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Dissociating is like watching your life from 50 feet off the ground

"I was dissociating my life away."

In order for me to learn how to stop dissociating, I first had to figure out when I was doing it. I had to recognize how it felt and learn to see the difference in how I felt when I wasn't dissociating.

My psychiatrist gently guided me through this process. He often stopped me whenever he saw that spaced-out look on my face. "How do you feel?" he would ask. I described to him the numbness and fog that had overtaken my thinking, a sensation like having cotton in my head. "That's what dissociation feels like. Try and remember that feeling," he instructed me. After several months of stopping and noticing, I eventually got the distinction. It's like the difference between looking at life from 50 feet up versus living life at ground level, with all its vivid emotions and bumpy reality.

We went through this routine over and over until I started noticing the dissociation before my psychiatrist did. Armed with this new insight, I began to be aware that I was dissociating all the time -- at home, at work, in social settings, even when I was working out.

Next, I had to come to see dissociation as a positive skill. Befriend it.

This was harder than you'd think. The diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder was a blow to my sense of self and seemed to threaten my connection to the things I held dear: my husband, my job, my wonderful life. Coming to understand that dissociation had helped me to survive the sexual attacks I suffered as a child at the hands of my father went a long way to seeing the disorder as something helpful. It made sense to me that a child in my shoes would need to watch her life as though it was happening to someone else.

But what really helped was hearing my psychiatrist tell me that it was a creative and intelligent way to survive. I liked thinking that I was creative and intelligent. Working through it in this way, I eventually gained a deeper acceptance of dissociation as a bona fide skill.

The problem was, I dissociated automatically and had been doing so for decades. It seemed like I couldn't stop and I wasn't sure I wanted to. I liked feeling numb and calm. The fuzziness in my head felt addictive. But I realized that by dissociating most of the time, I wasn't engaging in my life. I was watching it from outside myself. I also came to understand how dissociating made me vulnerable to more abuse or attacks because my automatic response to a threat was to shut down and dissociate rather than run, scream for help, or fight back. That clinched it for me. I wanted to stop dissociating and I wanted to be safe and be able to take care of myself.

Back in my psychiatric sessions, he often asked me to describe what happened just before I started to dissociate. I started to figure out the kinds of memories and thoughts that made me feel numb and took that insight into the rest of my life. When I experienced that old familiar fuzziness, I noticed and thought back to what had happened just before I dissociated. I started to set boundaries. When people listened, I felt great. So I kept going.

It became natural for me to notice how I felt. In this way, I dissociated less and less. Now, I only dissociate in rare stressful situations -- like during an unexpectedly turbulent flight, in a huge crowd, or when my partner and I are having conflict. I'm still learning how to talk myself through those situations and change how I feel so that I don't end up dissociating. Today, I am happy to say that I'm actively engaged in my life.

In my next post, I'll describe the things that my psychiatrist did that helped me work so well with him.

In the meantime, if you want to learn more about me or my work visit