Perhaps you have experienced occasions when you’ve “zoned out”. Times when your mind was somewhere else, maybe you’ve even lost track of time. These are usually harmless instances when one simply drifts away for a moment or two, as when one daydreams, or finds a conversation or a lecture boring.
I experience symptoms of a dissociative disorder known as Depersonalization-derealization disorder resulting from long-term physical, emotional, and sexual childhood trauma. It was a coping mechanism I used as a means of survival, one that I have carried with me into adulthood.
Whenever I was being beaten, or molested, or raped, or sometimes even when I was being yelled at, I would dissociate. I don’t know if my mind and soul left my body, but that’s how it felt. The physical or emotional pain would become too much to bear. At some point during the ordeal, I would find myself watching what was happening to me from high above my body, through what seemed a thin veil of gauze, or fog. It was as if I were watching a slow-motion movie scene that was happening to somebody else. I knew it was happening to me, but it always seemed unreal. I felt nothing. No emotion, no pain. I would only come back to my body and the physical world around me when I sensed it was safe to return.
Unfortunately, this means of coping still happens to me today. It is involuntary. I have no control over when it happens. It happens when I get triggered. It happens when I get scared or when I feel threatened in some way. It happens when I find myself in stressful situations. It happens when I am being yelled at, or in the presence of someone’s anger. It has repeatedly happened in stressful work environments to the point where I’ve gotten fired on more than one occasion.
Another downside of dissociation is that I also dissociate emotionally, which makes healing a challenge. I feel no sadness, no love, no joy. Basically, I walk through life feeling numb.
Once in a while, I will get angry, but that’s usually because I am being impatient or manic, or pissed off because someone says or does something that goes against my personal values. I know there is buried rage related to my trauma, but whenever it tries to surface my survival instinct takes over and squashes it.
I often dissociate during conversations that trigger me. One minute I’ll be hearing what the other person is saying, then suddenly it’s as if I’m listening to the person from a great distance. I see the person’s mouth moving, but I can’t really hear what they are saying. Their facial features become blurred as I disconnect further and further away from them.
I am at the point in my healing process where I can recognize when I have “zoned out” but I can’t stop it from happening. It takes a great amount of effort to return to the moment, to re-engage with the person who is speaking to me. If the person is yelling at me (which hasn’t happened in a long time), I don’t return until the yelling has stopped.
Sometimes people notice that I’ve dissociated, sometimes they don’t. I have one friend who will gently say to me, “Barbara, where did you go?” This can usually help bring me back to the moment. Others get offended if they notice. They feel that I am not interested in what they have to say. If they call me on it, I will be honest and tell them that I was triggered by something they said. I try to reassure them that it was not personal. Sometimes I just try to fake my way through the conversation, as if I’d heard what was said. Sometimes I will say to the person, “I’m sorry. I zoned out for a minute. What were you saying?”, not realizing that what they had said was what caused me to dissociate. If the person repeats what they were saying, I do my best to stay present.
While I will probably continue to dissociate at times, it is becoming less disconcerting for me when I do so. I used to feel embarrassed and full of shame whenever I would dissociate in front of others. But today I know why it is happening to me. I know it is something beyond my control. I no longer judge or berate myself when it happens. I just do my best to be gentle and patient with myself.