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The Gift of Disassociation

Deep pain needs time to heal—which may require forgetfulness.

There is a pain so utter that it swallows substance up
Then covers the abyss with trance—
So memory can step around—across—upon it
As one within a swoon goes safely where an open-eye would drop him—
—Bone by bone

—Emily Dickinson

Often people ask me what it means that they can’t remember much from childhood. I don’t know why they can’t remember, of course. But I do tell them my experience: that there is a huge range of remembrance of our past—from hardly recalling anything before mid-adolescence, to very detailed memories from youth. Brains work a variety of ways and not knowing your past may be totally normal.

But there is always one possibility. There are many cases of amnesia where forgetfulness is part of our response to trauma. Negative events may be too hard to remember because they can’t be healthily processed by our brains and minds (which I will also refer to as our psyches) during or near the time they are happening. The normal interpretive structures of our mental/emotional make-up, our meaning-making systems, are not up to the task of taking in some events and making sense of them.

When we are young, these interpretive structures are just forming, of course, and so many events can be traumatic. Even for adults though, events can, literally, provide too much dissonance, and we are traumatized by the overload. Natural disasters, wars, extended hunger, bullying, crime, and isolation—all can traumatize. PTSD occurs and, for the lucky ones, family, friends, nature, ministers and our mental health profession come to their aid.

This is the meaning behind the Emily Dickinson poem at the beginning of this post. A pain so utter needs time to heal and may need forgetfulness.

One psychologist who writes about this brilliantly with many case examples is Donald Kalshed. His recent book, Trauma and the Soul: A psycho-spiritual approach to human development and its interruption, illustrates the healing nature of the disassociation and the work it takes to recover from trauma. Kalshed says: “In order to protect us … from the unbearable, different aspects of the traumatic experience are fragmented, divided into compartments, and encoded in segmented “neural nets” in the brain (see Badenoch, 2008, Being a Brain-Wise Therapist, Norton.)

Even when very young, our psyche can separate part of itself from the traumatic event as it is occurring and can seal itself off in a necessary disassociation. When trauma is happening, the psyche uses its built-in system to protect the essence at the core of our being. That essence escapes the violation—the beating, the horrific scene that ought not to be viewed, even years of neglect—while other parts of the psyche go on experiencing the trauma.

Like many things that happen naturally, however, what was at one time helpful and preservative, can, if it is held in place too long, start to create its own problems. As the PTSD sufferers from the Iraq war will attest, the split that numbed and helped them through the trauma itself starts to get in the way of normal life. They have to heal the split in order to move on.

At a recent workshop in Columbus Ohio, I had the privilege of hearing Kalshed in a room full of psychologists and counselors from a variety of therapeutic schools. He knows the neurobiology and teaches by relying heavily on the examples he presents of the traumatized psyches that found their way to his practice. Not all were successes of course, but there are many hopeful stories from which to draw inspiration. Plus they serve to illustrate that the psyche, even severely split, may indeed be invited and evoked back into wholeness with courage on the part of the client and skill and caring on the part of the psychologist.

This kind of work takes more than the McTherapy we are so fond of—four sessions and you are out. It is of course about deep healing in the parts of our psyche that most need our extended attention and delicate work. I recommend this book for learning and inspiration. Be prepared for lots of mind-stretching examples from the arts and humanities along with neuroscience.

Emily Dickinson is not the only poet who knew about trauma. But with the wisdom of the poet, she was right: We step around the utter pain of the trauma so our memories can stop and allow us to go on.