For most of the time I was in hospital, and for many weeks before hand, I experienced a curious sensation that the medical staff referred to as ‘dissociation’. I found dissociation to be a remarkably strange experience and very difficult to explain or describe to people. I could tell you that from a clinical perspective dissociation is an altered state of consciousness where the individual experiences a detachment from reality. But that doesn’t really say much does it? Perhaps I could tell you that my dissociative experience involved distorted vision, and an overwhelming feeling that nothing was real. But that doesn’t describe it well either.
I guess the best way to describe my dissociative experience would be to first imagine you are really really drunk. It’s hard to walk because everything keeps tipping and turning around you. You’re wading through thick mud. Everything is too loud and too bright. The colours hurt your head. You can’t read, because all the letters seem to dance around the page. Somehow you are behind yourself, watching yourself, like some kind of strange mixed up movie. It feels like a dream. You pick up an object or touch a surface…anything to remind yourself that you are real. Are you real?
At first the dissociation frightened me. I would sit, gripping onto the chair. Willing my vision to steady, telling myself over and over ‘You are REAL Rachael.” But soon enough the abnormal became the normal, and dissociation became merely a part of my everyday experience. I learned how to hold conversations, complete tasks and even care for my baby all the while dipping in and out of reality.
“Why?” I asked my doctor. As with any psychological state, dissociation can occur for a number of reasons. With me it seemed to be almost a defence mechanism. I was so unwell, so stressed and so unhappy that my mind was literally attempting to shut down for preservation. I began to notice that dissociation often occurred when I was upset, stressed, or tired. Unfortunately for me, given I was at that point a stressed, depressed insomniac, dissociation was a regular occurrence 😉
Of course they taught me strategies to deal with the dissociation, and they did work. But try as I might, I just didn’t seem to be able to prevent the episodes in the first place.
Nevertheless everything has it’s time in the spotlight, and it’s time in the shadows. One day, a few weeks after I was discharged from hospital, I sat down in a noisy crowded cafe and suddenly realised that I hadn’t dissociated in almost a week. I was astonished. The dissociation had disappeared and I hadn’t even realised it was gone!
Now I occasionally get a little tingle of dissociation. Sometimes I’m standing behind myself. Others I’m watching my life like a film. Like a twinge in an old wound, it warns me to slow down and reassess my situation. Am I stressing too much? Am I too overtired?
A demon now tamed, my dissociation watches over me. A lesson now learned, I listen to my mind.