In the Blog
What We’re Getting Wrong About Dissociation
Content Warning: descriptions of sexual violence
I’m sure I’d been doing it for decades but the first time I remember noticing myself disassociating, I was sitting at the back of a bus in San Francisco on my way to a meeting. A pack of loud teenage boys got on and started scream-talking and laughing about how they get girls drunk and use and abuse them.
Y’know how you can feel all your muscles start to tense up? It was like that only at a cellular level, it was like I could actually feel my molecules seizing up and start screaming: “get me AWAYFROMTHISRIGHTNOW”–but the bus was packed and I would have heard them from anywhere. Within seconds, my body acted. I felt this invisible veil lowering from the crown of my head down and about halfway down my face at about my lips, I noticed it and thought: “Ohhhh! I’m disassociating! This is it!”
The week before I’d taken a generative somatics training to learn more out how we respond to oppression and the instructors mildly startle us in order to gauge our reactions. When I was startled, I didn’t feel anything. “Disassociation” they told me. I was like: huh….really? I dunno. I mean….I think i’m still here. Still talking and engaging, so….shrug
But the next week on the bus, when I felt the veil softly lowering, and I realized “oh, this? This is disassociation!” A month later, I was in an immigration line up where customs officers were screaming insulting questions at bus passengers and I noticed the invisible veil lowering again. This time I thought: “Hey! HEYHEYHEY–bad idea. There’s cops and weapons in this room. I need you to pay attention” and I shook off the veil before it lowered. That meant I had to feel my sadness and anger about seeing how borders are actually enforced–which was challenging, but ultimately safer.
I didn’t know I’d been disassociating for years because popular conceptions of disassociation are so unrealistic. I thought the process of dissociating was this really intense, scary thing like the opposite of being possessed. I would envision Hollywood stories of teenage girls, emptied out and vacant-eyed, mere shells of themselves huddled in a corner, rocking. Or I imagined the burned out husk of a girl frozen and unblinking during any kind of sexual encounter. Always I pictured someone shattered.
But for me, it was never like that. I would be sitting on the bus, in a line up, having a conversation or laughing–and sometimes, dissociated. Here’s an example:
Scene: boyfriend and I have just watched a documentary where a sex worker dies at the end and no one really cares
Boyfriend: That was intense. How are you feeling?
Me: Me? oh, I’m FINE. I’m always fine. Haven’t you noticed? Fine is my default.
Me: shrugs gets up to leave the theatre
Now I know that that those Hollywood images just aren’t how dissociation looks for a lot of us survivors. I’ve figured out that I experience two different versions of dissociation: light and thick. “Light disassociation” is when I’m emotionally vacant but still present in every other way. I’m just not feeling what’s happening. There are lots of times when this is handy. I’m an activist and have to engage with assholes sometimes and it’s one way that I can still do that without getting hurt. So when I was presenting testimony at the government hearings for the anti sex work laws that passed in 2014, I was surrounded by Christian fundamentalists and right-wingers. These people hate my people and I had to sit there and listen to their dehumanizing garbage before and after I testified. I kind of freaked out because I couldn’t use my phone and it’s become my most reliable method of disassociation. Instead I wrote in my book furiously but couldn’t quite close off. Nothing is quite like taking an emotional nap with Facebook and then waking up an hour later, after the assholes have left the room. I really could have used the “veil” then.
In fact, this is why I don’t resent people being on their phones when I’m speaking publicly. 90% of the time I talk publicly, it’s about violence and oppression and there are usually a lot of survivors of both in the room. You can’t be there for that? Just need to peace out for a bit? Go for it. And depending on the level of trigger, when you come back, there might be other things you need too (like to have someone hear and witness a memory) and that’s ok too.
“Thick dissociation” for me is when I am a little bit like the vacant girl in the Hollywood story. It’s when I’m intensely triggered and I glaze over and unfocus my eyes. It feels like a soft, sleepy place and a respite from the scary thing happening. I feel out of my body and far away. Now that I have more awareness of it, I can often tell that I’m in it and have a vague sense that it means something awful is happening…far away. I don’t want to come back from it because coming back is always painful. It’s fine for me to do this when I’m with someone safe and re-living a painful memory. It’s super not fine when something dangerous is actually happening in real time. But it’s my default right? I don’t have a choice about this being what I resort to; I’ve just gotten better at coming out of it when I need to.
For me, disassociation can be a signal of serious danger but it can also just be ordinary and helpful way to deal with the everyday bullshit of the world. I needed to not be present on that bus in San Francisco. Lots of times I need an emotional barrier when I can’t have a physical one. Or I need a solid “pause” while my mind protects me from a memory of abuse. It’s good that now that I’m more aware of disassociating I can make decisions around it but it’s not something I want to be healed of or fix.
Content Warning: description of sexual assault
The first time some dude grabbed me at the annual Toronto Pride and jammed his fingers inside me, I froze in shock. Seconds later an American tourist insisted on photographing my friends and I, despite our repeated refusals. “What’s your problem?” he screamed when we said no. That tourist captured the first few moments of trauma from the sexual assault as it travelled through my body, settling into my muscles. It took me years until I could be photographed again without feeling panic and revulsion, like both those men were breathing down on me.
When it happened again the following Pride, I got a do-over. This time I spun on my heel and started screaming at the guy, grabbed the gold cross around his neck nearly yanking it off and demanded to know what kind of Christian he thought he was while my friends crowded around him joining me. He apologized, embarrassed and other than the situational rage and disgust, I wasn’t left with emotional scars. That assault didn’t get “stuck” inside me the same way the first one did and I think that it’s largely because I didn’t dissociate and was able to be present enough to respond and get angry in the moment it happened.
The other thing I had wrong about disassociation is that it only happens when something horrible is happening. For me, dissociation happens when my nervous system is startled–that’s it. Our nervous systems don’t know the difference between startled-because-of-good-things and startled-because-of-danger. It’s all the same to my…whatever the heck part of my brain handles the startle reaction. It’s like that part of my brain is only listening for whether there is a loud bang–not whether that bang was a balloon popping or someone punching a wall. So say something really good happens but in an intense and unexpected way, I’m all smiles and I might be a bit arm’s length from it for a moment and then come back. (also this is not an invitation to try to “help me” come back or “check in with me” in a patronizing way. I hate that. Dissociation can be a useful strategy, don’t get all baby-voiced on me.)
My friends in Australia love to recount this story about how four of us were on a boat trip and we got into really choppy waters. We were in the Pacific Ocean with a scrappy little 300cc motor that couldn’t handle it when 10 metre high waves started coming at us. I put my life jacket on because they insisted, but was otherwise like “WHEEEE! It’s a like a free water park ride!” while the others were blanching and calling the coast guard for help. I’m not actually sure if I was disassociating then but I wonder because I didn’t have experience a single moment of fear in the face of 10 metre waves while a mile off shore and far from help. Maybe? Either way, nice job, unconscious! Nothing went wrong, we were rescued by the coast guard and I had a great time rather than be terrified for nothing. I know I’m a weirdo but who cares. Mental health is not the same thing as “normal” or “average”. Screw normal.
I want to be aware of when I dissociate so I can decide if it’s safe in that moment but for me, the point is that dissociation isn’t bad or scary or broken and I’m not bad or scary or broken. Everyone has some kind of response to being startled: fight, flight, freeze, placate. You get one and you work with it. Like about 90% of the people in my life, I’m a survivor of childhood abuse and partner violence so my startle-sensors go off more easily than people who aren’t survivors. In the lottery of possible trauma responses, I got dissociation and I feel pretty fine about that.
The moral of the story is: Lots Of People Dissociate, Nothing Is Wrong Here. Now Carry On.
Chanelle Gallant is a writer, educator and long time activist in intersectional sex working and feminist communities. Her writing is forthcoming in Make/Shift Magazine and The Rumpus. You can find her at www.chanellegallant.com