of escape from the present. Flashbacks happen intrusively or in response to triggers, and dissociation can happen in response to triggers, overwhelm, or at random throughout the day. Often times, the dissociation I experience is related to a type of freeze response; that may be different for other people.
This is the type of thing where someone might wave a hand in front of your face, and say, “Heyyyy, anybody home?!” It happens to a lot of people, not just people with PTSD…think about when you’re driving, and you kind of tune out what’s happening in front of you and go on autopilot. I’ll often find myself staring intently at things I don’t mean to, for minutes or even hours, or not taking in videos that are playing near me.
When I feel dissociated in this way — and this is the one of the most common forms for me and many other people — it’s kind of like there are a couple of radio stations playing — one with the sounds of my kitchen with the dishwasher whirring and the people outside the window walking past, another with someone in the room speaking to me, maybe one more if a tv is on in the background, and my antenna is tuned to where none of them are in focus. It’s just noise. Like the teacher on Charlie Brown, except instead of grabbing my attention with “wah wah” noises, my brain is saying, heyyy, woahhh, a lot is happening internally or externally right now. We’re going to take a pause and tune out, so that we can process what’s happening without having to deal with the outside world.
Some people (including me) also experience occasional blurred vision when this happens, where my eyes unfocus and I no longer have to deal with busy graphics, stuff moving suddenly…it kind of filters out all the extra stuff as I freeze if I’m triggered or need a moment to relax. Because, when you’re hypervigilant or prone to flight responses where you’re always hiding in work, and prone to nightmares while sleeping, your body doesn’t get to do much normal relaxing, and sometimes it’s just all too much. Often times, I will get stuck staring at particular points in space (my counselor says this may be related to “brain spots” in brain spotting, where certain gaze positions hold access to certain memories like EMDR). When I am dissociating and get stuck looking someplace in particular, like down to the left, I may be able to physically move my head with my hands away from it, but my head invariably swings back like it’s on a hinge to that spot as soon as soon as I’m not paying attention.
A friend who is a software engineer describes this type of dissociation as if “her processor overloaded, and is being forced offline.” I didn’t realize that this type of dissociation was a symptom for quite a while, mainly because of linguistic phrases like, “space cadet” “feeling checked out” “not feeling with it”, etc.
Derealization — when the world doesn’t seem real
“Oh, it’s funny all those cars are moving fast like that. I hope I win the driving game.”
Every once in a while, when I am driving, in particular, I look up and nothing feels particularly real. It’s like everything is moving around me in a computer simulation, and I feel like a passive actor in my own life. This is called derealization, and it can affect people in different ways.
Depersonalization — observing my body as if it were someone else’s
“Oh look, there are hands down there. How long and thin they are. Why are they floating in the bathtub?”
Maybe sometimes you find a word, that you see as just a normal word, but one day you find it funny, or odd. Some people seem to have that happen in particular with words like “moist”. You see something differently, and have a different emotional response to it.
That’s the closest feeling I can think of to depersonalization. Often times when I look down at my own body, especially my hands, it’s like I’ve shifted perspective in my head, and while I know I exist, I do not instinctually know they are mine. I can say to myself, “I am up here looking down, and those are the hands that are in the right place to be mine, so they must be mine,” but it feels like they are just a hand, like just a towel or just anything else that may or may not be yours. Sometimes when I want to move or touch my hand, it then surprises me when it does what I want it to, or surprises me when I feel a touch.
Some people experience depersonalization in other ways. They may feel like they are above their body, looking down at it, or like they are shifted a few inches out of their body. I (knock on wood) have not experienced that. I didn’t even realize that feeling out of place, or out of sorts in the way I do wasn’t normal for everyone until I was diagnosed with CPTSD.
This happens to me 1–5 times per week, often when I am thinking intensely, or relaxing (frequently while I’m taking a bath, at times when I’m running down stairs). It’s almost as if I’m startled that I still have a physical manifestation.
Presenting different aspects of self — different identities
To my knowledge, I do not experience this, although many people who have co-morbid diagnoses of OSDD or DID do. So, I’ll refer you to Jess at Multiplicity & Me to explain the “switches” that happen to alternate parts of self in dissociative disorders like dissociative identity disorder. Note that DID is different from IFS work in which there are “parts” of a self, not alters.