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.)
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.
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.”