Disassociation is a coping tool that can sometimes seem like a superpower or a curse. But what is it, and what does it feel like?
I can only speak from the experience of someone with depression and anxiety; I can’t tell you what it feels like to have Dissociative Identity Disorder, Bipolar, Schizophrenia, or other mental illnesses. I am also not a psychologist or counselor; if you are feeling sustained periods of sadness and hopelessness, I can tell you from experience that it is always a good idea to talk to a neutral third party who has training and experience to help you face your struggles.
Disassociation is the act of disconnecting your sense of self from your memories and feelings, your body. It feels like an emptiness, a void in your soul, a numbness. It is not something that can be controlled or turned on like a switch anytime you want anesthesia for your pain. It can seem like a superpower because when you’re feeling sad, when you’re hurting and uncomfortable, it’s like a security blanket, a comfort zone, an old friend who won’t judge you. When you just don’t want to deal with those tough memories anymore, disassociating makes you soar far above them on a black cloud of denialism and nothingness.
Sometimes, it is even like you don’t care anymore, and you think that’s what you want; that’s the pinnacle of mental health. Not caring anymore what happens to you, not caring about your painful feelings, not caring about the world. You don’t need the world; the world is too hard to live in. But then you don’t want those feelings of not wanting to live, so it’s easier to separate yourself from them, to rise above them, to a place that’s safe and secure and meaningless, a cushion where everything is easy, like indulging in a bag of potato chips in one sitting. A void place. A place where the things that used to make you angry do not bother you anymore. A place where you can’t cry anymore. Where nothing matters. It can seem like a heavenly place.
And sometimes, this technique is actually helpful. I used a form of disassociation as an interviewing technique when I was a reporter. Objectivity helps you tell other people’s stories in a more powerful way. When you abandon yourself and your own biases and experiences, you are able to listen more closely to the experiences of another; considering how rare that is, people really open up and respond to someone who’s actively listening to them and won’t insert themselves into the conversation.
Disassociation can help you get through the day. It can get you out of bed. It can make you think that everything is okay because you’re not feeling so sad anymore. You watch the news and there’s a horrible mass shooting and you don’t even blink. People are like that because that’s what people do, you think. There’s nothing we can do about it because nothing ever changes, you think.
But disassociation can also be dangerous. When you don’t care anymore, your sense of nihilism can lead you down destructive paths. It becomes easier to engage in substance abuse, to treat people poorly, to lash out, to not keep yourself physically safe. When you don’t care anymore why does any of that matter? Your risk assessment changes.
So what can you do about it? Especially when you can’t help it when you’re feeling this way. It’s not a technique that people can magically manifest anytime they don’t want to feel hard feelings. It takes years of practice and intention to work on it. I’ve found a few things have helped me in rejoining my body again.
- Talking to a therapist. If you have depression and anxiety, cognitive behavioral techniques can really help you work through your narrative, deal with your pain, and find healthier coping tools. Other therapeutic techniques are better for people with other mental illnesses.
- Grounding techniques. There are a variety of these but two are using fidget spinners to concentrate your nervous energy into your physical surroundings with an object you can touch; and you can also take deep breaths and name objects in the room around you that you can absorb with your senses. Name one thing you can see, one thing you can hear, and so on.
- Meditation. The techniques of meditation can be applied to other areas of your life, not just the five minutes that you sit on that cushion. It teaches you to be more present in your body, to sit with your thoughts, however painful.
- Coloring books. I find this is a grounding technique that connects me with my body in a visceral way. When I’m focusing on filling in the fine lines, I am able to come into my thoughts and feelings again.
- Journaling. Keeping a journal can help you deal with your negative thoughts and emotions. Just be careful that you don’t swim in them so much that you start to judge yourself. Start simple. “I don’t know what to write.” Even if you’re filling a page with that over and over.
- Reframing your narrative. Do you really not care about anything? I would argue that the reason that you are disassociating is because you care too much and you can’t deal with it, so you mask your difficult emotions by separating yourself from them entirely. You do care. Maybe that’s a kind of superpower too.