Dissociation – Checking Out Means Missing Out

Her face is expressionless and her eyes are vacant. We were talking about something very painful and then she left the room. She’s still sitting in front of me but in a very real sense she’s gone. What I’m saying to her isn’t registering, though to the causal observed she’s taking in what I’m saying and she’s fully in agreement with me.  

I pause and say her name until she looks at me. It’s like coming out of a bad dream.

“Please don’t bother trying to find her. She’s not there.” – The Zombies

Only because she trusts me does she reconnect – to herself and then with me. When she does this the tears follow. It’s not important that she express the feelings if she’d prefer not to. What is important is that this become a conscious choice. What we do automatically/instinctually…there was a time when this was necessary. There was a time when it was the most adaptive thing we could do. As my friends in Recovery say:

“What we lived with, we learned. What we learned we became.” Meaning that we keep doing it because it’s what comes naturally to us to do. Our coping is primarily a set of emotional reflexes. Later in life many of us learn that what was once necessary is now unhealthy. We are forced to unlearn what we were taught in favor of more adaptive responses. This is very hard to do, especially because we were not aware of what we were learning. We were simply trying to survive.

The human brain has a safety switch that gets engaged by traumatic exposure and experiences.  It’s similar to being in shock but we remain there until it’s long over. We detach. We create degrees of separation between ourselves and what we feel, think, perceive, and ultimately, this impacts not only our worldview but also our perception of self.

Clinically, this is called “Dissociation.” It’s one of the few clinical terms that is user friendly. That person, place, or thing that we were associated with (experiencing/overwhelmed by);  we ended it by disconnecting our self (sic) from overwhelming fear and pain.  We sought to create distance between ourselves and what was happening because we were powerless to prevent it and unable to otherwise protect ourselves from it.

When we “check out” we go somewhere else. Some folks go to a very specific place and others go nowhere in particular. It’s unique to the individual. I’ve had folks describe going into a white room with nothing in it but themselves. I’ve talked with people who develop an ongoing fantasy where everything is not only safe – it’s also amazingly wonderful. The saddest folks I’ve known were the ones who developed a place to hide themselves, only to realize they couldn’t find their way back out.

There’s always a path out, but it’s a painful one to walk and it cannot be travelled alone.

Some of us experienced leaving our bodies and found ourselves floating above them. In this way, we left not only our emotions related to what was happening – we left our bodies in an effort not to feel what they were enduring. Reconnecting is holistic. Piece by piece we put the puzzle of ourselves together. Many of us get stuck because we want to throw away some of the pieces. We told ourselves to forget, to not feel, to hide so much of who we are. Each individual piece must be healed before it can be put back into place. Throwing them away means we never get to feel whole.

The analogy of ourselves as puzzles is more workable and healthier than seeing ourselves as “broken.”

We need starting points. My friend Ardis always advised that we treat recovery like a jigsaw puzzle and “start with the corners.” The corners are foundational aspects that make it easier to fit everything else into place. Supportive friends and family, good exercise and nutrition, separating “wants” from “needs” these are the basic things that make life more manageable.

It’s not about quick fixes – it’s about stability and incrementally getting better. This requires patience and tolerance with ourselves. We are powerless to change that which we will not accept. Self acceptance is the key to self control. Too many of us stay with shame and guilt as a means of not repeating past mistakes. This way of being prevents connecting with others and ourselves.

Connection only occurs by being in the here and now.

We seek to be grounded (keeping our heads where our bodies are).  Being “mindful” means noticing our thoughts, feelings, wants, and needs. This is a form of unlearning. Each of us developed ways to distract ourselves from ourselves. In order to change we must invest in ourselves exactly as we are.

“The aim of life is to live, and to live means to be aware, joyously, drunkenly, serenely, divinely aware.” – Henry Miller

Jim LaPierre

About Jim LaPierre

Jim LaPierre LCSW CCS is a Recovery Ally, mental health therapist and addictions counselor. He specializes in assisting people in recovery (whether from drugs, alcohol, trauma, depression, anxiety, or past abuse) overcome obstacles and improve their quality of life.