Dissociation: Recognition and Healing – March 2014
Earlier today I was forcing myself to go through the motions of life. Things were grim and meaningless, my voice was monotonous, my face wasn’t moving, and I had no idea why. I kept looking at everything I had to do, and putting off everything that I could, in the hope that sleep would restore me, and that tomorrow I would have some clue how to get things done.
This state was so endless and all-consuming that I couldn’t even remember what it was like to have energy and focus and motivation. I didn’t want to talk to anyone because I didn’t want to burden anyone else with it. And, then, luckily, an act of grace from the universe happened. I had to return a phone call to an old friend.
“How are you?” she asked.
“Not good,” I answered.
“Why?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I was at the prison today, and the work we did there was beautiful. A woman went back into her past to bring out her 5 year old self from the scary house she lived in, into a safe place in her heart. It’s not work that I get to do very often there, and it’s what I get most excited about when it happens. But I’m not excited now.” I was quiet for a long time. My friend was quiet, too.
In the quietness, I tried on different worries. There’s a leaky pipe in my house, but it didn’t seem to be that. The dog was a little sick, but it wasn’t that. My 15-year old got invited to participate in the track team, and that’s exciting, rather than worrisome. All of a sudden, I remembered.
At the end of the prison class, one of the students had discovered that she had received a punishment of confinement to her cell for leaving class for a moment to get me a marker. She took me to someone who could help. I worked with the people at the prison and they cancelled the punishment once the situation was clear, but the initial experience consisted of powerlessness, helplessness and vulnerability for both of us. And what was stunning was that when I left the concertina wire behind, I had walled off my mourning. I had been a walking zombie for the rest of the day with no idea why.
I was surprised to find myself crying as I talked with my friend. As I mourned centuries of dehumanization and domination in our world, I felt my back unfreeze, my face start to move, and I could hear the life re-entering my voice.
My story of today is a story that happens to everyone. When we have experiences of helplessness, our nervous systems can enter the dorsal channel of the vagus nerve, the “freeze” channel. And when the experience is stressful enough, it can trigger a flow of cortisol that shuts down our hippocampus so that we don’t consciously remember the event. This can leave us in a dissociated state without access to any understanding of how we got there. Such states of dissociation can be mild and of short duration, as mine was today, or they can last for years and can even become our primary survival strategy for getting through life.