Post written by Kailey
**trigger warning, sexual abuse/rape
Have you ever heard of dissociation? Dissociation is one of the most common responses to abuse and trauma. It involves feeling numb, detached, or unreal.
While it happens to everyone once in a while, it happens frequently and severely in trauma survivors. Dissociating looks different for everyone. My experience with dissociation could be completely different from one of my peers.
I wish dissociation wasn’t something I have experience with, but unfortunately, it is something I have dealt with. It tends to happen to me when I’m feeling extremely overwhelmed, but I’ve also had it happen during a traumatic experience.
For most, dissociating makes you feel numb. It’s like you’re not even there and sometimes your mind is literally just silent, which for someone with anxiety who is used to the whirr of intrusive thoughts constantly, it’s a bit unsettling. When I dissociate, there are no thoughts, it’s just a bunch of nothing. It’s like spacing out, but to the extreme and with no thoughts bouncing around.
It’s hard to understand what dissociating is if you’ve never experienced it. When I’ve tried to explain it to my boyfriend, his response is always “HOW CAN YOU HAVE NO THOUGHTS?!” which is a pretty fair point. But, it’s just a coping mechanism where my body just shuts down so I don’t have to experience the intense emotions. I definitely wouldn’t say it’s healthy, but it’s product of repeated trauma over years and years. When you can’t physically escape it, your body eventually learns to just shut down to make you not present.
To give you an idea of how powerful dissociating can be, I’ll share a traumatic experience that I dissociated through. I was hanging out with someone I considered strictly a friend, but he wanted us to be more. He was convinced that we were made for each other and I just did not feel the same.
One particular day, he kept asking and asking if we could have sex. No matter how many times I told him no, he kept making advances and I finally just stopped trying to say no even though I absolutely did not want it. Long story short, he helped himself and my body went into shut down – I dissociated through the whole thing.
While I was in fact there, it was like I was not. It was my mind and body’s way of trying to protect me. I spent the whole time staring at the ceiling with no thoughts. I could hear the episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia playing in the background, but it sounded so far away. Physically, I didn’t feel anything even though I was being raped.
Dissociating is your body’s way of trying to protect you, and that is what my body did that night. I didn’t have to feel it and I felt like I was watching it happen from another world. I didn’t feel like I was actually in my body during the abuse.
While physically, I didn’t feel anything, the trauma still happened and it had lasting effects. The dissociating was powerful enough for me not to feel it, but I still ended up traumatized despite my body’s efforts to protect me. Still to this day I have trouble being intimate and I will find myself dissociating during sex with my partner even though we have been together for years. My body is still trying to protect me after all these years even though I’m in a loving, safe relationship.
While dissociation can be involuntary, there have been times I have forced myself to dissociate because I couldn’t handle what was going on around me. This is not something I would recommend you do because it is so unhealthy and there are so many healthy ways to cope besides making yourself completely numb.
But, I would force myself into it because it was what I knew and it had helped me survive so many things in the past. A lot of people with anxiety can’t make their thoughts silent and make themselves numb, but it was something I had learned to do when things were just too intense.
While dissociating can be becoming numb, sometimes it’s intense flashbacks that feel very real. Coming out of those flashbacks can be intense and startling because you’re basically coming from a different world back to reality. You might feel startled or confused when you’re finally aware of your surroundings again.
There are been so many times when I’ve been alone where I have relieved trauma over and over again in my head. For me personally, it’s typically before bed, and it makes it very difficult for me to fall asleep. Reliving trauma over and over through flashbacks is not something I would wish on anybody. Even just flashbacks are enough to send my body into fight or flight.
Dissociation is a common response to trauma and a component of many mental health issues. Regardless of the cause, it is important to know that you are not alone. If you’re concerned that you are experiencing dissociative symptoms, talk to a healthcare professional or someone knowledgeable you trust.
If you need help now, but you’re not sure where to start, check out our resources page.