I want to talk for a moment about dissociation. There will come a moment in almost all our lives when we will check out. A part of us will go away in order to cope with pain. The human brain is very complex, and our limbic system will do whatever it takes to see to it that we survive. We may walk around like a robot for a while until we are able to come back to ourselves. This sort of thing isn’t uncommon around sudden traumas like deaths, disasters, and accidents. We feel out of body, out of touch, and numb. Eventually, we fully merge into ourselves and deal with whatever caused our dissociation. Our minds have come out of denial and accepted the present reality however painful or shocking it might be. This might be described as acute dissociation.
For people who have grown up in intensely dysfunctional environments where longterm exposure to abuse was at play, chronic dissociation may be an issue. Many of us have heard a character in a movie who was raped describe the experience as such: “I felt him push into me, and, suddenly, I saw myself on the floor. I saw him raping me as if I were watching a movie. I couldn’t feel anything.” That’s a classic description of dissociation. Part of the victim leaves and, somehow, she is standing outside her body acting as a witness to her own assault. For children who grew up in abusive homes, the option to leave is not available so the brain creates it through either a fugue state, dissociation through lack of memory, or dissociation through fantasy. Part or, parts, of the self abandons the child disappearing into compartments. Severe forms of this can become DID (Dissociative Identity Disorder) later in life. There is, of course, the option to simply disappear and feel nothing. A child might fall into depression if left alone to walk this path. There is only hopelessness in that state. Ultimately, if left untreated, apathy results and one simply stops thriving in life. If one doesn’t give up completely, one must do what it take to feel something. Enter addictions, substance abuse, risk-taking, and myriad other issues. The desire to feel anything other than the pain that is crucial to avoid is present. Anger may also be present because anger isn’t pain, and anger is, at least, a drive of some kind. It’s a sign that someone hasn’t entirely given up. Anger, however, can be highly destructive, and it’s just a step or two away from rage.
I used to live in a dissociated state. I didn’t know it at the time. I thought that I was feeling all the emotions on the human spectrum, but, for some reason, when I would gather with friends or their families, I would feel invited but not included. I would feel like an outsider. I would see their happiness and expression of enthusiasm, and I couldn’t get there. I thought that maybe I just had a different personality. Maybe other people were just…stupid. I had to come up with a reason why I felt so different and out of place. Why do they look so happy? Why do I feel so…neutral? I could certainly feel anxious. I could feel scared. I couldn’t really feel happy. I couldn’t feel peace. I avoided feeling pain. I didn’t like sex. I did not want to be seen naked. I wanted to be in the dark if at all possible. Life was not to be enjoyed because I lacked the capacity to enjoy it. Life was to be endured. Oh, I liked a good cliché as much as the next guy, but, if I was honest, I couldn’t achieve it.
I was dissociative. How many times can a child be beaten, sexually exploited, screamed at, left alone for hours at a time, and abandoned before a child simply finds a way to leave? The brain will find a way. Mine did. I created a vast fantasy world for myself at a very young age. I was not allowed to play with many people as a child so I stayed in my room most of the time for hours at a time. I recall being very happy in my room. I got lost in my world. As I grew older, my world changed from stuffed animals and Barbies to an internal world that I manipulated. If I didn’t like my circumstances, then I simply retreated into new scenarios that I created. I was present physically but miles away inside. I held conversations with people, worked, went to school, and showed up in life, but I wasn’t there. There are weeks of my life that I don’t remember because I wasn’t present. I was gone. If my mother screamed at me, I just disappeared. If pain tried to come forward, I went away. I had so many exit strategies in place in my being that it really didn’t matter to me anymore how I was treated.
It started to matter when I was in therapy. My therapist was very direct with me when he realized that I was dissociative. He very plainly said that I could no longer do that. I had to integrate. I was horrified. He said that I was never going to learn distress tolerance or heal if I continued to dissociate, but, unfortunately, I didn’t know how to stop. I had always been dissociative. I had been sexually abused and beaten as a toddler. My brain was wired for it. I didn’t have DID, but I had a fair number of compartments. So, we set about going through each compartment–each world–and examining it. Each world was built upon a memory. Heal the memory. Close off an exit. Eventually, I was fully integrated and unable to voluntarily dissociate. I was locked in.
I hated it.
I had to fully feel all the pain in the moment and learn to deal with whatever stress, anxiety, or pain my circumstances presented to me. There were days I wanted to peel the skin off my body. I was so angry that I had agreed to this. I felt like my therapist had taken away my only coping strategy. Even writing about it now–remembering it–I feel sad. Dissociation is powerful. It is a powerful coping strategy for dealing with profound pain as well as for dealing with crazymaking behaviors that we’re not able to make sense of. Brother and sex don’t go together. Mother and abuse don’t go together. Father and hatred don’t go together. Trying to reconcile such things will drive us insane. Trying to accept such horrors will only make us feel like we’ve taken crazy pills. It’s not possible! So the brain steps in to protect us, hence, dissociation. Coming out of dissociation, however, is very difficult because we are left to deal with what drove us to split in the first place. We are very fragile in this state.
What is the first step in healing or even beckoning a person to consider integrating who is dissociative? I can only speak for myself, and I write about this because I know that there are people out there who struggle with this very thing.
Last week, I had a kerfuffle with my husband. Like most married people, we argue about the same ol’ thing over and over again. We don’t fight. We just talk. And, then I say something he doesn’t like at which point he shuts down the entire conversation. This is a very unproductive communication style. He stops talking. I cry. Very textbook. I’ve tried to shake things up a bit by not crying and putting on a brave face. It doesn’t work. Well, after having the same “argument” for almost nineteen years, I think he had enough, and he said as much, punctuating his statement by slamming a car door in my face. As much as I don’t like to admit that I might be triggered by my history, I probably was. I don’t function well if I’m yelled at. In fact, if someone shows any aggression toward me in a relationship, I will freeze. Have I worked on this? Lord, yes. For years. Do I know how to handle conflict? Yep. Tell me that I’m the problem and then slam a door in my face? Apparently, I’ll dissociate. I haven’t dissociated in at least five years, but, as I sat in the car hearing the echo of the car door’s slam reverberating through the frigid air, this overwhelming exhaustion swept over me mixed with a kind of engulfing pain. I wanted to give up. I was so tired of being the active one in my marriage. I didn’t want to be the catalyst for change anymore. I wanted to stop. Was I bad for wanting something better? Was I wrong? And, in a millisecond the words, “Feel nothing,” were spoken in my mind. Suddenly, I felt a strange sensation in my chest as if I actually felt a part of my inner being depart. It was like it was happening in slow motion. I could feel it all happen. I felt the splitting. Then, I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. Like my soul was anesthetized. I emerged from the car with this phony smile on my face, and I said a lot of stupid things along the lines of “It’s all my fault,” and “I’m sorry,” etc. You know, The Victim’s Mantra. I haven’t behaved like that for a long time most likely because I haven’t dissociated in a long time.
What’s important here? I saw my therapist, and, yes, she said I had dissociated. She also talked about what it would take to bring me back. I stubbornly sat in her office chair quite certain that I was not coming back. I was equally annoyed that I had done such a thing in the first place. I strongly dislike being “handled”. What would it take to convince me that it’s safe to return? I had no idea. I couldn’t remember what was done for me in the past to get me to agree to stop dissociating in the first place.
Today, I visited the Facebook page of an author who a friend recommended to me. She sent me one of his quotes via text message the other day, and my curiosity got the better of me because I was so struck by his words:
“Spousal abuse is just as common in Evangelical churches as it is anywhere else. One study asked 6000 pastors what they would do if a woman came to them for counsel about domestic violence. Here are the shocking results:
26% would counsel the wife to continue to submit to her husband, no matter what.
25% would tell the wife the abuse was your own fault for failing to submit in the first place.
50% said that women should be willing to “tolerate some level of violence” because it is better than divorce.”–Danny Lee Silk
As I was reading through his page, I read this:
“Even people who once held the” most intimate” place in our lives find themselves unable to access us as they did previously before because the size of the mess that they have to cleanup is beyond their willingness to fix..it maybe (sic) a while before we feel safe enough to allow that level of intimacy once again.”–Danny Lee Silk
I felt my heart swell. That paragraph describes my marriage. More than that though, I felt understood. Part of me went away because I was protecting myself, and isn’t that why we dissociate? I process so much of my life and feelings in my relationship with God as I understand Him. My therapist can tell me whatever she wants, but, at the end of the day, I must connect to God. God, as we understand Him, speaks to us in so many different ways. When I read this Facebook post, I felt warmth in my chest return and tears finally came. I felt divine validation, and it is in being understood and validated that we can practice feeling safe, and that’s when the absent parts of ourselves begin to return. That’s where the invitation lies. Looking back, I think that’s how my former therapist brought me back from the hidden places. Each part that had dissociated was honored. She was given dignity. She was told that what she had done was okay. She was understood. She had not been safe, but she was going to be safe now. There was protection now.
In my connecting to God, I look at how God connected to people in the past. God has many names in the Bible. One of His names is ‘El Roi’. ‘El Roi’ means “The God Who sees me”. God is only called ‘El Roi’ once in the entire Bible. Hagar, Abraham’s mistress, calls God ‘El Roi’ after she’s been thrown out and left to wander the desert alone and pregnant. God appears to her and tells her that she will be okay. Hagar is comforted and calls God ‘El Roi’ because He has seen her as she is. What’s more, He sees exactly what she’s endured. He sees every detail. He knows. And, isn’t that something profound particularly for those of us who were made to keep secrets or pretend, or for those victims who were abused but never believed? Someone besides us knows. We are believed. We are seen. The entire character of God fulfills every one of His names so when El Roi comes to us, we can be sure that the entire being of God is embracing us with “I see you. I believe you. I know what you’ve endured. I KNOW.” Amazing validation.
There are many of us who have been walking the road of healing for a long time, and, when setbacks occur, it often feels like we are alone and left to wander the desert of pain aimlessly. I have learned once again that God is indeed a God that sees us. More than that, we experience healing through our interactions with others. There is nothing mystical about it. Where others had the power to drive us away from ourselves through their abuse, others have the power to bring us back to ourselves through their love, acceptance, and validation. To be understood, loved, affirmed, and accepted is truly the entry point into long-lasting healing regardless of where you are on your healing journey. Healing is always a possibility.
Powerful and Free: Confronting The Glass Ceiling for Women in The Church by Danny Lee Silk