The difference between ‘ordinary’ and traumatic dissociation

The difference between 'ordinary' and traumatic dissociation

Everyone is familiar with dissociation to some degree. You probably know the experience of driving home in your car and suddenly you are almost home. In fact, you didn’t pay attention to the road and drove home on a routine, on autopilot. Like you skipped a bit. That’s dissociation. We also do it when we daydream or when we are talking and suddenly think of the cauliflower. Or you go on holiday and halfway through France you wonder: ‘Did I turn off the gas?’ Then you were dissociated when you turned off the gas. For most people, this poses no significant problems. It’s different when you’ve been sexually abused.

The origin of traumatic dissociation

What often happens with sexual abuse is that the child, in an attempt to spare himself or herself from suffering, makes sure that he or she is not quite there when it happens. Some describe this as making themselves very small and withdrawing completely into themselves to where the abuser cannot reach. Others feel more like stepping out of their bodies and watching what’s happening from a distance. I see all my memories of the sexual abuse like a movie: as if I were watching it from a distance. Because you are not fully present, you experience the threatening situation less sharply.

Dissociation is good!

People often think that dissociation is a disease or a problem, but in fact, dissociation is a very useful phenomenon. When you experience something bad, you can sometimes act better if you look at it with a little more distance. For a child, dissociation is not really a conscious choice, but a survival mechanism activated by threatening and painful circumstances. But it is this automaticity that sometimes leads to major problems in adulthood.

The difference between 'ordinary' and traumatic dissociation

Triggers and Dissociation

What Happens When an Adult Has Dissociative Disorder? In fact, nothing happens other than when you “just” dissociate and drive home on autopilot. The big difference is that the cause of the dissociation is more complicated. The child has experienced all kinds of circumstances that were dangerous, in which the abuse took place.

A child often does not fully understand what is going on and in an effort to survive in such threatening situations the child becomes very adept at looking for cues that precede the abuse. These signals provide the child with the ‘Dangerous’ label and the dissociative mechanism kicks in as a precaution. From that moment on, what the child sees as a signal is a trigger.

When triggers go off in adults

The things that the child has come to experience as dangerous are taken along into adulthood. Those things then become triggers for dissociation. A trigger need not have had anything to do with the abuse objectively. For example, if the abuse happened twice in a row when the child had eaten Brussels sprouts, the child can make that link. Once linked, the smell of Brussels sprouts evokes tension and according to the child’s logic, that means: Get out! to dissociate. This response is automatic and continues into adulthood. Often the adult does not know at all why he or she gets so tense from the smell of Brussels sprouts.

Problems due to dissociation

If you have experienced sexual abuse, it is, therefore, possible that you have a lot of triggers. On top of that, if you’re really good at dissociating (because you learned it at such a young age), you could be in big trouble. After all, if you dissociate, you’re not quite there. If you are very good at it, then you are (almost) completely out of it.

The difference between 'ordinary' and traumatic dissociation

You dissociate on a trigger that you installed as a child and that may, but sometimes also not, be directly traced back to the sexual abuse. Then you wake up three hours (or sometimes days) later and have no memory of what happened in the meantime. In the meantime, you have done everything, even if you don’t know the finer points of it.

But it could be worse: DIS

Because your personality has not yet been fully developed as a child, it may be that the remnants of consciousness, which remain behind in the body, as it were, develop their own consciousness/character. When that happens they call it a dissociative identity disorder or DID.

When the abuse starts at a very young age (<5), developing a DID is more likely than when you are a bit older. A small child does not yet have such a strong ‘I’ and in such a case develops I. And if you are abused, all those selves react in a different way. Some selves bear the pain, others bear the anger, still, others are strong protectors, some want to die, and others want to kill the abuser. All human emotions and desires acquire a kind of self.

The risks of dissociation and DIS

The risks of dissociation are relatively simple: by not being fully aware of it, you run the risk of things going wrong. You don’t pay attention in conversations with others and you get strange looks. Usually, someone else can pick you up and you just ask: ‘What did I miss?’ But a fully developed DID is more complicated. The people who live together in one body are often very diverse and some of them are also self-destructive or aggressive. If you are triggered a lot, you are a danger to yourself or your environment.

The difference between 'ordinary' and traumatic dissociation

Helen of DIS

As far as I know, there are two ways to deal with a DID. One is to integrate all personalities so that one personality is forged. That is quite a process but well worth it given the risks associated with an untreated DID. The other way is to talk to all individual personalities and come to working arrangements with all of them.

An example of such an agreement is that you may not endanger the body. Or that you go home as soon as possible. Both ways help to lead a more or less normal life. I understand that people who are ‘integrated’ sometimes miss the multiplicity of personalities, but also that they can use all the talents of the various personalities, making them usually very versatile people. I understand from people who have opted for working agreements that they regularly have to revise those working agreements, but that they have found a way to do so.

Do you have a Dissociative Identity Disorder?

If you’re wondering if you have DID after this story, here’s a short checklist of symptoms. One of the most important features is the loss of time. If that happens to you regularly and you have other symptoms from the list, then I would definitely have an official test to see if you have DID. There are good ways to learn to deal with DID, not only in the regular medical circuit but certainly also in the alternative sector. If you have DID, be sure to research the possibilities of all the different therapies to find the method that suits you.

The difference between 'ordinary' and traumatic dissociation

  • Amnesia: you have lost pieces of the past and can sometimes not remember things that just happened
  • Depersonalization: the feeling that you are looking at yourself from a distance (or deep within yourself
  • Feeling that things don’t “really” happen
  • Not recognizing your environment anymore
  • Sometimes you hear the voices of your other personalities
  • Identity changes, which make you remember only the things that part of your person has been through

Sometimes you can also notice that there is something wrong with the reactions of others. If you’ve lost time and people you don’t think you know, suddenly greet you as if they know you well, for example.

Advantages of DIS?

An unhealed DID is quite difficult, but it also has advantages. I hear from people who have (had) DID the following benefits:

  • You are very versatile
  • You’re never alone (some people who are all-DIS indicate they miss their alters)
  • You are a good actor/character (think of Karin Bloemen for example)
  • You can ‘get out’ in ‘normal’ difficult situations (think dentist)
  • Sometimes your alters know other languages, with integration you know them too
  • Some people with DID are super energetic (because parts of them can rest while the other parts are active)
  • You have an unpredictable and adventurous life.

The advantages probably do not outweigh the disadvantages mentioned above. Yet it is also important to mention them because when you start healing you will often have to give up the benefits. Fortunately, you get a lot in return.


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