Dissociation Came Back


What is Dissociation?

Before I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder I would experience dissociation on a regular basis. Not familiar with dissociation? To me it feels like I’m in a bubble or behind a shroud and watching the world going on around me. I’m not a part of it at all, just trapped there as an observer. It’s an uneasy and sometimes terrifying feeling.

The best description I’ve found is from Dr. Suzanne LaCombe’s website “MyShrink.” She describes dissociation as a “protective mechanism called up by the nervous system when it reaches its maximum capacity to process stimulation (both internally and externally.)”

Most everyone experiences dissociation in one form or another. Have you ever gone to a party and felt like you could only watch and not participate? Feeling lonely among a group of people? Have you ever driven yourself somewhere and realized you didn’t pay attention along the way, almost like you reached there on autopilot? These are basic concepts that most of us have experienced at one point or another. Extreme examples would be amnesia or dissociative identity disorder (formerly known as multiple personality disorder.)

My Experience

8 – 10 years ago I began to fall apart in many ways. My bipolar disorder was rapid cycling, I started having seizures, experienced vertigo on a regular basis, dissociation became “normal” and I became agoraphobic. Considering all that I was going through, the agoraphobia was no surprise. It’s common among people who have seizures. Though, for me, it was primarily the dissociation that was preventing me from getting out and enjoying life.

It was rare for me to be able to get out. If I heard just one person in the courtyard of our apartment building I couldn’t even go out to get the mail. There were occasional moments when Maurice would convince me to go with him to the store which almost always were disastrous. The lights, the talking, the registers, the people, the music, the packages…were all more than I could handle. It was overwhelming. My head would start spinning, I’d begin hyperventilating and always wound up streaming out of the store. It was terrifying. It was all part of dissociation. I was there, but wasn’t there, and it all came barreling at me mercilessly.

At its worse, not only would dissociation make me feel I’m not a part of the world, but would make it feel like the world wasn’t there. I would stand motionless except for the horrible trembling in fear. I would become dizzy, the room would start spinning but I was terrified to try and grab anything out of fear – fear that none of it was there. I knew if I tried to touch anything it would just melt away in my hands. It was surreal like living in a Salvador Dali painting. When alone I would eventually make myself fall forward in the hopes it would stop my fall. When Maurice was there I didn’t have to fall forward and hope for the best. He would yell to me to “Feel the floor, feel the floor,” which would bring me back to reality. I would understand that if none of it was real that I would fall through the floor. It was a fast awakening that all was still right with the world. The dissociation was still there and would take a little time to dissipate, but, at least, I knew the world was real.

It’s Back

I bring this up because it happened the other day for the first time in many years while Maurice and I were shopping at IKEA. For those of you unfamiliar with IKEA it is a furniture store…a mega furniture store…a mega furniture and accessory store. Actually, it’s a mega furniture, accessory and everything else you can imagine store. The store is huge and laid out so that once you enter at one end, you follow a path of arrows which take you through every section of the store. It is almost always very busy. We were specifically there to look at furniture, but followed the winding path and browsed at everything along the way. I began to feel uneasy and Maurice noticed what was happening right away. As Dr. LaCombe says on her blog, “It’s most evident in the eyes. When you’re experiencing dissociation others might notice you staring out into space.” Maurice made me step out of the central aisle and talked me out of it. It was a relatively mild episode, but is still scary since it hasn’t happened in such a long time.

Why I dissociate, I’m unsure, I can only assume that it is part of my having bipolar disorder. I will be seeing my therapist in a week and I look forward to discussing it with him. If you are experiencing dissociation there are many forms of treatment. If you have a therapist, I suggest speaking with them and determine the best options for you. Like bipolar disorder, different methods work for different people, so you should seek help as soon as possible. Until then, try and remind yourself to “feel the floor.”

17 comments on Dissociation Came Back

  1. I find what happens in our brains absolutely amazing while at the same time being horrible and frightening. I’m sorry you find yourself going through this again. I’ve experienced it but in a milder form a few years ago.

    And, for a long time, I found myself driving and all of a sudden didn’t recognize where I was though I’d driven that road hundreds of times, but I don’t think that’s dissociation – don’t know what it is.

    One thing I’ve noticed is that when I’m in these big spacious stores or malls with lots of fluorescent lights, I have this dizzyish feeling and a sense of loss of my relation to the space around me. I’ve met a few people who have had similar experiences. A neuro-otologist told me it has to do with our eyes picking up the pulsing of the fluorescents (faster than we can perceive) and relaying that to the inner ear, but it is flawed in some of us — throws us off. So we lose our perception of how we relate to the space around us — it’s a bit dizzy but different also. It frightened me in the beginning.
    I had my husband change out all the fluorescents, including the corkscrew ones, in our house. Who knows what else those fluorescents trigger in people. Nothing would surprise me.

    I hope your new experience is fleeting and finally over.

    1. As scary as it was, I’m pretty sure it was an isolated incident. At least I hope so. I hope changing the bulbs works for you. Interesting info from your doctor. I’m going to look more into that. Thank you.

  2. “Be a tree” is what my therapist used to say. You know, roots in the ground and all. It does work.

    1. I’ve never heard that, Rose. I Iove it and it’s easy enough for even me to remember.

  3. I don’t know if it is part of the Bipolar disorder or the PTSD, but, periodically, I do the same thing. I just “go” somewhere else. It usually happens when I am out; very rarely does it happen when I am home. I also have ADD, so I wonder if that might not be a part of it. My brain becoming so overstimulated that it just checks out. In my case, I think it has a lot to do with PTSD. My anxiety level will go through the roof for no apparent reason, and then I check out, and that bubble you mentioned checks in. In order to get it to go away, I have to work really hard mentally to get myself to believe the threat does not exist anymore, that it is over and gone.

    Having never really mentioned this to my therapist, because until I read your post, I didn’t recognize it for what the experience is, I have no “fail-safe.” I also live alone so when it happens and I am home, I have no one to tell me to “feel the floor”. I have learned over the years that it will eventually dissipate, and I will be okay again. I think, for me, it is an extreme form of fight or flight because I have experienced it most of my life when in high anxiety situations, and it got noticeably worse after the age of 16 at which point I was in a situation where I had no control and I was being hurt. That’s the first time I can really recall the feeling that I was not there. Come to think of it, I can still recall that first time I just up and left. Perhaps I should talk to my therapist about it.

    Thank you for another insightful post. 🙂

    1. Talking with your therapist is probably a good idea, And, I agree it probably is part of a fight or flight response.

      1. I think that it is very common to have a co-morbid anxiety disorder along with Bipolar, and dissociation is an extreme fight or flight mechanism in response to that anxiety. I mention it because you mentioned Agoraphobia (which I suffer from in a mild form), but when I am feeling like the world outside is just too scary to contemplate and I have to go out, I am pretty well “gone” until I can get home.

  4. Hi Bradley. 🙂
    I did a video post a couple of years ago, actually just after I had attempted suicide.
    I talked about being in a room full of people but looking straight through them as if I wasn’t there. Even to this day it can happen. I put it down to Bipolar
    My fingers and toes are crossed that this does not come back and isolate you. Much love to you and what a great partner Maurice is. Hugs Paula xxx

  5. i went thru the same thing just as severely. while im a lot better now, i still have issues with grocery shopping and going to new (large) places.

  6. Dissociation is usually a way for the brain to deal with something that it feels is “overwhelming”. It’s always been described to me, by my therapist, as a defense mechanism. It can happen with a lot of mental illnesses including BPD, PTSD, OCD, Panic Disorder, Bipolar Disorder and of course the Dissociative Disorders.

    I have two different types of dissociation. The first is what you described with the blank stare, which is the dissociation caused by PTSD. That’s what I like to refer to as “the noticeable dissociation” because I don’t move, I just sit there staring off into space. My sister usually tells me when this happens.

    The other is where I “leave” and an alter takes over, which is the dissociation caused by DID. Hardly no one can tell when this happens. Switching is extremely subtle.

  7. What I have come to think of as my form of dissociation is threefold. First, if I make a promise not to do something and in my mind what I promise doesn’t make any sense to me, I proceed as though I haven’t promised and totally forget. But since that sounds like an excuse, I never verbalize that, many.times to my regret when I remember.
    Second, sometimes when asked a question I go off deep into my head to struggle for the answer and never return to the conversation or make an answer. Later I regret the missed opportunity to have communicated.
    Third, I must have a selfish streak, and completely ignore instances when I should have refused compensation, not thinking of what the other wants or would like (a kind of empathy), or not paying enough for services. It is a blank wall against these kinds of awarenesses and much later (sometimes years later) I recall with horror my behavior. And it sounds like I’m excuse-making, doesn’t it? During the past year I have given two people a sum of money to make up for my oversight. They could barely remember, but I could!
    In my book “Fallout: A Survivor Talks to Sex Offenders,” I cite Briere as including in the dissociative category “reduced responsiveness, spacing out, derealization,, disengaement, depersonalization, some compartmentalization, out of the body experiences and lost time. Thoughts and awareness of external events are, in a sense, “placed on hold.” He was primarily referring to the effects of childhood sexual abuse. John Briere’s three books (1989 Springer 1992 Sage, and 1996 Springer) are enlightening. Obviously not everyone who dissociates shares the same history, but I was just drawn to Briere’s empathic approach in his books.

  8. This is interesting to someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Back in the 80’s I was diagnosed with rapid cycling bi-polar disorder but none of the medications worked. After awhile my symptoms went away, I went off medications and went back to work. This lasted about 13 years. Then in 2010 my symptoms came back. I thought my bi-polar illness was back and went a shrink. In the 13 years I was functional Psychiatry had discovered ‘trauma’ and recognized DID as a valid disorder. After seeing me for six months the shrink diagnosed me with DID and sent me to a psychotherapist. My symptoms have stabilized. I take a med for attention deficit disorder. Florid DID often looks like rapid cycling bi-polar illness. The tip off is meds don’t work.

  9. I’ve had Bipolar 2 since I was five, now I am twenty four years old.

    Anyways, Ill cut to where things got interesting, I have always have mid to moderate dissociation, depersonalization and derealization, when I was 18 my grandpa died which hit me hard, I started to use Cannabis to alleviate the incredible emotional pain from that loss and other things that were going on.

    Cannabis helped immensely and still does, I used it for three years until I was almost twenty two, then I lost my job and couldn’t afford anymore.

    I made a big mistake, when you are using any substance to regulate your mind and keep it stable and then you suddenly cut out the substance it can cause major problems.

    Dissociation, derealization, depesonalization and major depression hit me all at once in ways I was not prepared for, now I feel as if I am a shell of the man I once was, I am in a dark fog, time and space pass me by but I remain the same, unchanging and forever doomed to this mental state.

    A lot of people seem to thing that suicide primarily occurs because of the pain we feel, I disagree, I think your life is over when you can no longer enjoy anything you use to enjoy, when you can no longer feel as you once did, when love becomes meaningless… Without love, my life is over, without my dreams I am dead.
    It’s like all of my mind and soul died a long time ago and my body is last part of me that needs to die and only in that way will I become whole once more.

    Pretty grim stuff, I never could understand before why people with dissociative disorders, Bipolar, Schizophrenia and other such brutal diseases would kill themselves, now I understand more, more now than I ever wanted to.

    1. It is pretty grim stuff. I too understand why people might kill themselves, but am ever so grateful I didn’t take myself out. Twice I had reached the end of my rope and checked myself in emergency rooms because I knew it wasn’t safe to be alone. Be sure to have someone you can call, or a safe place to go, when things reach their darkest.

      You’ve had a wild ride to say the least. I hope you continue to get better with each day. You’re not alone in this.

    2. Accept this state.

      I accepted it, I embraced it, then it left me. And if it comes to me again I will welcome it. Also being aware of my surroundings and thoughts have helped me as well. We are not ill. We are special. lol. Like retards who can still function in society.

      So just accept and embrace dissociation. Do not think it is bad. Calm yourself down, and be with it. We can always have control, even when it appears there is no self to control.

      Logic. Logic too helps the decision making when everything turns into a single empty room.

      Being with people. Be with people and talk to them. This helps. Play with the images in front of you (people).They are much more than they appear to be. You are you. And they are they. You are a single nod, but you have one perception, same deal with everyone. Dissociation is the truth.

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