With talk of dissociation becoming ever more prevalent, I’ve noticed a lot of people using the word to describe everything from mild boredom to extreme episodes of mental illness. While I’m grateful this phenomenon is making its way into the public spotlight, I’d like to clarify what I mean when I say I’m dissociated.
It’s difficult to put into words for those who haven’t gone through it, but for me, dissociation is a tendency to forget that I exist. It’s more than just “zoning out”, which is something everyone does from time to time. And it doesn’t only happen under extremely stressful circumstances; rather, I feel dissociated almost all the time. It’s often subtle, and it can manifest as a feeling of invisibility, or overidentifying with someone else’s experience. Sometimes it even distorts the lines of reality.
Below are some of the most common ways dissociation affects me if I’m not constantly careful about keeping it in check.*
Everything’s normal, except I don’t exist.
Most people have experienced the feeling of being lost in a crowd. When you’re surrounded by strangers, it’s easy to feel like you’re completely anonymous. However, amplify that experience by an order of magnitude, and you have dissociation. When I’m in crowded places, I often feel like I’m literally not real. Before I talked to a doctor about this sensation, I called it “ghost syndrome” – the experience that no one can see or hear me. It’s like a nightmare where I’m totally invisible.
The Consequence: I often make odd faces that attract weird looks from strangers because I forget they can see me. I also tend to stare at people uncomfortably because I’m mildly curious about what they’re doing and I don’t realize I’ve been looking a little too long. It’s not until they notice me that I remember I can be seen at all.
I’m in a body, but it’s not mine.
Say I’m watching someone do something on the other side of the room, like cook a meal. I tend to get so engrossed in their experience of cooking that I actually think I’m the one doing it. I forget that my hands aren’t moving and I’m just sitting there watching. It’s sort of like inhabiting two bodies at once. I don’t literally see through the other person’s eyes – it feels more like watching a movie of myself cooking.
The Consequence: I’ve lost jobs because of this type of dissociation. When I worked at a coffee shop, I used to stand still behind the counter and watch my coworkers make drinks because I was so engrossed in what they were doing that I thought I was doing it myself. It wasn’t until my boss told me to get to work that I realized I was just standing there.
When reality feels like a TV show, conversations get awkward.
If I’m not extremely vigilant about grounding myself in reality during conversations, I begin to perceive a glass wall forming between myself and the people talking to me. They feel more like characters on a screen than real people, and I’m just an audience member watching a monologue. It seems like nothing I do can affect them, just like at-home audiences can’t affect what happens in a pre-recorded TV program.
Actors on TV don’t care if you leave the room or make funny faces or stare off into the distance during their show. Real people do care, however. When I’m having a one-on-one conversation with a friend, they get confused when I get up and leave in the middle of their sentence. However, I don’t mean any offense – I just forget I’m not watching them on a TV show.
When TV shows feel like reality, the lines get blurred.
When I’m a little dissociated – which is most of the time – I have a hard time telling where reality ends and television begins. The fictional characters I watch seem more real than the people around me. The reason likely involves the constant sensation that I’m watching my life unfold from a removed, outside perspective. (That’s part of my dissociation, too.) TV depicts the lives of characters from a third-person point of view, which is similar to my perception of reality. I start to lose myself in their fantasy world, as if they’re real, or as if they literally are me.
The Consequence: Fictional characters often leak into my life. Sometimes I’m compelled to have conversations with actors who aren’t in the room, which raises eyebrows when real people walk in on me talking to myself. When I see images of those characters, I believe they’re actually there with me because they felt so real moving around on my screen. Combine this belief with my sensation of being invisible, and sometimes I carry out whole imaginary conversations with photographs of people I’ve never met, much to the confusion of my friends and family.
Sometimes it hurts – a lot.
When my dissociative periods transition from a mild inconvenience to a full-blown episode, the result is a lot of pain. Many anxiety-provoking situations will cause my dissociative symptoms to intensify until they’re unbearable (usually when I’m in an uncomfortable environment or I feel I’m being publicly judged). This usually manifests as a full-body “shutting down” sensation, like my organs have turned to brick. I feel myself sinking into the floor as if there’s a black hole beneath my feet, and I lose the ability to speak. My thoughts slow to a crawl and become foggy. The whole experience is uncomfortable to the point of actively hurting.
The Consequence: An all-consuming dissociative episode usually results in one thing: sleep. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, I need a bed immediately, because I pass out almost as quickly and intensely as a narcoleptic person does. I’ve been known to fully dissociate and sleep in a lot of inconvenient places when I really, really needed to be awake. Dissociation naps usually last hours and occur in the middle of the afternoon, when I could be working or having fun.
Dissociation is a symptom common to many health disorders, both somatic and psychological. It takes a different shape for everyone who experiences it, but regardless of its form, it’s usually a distressing sensation. Fortunately, it’s treatable with therapy and medication, both of which I suspect will see improvements in coming years.
*If you chronically undergo sensations similar to the ones described in this article, please talk to a mental health professional. What you’re going through may be treatable.