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Dissociation

8 March 2013

An interview with a member of Changes Knowle group about her dissociative  experiences

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is something your mind can do to detach you from your surroundings. It is a very wide ranging phenomenon that is on a continuum. At its very mildest you have every day experiences like day dreaming whilst bored or carrying out some mundane and familiar task. More intense dissociative experiences can result in a total detachment from reality and memory loss. Dissociation is thought by many to be a coping mechanism to deal with stressful situations.

How did it start?

My own experiences of dissociation started many years ago in response to prolonged experiences of violence, extreme sexual and mental abuse and ultimately being left for dead in my late teens. My therapist tried to explain the weird things that were happening to me such as failing to respond to what was going on around me, feeling unreal and detached from everything and memory loss. He explained that the process was something your brain does in order to protect itself from stress, and told me about an experience described by Dr. David Livingstone when he was attacked by a lion in the book Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa (1857):








 "The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess, in which there was no sense of pain nor feeling of terror, though quite conscious of all that was happening."

Livingstone survived when the lion was distracted by another person. If he  had not been saved, he may have dissociated further and become even more detached from what was happening to him.

So what is it actually like being dissociated?

It varies from person to person and experience to experience, here are some of the more common experiences I have:

Derealisation - The world looks wrong. Familiar objects and places look as if they have been altered in some imperceptible way. When this happens I often suspect that the ‘real’ surroundings have been taken away and replaced somehow with an almost but not quite identical copy. Other times, the sizes are wrong and objects either loom at me or fade into tiny insignificance. I fail to recognise the inside of my own house and become afraid that I have wandered into a stranger’s house somehow. I routinely fail to recognise anyone who is not in the surroundings I associate with them. Hence I rudely ignore people I know quite well when they run into me in a different place to usual. The world around me becomes further away, sounds are different, fainter and echoic. People talk to me and the sounds they make have no meaning. I focus on movement and stare intently at their lips as they speak an alien language.

Depersonalisation - I am wrong. I am not a real person, everything around me is real and I could be discovered to be fake at any moment. I look in the mirror and I don’t recognise my reflection. I lose everyday functional knowledge and am mystified by everyday objects. If a phone rings I stare at it but do not know what to do with it. A toothbrush could be put in my hand but I don’t know what it’s for. I don’t know how to put a seatbelt on or why I would do such a thing. I stop. I can’t move. I cannot see or hear anything. If the building I was in caught fire I would not be aware of it and would not be aware of alarms or anyone shouting FIRE! I cannot feel pain. Despite usually being very ticklish I am now unaffected by this.

What triggers you?

Unfamiliar surroundings, strangers, loud or unexpected noises, tiredness, anxiety, anything that reminds me of past traumas which can pop up at any time through TV programmes, things people say or just by seeing certain everyday objects.

What helps you?

When dissociated I need to ground myself but am only capable of this in the very early stages of dissociation. After this point it simply wouldn’t occur to me that anything needed doing. Most of the time I need help with grounding as I am not very good at spotting when I am dissociating and either progress too far or I come across a trigger which instantly sends me into a deeper level. The most effective grounding techniques involve making me talk about the things I can see around me in detail, moving about and touching different textures.


I find it very difficult to come to terms with dissociating in front of other people even at a Changes meeting. I’m aware that very few people understand dissociation and feel very vulnerable not being able to remember what has happened. I feel like I’m the only person that experiences it even though I know that at the milder end of the continuum it’s a common every day experience. It can be very isolating and I’m glad I can access Changes meetings and be amongst people that have experienced a range of mental health difficulties and have some level of understanding.

Do you have any mental health experiences you could share with our readers? You could write about them yourself or arrange to be interviewed either in person or via email/Facebook.

Please contact newsletter@changesbristol.org.uk if you can help.