CN: extensive and detailed descriptions of what disordered dissociation can feel like; extensive discussion of Dissociative Identity Disorder, amnesia, and mental health management in general; specific examples of abuse; general discussion of trauma and chronic pain.
Added note of caution: Some people who struggle with dissociation find that reading detailed descriptions of dissociation can bring on those symptoms for them. Read at your own pace and take care of yourself.
For as long as I can remember, I have been filled with emotions and sensations that I didn’t understand and for many years, I did my absolute best to tune them out or hide them from the outside world. I had no idea how many of them were symptoms of mental illness.
I got serious about investigating my mental health when I was 19 and through weekly therapy, the reading of many self-help books and articles, and social media, I gradually gathered a vocabulary of words to use to describe my symptoms: Anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma responses, these all became useful labels to talk about my experiences.
Then in 2017, I experienced a sudden drop in my mental health and those conditions were no longer sufficient to explain what was happening to me. In August of 2020, I found new language to describe my experience: Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID).
But one of the primary criteria for having any dissociative disorder is that significant amounts of dissociation are present. And until just a few months before I was diagnosed, I had no idea that I was using dissociation to help regulate my emotions, on a daily basis.
How, then did I spend ten years of receiving treatment from eight different therapists, as well as doing my own research on mental health, and never realize I was dissociating so much?
For one, a fish doesn’t necessarily know what water is if it lives in the ocean. When dissociation is the only way you’ve ever known to experience the world, you don’t know to call attention to it to find out what it is.
But when I think back to the ways that I heard dissociation described, they were things like having an “out of body” experience or feeling like you’re watching yourself do something from the outside. These definitions didn’t resonate with me at all so I simply didn’t have any language to show me that my baseline was different from everyone else’s.
Now that I’ve joined a community of people with dissociative disorders and started receiving treatment for DID, I’ve learned way more about how to identify what dissociation feels like and all the different ways it can manifest. Turns out, there are a lot of different kinds of dissociation!
As always, I need to emphasize that I’m not a mental health professional or a mental health researcher. The categories listed in this article represent how we perceive dissociation in our own mind and what distinguishes the different kinds for us. How my system experiences dissociation may be totally different from how you do and it is also possible to experience dissociation without having a dissociative disorder. I wanted to share some descriptions of what dissociation feels like to me so that perhaps it will help someone identify the symptom in themselves a lot sooner than I was able to.
What Is Dissociation?
The Mayo Clinic defines dissociation as: “Disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity.” Basically, dissociation is a coping mechanism for when there is something in the outside world, in your mind, or in your body, that you are struggling to be present with and still function, and so your brain finds a way to disconnect from that information.
Most people experience dissociation on occasion and that’s nothing to worry about. For example, if you are driving home, you get lost in your thoughts, and suddenly you discover you have arrived, with no memory of having actually made the drive there. This is a form of dissociation, where your knowledge of the way home allowed you to drive there on autopilot so that you could focus on your thoughts.
In DID, the mind has found that the most effective way to cope with repeated childhood trauma is to dissociate your entire identity away from it, ensuring that each separate identity also typically holds the emotions and memories of that trauma, thereby disconnecting the other identities from the debilitating effects of trauma, allowing them to continue functioning in daily life.
Voluntary vs. Involuntary Dissociation
Dissociation can become an unconscious habit that you use to regulate emotions and cope with stress on a daily basis; a sort of an environmental sensation that’s always in the background. But you can also choose to dissociate, the way you might decide that you don’t want to let yourself cry in front of someone you don’t trust.
A clear example would be if I were doing cashier work and suddenly a customer got angry and started yelling at me. I would intentionally dissociate from that experience so that the emotional impact of being yelled at was lessened. To do so feels as if I am retreating to the back of my own mind and putting a barrier between myself and the threat.
There are many different ways that we use dissociation, each of them feeling a little different from the other, some of them voluntary, some of them involuntary, some of them both.
Using Dissociation To Disconnect from the External World
A large category of dissociation for our system serves to disconnect us from experiences in the external world. Generally, these kinds of dissociation feel like some kind of interference or distance between us and the world outside our own mind.
This version can feel like I’m at one end of a hallway and the world outside me is at the other end, so everything I do and say has to go all the way down the hallway before it’s externally visible, and everything other people say has to come all the way down the hallway before it reaches my awareness. Or, it’s like there’s a wall of molasses or static between my awareness and the world, where I can connect but everything is slow and resistant to my efforts to do so. I have to push extra hard to make my expressions and words come out.
This experience can also cause difficulty focusing: I can’t pay attention to what someone is saying to me, or I keep zoning out while reading a book. It feels like a bad case of brain fog or like everything I perceive is a little fuzzy and blurry. I have also heard this kind of dissociation described as “Reality, but just a little to the left.”
I will intentionally use this form of dissociation if I’m having an intense emotion that I don’t want someone to know about. I imagine that I’m placing a goldfish bowl over the feeling in my head and then there is airy nothingness between the glass of the bowl and the signals that reach my facial expressions.
Also under this category is the experience of “coming to” that is particularly prevalent in DID, in which you feel as if have been gone or “out” and you are suddenly returning. In DID, a large portion of the time, this feeling coincides with “switching,” which means a different alter is now controlling the body.
Typically while one alter is fronting, something will trigger a bout of dissociation, there is a period of mental muddiness or confusion, we switch, then the fog clears a bit, the new fronter becomes aware of their surroundings.
This “coming to” feeling can be particularly extreme if it follows a memory black-out: You may feel as if you are waking up, having no idea what was happening or what you were doing in the previous hours or even days. Even without amnesia, we still experience some of the associated feelings of disorientation after a switch. Suddenly thoughts like, “How did I get here? What am I doing? What’s happening now?” will pop into our mind, and we have to wait to receive answers to those questions.
In addition, switches in DID are not always smooth or complete, which means sometimes you experience a number of mild “coming to” moments within a short span of time. Even without amnesia, when this happens, it can be challenging to assess the passage of time. It can feel as if hours have passed instead of minutes or we can lose track of what day of the week it is.
Using Dissociation To Disconnect from Internal Thoughts or Emotions
While a lot of dissociation has to do with avoiding the intensity of the outside world, it can manifest just as much in the form of avoiding being present with whatever is happening inside you.
This could look like pushing away your feelings or being unable to stop being busy for even a second so that you don’t become aware of your own thoughts. When I am trying to wind down, I feel like I want to “turn off” my brain, as if I will only achieve full relaxation if all my feelings are numbed out by methodically binging all the videos in a long series in one sitting. Anything that’s going on inside may become too noisy or too distressing, leading to dissociation from my own internal experience.
Typically, people with DID grow up without access to strategies for regulating their emotions, self-soothing techniques, or they simply are in so much danger, that it’s not possible to recover from one terrible experience before the next one begins. But emotions cannot simply disappear, so we must either move through them or push them away.
Feeling numb is an extremely common symptom of shock, while your body processes the trauma you just came out of. It is also much easier to feel nothing than to feel big scary emotions you don’t know how to manage. Numbness becomes a survival strategy if having an external reaction is dangerous– for example if you had an abuser that punished you for crying. Having zero reaction means you can’t be further punished.
We typically experience two kinds of numbness: In one we feel numb. There is an awareness that there should be emotions and instead, there is just a dull, flat, heaviness covering everything. In the other, there isn’t even the feeling that something is missing. It’s like all communication from that collection of emotions has been cut off and you don’t even know that there should be one.
A variation on this strategy is to only feel emotions that you find familiar and easier to manage, even if they don’t match the experience you’re having.
For example, we had a long-standing habit of dissociating from the feeling of wanting something. The first time we met Rosa, the cat we later adopted, we were waiting for an uplifting, connected feeling to tell us that we wanted to adopt her. Instead, the longer we played with her, the more our emotions shut down and we began to feel deeply depressed and hopeless. It wasn’t until later that we realized this depression and hopelessness was actually a sign that we really really wanted to adopt her. We were pre-emptively protecting ourselves from the possibility that we wouldn’t get to by dissociating from the feeling of “want”.
Similarly, the day we adopted her, we expected to feel excitement and warmth, anticipating this new bond we would start creating. Instead, we were incredibly anxious, distracted, and scared. But later on, when we looked at photos from that special day, we felt warm and sentimental about it. Those were the emotions that wanted to come out the day of but dissociation replaced them with familiar anxiety and fear.
A defining trait of DID is amnesia. If you can’t remember the terrible things that happened to you, it is much easier to continue functioning in life, which is why it’s also a very common symptom of basic PTSD. But dissociation from memories can have a wide range in severity and presentation and is not limited to blackouts.
One day, my partner suggested that we move our cat’s litterbox from the bathroom to a different location. Hazel, who was fronting at the time, agreed and they made the change. But that night, when Amy was fronting, she went to the bathroom to scoop Rosa’s litterbox. She stared at the blank space where the litterbox used to be for a good 10 seconds before another alter informed her what had been changed in her absence. Once the information had been passed along, there was no problem, but this process took a little longer because of the dissociation between banks of memory.
This delay in the passage of information between alters actually worsened after our diagnosis, I think because we were leaning into our separate identities, and no longer streamlining all the information to me, the host. More widely shared responsibility meant more opportunities for pieces of information to fall through the cracks.
I also talked more extensively in my article about my early signs of DID how memories can feel as if they didn’t happen to me, or like I’m watching them on a TV instead of recalling my own experience. This is often referred to as emotional amnesia.
Using Dissociation to Disconnect From My Body
A lot of people who experience some form of chronic pain end up using dissociation as a tool to cope with the experience of having a constant “check engine” light on and no mechanic who can get it to turn off. Because we have chronic pain, we do this a bit but dissociation is more likely to cause physical numbness in our body as a response to emotional triggers.
For example, one night, Sam, a young trauma holder, was having a very bad night and was hiding as much of his internal distress as possible. As part of managing our chronic pain, we occasionally use a tennis ball to roll over tense areas in our chest. It is always a tender, painful area but doing so helps increase our range of motion. However, when Sam began using the tennis ball, we felt zero pain. He was too dissociated from the body to feel it.
Alternatively, we will feel as if parts of our body have disappeared. A tactic we use when we’re feeling agitated or triggered is to give physical descriptions of the sensations in our body that are tied to our distress, trying to avoid emotion-based words. We found that an important addition to this exercise was to also note the areas where we could not feel anything or that felt as if they weren’t there. A common pattern for us when triggered is for our back and neck to go numb and just feel a bit like a floating, disembodied head. This feeling is so correlated with poor mental health that during our best periods of mental health, we used to describe suddenly feeling “3-dimensional”. That’s how unusual it was for us to have awareness of the back half of our body.
Lack of Control Over Your Body
The ways that alters can combine their separate abilities in our mind and body is truly remarkable. Sometimes one alter will control the body while another alter is the one present with the external world mentally. It’s hard to describe how spooky it can be when AJ is fronting and is so heavy and exhausted with trauma that she feels like she can barely move, while I temporarily control just the arms and quickly and deftly do all our nightly getting ready for bed tasks.
When Jessica first resurfaced, she was very emotionally frozen and that manifested in us losing the ability to consciously move our body while she was fronting. It felt like we were banging on the inside of our arms and legs, yelling at them to move but nothing would happen. It took about half an hour before we were able to thaw enough to get up.
On one occasion, we overheard our downstairs neighbor yelling loudly at his young daughter (again). It was quite distressing but we thought we were handling it okay. We went over to our partner, Noah, for comfort, and after a bit of conversation he said, “But I’m getting pets, so that’s good.” There was a moment of confusion until we realized a. Our hand was stroking his hair over and over and b. We had absolutely no awareness of deciding to move in this way.
Resulting Internal Disorientation
Many of the previous categories of dissociation serve a clear purpose, although used to an extreme, they can cause problems. Cutting off a stream of information to protect yourself means you won’t be aware of or have access to that information if it becomes relevant later. And dissociation is very much the kind of mental pattern where the more you use it, the more your brain learns to rely on it, the more your brain defaults to dissociation without you consciously choosing it.
This last category focuses on what happens when dissociation is not useful and occurs as a side effect of making a habit of dissociating (for us, anyway).
Though the frequency has reduced with treatment, we regularly experience bouts of dissociation where it feels as if we are on a ship in the middle of the ocean during a storm. We don’t know which direction is up or down, we turn around and around lost in emotional turmoil, we don’t know where the distress is coming from, or have any idea what to move toward to achieve stability again. I think perhaps this happens when we have simultaneously been triggered to dissociate from the external world and the internal world at the same time, and we have nowhere to land in between. Every option is terrifying and wrong and must be avoided.
Stuck in the Hallway
Remember earlier how one of our descriptions of dissociating from the external world was having to send and receive all interactions with others down a hallway? There are times when it feels as if we retreated part way back into this hallway but then got stuck. It’s as if our consciousness is in a small walled-off area about two inches from our face and it cannot move any further forward or backward. This version seems to exclusively happen in response to a trauma trigger so my guess is that it’s a combination of dissociation and the freeze response, in which your body believes that in order to survive the threat, it has to play dead.
Both of these forms of dissociation can be disabling and cause a great deal of distress, especially if you don’t understand what’s happening.
What Does Being Present Feel Like?
One of the things we regret the most about going through so many years of therapy without ever learning about dissociation is that we never learned that the opposite of dissociated is present. We never learned that in order to leave dissociation, you need to move toward being present. We spent more than a decade not knowing what the primary goal of treating our illness could be.
But of course, in order to learn the skill of grounding and becoming present in the face of dissociation, we had to learn what being present felt like.
For us, being present feels like having our conscious awareness easily reach the entire surface of our body. Being present feels like seeing and hearing the world in front of us clearly and being able to react to it in real-time, like the difference between using a smartphone from five years ago and using the newest model. Being present feels like emotions flowing and moving through us without rules, restrictions, or value judgments. Being present means making centered, intentional choices with confidence, instead of reacting compulsively or overthinking. Being present feels like being able to recognize things like hunger, thirst, interest, or desire, and then act on that feeling with freedom.
In turn, learning about what being present felt like taught us more about what being dissociated felt like. We were so accustomed to using dissociation in so many aspects of our lives, we had no idea how many streams of information we were in the habit of cutting off. We started getting much better at noticing when dissociation was occurring and what it was we were trying to disconnect from. Truly, we would not have been able to write this article if we hadn’t first learned how to become present.
Managing dissociation and its side effects is still a daily battle for us, and we could write a whole other article on strategies for managing it. But just having the words to describe it has made it actually possible to address it and no longer be completely helpless to its effects.
About the writer: Kella Hanna-Wayne is the creator, editor, and main writer for Yopp. In addition to creating a collection of educational resources for social justice, she works as a freelance writer specializing in content about her experience with disability, chronic illness, mental health, and trauma. Her work has been published in Ms. Magazine blog, The BeZine, Betty’s Battleground, and Splain You a Thing. You can find her @KellaHannaWayne on Facebook, Twitter, Medium, and Instagram.