For the past three years, I’ve been experiencing dissociative episodes. These are periods of minutes to hours where my I claw my way through a set of unpleasant mental and physical symptoms that occur simultaneously. At its root, this is most likely a psychological phenomenon not unlike post-traumatic stress disorder: because I’m been traumatized before, my brain is extremely wary that it will happen again. It senses danger everywhere.
As a result, during these dissociative periods, I seem to pass out in slow motion as I become overwhelmed with fear. My thoughts become unpleasantly fuzzy and it’s a struggle to understand what people say to me. Their words turn into gibberish. I feel myself fading into an odd, heavy sleepiness, regardless of the time of day, how much I slept the night before, or the amount of caffeine I’ve recently had.
As the dissociation progresses, my body feels its impact more and more intensely. My eyelids droop like they’re suddenly made of lead. The world around me flattens into a two-dimensional painting. Movement becomes difficult to track visually – instead, it seems as if moving things disappear and reappear elsewhere motionlessly, like a skipping video.
The internal experience of this cluster of symptoms is very painful, mostly because I’m aware that it renders me unconscious in a matter of minutes, which means I have a short window of time in which to find a place to lie down. That’s not always easy to do. Sometimes I’m out with friends, having dinner with my family, or otherwise stuck somewhere far from a bed.
The common denominator in all of my dissociative episodes is fear. When I begin to pass out, it’s because I feel like something is threatening my safety. Sometimes this perceived threat is apparent to me, but oftentimes my awareness of it is almost totally unconscious.
It’s not my physical safety I’m usually worried about in these scenarios. I don’t dissociate when I’m driving, exercising at the gym, or doing anything else that could potentially do me bodily harm. Instead, I dissociate when I fear that my mental health is in danger.
The risk of my mind getting damaged is high because of my borderline personality disorder, which makes me extra sensitive to negative feelings like rejection, judgement, and abandonment. I pick up on unpleasant feelings with a white hot intensity. When I meet new people, for example, I expect them to assess me with a critical eye, no matter how friendly they appear to be. Reasoning with myself doesn’t cut through the harsh way I expect to be evaluated. In those moments, I always insist to my dissociating mind that the person I’ve just met is kind, we have friends in common, and they’re probably just as nervous as I am about making a favorable first impression. I try to reassure myself that the new person has no authority with which to judge me.
But it makes no difference: as soon as the false narrative pops into my mind that my new acquaintance is silently eviscerating me, it takes ahold of my body and becomes the very, very physical experience of dissociation. In cases like this, I usually have to excuse myself to find a quiet place to sit down and close my eyes.
Stressful new scenarios aren’t the only situations where I dissociate. If I’ve dissociated in a certain setting in the past, my chances of doing so again skyrocket the next time I’m there. That’s largely because the human brain is extremely deft at creating associations – in other words, it equates seemingly unrelated things with each other because they happened at the same time, or because of some other circumstance that they share. Just like certain smells can transport people back to specific childhood experiences, reminders of a place where I’ve dissociated before can cause me to do it again.
For example, in the past few years, I’ve spent a lot of time recovering from depression and anxiety at my parents’ house. I’ve spent many afternoons curled up on their living room floor because some emotional threat – real or imagined – caused me to dissociate. Recently, however, I’ve been feeling much better than I did in those anxious days. My quality of life has improved both inside and outside of my skull: my depression has all but cleared up and I’m making strides in my social and academic lives. Nothing is triggering me. Nothing is wrong.
And yet, when I find myself in my parents’ living room again, I’m flooded with memories of the many afternoons that got sacrificed to my all-encompassing bouts of dissociation. They’re a menacing fog of recollections, the approach of which can be very difficult to notice. Like getting struck by an enemy from behind, I don’t typically notice my dissociating coming on until it’s too late.
Before I know it, just the smell of my mom’s houseplants makes the three-pound organ in my head to tune out my senses, one by one, to protect me from whatever threat caused me to shut down all those months or years ago, regardless of the fact that that threat no longer exists.
Trauma, in this way, begets trauma.
Even the feeling of healthy sleepiness can make me dissociate sometimes. Being tired can feel mildly similar to dissociating. When this happens, I nervously ask my mind to consider that I simply didn’t sleep well the night before. My brain usually replies by panicking at the sensation of drowsiness gently lingering in my body, and it amplifies that sensation by an order of magnitude, causing me to pass out within minutes. It’s not dissimilar to, say, having a panic attack because you’re afraid of the monster in a scary movie: the “threat” is fictitious, but your body can’t tell the difference, so it responds as if you’re in real danger.
In all of these scenarios, my body overreacts to a threat that is either greatly exaggerated or totally nonexistent. Inevitably, this causes a split between my logical mind and my emotional mind. My thoughts, over which I have a great deal of control, rest totally assured that nothing is going to hurt me. Yes, meeting new people, visiting places where I’ve passed out before, and being tired in the middle of the day are stressful situations, but none of them warrants the blackout that my brain produces in response. I know that to be true.
However, I don’t feel it to be true. I can’t directly manipulate my emotional mind. I can choose to think and act in ways that change my mood, but I can’t reach into the moody part of my brain and tell it to feel differently (at least, not with any success). So it tends to roll along on its own course, producing whatever emotions it feels are necessary, whether they’re actually appropriate or not.
The emotional part of my brain often operates despite clear opposition from my logical mind. When I tell myself that there is nothing around me worth fearing, it can choose to ignore me and send all sorts of unpleasant sensations swirling through my body. This split between what I think and what I feel is agonizing. I’ve learned to cope with it in small doses, but when my body thinks I’m about to be traumatized again, it doesn’t give a damn what I have to say. It starts to feed me very real emotions in response to very overinflated threats, and my conscious mind is the casualty as I experience two “truths” simultaneously: the emotional agony of fearing trauma, and the logical knowledge that everything is fine.
This split in and of itself is enough to put me under. Humans aren’t designed to carry that level of conflict inside of them for very long, especially when there’s little hope of compromise. So I dissociate, and the world becomes flat, and everything gets shrouded with that awful mist, and I quickly hurl into sleep for the rest of the afternoon knowing that wherever I am and whomever I’m with, I’m setting the precedent that just being there can cause the whole thing to happen all over again.