Dissociation and Trauma: It wasn’t really that bad, was it?
This post is based on an exchange I got into with another member on psychcafe a few years back which ended up being a discussion of dissociation as a response to trauma. This particular member was struggling with “choosing” to disassociate in the face of stress. Her assertion was that she shouldn’t have disassociated as a child because what happened to her did not qualify as trauma, and even if it did qualify as trauma, she was no longer in the same danger so why did she keep going away? It’s very common for trauma survivors, especially of long-term trauma in childhood from a caregiver to believe that they are making WAY too big a deal of what happened to them and seeing themselves as weak or damaged if they continue to disassociate now that the abuse is no longer ongoing. These are beliefs that were reasonable to form during the abuse or neglect, but that doesn’t make them true and continuing to accept them can really interfere with healing. Fighting them is what makes healing such a “hellish bind” to quote the Boundary Ninja.
Trauma victims often need to first learn to believe that they actually deserve to heal, and deserve help to heal before they can begin to heal. The neglect of our needs combined with being faced with punishing reactions if we dared to express our needs often led to a deep, abiding belief that our basic, normal, healthy human needs, needs that everyone experiences are somehow beyond the pale and way over the top. After all, the people who were supposed to love us and take care of us often reacted like we were an incredible burden or difficult to deal with. So when our needs start to surface in therapy, we can have a very strong emotional reaction to expressing those needs. If expressing our needs led to bad things happening, then we learned it was dangerous to express our needs. It still feels dangerous. So we start looking around for reasons why our needs should not be expressed to keep ourselves “safe.” And lying close at hand is the handy explanation that we were too much. Our needs were too much, they are still too much and we’re overreacting and demanding too much attention for what happened. So we minimize our own experiences because that fits with our both our internal beliefs about ourselves and with our need to not express our needs and stay “safe.” I have seen this happen with people who have experienced things that make other people wonder why they are still sane or how could they have possibly come intact through what happened to them.
Another horrible side effect of this dynamic is that when we had legitimate needs, when we were overwhelmed by what was being done to us, we received no help with our feelings. The experiences were so overwhelming that we literally had NO way to deal with the feelings or make sense of what was happening to us. So the only way to stay sane was to go away, to disassociate, literally shut down to preserve our sanity.
Dissociation is NOT a character flaw or lack of guts. Show me a person going to therapy and I’ll show you someone who isn’t a coward. The truth is that what we’re supposed to be taught by our attachment figures to handle our emotions and regulate our nervous systems by a repeated experience of them helping us to do it. Because of the way emotional regulation is learned, especially as a child, the lessons are stored on a very deep, unconscious level; its implicit learning. For instance, when is the last time you thought about HOW to read or tie your shoes? You don’t think about it, you just do it. But when you’re not being taught what you need to know, you have to learn another way to handle your emotions. So often, when a child experiences trauma, which by definition means something that is too overwhelming to deal with, and they are on their own with no resources, they make the only “choice” left to them, they go away.
One of the most intense sessions I ever had with the Boundary Ninja (which is saying a lot as I have a tendency to be a little intense normally. On the emotional intensity bell curve of human behavior I tend to be several standard deviations from center. :D) was about going to and remembering the moment in which I would make the “choice” to go away. I started having really bad physical flashbacks, the Boundary Ninja later described it as looking like I wanted to jump out of my skin. I was in an intolerable place where I couldn’t stay because what going on was so intense and overwhelming that it felt like it would utterly destroy me, but if I left, I went to a gray place, devoid of all life and feeling, where I was utterly alone and wasn’t sure I could make it back from. But at least there was no pain there because I was too numb. How much of a “choice” does it sound like that was?
When you had to disassociate as a child it was literally because that was the ONLY way to survive. Have to do it enough and combine it with a lack of being taught how to handle emotions even when you did stay and it’s a behavior that is laid down on a very deep level. Trust me, going emotionally to that moment when I “choose” to go away was terrifying, it was like standing on the edge of an abyss filled with chaos. When this is a defense that must be used early and often, your body just does it, much like it will go into shock to maintain the main organs when you are severely injured. So a really strong neural network is built around the ability to disassociate. When your system gets overloaded that’s how it knows to handle it. It’s not a conscious choice. It’s not, wow, I don’t want to be here, I’ll go away now, you JUST go away. The feeling of being out of control with dissociation is so strong because the decision is being made out of conscious thought and the parts of your brain that are making this decision have major override privileges when you feel like you are in danger. Perceived danger or real danger, there is no difference to this part of your mind.
So when all your experience tells you its bad to stick around, why would you? That would be insane. And this is where the bind comes in when attempting to heal from trauma; that you will have to learn to interrupt that “automatic response” moment and stay and experience that it’s different now when you stay. So to learn not to go away is SLOW painstaking work, and requires being with a therapist who is attuned enough to teach you to handle the kind of distress that would usually drive you away. That they can “contain” the emotions that you cannot handle on your own yet. And you have to do it over and over and over again, until the pathways in your brain around this set of behaviors can rival the ones you learned as a kid. You are working to teach the unconscious, reactive parts of your brain that what it believes is dangerous behavior, based on a lot of real experience, is no longer dangerous. You have to teach that part of yourself to recognize your safety in the present.
And it’s not an unreasonable expectation nor is it weakness, that you need help and time to learn this. Trauma victims often see themselves as weak, that if they would just stop being a whining, weak coward, they could just “suck it up” and stay. But no one should have to “suck up” anything, you deserve to have more than just an ability to endure pain. (Full disclosure, one of my mom’s favorite attitudes is “life is hard, just get on with it” which can sometimes work, but most times is just a way to tell you shut up and stop having those pesky emotions where she might have to deal with them. So this tends to be a hot button topic for me.)
And yes, a trauma victim might have a natural level of sensitivity which may serve to make someone more prone to experience trauma, but what the hell does that matter? If you are a sensitive person, that’s who you are, it’s not like one day you woke up and thought, gosh, I think I’d like to learn to be a really sensitive person! So not all people would experience the same things as trauma. That does NOT make it inconsequential or somehow a reflection on the person. It just is, its a fact. And there are a lot of other factors contributing to someone struggling with traumatic events. Was it one time or ongoing? Did you receive assistance in dealing with it? How long passed between experiencing the trauma and getting help? Did you have a secure base formed when you experienced the trauma?
So for all of you reading this who are questioning your worth or ability to cope with life, can you seriously tell me that a young child, powerless to take care of themselves, forced to depend on their parents (no matter what kind of people they are or problems they have) are responsible for controlling all those factors? That if only you were a stronger person it wouldn’t have bothered you? We should not be so quick to condemn dissociation, it allowed us to survive the trauma. But one of the things it left behind is a tendency to disassociate under stress. That’s a behavior, not who you are. But it’s no longer a good way to handle things. So I had to learn to have compassion for the fact that at one time it was necessary to go away to survive, while recognizing that it was no longer something that is good to do, so I could work on learning a new way while not condemning myself for the need to change in the first place. The Boundary Ninja and I used to call this the “gentle push.” Have compassion on yourself, while understanding the need to push through the fear and pain in order to change.
When there is ongoing trauma as children, the single strongest characteristic is our complete powerlessness to stop it. Powerlessness is a helpless feeling and can lead to despair because it brings you face to face with the fact that you can’t do anything but endure. And realizing that could put you over the edge. So do you know what most traumatized kids do? They make it what is happening their fault, that something about who they are or what they are doing is causing the abuse, because then, maybe, just maybe, they could control it. If you could just figure out what you were doing wrong, then it would stop. The problem is, we grow up, it stops, but we still believe we did something. I believed for years (decades, I’m getting up there in years. :)) that I was intrinsically evil and repulsive, that I deserved the abuse from my father and as a matter of fact that my wanting affection and closeness and to be held presented a horrible temptation to my father and MADE him abuse me. Those are lies straight from the pit of hell. But they gave me hope at the time that I could stop it, with the added benefit on preserving a “good” father. Dear reader, can you see how it would work? That maybe your determination to make this somehow about a lack in you, of strength, of courage, of perseverance, of fortitude might be an attempt to retain control in what was an uncontrollable and as a matter of fact, an out of control, situation?
I can get so angry that there are so many people in so much pain because of what was done to them, not anything that they did. That not only was their innocence wrested away from them violently but also their ability to believe in their own obvious worth; to believe that they deserve to heal. Makes me crazy. And yes, I know I did it too. But it still makes me crazy.
But the belief that drives me most around the bend? “But other people suffered worse than me so I’m just feeling sorry for myself.” Trauma is NOT a contest! There is not some line that you cross and now you’re legitimate. Just because someone has it worse than you, that means your pain isn’t valid? ‘If we followed this belief to its logical conclusion, then only one person in the world has a right to acknowledge their pain because it’s worse than the other eight billion people on the planet. So you believe that you must be overreacting because other people have it worse than you, so you should have been able to just handle it? You do NOT learn to disassociate because you’re too sensitive or overreacting; there was real pain that drove you away. And furthermore, you would NEVER look at someone else’s pain and invalidate that way, so it’s not OK to do that to yourself.
I’ll end with a quote from the Boundary Ninja: “Telling someone to just get over their past is like looking at a guy pinned under a car and saying, you’ll be fine, just go to the hospital.’ The only answer to that is ‘call 911, you idiot.’