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?

Inner Work

Mini-Ritual for Medical Procedures

Many trauma survivors have difficulty with medical procedures. These may be triggering for many reasons—they often include physical discomfort or pain, there is a power difference between the doctor and patient, and they include significant financial stressors and decision-making demands. I’m a proponent of working with a therapist to help to heal from trauma for many reasons, including the fact that mental health symptoms may make following through on medical care difficult or impossible.

I’m currently in the middle of having a root canal redone. As in, I had it done a few years ago, and now have to have the previous work removed and replaced. I was so triggered by the first experience I avoided dentists for a while, and have now found myself being verbally combative in response to those who are supposed to be helping me. Unfortunately, finding a medical professional who is sensitive to the needs of people with PTSD and trauma histories can be very hit or miss and I haven’t had a lot of success. For today’s #InnerWork Wednesday, I wanted to develop a ritual to help me transform my feelings of helplessness in order to focus my intention, my voice and my energy before undergoing additional procedures.*

Instructions

Gather the following items in your sacred space:

A candle (intuitively choose the color)

A piece of polymer clay

An oracle or tarot deck

Step 1: Cast a circle or center yourself using meditation, yoga, whatever you use to ground.

Step 2: Spend some time using your inner eye to create an image of a tree covered in leaves. Use all of your senses to draw out each element of how it would look, feel, smell and sound. Spend some time mentally relaxing under its branches.

Step 3: Ask Deity or your inner Wisdom to show you the specific question you need to ask in order to ground yourself before your medical procedure. For example, perhaps there is an attitude or strength you can cultivate for assistance, or a character trait that will be strengthened by engaging in self-care and following through on your doctor’s advice.

Step 4: After deciding upon the question, draw a Tarot or oracle card and meditate on what it reveals to you.

Step 5: Decide how you wish to use the clay. You can either shape it into the body part related to your medical procedure, or you can shape it into a representation of what the card revealed to you. Or both!

Step 6: Place your clay creation in front of the candle. Light the candle, and, if it fits your practice to do so, ask your Deity or Inner Wisdom to be present with you during the procedure and to guide you in developing the traits you need to undergo it successfully.

Step 7: Imagine the tree again, and imagine yourself underneath of it being filled with strength, voice, intention and energy. Spend as much time as you need to draw in the rootedness the tree offers. Listen for any healing messages, and thank the tree for its blessings.

Step 8: Thank your Deity or Inner Wisdom for guidance, and close the circle.

Consider taking something with you to your appointment that you can touch in order to ground yourself. The polymer clay could be baked and turned into an amulet for protection or talisman for blessing for this purpose. I created a witch jar filled with hearts to represent lovingkindness, and I wear a bracelet with chakra stones that also has an evil eye to ward off any negative energies.

*Please note that I am primarily focused in this post on routine types of medical care here; if you are having major surgery or testing that could be life-altering, I definitely encourage you to seek out additional resources and consult your support system as there could be an element of grief or direct trauma involved in those situations.

If you decide to use any of this ritual in your own practice, be sure to adapt it to your own preferences and needs. It may be worth doing at least parts of it more than once to solidify your mental imagery and connection to Source before your procedure. I welcome any links to other practices you have found helpful!

 

 

 

 

Surviving n Thriving

Goddessing on a Budget: Deep Connections With Self

What comes to mind when you think about connecting with yourself or another person? What does a healthy relationship entail? A viewpoint that resonates with me from psychology is called attachment theory. It suggests that each of us has a “working model” that we unconsciously forged in childhood. As a result of our relationships with our caregivers, we determined whether or not others would be there for us and whether or not we ourselves are trustworthy.

Many of us with trauma histories struggle to engage in healthy attachment patterns. Several people have told me that I really “know myself,” and I feel that my connection with myself is my strong suit. Experiencing deep connection with others feels at times within my grasp and at other times like it across a huge chasm. Perhaps you feel the same way. Or, your style may be the opposite—apart from your relationships, you aren’t sure who you are. In any case, our spiritual journey is centered in these relationships with self and other, and part of our ramble with Goddess is uncovering the tremendous wealth that can be found in safe and affirming relationships. Today I will begin our exploration by examining our relationship with ourselves.

Body Rhythms

“I hate my body!” How many times in our lives have we given ourselves this message? I recently participated online in Priestess Brandi Auset and Tracy Givens’ free Sacred Sexual Wellness class in the Mystery School of the Goddess. The course had a profound impact on me in that it contained the idea of viewing our bellies as sacred, and promoted nurturing them with practices such as massage. I had never once in my life seen my stomach area as anything other than a part of me that was too large and frequently uncomfortable because of my medical conditions. What does it mean to let myself see it as sacred, worthy in its own right?

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Proudly stand in the sunlight and celebrate your worth!

Goddess spirituality flows from our connection to our bodies. Loving and accepting them just as they are is not just a mental health exercise; I see it now as a sacred act. Consider how much money and time you have put into making your body feel “acceptable.” I know I’ve made quite an investment. What would it mean for each of us to put that energy into a positive connection with our physical being?

As a practice in self-acceptance, I encourage you to spend some time thinking about a part of your body, if any, that you dislike. During your daily ritual, as you connect to Goddess, imagine yourself surrounded by light as you sink into a feeling of warmth. See the light and warmth nourish the part of yourself that you dislike. Your body is sacred! You may want to journal or process through artwork how it would be to truly cherish it.

Spirit and Heart

When was the last time you really sat with yourself and checked in with your spirit? Did you listen to your inner wisdom or did you bark out directions about the tasks you should be doing more often and the ways in which you’ve let yourself down? I’ve spent a bit of time exploring Inner Work in my post on Daily Rituals. Learning to read your own emotional states and to express your hidden spiritual knowledge allows for a healthier relationship with self.

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If you would like some guidance in accessing your inner self, a Mystery School I have found to be helpful is In Her Name. The first realm is called “Realm of Self” and allows for inner spiritual exploration. This particular school is self-paced. There are opportunities for partial scholarships for those who need them.

Listening Mindfully

Inner messages may come to us whether or not we want to hear them. I often find that I’ve traveled a path or made a decision unconsciously before my “thinking mind” catches up to the news. Goddess goes before us. Gain comfort in knowing that you have answers inside yourself for many of the dilemmas you will face, and give yourself trust and faith to believe in your inner wisdom.

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I strongly believe that negative voices or uncomfortable truths in us should not be banished, forgotten, or denied. They are there for a reason and deserve to be heard just like the upbeat, happy parts of self. But, stuck in their own cycle and detached from Goddess, they can be overwhelming at times. Attempting to manage our shadows without support may not always serve to aid in our spiritual journey. If you are finding yourself dealing with these messages, I encourage you to take the time to find a therapist who is not only educated in working with trauma but is also open to helping you incorporate your personal spirituality into your healing process.

Sacred Space for Self

By listening to body, spirit, heart and mind, I think we open the door to sacred synchronicity. Areas of confusion and doubt can be washed away, replaced by confidence and trust, if we treat ourselves as worthy. You deserve love, attention, care and relationship! Hear through the negative messages you’ve internalized to your underlying fear, anger, and sadness. Transform those wounded parts of yourself both through professional assistance if needed as well as your spiritual walk with Goddess.