When I was 12, my worst fear was being normal.
I was the token goth girl who dressed in nothing but purple and black every day, whether I was going to school, the grocery store, or a family dinner. I exasperated family members by dressing this way on literally every occasion. The goth style reflected the way I felt, so it dominated the way I looked.
Skulls constantly dangled from my ears, lacy arm warmers covered my wrists, and Wicked Witch of the West-esque striped stockings completed my heavy metal look. To complement my style, I also listened to music by artists like Evanescence, Flyleaf, and Within Temptation – melancholy goth rock, for those of you who aren’t familiar. I was told that it was “music to cut your wrists to”. I took that quite literally.
I aligned my identity heavily with the media I consumed, then specifically tailored that media to include nothing but sorrow, violence, and darkness. No one, I thought, could mistake me for a normal child. No one could accidentally believe me to be average, which in my mind was a synonym for boring. I was unlike any other person I had ever encountered, and I was extremely proud of that. Whatever the other girls in school did, said, or believed, I pointedly lived the opposite way.
To this day, ten years later, I’m not sure why I was – and in many ways, still am – so hellbent on living outside the norm. I don’t fully understand why that habit followed me so ferociously all through my formative years. My best guess is that because I had (undiagnosed) borderline personality disorder, my emotions took me on a roller coaster that had no safety bar, and I knew that no one else my age could understand the terror that psychological roller coaster put me through.
If I’m going to be borderline, I figured instinctively, everyone had better know it.
Skipping forward a few years to the present day: I haven’t dissociated in a month.
“Dissociation” is the word psychiatrists use to describe one of the most evil and excruciating emotional states the human brain is capable of inflicting on itself. Colloquially speaking, it’s the process of mentally detaching yourself from your body and your sensations so thoroughly that you feel nothing, and your only option is to sleep. It’s not totally dissimilar from numbness, except that a true numbness renders you unable to feel anything, whereas dissociation, at least in my experience, hurts like hell. It’s like standing on an emotional black hole that’s sucking your soul out through the bottoms of your feet, and you’re very distinctly experiencing every moment of that.*
And lord help you if you can’t get to a bed when it’s happening.
Being forced to stay awake during a dissociative episode is a special hell. If you’re in public while you’re dissociating, or heaven forbid, you’re expected to perform some sort of responsibility, you’re screwed. Sleep is the only option dissociation leaves you, and if you can’t access a place to do it, you’re SOL until you either get the chance to lie down, or the dissociative episode fades away in its own time.
The point I want to make with this nightmarish description is that my borderline symptoms aren’t just inconvenient and socially inappropriate; they’re also extremely painful for me. When I, as a preteen, expressed myself by dressing like every day was Halloween, I was telling the world, I am suffering in a way that you don’t understand. Don’t pretend we’re alike, you and I, because you don’t know my pain.
Melodramatic as that may sound, I still stand by it.
My dress style wasn’t exactly a cry for help, because I wasn’t exactly trying to change. I was just attempting to accurately portray on the outside how I felt on the inside. I didn’t want anyone to think I was okay – or normal – because I was constantly wading through the horrors of dissociation, deep depression, severe anger, or terrible anxiety – or, in the worst moments, some combination of those things.
But then, when I started doing electroconvulsive therapy a month ago, I stopped dissociating. For the first time since I was a small child, I feel normal.
And, to my surprise, I actually don’t hate it.
Check Miss Misery for “Normal: Part 2” on Friday, November 9th, 2018 at 11am Eastern for a description of the pros and cons of finally living a normal life.
*There are many ways to suffer through dissociation. My experience is just one of them.
8 thoughts on “Normal: Part One”
Not to invalidate your experience with dissociation, but the way you’ve written about it makes it seem like the way you experience it is the *only* way a person can experience it when there’s actually a bunch of different ways to experience dissociation. Like when I dissociate, it’s more like I feel like I’m not real or like I’m dreaming rather feeling than an emotional numbness like you’ve described. Just something to be aware of…
That’s an excellent point, you’re right. I just put in a note at the bottom of the article about the many different ways in which dissociation can be experienced.
Sending wishes and good thoughts your way as you continue your journey.
Hi Zoe, did you ever have memories after dissociating that weren’t real? Like you can’t tell if something someone told you was real or happened in a dream? My son mentioned this last night. He hasn’t been diagnosed with BPD but he has a lot of the symptoms (I have not told him this, everything I read said not to). I’m trying to get him help.
If you think there’s a chance your son has a mental disorder like BPD, the best thing to do is take him to a therapist or psychiatrist and let them make the call. BPD is a very difficult disorder to diagnose, and it definitely takes a professional to spot it for sure. Sparing his feelings by not telling him is important, but getting him the help me might need is more important. If you’d like more advice, go ahead and email me at email@example.com and we can talk further. As for false memories, I occasionally experience something like that. I sometimes won’t be able to recall whether a memory happened in reality or in a dream. I don’t know if that’s a symptom of mental illness – I don’t recall ever seeing it in the literature or hearing it from professionals.
I hope that helps!
After years of describing a feeling of having my soul ripped out of my body (and yes, it hurts like hell), I finally have a name to it. I’ve heard that word a million times, but never made that connection until now. Thank you so much!
Absolutely! I’m so pleased I could help. It’s a great feeling, finally being able to put a name to a feeling and realizing you’re not alone in feeling it.