What is Dissociative Disorder?

When I was first told that I had a dissociative disorder I was horrified.  Fortunate for me, and probably for those around me, I wasn’t in a place where I could access the internet and obsess about what this disorder entailed. I was relegated to real books, curated by medical professionals, with trusted medical information. In those books I discovered that everybody dissociates, or gets lost/transposed/engrossed in their brain. Driving past a freeway exit and not realizing it, watching a show and realizing you have no recollection of the last ten minutes because your mind wandered, or listening to a conversation only to realize your trains of thought and concentration have jumped the track. Even though it’s common and familiar to most, at the far end of the spectrum it is a serious, debilitating disorder. 

While modern medicine is still trying to ferret out the details of the disorder, media has sensationalized it, mostly through shows about multiple personalities.  Multiple Personalities is now known as “dissociative identity disorder” or DID and is still a controversial diagnosis. DID is the last stop on the dissociative disorder train. My illness dumps me at “severe dissociative disorder”, one stop on the line before DID. I hesitate to tell people about my dissociative disorder because they ask me questions like “how many of you are there?” which we all, ok, I find off putting. Truly, I am one integrated human being. 

Useful for Season but Not Long-term

I can appreciate and even marvel at the fact that God gave my brain a mechanism of preservation. By allowing an escape hatch in my brain where I can retreat when I’m afraid or threatened it has kept me cocooned from completely falling apart in the midst of terrifying circumstances.  It was truly useful to me for a season but now that I am no longer it creates complications. After much treatment for my C-PTSD I am able to recognize my physical fear responses and evaluate whether or not it is useful or necessary for me to retreat into my mind. 

When dissociated I often do not remember what happens during that time. At the height of illness I could be in the middle of a conversation and all the sudden have no idea what we were talking about. I have spent hours driving around town, trying to figure out what I was supposed to be doing. I can be somewhere and forget very easily why I was there. When my therapist begins to prompt painful memories I can begin to “zone” or numb out. It is not even a rare occurrence for us to be talking about something and I get lost. I can’t even remember what we were talking about before I got lost in my brain.

What Does Dissociation Feel Like?

What does dissociation feel like? It is different for everybody but there seems to be some consistency among those diagnosed with dissociative disorders.  For me it can be a camera zoom. My focus on the person right in front of me begins to zoom in and out like a camera trying to focus on something.  If I can achieve focus it can become hyper focused on a small object, detail or feature in front of me. I cannot hear what is being said, I only see that minute object. Dissociation can also feel like a vignetting of the room. The edges of the room gets darker around the edges, diminishing the field of regard into a small space. Often the start of dissociation can feel fuzzy and unfocused like I am reading without my glasses on and have cotton balls in my ears. 

Past Meets Present

That is the day to day dissociation experience and 95% of the time nobody would notice it was happening. In contrast, a dissociative episode is exponentially more frightening and affective.  Dissociative episodes are when past meets present and all the senses are transported to another place and time. I feel as if I am in a place of danger somewhere in my past. I hear, see, and smell the memory and interact as if I were there in first person. When I “come back” from that kind of a memory I am frightened, shaken, disoriented and exhausted. 

Any way I look at it, accepting my illness is also a discipline in being grateful for the survival mechanism I have been given, without cursing the challenges it brings. So, I faithfully try to choose gratitude.


Be thankful in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you who belong to Christ Jesus. 1 Thessalonians 5:18 (NLT)

Next Steps:

  1. For Further Reading: How to Stay Grounded When Feeling Untethered to Reality by Dan Bates http://www.counselordan.com/how-to-stay-grounded-when-feeling-untethered-to-reality/

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