So, let’s talk about dissociation. About how it takes over your life, without you completely realizing what’s going on. About how other people conclude all sorts of bad things about you. About how your life spirals out of control until you hit bottom.
And about what happens when you do hit bottom.
I am not a world-class authority on dissociation. So, let’s not pretend. I’ve read some about it. I’ve had some experience with it. I’ve talked to some therapists about it. That’s where my knowledge comes from, and that’s it. So this ain’t no definitive statement. But sometimes (always?) people can FEEL a connection to the personal and idiosyncratic more than the “definitive”. Just think of how many BORING lectures you’ve heard that start with long monologues and dictionary quotations about the definition of whatever the speaker is trying to educate you about…
So, here’s what dissociation feels like to me.
— brain fog —
It’s kinda like getting high, only way less fun. If you get high by smoking a joint or a bit tipsy by having a few glasses of wine, then you know what that feels like. Or, if you get high by injecting heroine, or black-out drunk by drinking the better part of a 40-ouncer, then maybe you know what that feels. All of these have similarities to “brain fog” as I am using the term.
I’m sure there are many ‘degrees’ or ‘types’ of brain fog. I don’t really know. Go ask a dissociation expert if you want the definitive answer. To me, there are basically three “levels”, so I’ll tell you about them, and see if that helps clarify things at all.
“Mild” brain fog:
At the ‘mild’ end, everything is kind of fuzzy. Details aren’t so important. Reacting to everything isn’t so important anymore. It’s like, chillzzzz maaaan. Is it Monday? Tuesday? Does it really matter? Are you on time? 5 minutes late? Does it really matter? Did you use your words perfectly? Does it really matter? Is that the same shirt you wore yesterday? Does it really matter?
So you forget things. Lose track of details. You can’t concentrate. You work much less efficiently, because your thoughts keep wandering, you keep having to redo things because you made mistakes the first time. Your thoughts race. Then slow down like molasses. Then race again. You try to communicate to people, but you can’t even complete a sentence before you’ve made 7 different connections and feel the need to explain all of them, at once, while each connection quickly makes 7 more and the FULL MEANING of what you’re trying to say proliferates so fast, you can’t capture it all. So, you have a hard time “making sense” to other people. OR the opposite happens, and you make no connections, have nothing to say, can’t conjure up a single reasonable-sounding response. OR they both happen at the same time — you get flooded with connections, with things to say, but it’s impossible to select what’s important from what isn’t, leading you to say nothing. Or something irrelevant. Or start to say something, then stop halfway through. Try again. Then just….give up.
Or maybe you don’t give up sometimes. You try. You try as hard as you can. But the other person doesn’t understand, or take the time to try. Or simply doesn’t like you and thinks some version of bad thing about you. And your EMOTIONS surge like a tidal wave, tears come to your eyes, you stammer, sweat, interrupt them, or forget what they’re saying, or TRY REALLY HARD TO BE CLEAR and they interpret it as “anger” or “aggressiveness” or whatever-the-fuck, and you know that’s not what you’re doing — you’re just trying your damnedest, but it all adds up to failure, and you know, you can see it in their eyes that “rejection” is not even inevitable — it’s worse than that, it’s already happened and you’re trying to communicate to someone who has already decided you are not worth listening to.
These experiences pile up. They create anxiety. Depression. Embarrassment. Guilt. Despair. For me most of all, shame. You feel like a fucking failure. Not “someone who failed”, but A FAILURE, like it is actually who you are. Failure is your Essence.
Maybe you reach out for help. But in my experience, the vast majority of people to whom you reach out, will turn away. Or they’ll be interested enough to listen, sympathize, offer some advice, and then, if your shit isn’t together by tomorrow, or next week, or whatever, or god forbid if you make some positive changes but then backslide and have to ask for help again — then fuck you. You’re not worth their time. Maybe I’m just really good at reaching out to the wrong people, or really bad at reaching out to the right ones, I don’t know.
But after some experiences of this, “reaching out” becomes practically intolerable. It’s like someone telling you, “Here, drink this poison!”, and you decide maybe you’d rather not this time?
But isolating yourself doesn’t help much either. It does, in the short term. You can even convince yourself that you’re “taking time to sort yourself out”. Go watch some motivational videos, clean your room, and then challenge yourself to, metaphorically speaking, pick up the heaviest thing you can and carry it. That way you’ll get stronger, right? But….days turn to weeks pretty quickly. And isolation becomes really damn “foggy” pretty quickly. And soon, you’re not carrying anything. The heaviest load you can carry is remembering to brush your teeth because you forgot to yesterday. And man, that doesn’t get you far in life. Or help you feel empowered.
Some people say, “hey, if all you can do is get up and take a shower, then do that! Good for you! You did it!” And it feels like the most patronizing bullshit you can imagine. I’m supposed to congratulate myself for having a shower? Seriously? …..It’s pretty easy to turn that kind of encouragement into even further shame, and convince yourself that, holy fuck, you really ARE a failure. Right down to your core.
(Now, I have to say, sometimes people DO benefit from advice like that. I personally know people who say that learning to celebrate every accomplishment, even the most mundane, literally saved their life and got them out of depression. So…that’s awesome. But for me, that didn’t work. At all. And in fact, was counterproductive. So, different strokes for different folks, right?)
“Moderate” brain fog:
At the ‘moderate’ level, all of this intensifies, until you’re not, in a sense, even asking yourself “Does it really matter?” anymore. Things Just. Don’t. Matter. Something comes up like, “Hey, my car is getting is getting towed!” or “I missed my doctor’s appointment!”, or “I have a job interview!”, and you think about it for a second and then, poof, it’s gone. It’s like you decided, without even “intending” to make that decision, that “it doesn’t really matter.”
I remember the last Tragically Hip concert not too many years ago, that heart-warming, heart-wrenching moment that something like one in every three Canadians shared. I knew, vaguely, that it was happening. I knew, vaguely, that it might be worthwhile to watch, to share in the collective experience. But, actually watching it? No way. Not at that particular time. I truly, truly, truly didn’t care.
I felt guilty for not caring. I mean, man, that’s fucking heartless. …..so, I turned that into feeling even worse about myself. “I’m the kind of person who didn’t even care about Canada’s collective send-off to a cultural legend who is dying, giving his last concert.” Wow….what a terrible person I must be.
But at other times, you do care. You have spikes of caring REALLY intensely. Feeling REALLY guilty. It eats you alive. You desire REALLY badly to make it up to someone, set things right, Do The Thing, get your shit together. You care so much that the distance between “YOU” and “who you should be” looks so far that it’s like standing on one side of the Grand Canyon feeling that, in order to be a good, tolerable, acceptable, lovable, worthwhile person, you have to jump that motherfucker. Or else, you suck.
You can’t tolerate feelings like that for very long. And then, the well-meaning advice from all the self-helpers out there, the motivational speeches, the role models, the self-affirmers, the positive thinkers, the Law of Attraction-ers, etc., becomes even worse than intolerable. It becomes simply incomprehensible. The only thing you KNOW, is that those people don’t have a clue how far you have actually sunk. They don’t get it. They’re living in a dream world, in which THEIR actions matter, THEIR actions make a difference, but they cannot understand that YOUR actions don’t matter, YOUR actions simply cannot make a difference. So all that well-meaning advice becomes, not encouraging, but utterly shaming. You fucking loser, all you have to do is take a single step forward, and you’re on that thousand-mile journey to wellness, right? You fucking loser, you just have to believe, and you will achieve. Say nice things to yourself in the mirror every morning. Try, try, and try again. Think positively. COMMIT to success. And….what? You’re not? You’re stuck? Well, you fucking loser.
So, dissociation gets worse, because living in that kind of dissonance, for long, is just impossible.
**INSERT ADDICTION HERE** — If you aren’t already an addict as a result of trying to cope when things were less bad than they are now, then oooooh boy, here it comes. From drugs to porn to food to sex to entertainment to ideological extremism to all the other messed up ‘coping strategies’ that are so readily available — they’ll REALLY be calling you by this point. You’ll be a sailor listening to the sirens’ song and saying, “Fuck it, I’m jumping overboard, bring on the ecstasy!” Because maaaaaan, relieving intolerable dissonance, slipping into a more numb state, pressing the dopamine trigger and getting some instant gratification, will be awfully difficult to resist.
If you do jump overboard and flirt with, then succumb to addictions, you might actually ‘help’ yourself, in the sense that you stop the slide into even further dissociation, for a while. (Or you might not and it’ll just make it all worse that much more quickly). You might find everyday life easier to engage in. (Or you might just find it easier to avoid.) You might hold the beast of dissociation at bay, a little more often than before. (Or it might strangle you.)
The best case scenario is a short-term ‘gain’. But the iron-clad guarantee of addiction, is long-term pain.
‘Extreme’ brain fog:
At the ‘extreme’ end, this intensifies to a point that people will no longer understand you. Because you no longer understand you. Things “don’t matter” to such an extreme degree that they don’t even pop into your head in the first place.
Let me draw an analogy. On the one hand, you know how it FEELS when you’re, say, angry at somebody, and you’re deciding how much to say, how loudly to yell, whether you should slam the door or not….stuff like that? Or say, you have an essay to write, a deadline to meet, but fuckkkk, you really don’t wanna do it? So there’s some conflict in you. You’re trying to do the right thing, you want to do the right thing, but then…..you also really want to do the wrong thing. So, you have to MAKE a decision. You know how that feels, right?
Now let’s contrast that to when you’re driving down the road, and there’s a pedestrian on the sidewalk. Do you ask yourself, “Should I hit that person with my car and kill them? Hmmm….let me think about it for a second…” I’m guessing (and seriously hoping) that your answer is no. You don’t ask yourself that question. Because it’s fucking crazy to be thinking about running people down and killing them. It doesn’t even pop into your head! You don’t have to exert any EFFORT to keep yourself from running them down. You just drive on by. The thought doesn’t even cross your mind.
This is what severe dissociation feels like. Except, instead of it being about hitting people with your car, it’s more mundane non-decisions. Like paying a bill. Answering the phone. Eating. Remembering that it’s Monday. Putting on socks. Going to sleep. It just doesn’t seem to cross your mind to do these things, to pay attention to these details. When you’re in the severe dissociative “fog”, lots, and lots, and lots, and lots of things that are normal and mundane, just don’t cross your mind. At all. You don’t “make a decision” not to do them; they don’t exist.
This isn’t a permanent state. At least not in my experience. But it starts to happen more and more frequently. It’s like being “triggered”, or if that sounds too Snowflakey for you, then let’s call it being “pissed off”. You know how seemingly little things, like someone saying a word you don’t like, or getting red lights, or the way someone else chews, can “piss you off” sometimes? Well, extreme brain fog gets “triggered” by more and more things. It’s like how someone with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder just HAS TO check that doorknob 6 times or….or…..or I don’t know! AAAAAAHHHH!!!! It’s like that. The smallest, most insignificant things, become of galaxy-sized significance. Life-or-death-sized significance.
More and more of the time, you slip into “brain fog”, and you often don’t even know why. It just happens. Time just disappears. Morning turns to afternoon turns to night. Sitting down to ‘take a break’ turns into three o’clock in the morning and you have to pee so bad you finally run to the bathroom like those toddlers who leave it until they’re practically peeing their pants. And you don’t know what you’ve been doing, except that you’ve been doing basically nothing. What have you been thinking about? How did the time pass? You don’t know. And really, really, really, you don’t know.
Try explaining THAT to somebody, when they’re asking you why you forgot their birthday, or didn’t respond to their text.
“Um, you see, I DID remember your birthday! I was thinking about it just the other day and then, I sat down on the couch to make a list of possible presents to get you, and then…..uh….it was two days later and I hadn’t eaten anything except some stale Rice Krispies and I was laying in the bath-tub, trying to keep myself from spontaneously combusting.”
Or “Um, you see, I DID mean to respond to your text! I sat down with my phone, realized I needed to plug it in and…..now it’s two days later and….uh….yeah, I wasn’t really doing anything in particular. No, I wasn’t “busy”. No I didn’t “forget”. I just stopped existing for a day and a half. Yeah, it was weird.”
Trust me. They’re almost certainly not going to understand, or believe you.
Spiraling out of control
To me, “brain fog” is the central feature of what I think of as “dissociation.” And when it starts happening, it tends to build, get stronger, ‘spiral out of control’ as the saying goes.
Why might that be? Well, basically because the more time you spend in “brain fog”, the less you spend attending to all the normal shit you’ve gotta do to be a functional person in the world. And when you spend less time doing that stuff, the list of “shit I’ve gotta do”, gets bigger and bigger. Which means, that all the consequences of NOT doing that shit, get bigger and bigger too.
For example, more people are bewildered, disappointed, angry, and resentful towards you. Or just plain decide you’re an asshole and they don’t like you. Now, assuming you aren’t a scum-of-the-earth-terrible-person, you will FEEL really fucking bad about this. For a while, you’ll try to explain yourself to people. But eventually, you’ll realize it’s all bullshit and you’re just making excuses for things that, in truth, didn’t happen for some other “mysterious” reason that you ALSO don’t understand. Because the actual reason is that you were dissociating. But the person you’ve been making all these excuses too will also get tired of them, and start to believe that you’re full of shit. Or lazy. Or irresponsible. Or some kind of asshole who just doesn’t care about people.
This will make you feel worse. And in all likelihood, you’ll dissociate even more. **insert positive feedback loop here** Result? Life spirals out of control. You feel terrible about yourself. Everything bad piles up into a tidal wave. Everything good disappears and becomes unreachable (or at least feels that way). You find yourself OBSESSED with all the shit you haven’t done. You’ll spend HOURS, maybe weeks, maybe months, writing apology letters, trying to get back on track, trying to ‘make amends’. And it might work for a few days, few weeks, whatever. But, you keep slipping into dissociation, and “one step forward, three steps back” can only go on for so long before you simply stop taking steps forward.
People who have never, really, hit bottom, won’t understand this. What they understand is “one step forward, three steps back, so learn from your mistakes, work really hard, take responsibility for yourself, set goals and create a vision board and get your shit together and STOP TAKING STEPS BACKWARD and BOOM! — the upward spiral to success will happen!”.
But, people who have really, really hit bottom know that the upward spiral thing doesn’t always work. That without the necessary support from people, without the necessary assistance, without the necessary compassion and acceptance and inclusion and forgiveness, and time — you will just shut down. And once you’ve shut down? What can you do about it? Well, “nothing” is not entirely 100% true. But it’s asymptotically 100% true. It’s damn close. So for all intents and purposes, you can’t do anything about it. Your “first step forward”, your only possible step forward at some point, will be to call 911, or walk yourself to Emergency and mumble something incomprehensible to the person at the desk, and…”Get help.”
Until “you” take that step, or are forced there by someone else, dissociation can hit the “extreme” end. And soon, you’ll be lost in the maze, unable to find your way out.
And even once you do take that step, and enter “the system” and get help, and all that, you very likely won’t just “bounce back.” It might take weeks. It might take years. This is also something that most people who haven’t been there, won’t understand. You will feel like everyone thinks you are a liar. Sometimes, you’ll think that too, and have to claw your way out of that morass of self-hatred, again.
You have to accept that about people. You can’t expect people to understand something they simply have never seen, never felt, never experienced. The “good ones” will try, will educate themselves, and will be there for you. But man oh man oh man oh man oh man — those people are not normal. They are rare gems. Those people are blessings from the universe. Thank your lucky stars for those people. And everyone else? Well….there really is not much you can do about that, except “let it go” and focus on taking the next step, learn to backslide less, and learn how to get back up more quickly.
I lost about forty years to various degrees of dissociation. And I’d say a solid three years to the extreme degree. Even at the worst, it’s not non-stop. It’s not like I was just laying under a sheet like a corpse for years being fed intravenously. Maybe that happens to some people, I don’t know. But that wasn’t my experience. I would lay under a sheet like a corpse for a couple days at a time, maybe getting up to pee, walking through my apartment crouched over so nobody could see me through the window, “sneak” into the bathroom like if I didn’t there’d be a fucking ninja attack or something, and then, lay under a sheet again, body vibrating, sweating, everything on super-intense-crazy-about-to-explode-high-alert, like if I moved again, the universe would blow up, or I would spontaneously combust or something.
Day and night become indistinguishable. I mean sure, you can look out the window and figure out whether it’s light or dark. But you generally don’t. You might be aware of it lightening outside and think, “hey, it’s a new day”. Then you look out the window again and it’s dark, and you’re like “hey, it’s night now.” But what happened in the middle? Nothing. Literally nothing happened, except you stayed paralyzed in order to keep yourself from flying apart in all directions at the same time. You feel like Nebula (Marvel reference…) getting pulled apart-but-not-quite-completely. Hanging together by a thread. But don’t move! Don’t do anything! Don’t answer the phone, check email, answer the door, look out the window, go on social media, read, write, see anyone — nothing! Or, your threads will snap, you will….be dead? Obviously, you won’t ACTUALLY be dead if you do those things. But, that’s what your body is telling you, and your body and “logic” are not exactly best buddies. However, your body is WAY more convincing than logic, so….you stay paralyzed and “keep yourself together”, right on the knife-edge of splitting apart in all directions.
The final thing to understand about dissociation is how to heal from it. I am not qualified to talk about that with any authority, even from personal experience. I have some thoughts, some insights, SOME experience. But one thing I learned very deeply from, ironically, teaching Positive Psychology for about 15 years or so, is that “deep” work is really subtle. It’s hard to put into words. It’s slippery, and idiosyncratic. Much of it, probably most of it, is sub-cognitive, sub-representational, and not “short-term therapy.” And so, until a person has done the hours, the hundreds, probably thousands of hours fully immersing themselves in the healing process, experiencing the journey, witnessing it, and knowing it inside out and upside down, forwards and backwards, then I think they really shouldn’t talk too much about it. It’s too easy for them to do harm, when they are intending to help.
I’ve had enough experience with people who SINCERELY want to help others, and have their spiritual training, or their 12-step course, or their Landmark certification, or their living room full of self-help wisdom, or their one year of training as a counsellor, or whatever, try to help someone do truly deep work. And I would say, more often than not, it is harmful. Or useless. Which then becomes harmful, because the last thing a person needs when they are at the bottom, is another experience of failure.
So, maybe someday I’ll write a post on “Healing from Dissociation”, and finish this arc off. But not today.
Today, I want to leave you with one thought — if you learn more about ‘dissociation’, how to recognize it in someone, then when you SEE it, start with compassion. Acceptance. Love. And sticking around for them. When people slip away from themselves, what they need is others to help ‘ground’ them, bring them back to reality, help them feel safe, or at least Seen. If you remember nothing else from all these words, please remember that.
Thanks for reading this. I hope it helps you in some way.