So much of our lives [is] tied up in being spaced out these days, not there. Despite the fact that this describes the majority of my life experience, many people can perceive a dissociative state in which they see little glimpses of the disorder. Young adults especially are subject to pressures where dissociation as a means of escape from those pressures is viewed as desirable and effective, if only achievable. This is of course a romanticized view, but nonetheless can instill passion, fear, confusion, and isolation, just as dissociative symptoms occur. I sometimes find myself slipping into this mindset — that, wanted or not, it’s an aesthetic escape.
A lot of my free time goes into practicing mindfulness and other techniques to bring me out of listless dissociative states, but I’m also visited by the temptation that I could make this escape my excuse. In the way that mindfulness helps bring me out of daunting dissociative episodes, attempting to perpetuate my symptoms through transient tunes or lack of exercise has the ability to plunge me further into a purely aesthetic, isolated reality. In times like these, I’ve taken photos of my surroundings, turned the lights on or off as necessary, walked on tip-toes, and wandered the house, feeling absorbed by aesthetic alienation.
What keeps me in check, whether that means practicing these techniques or not, is that many psychologists have researched and written on a self-serving functionality in many dissociative disorders and mental illness in general. The specific duration and persistence of certain symptoms — described as being overwhelming, restricting, isolating, confusing, frustrating, disorienting, distracting, alienating, and scary — may be the result of a unique and traumatic experience (though scientifically diagnosable) and serve the purpose of comforting, protecting, organizing, or focusing. Charles Silberstein goes as far to assert, “Dissociation is an essential and necessary skill. You can’t concentrate unless you can dissociate,” that “Dissociation is always intended to serve a purpose, and is a tool that enables people to function” (Silberstein 2018). The function is to focus. With such uniqueness and variability in symptoms complex personal and scientific understandings of these disorders are inevitably created. Thus, focus begets insight; insight begets personal understanding; understanding begets communicability; communication begets public understanding.
Before this point, this essay has been my experience and that of psychology, but there’s something strange yet comforting in the fact that about 50% of the general population will experience some form of dissociation at least once in their lifetime. Whether from stress, fear, or lack of focus, the mild disconnection one may feel is, in today’s world, a shared experience. However, the pleasure of the problem is the sharing, the thinking that we understand or that we can relate. On the one hand, any bit of understanding is a good thing — it makes a connection. On the other hand, strips away the severity and cause for concern. Because while this majority has some type of connection with dissociation, only 2% of the global population exhibits true dissociative symptoms (Merck Manual of Diagnosis and Therapy 2017). Rather than brief encounters with dissociation from anxiety or depression, someone with a dissociative disorder can experience long episodes or even a majority of their life in such detached states. Yet, the aforementioned percentage is only taking into account patients clinically diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. The problem, then, is confusing a shared experience with a rare illness.
In some ways, this mainstream out of body experience is something many relate to or can identify with, even if scientifically incorrect. Most people can recall daydreaming in math class, forgetting why they walked into the kitchen, or glazing over instructions their mother has given them for the fourth time. But what if that stubbornness and curiosity towards these trivial hang-ups could be transferred to the realm of those who, instead of daydreaming, feel like they are alienated by dissociative non-dreaming? For those with one leg or even half a leg in the mental health community, we know that awareness does wonders. Patients, practitioners, allies, and others to this community all benefit from the conversation because communication, at its core, demands focus.
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