The Sum of My Parts

An attorney and advocate for abuse victims shares her own triumph over trauma.

DID Starts with Dissociation

Dissociation is my superpower

Olga presenting in Madison, WI

To understand Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) you should start with an understanding of dissociation, the underlying act that is familiar to us all. Dissociation is a mental process that produces a lack of connection in our thoughts, a separation of emotions, physical sensations, memories, actions or even our sense of identity. Most of us experience mild dissociation in our everyday lives. We call it daydreaming, getting lost in a movie or a book, or driving home on autopilot. These examples of dissociation are normal, and a mild form of amnesia.

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Dissociation runs along a wide continuum of experiences and symptoms. Most of us have lost track of time in a perfectly normal way. Some of us experience a moderate degree of symptoms but may not have a dissociative illness. On the other end of the spectrum are individuals with dissociative disorders who have developed separate personality states or identities within their mind. Severe symptoms are found mainly in people who have experienced intensely traumatic situations from which there was no physical escape, and their only option was to completely "go away" in their heads.

Dissociation can become a disorder when it begins during a person's developmental years and becomes habitual and ingrained. I developed DID as many others have: from enduring a tragically violent childhood. When I was attacked, I instinctively dissociated. Because the experiences were too traumatic for me to deal with, I cognitively left my body and observed the incidents from outside myself. I watched from a distance as if the assaults were happening to someone else. Even while an attack was happening, I was filing the experience away into a mental room, as if it were a movie clip. Then I closed and locked the door.

At first I put whole incidents into one of these imaginary rooms. But as the attacks became more brutal and vicious, I could not bear to observe them even from a distance. I started separating the attacks into little pieces and putting their components into the imaginary rooms in my head: one room would hold only a smell, another would hold the look on my father's face, and yet another would hold the loneliness and despair that overwhelmed me afterward. Each room would be shut and not opened again until I experienced a similar attack, pain, look, feeling or place that matched what was already in that room. As I grew older and the attacks became routine, I learned to dissociate earlier and earlier, and the rooms would automatically open to receive certain kinds of information.

Children most commonly use dissociation, as I did, as an extremely effective defense against acute physical and emotional pain - or even anxious anticipation of that pain. I often refer to this in my presentations as a superpower. It is considered a highly creative survival technique because it allows an individual enduring hopeless circumstances to preserve some areas of healthy functioning. While a person is dissociating, some information - particularly the circumstances surrounding a traumatic event - is not associated with other information as it normally would be. It is held in some peripheral awareness. In that way, it is kept at a distance from the child's immediate awareness, ideally until the time when he or she has the strength or perspective to confront the experience.

If the abuse continues, over time dissociation can become habitual, reinforced and conditioned. This effective strategy can become a way of life: an automatic response to being "triggered". In other words, the person automatically dissociates when a particular environmental cue or event is similar to a previous traumatic event. The person triggered feels threatened or anxious even if the situation doesn't seem threatening to anyone else.

I know this firsthand. I was abused so severely and in such a prolonged way that I dissociated through most of my childhood years. When I learned about my disorder in my 30s, I began to realize that I had been dissociating through most of my life. I'm happy to say that nowadays I dissociate only if I am overwhelmed by fear or over stimulated.

In the next post, I'll explain how I learned to stop dissociating and how I manage dissociation now.

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Olga Trujillo is an attorney, speaker, and advocate for victims of domestic violence, sexual assault and child abuse.


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