Dissociation- On finding the way home

By Jon Keyes


I was talking with someone recently who talked about hearing voices for much of her life.  She talked about how the voices had started when she was young and had been through extreme suffering at the hands of her father.   While he abused her, her mother neglected her and she was left feeling deeply in pain and also utterly alone.  Thats when a kind woman’s voice came through, a soothing sound to tell her she was safe and loved in the midst of the torment.  At these moments she would disappear in her mind to the safety and kindness of this woman’s voice.  The outside world would be blotted out and she would retreat into her own world.  She told me she thinks she made up the voice at first, to find someone who would be there for her at her worst times.

At another time, I sat with a woman who had been so deeply abused as a child that she could not escape the psychological and emotional effects and would frequently “go away” as she described it.  It began as momentary “vanishings” where she would disassociate and time would pass without her noticing.  The shock of the memories was simply too much and she would subconsciously exit, leaving her body behind as her spirit wandered away.  At the point that I met her, the “vanishings” had overtaken her.  She could not go out into the world of banks and buses and grocery stores without frequently “going away.”  I saw her sitting at a table and when I walked over to her I noticed she was rocking back and forth slightly with her eyes closed and fluttering.  She indeed wasn’t there- and I spent a few minutes sitting with her until she returned.  I gently called her name and said I was nearby if she needed anything.  It can be hard to know what to do at these moments.  For many, touch is an utter taboo as it can cause the person to be retraumatized with horrible memories.  But in that moment, it felt somehow okay to connect to her in that way and I reached out and she took my hand and held it firmly.  That moment of connection helped soothe her and soon she was able to return.

She said that when she was out in the world and she disappeared in this way, eyes closed, rocking back and forth in a stuck frozen stance, inevitably someone would call 911.  People were scared, afraid of how to interact, afraid that maybe she was going through a seizure and needed medical care.   Because she went through this process again and again, sometimes everyday, she was unable to work, unable to easily mediate the outside world.  It led this deeply intelligent and kind woman to often isolating, and staying shuttered in a private lonely world.

In both her case and that of the voice hearer, the heart and mind had found ways to protect the person from unimaginable sorrow, from the horror of having one’s closest family breach sexual and emotional boundaries, destroying faith and trust in a few evil acts.  Disassociation becomes an act of reestablishing safety, of protection, of deep care for the individual who is suffering.  Some pain cannot be withstood and we leave, we go away.

I also work with people who are coming off of psychiatric drugs and the report of dissociation, derealization and depersonalization are common threads.  In the case of benzodiazapenes such as xanax or klonopin, the drugs alter neurochemistry to create pleasurable and sedated feelings.  When the drugs are stopped  the body is no longer easily able to adjust to create its own neurochemical pathways that elicit calmness and pleasure.  The body revolts and becomes highly charged and sensitive, easily overwhelmed by the pressures and confusions of a modern world.  In essence one of the only ways to manage this intensity is to “go away”, to literally retreat to one’s home and to one’s bed to escape the intensity, and sometimes to escape through dissociation, disappearing in spirit if not in body.  Again, the body speaks its truth, helping us to manage and traverse frightening emotional experience.

But the path of leaving, of going away, is also scary in its own right.  There is a loss of control, a loss of agency, an inability to stay grounded and present.  Often the therapeutic tools for managing those extreme states involve working on “coming back”, focusing on the somatic expressions of slowly breathing, touching and seeing what is around the person, using the five senses and reconnecting to the surroundings.  Other techniques include creating an internal matrix of safety, a sense of inner calmness to manage intense triggers and memories.  Essentially, the path of working with dissociative states is to find the way home-  through reconnecting with the body, the place that has been deeply violated.

Finding peace with the body can be a long journey.  Those that are working on finding a way home often explore changing their diet and working with modalities such as yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, herbs, EMDR and EFT.  These are ways of building strength and resiliency, of rebuilding the foundation from the ground up, of integrating and processing the deepest levels of sorrow but also transcending these places of fear and shame to come out again, to breathe and shine, to remember their underlying wholeness and holiness that underlies all nature, that can never be breached, that can never be taken away.    Sometimes we must go away to protect ourselves.  But when the time is right,  the path home is available to us all.

jonJon Keyes is a licensed professional counselor working in private practice at Hearthside Healing in Portland Oregon. Jon also has worked part-time in an inpatient psychiatric setting.  Jon is interested in exploring alternative and holistic ways of helping people in emotional distress and crisis.

More by Jon Keyes on Beyond Meds here


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