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Living with Dissociation

I like to think I have a good memory. I rarely forget a birthday. I can remember random facts I learned while studying for my GCSEs almost a decade ago. Things my friends tell me about their hobbies and interests stick to my brain like it's made of honey. But there are huge swathes of time that I have no recollection of. They're just... gone.

I spent much of my childhood in my own little world. I've always had a very vivid imagination, and I would happily play for hours by myself. I was labelled a "dolly daydreamer" by teachers, who saw my mental disappearing acts as nothing more than a — albeit slightly odd — personality quirk.

I learned to hide it better as I got older, learned how to make my body look like it was paying attention when my mind had drifted off to one of the make-believe lands I'd built for myself.

Soon, though, I was doing a different kind of disappearing act. The connection between my mind and body would sever altogether for short bursts of time. It wasn't daydreaming anymore. It was detachment. I would be in class, and it would be like like I was watching a film where the person living in my body was the main character. Only that person wasn't me.

Imagine looking down at your body with a virtual reality headset on. That's what it felt like.

I had no idea what this feeling was called.

My best friend has type one diabetes, and she can sometimes become disorientated if her blood sugar is too high or too low. I assumed something similarly physical was happening to me.

This went on for years. Sometimes I would feel detached for hours, other times, it would be days or weeks.

In August 2017, I was mugged on my way home from a friend's house. Not only did I completely detach when it happened, but I found myself detaching more and more frequently in the weeks and months that followed.

Finally, in 2019, I saw a video on YouTube that mentioned dissociation. I googled it, and as I read through the various definitions and explanations, it was like a lightbulb went off in my head.

"If you dissociate, you may feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you. For example, you may feel detached from your body or feel as though the world around you is unreal," Mind UK said. "Dissociation may be something that you experience for a short time while something traumatic is happening. But you also may have learned to dissociate as a way of coping with stressful experiences. This may be something that you've done since you were young."

That was it.

That. Was. It.

I finally had a word for the thing I'd been experiencing for well over a decade.

I'd heard of dissociation before, I just didn't understand it and had never connected it to what I was feeling.

I'd only ever heard of dissociation in relation to Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I didn't know that people who didn't have DID could also dissociate and that this dissociation looked very different. I also didn't know that anxiety wasn't always panic attacks (which I also experienced).

According to the NHS, DID is just one type of dissociative disorder. People can also have dissociative amnesia, where they have "periods where they cannot remember information about themselves or events", or depersonalisation-derealisation disorder. Depersonalisation is where a person feels like they are outside themselves. Derealisation is where the world around them doesn't feel real.

I experience depersonalisation and derealisation together. Some people might experience one or both at different times.

There is also some overlap between the three different types. People who have depersonalisation-derealisation disorder can experience memory loss, for example.

As I started learning more about dissociation, I started to understand how it related to my anxiety and how to manage it.

I dissociate when my anxiety reaches a certain level. My brain decides it can't cope with it, and it "checks out". It's hard for even me to detect sometimes. It can just feel like I'm calming down, and I don't realise until I'm observing my emotions rather than feeling them that I've dissociated.

I once experienced this for two weeks straight, but it's more common for me to experience short bursts that sometimes last even less than an hour.

I try to prevent it from occurring. I work really hard to keep my anxiety under control: I take medication and keep a journal. I talk to my friends and family as soon as I start to feel anxious about something. I generally just do my best to create a stress-free environment and life for myself.

Obviously, that isn't always possible. Sometimes, things are out of my control. When I've dissociated, tracking my thoughts is no longer helpful. I have to do something physical to bring me back to my body. Running is my go-to, but I also take cold showers or do breathwork.

Thankfully, the changes I've made and the work that I've done mean that I no longer dissociate as frequently. I can go months without having an episode of what I consider "unhelpful dissociation" — that detached, film-like feeling.

I still have vivid daydreams, but now I have them when I'm doing something creative — like planning my writing — rather than when I can't cope with my feelings. I can enjoy my imagination because I know I'm in control of it.

My experience with dissociation taught me the single most valuable lesson I've learned on my mental health journey: everyone experiences symptoms differently. They don't have to align perfectly with someone else's to be valid.

Everyone has a unique combination of symptoms. My experience with dissociation is my own.

My anxiety doesn't always look how others, or even I, expect it to, and that's okay. It won't stop me from seeking out support. And it shouldn't stop you, either.


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