Embodied Heart, Surviving n Thriving

Unreality: The Distortion of Dissociation

When children are abused repeatedly, particularly when they are abused by trusted caregivers, their brains are left with an impossible dilemma. The individuals on whom they rely for protection and care are also the individuals who are hurting them. In order to resolve this discrepancy, they sometimes engage in dissociative behaviors. These behaviors enable them to stay connected to their caregivers while enduring the traumatic experience. Viewed in this light, dissociative behaviors are a life-saver as, through their use, children may achieve some sense of normalcy and can able to function in the outside world. Like any fortified structure, breaks and cracks will develop over time. Eventually, either in part or as a whole, the dissociative walls will come down and people, now adults, may be overwhelmed by the barrage of memories, sensations, emotions and thoughts that in fact assailed them as children but feel like fresh attacks. Having lived through this experience myself, I can attest to the sharp curve into “too much reality” after years of unreality. For today’s #SurvivingnThriving Tuesday, I want to explore what it means to be dissociative and how it can affect our spiritual lives.

Aspects of Dissociation

Dissociative behaviors include depersonalization and derealization. Depersonalization includes feelings of being detached from one’s body. Derealization involves detachment from external stimuli; everything around the person feels unreal. Both of these experiences are thought to be survival mechanisms that are triggered by extreme stressors and trauma. Instead of a provoking a “fight or flight” response, the body may engage in a freeze response if running to safety or fighting for one’s life do not seem like effective choices.

Additional autonomic systems are engaged, including the parasympathetic system. This system slows body responses such as heart rate and respiration. As I understand it, freezing behaviors, or “tonic immobility,” can also include an activation of our sympathetic nervous system but to a lesser extent than our parasympathetic system. This means the person experiencing such a response is basically frozen in fear. Endorphins may also be released, which cause bodily and emotional numbness.

All of these physical responses are adaptive tools our body has; for instance, if you were being killed by a large animal, most likely you’d want to be “out of it” and unaware of what was occurring. These defenses become problematic when we become conditioned, through traumatic experiences, to deploy them in moments that are not truly life-threatening. I have issues with dissociation beyond depersonalization and derealization, but I wanted to start my exploration of this topic by going into more depth with these two core elements.

Depersonalization

Depersonalization occurs when people feel as though they are not in their body, but are instead observing it from a third-person viewpoint. Some individuals will describe feeling as though they were floating above their bodies. I tend to find myself utterly lost in a pattern such as a piece of wallpaper, unaware that I’ve traced it again and again in my mind unless I lost all sense of my body. It can also include experiences of distance from one’s thoughts, as though another person is thinking them. Emotions may be expressed without the person’s internal sense of connection to them. I’ve felt there is nothing odder than having tears streaming down my face with a look of sadness while feeling completely calm and serene internally.

People experiencing depersonalization may feel as though their body is taking action without their conscious control. We all do this to an extent, for instance, your mind may wander while you are walking around your house; you find yourself going in to a room and can’t remember why you went in to it. During an experience of depersonalization, this mental state cuts across decision-making. When I’ve had times of depersonalization, I find myself in the middle of a sequence of action without awareness of a conscious decision to start or continue the sequence. I once had a car break down early in the morning. By the evening, I found myself at a car dealership buying a new one, without any memory of conscious choice on my part. This day included a period of time in which I was driving aimlessly, as though the solution to my stress would appear if I just drove further. Some individuals escalate to episodes of dissociative fugue, where they may be found days later having gotten “lost,” wandering and forgetting most if not all of the personal memory of who they are.

Derealization

Derealization takes many forms but, at its heart, involves a felt sense of one’s surroundings being dreamlike and strange. If you’ve ever spent far too long playing a video game or watching television, and it took you a minute to snap back to reality when you looked around yourself, you’ve had a small example of what derealization feels like. The form of objects and the space between them can become distorted; when this happens to me, I often feel like people’s faces are mere inches away from me even though they are sitting across the room. I’ve also experienced objects like tables seeming to grow or shrink in size; most of the time I would be aware that the object had not actually changed but that it was my perception of it that was altered.

I once dated someone who quickly showed signs of becoming abusive. I somehow ended up in a situation where, while staying at the person’s house, they left for a few hours for an errand and planned to decide during this time whether or not they wanted to end the relationship. I could easily have slipped into my car and escaped the situation, but instead I found myself in nearly a literal fog; everything around me seemed opaque and glossy, as though it would fade into mist if I reached out to touch it. My thoughts fell out of my head as soon as I had them (another example of depersonalization); my short-term memory was impaired. Everything around me seemed muted and at a distance. The person returned and told me they were ending the relationship.

As I drove back home, each mile seemed to make the sun brighter and the lines on the road clearer. My thinking stopped looping and I realized what had happened and how much danger I would be in if I stayed with this person. I received frantic messages a few hours later begging me to get back together, but thankfully the physical distance had diminished my dissociation to the point where there was no doubt in me about the relationship needing to be over. This is how dissociation can work; when a person is in a sufficient state of physical or emotional risk, or when a person is inadvertently triggered intensely enough to provoke an inaccurate assessment of risk, fight or flight can transform into freeze or, as I see it, float, where everything is soupy and sort-of, and time, body and surroundings seem to be malleable props of actual lived experience.

Before I engage in a discussion of dissociation and spirituality, I do want to note a persistent theme I have encountered in both my scholarly work as well as my personal therapy for dissociative issues, which is that of will. I try to reconcile myself to the idea that I am responsible for my actions, even when I am dissociative and feel detached from what I am doing. Where I vehemently disagree with some of the work I’ve seen is that dissociation is a consciously-controlled, enacted behavior. When it has hit me at full-force, I felt completely unable to do anything about it. This isn’t to say I shouldn’t have done anything, just that, in the moment, I don’t know if I could have. That’s the point, it has to work seamlessly and quickly in order to be effective. Sitting around thinking “hum, should I mentally escape into myself now or not” isn’t an operative defense. In fact, times such as painful medical procedures where I’ve consciously attempted to dissociate, I’ve been unable to fully do so because the key element of being trapped with relational danger was not present. I’ve felt shamed on many occasions by people who seem to view dissociative behaviors as interchangeable with acts of pretending or choosing to ignore, which they are not. I am extremely curious to hear from anyone who also struggles with it as to your interpretation of how it works and the extent to which you think you “choose” it or it simply “happens” to you.

Dissociation and Spirituality

In some ways, being capable of dissociative behaviors mimics certain spiritual states of ecstasy and trance. I had a short stint in the Pentecostal world of speaking in tongues and crazed dancing in the spirit. I marveled at the amount of time it took others to work themselves into a spiritual lather, whereas I could immediately slip into an altered state at a whim. I didn’t need the repetitive music, exhortations from the spiritual prophets, or the embrace of the Holy Spirit to go there, so to speak. Oddly, the immediacy of my experience showed me how shallow it was, and the “on-off” quality of my transformation led me to reject this lifestyle within a few months. I wonder at how many of the individuals of various faiths who go into trance states are dissociative.

Where dissociation can clash with spirituality is in the deep inner work it takes to grapple with spiritual challenges and difficult ethical questions. I find it tempting and sometimes succumb to the desire to un-realize and un-personalize myself from the muck of the surrounding world with all its troubles. Dissociation can provide a bubble, within which no negativity can penetrate and no betrayal, shame or ugliness can enter. This is of course an illusion; some part of ourselves is in fact absorbing everything that is happening, but to the part of ourselves with whom we identify, it isn’t our truth or our experience.

Practices of breath-work, grounding and centering have become vital to my spiritual practice, enabling me to face harsh realities and dialectics without trying to circumvent them. In addition, my spiritual walk is immensely tangible, with literal altars and enacted rituals. The balance of head and heart is more focused on heart, not because I lack intellectual depth but because I am all too skilled at using my head to disengage rather than engage.

If you are a trauma survivor, what does dissociation look like for you? If you have struggled with dissociative behaviors, how have they impacted your spiritual journey? What types of experiences have you found it useful to incorporate into your spirituality to assist you in staying grounded and centered?

Embodied Heart, Surviving n Thriving

The Walking Wounded: Struggles in Recovery from CSA

Today’s #EmbodiedHeart post feels particularly vulnerable as I take a hard look at my potential for recovery and functioning as a childhood sexual abuse survivor and as a person with multiple chronic physical and mental health conditions. The insight I’ve gained from this personal reflection has allowed some of the internal distress and discomfort that’s become particularly acute for me the past six months to make more more sense to me. My insight has not yet led to a particularly workable solution, so I am hoping to learn about how my readers have handled similar situations. I will say that ideas like “look on the bright side” or “remember others have it worse,” although not entirely without merit, are typically experienced as invalidating rather than as useful in most situations like mine.

I’ve unfortunately set myself up in a situation where I need to maintain a high level of performance across a variety of domains in order to stay on top of my finances and to preserve my living situation. My job is high stress and demanding. I have sufficient funds coming in but face an uphill battle to get my student loans paid off. I have to stay in my job at least a few more years in order to have the possibility of my loans being forgiven realized. As a homeowner, I am solely responsible for the upkeep and repair of my house. Without my family in my life, maintaining close ties to friends and acquaintances takes on a heightened sense of importance. My health is assisted by the fact that I stay active and eat a decent diet, but both of these behaviors require constant effort and monitoring. In short, I feel overwhelmed by trying to keep up with the demands of my life, while simultaneously becoming increasingly aware of the toll it is taking on my mind and body. I know that the situation in which I am in is largely my own doing, but that sense of “choice” doesn’t mean much when I can’t see a quick way out to a lower stress environment.

Despite the external and internal pressures under which I find myself operating, I’ve kept on keeping on for years. Recently, though, I’ve heard a loud “no more” from inside. Parts of me feel as though they are holding on to dozens of tangled strings, attempting to contain my mental health symptoms and body sensations. They are threatening to let loose of all of them at once, which I can only imagine would mean a severe deterioration in my functioning. I had a few years of significant impairment in my 20’s. At that time, my internal system believed I was in a safe enough environment to let go and then found out it wasn’t. Now, though, the issue is less motivated by hope and more by exhaustion and frustration.

I had a breakdown in therapy last year in which I shared with my therapist that I perceive myself as having full-blown PTSD and other disorders, but the pressure I feel to maintain my functioning is so strong that I can’t even allow myself to experience the acting out of the symptoms. Instead, I think I dissociate further and tuck away any loose articles that might tumble out of the overcoat of “I’m good, I’ve got this” in which I blanket myself. Something always gives, though, when we dissociate, and the hollowness and joyless outlook with which I am currently struggling is one such outcome.

There are steps such as a slightly reduced workload and more vacation time on which I’ve embarked to attempt to rectify the situation. My fear is that I won’t be able to fully placate the parts of myself who are completely fed up by my inattention to my inner needs and who almost seem to desire for me to “lose it” so that everyone else will witness the folly of my attempt to appear to have it together. I keep reminding myself that, as a general rule, decompensating to the point of needing intervention is very likely to be retraumatizing and brutal, not the posh vacation with room service which pieces of my mind seem to believe it to be.

My internal imagery for my experience one of running a race far beyond what my body and mind can take, with my single-minded focus on the finish line obscuring from me the fact that my shoes are torn beyond repair and my skin is crusted with salty dehydration. Now that I see the state in which I am, I know I need to recalibrate my intention and take some rest periods, but I also realize I have to keep moving forward, albeit at a slower pace. There is no reasonable option in which letting myself sink into the sandy landscape surrounding the track will do anything for me other than cause me to wither to a helpless shell of myself in the blazing sun. There is no one coming to save me, just as no one came to save me a child in an abusive home. Now, though, I believe I can look to my fellow travelers for at least encouragement as I plod along.

What have you done in situations where you felt you were in over your head? What resources have you leveraged to reduce your burden? How have you found the energy to keep going?

Embodied Heart

To Name the Loneliness

I wrote the reflection below during a time of feeling particularly in touch with aspects of isolation. I do not always experience myself in this way, which complicates the presentation. At the same time, I think giving voice to this side of who I am is valuable during times when the themes of family and celebration are ever-present, and so I decided to share it as an #EmbodiedHeart post today.

There’s an ache in my bones when I’m lonely. The fibers of my being seem to be stretched thin and taunt, pulling me along without offering full support to my frame. It’s physically painful, mirroring the emotional pain I feel inside. And, always, the snide little voice in my head reminding me that I “chose” this path by separating myself from my abusive family of origin.

Chronic loneliness and social isolation affect many trauma survivors. For those of us who have experienced incest, feelings of isolation can come in waves. The estrangement from family members who refuse to acknowledge the truth. The holidays endured, rather than celebrated, without a place to truly call home. The pervasive sense of being “different.” The awkward social interactions, stumbling to learn the rules of human communication without a guide-map from childhood. Romantic relationships which crash and burn the moment any semblance of betrayal surfaces.

I marvel that those who are able to wade through the deep waters of dark family secrets and make it to shelter and communion. Their hearts and hands seem mended. Tender moments and genuine healing seem to be the foundation on which they rebuild their lives.

I have brief instances where I surface and see the shoreline, but each mad dash towards it only seems to pull me further from land; more isolated, more guarded, more convinced I’m incapable of loving others. I tug myself onto a patch of sand, surrounded by water, and build castles of schemes and projects. I’ve retreated from seeking sails of potential connection on the horizon.

It is not without irony that I consider my greatest fear for my future. It is not dying alone, that I think I can brave as I’ve braved birthdays and graduations and other major life events bereft of acknowledgement and company. Instead, it is losing my independence. I envision myself one of those crotchety old-timers beating off the nursing home attendants with a cane. As much as my isolation can harm and does harm me, I wouldn’t trade it for subservience, compliance or enmeshment for a moment. Some things taste bitterer than the salty tears I shed on the seashores of my isolation.

Embodied Heart

#MeToo As an Incest Survivor

For today’s #EmbodiedHeart post, I want to share a personal reflection on recent events related to bombshell after bombshell of accusations of sexual impropriety. I rarely comment on things in the news but I’ve been hit hard by both the hope of a tidal wave of change in this arena as well as the lingering doubts about whether anything will change for those of us who suffer abuse at the hands of family members rather than famous people.

As I’ve read numerous stories of women standing in their truth and being taken seriously, as well as some of the accused realizing the gig is up and admitting to their behaviors, I find myself simultaneously triggered and grounded. Triggered in bearing witness to accounts of the myriad of men who chose to exploit their power, often at the expense of those who were vulnerable and young. Grounded in a growing chorus of righteously angry people who are no longer willing to demand we apply the stringent expectations of a court of law in proclaiming that the person is “innocent until proven guilty” but instead allows a well-corroborated story to stand on its own and recognizes the courage it takes for women to find their voice.

I am an incest survivor, one who experienced sexual abuse at the hands of biological relatives. Yet, decades on with so much suffering and difficulty in everyday life, I doubt my story constantly. My recollection of what transpired in my childhood was implicit until I reached adulthood. A series of events unfolded, including my estrangement from my family, after which all the horrific details began to make themselves known to me. My family denied everything.

I doubt myself not because I doubt myself, but because I have no confession. If my family members admitted to their actions, I would have a sense of closure. Without that, I feel perpetually in a “as if” state, knowing what I know but unable to move on. I feel accused rather than being the accuser. That’s it, I feel as though my family members, those who destroyed so much in my life, get to stand in judgment of me for being a “bad daughter.” As I’ve shared previously, my mother could look at me after crying for days and tell me she was always happy. How does one define reality with a person like that? Someone who cannot see despite having perfect vision. All this time and distance, and I still can’t fully shake their grip on what is absolute and what is right. A tiny part of me wants to pursue a court case simply for the verdict. If it went in my favor, perhaps I could hold on to that as truth.

The larger controversy about delayed memory also weighs heavily on me. I was once on an interview only to have the individuals conducting it mock people like me because of this issue. My paranoia said one of my references had tipped them off as to my struggles while my spiritual being was washing with waves of gratitude for being granted the foreknowledge that allowed me to dodge the bullet of working with such heartless people. Needless to say, I declined the job offer.

I find it highly ironic that people with limited connection to their abusers are finding acceptance and are being believed, while those of us who have been betrayed in the most intimate of relationships are still by and large questioned on every front. My hope is that this is truly a tsunami, not a tidal wave. That what has started with the famous and the infamous, the wealthy and privileged, can grow to such heights and carry such intensity that all the walls of denial and basements of buried secrets are flooded and thrown asunder. That the resulting disorder and disarray can serve as a catalyst to finally hear and see the truth of the terror that strikes not only the choir boy and the swim team member and the actress, but also child after child in the privacy of their own homes.