By Julia Rose
Dissociation is a complicated thing to explain to people. Even when I attempt to, it usually results in me triggering myself. Explaining dissociation to someone is the equivalent of explaining the color red without starting off a sentence with a direct comparison. The closest I’ve ever gotten to having a friend understanding dissociation was when he compared it to astral projection.
For those of you who don’t understand what dissociation is, click here. I’ve actually spent an alarming amount of my life dissociated without even knowing it until my mid-20’s. This had gone unnoticed for so long because it likely began in my early childhood and I had nothing to compare it to. I didn’t know things were very, very wrong until I committed to therapy and meditation in late 2014. Things haven’t improved 100 percent since then, but I have now spent almost an entire year feeling like an actual human being. Below are some of the things I use within my self-care routine to help keep me grounded.
Side note: These are things I have figured out through a lot of trial and error. Creating coping mechanisms/a self-care routine takes a lot of time and persistence. Don’t give up.
1. Practice acceptance.
Acceptance is the hardest thing to do when I find myself experiencing an episode of dissociation, but for me it’s the most important step to make. My immediate reaction has always been to try and bully myself out of it even though doing so makes it 10 times worse. The best approach you can make is one out of compassion. For example, I try to react to my episodes by saying, “It’s OK. I understand a piece of me had to go and disappear for a bit. It’s fine.” And if you feel frustrated, allow yourself to feel that way, but don’t beat yourself up for being triggered. Sometimes triggers happen out of the blue (which sucks), but I’ve found that these episodes are decreased in length if I am genuinely nice towards myself. Recovery takes a lot of practice and patience. You’ll get there.
2. Create and repeat affirmations.
Affirmations are what I consider a controversial type of “tip” because they’re grouped together with things such as yoga and meditation, and these things don’t always work when it comes to treating a mental illness. I think the key to this being effective is to choose a phrase that really means something to you. When you choose/find a phrase that means something to you, make sure you say it with a sense of weight and purpose. In other words, “say it like you mean it.” Treat it like a verbal anchor. Creating an important go-to phrase like this can become a helpful anchor during difficult moments.
3. Go to therapy.
Do your homework and find a therapist that specializes in trauma, dissociation, etc. — whatever it may be that has contributed to your situation. Most importantly, you don’t have to go beyond your comfort zone when you first start going to therapy, or push yourself to discuss the trauma. If you begin to dissociate during a session, let your therapist know, and begin to back off from the sensitive topic. There is no reason to rush this. Trust yourself, trust your boundaries and make sure your therapist respects them as well.
4. Flashbacks will happen. Sometimes you have to let them run their course.
And they might make you feel sick and overwhelmed, but you have to try and remember they aren’t happening in real time. Try to think of it as a plug that has been pulled. The memories are being drained from your subconscious and they’ll finally be gone once you’re able to sit through them. They’re like a bullet train just passing through the station on their way to their next destination, which thankfully happens to be somewhere other than the back of your mind. Your body may react in ways that makes it feel like everything is happening again, and I wish I could tell you there’s a quick fix to turning those sensations off, but they’re something you have to allow to run their course. Do whatever you can to ground yourself, but do not make yourself the enemy during this phase. Write about them, talk to a friend, run and listen to angry music, anything that will allow you to treat them like they’re just a loud thunder storm that will inevitably end.
Do something that mentally engages you. Focus on the plants/trees around you when you run, focus on your body during yoga, focus on your breathing during lifting weights. Try to be present instead of allowing your brain to rummage around in the darkness. Exercise on foggy/dissociative days too if you can. You don’t have to be in a good mood to exercise. Be honest with yourself about how you feel and put that feeling into the movements you’re doing. Feel angry? Run hard. Feel sad? Move gracefully with compassion during yoga.
6. Let the people around you know what to do in a crisis.
They may not understand what you’re going through. Personally, I’ve tried so many times to explain dissociation to the people around me and only a couple understand what it’s like. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to not feel anything and everything at the same time. Put what you need into terms they’ll understand. Chances are they want to help any way they can. You just have to spell it out for them.
7. Be kind to yourself if you relapse.
Relapses happen. Do not hate yourself for them. Do not hate yourself for any of this. The reason your brain developed this coping mechanism/disorder is so that you could survive the situation(s) you were in. You might wake up one day feeling like a new born baby, and it’ll feel weird and great and scary all at once, and the next day you might wake up and be back at square one. This is a natural part of the process and it will be like this for a while. Do not be mad at yourself for these ups and downs. Focus on the fact that you’re even having these ups and downs. That is progress, no matter how big or how small it is.
8. Accomplish things at your own pace.
Regular life things tend to take a backseat when we’re dealing with a mental illness. It’s not the end of the world, though. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing your situation to everyone around you, especially people who fall under the “neurotypical” category. You are not falling behind, you are not failing and you are not going to be stuck in this place forever. You are allowed to take time to figure things out and to take care of yourself. Think of it this way: You cannot build a house on a rocky foundation, and you can’t construct a steady building with a rocky foundation. Write a list of things you want to accomplish and then write baby steps you can fulfill that will lead up to that main goal. (P.S: Don’t worry if you’re completely frustrated by taking things slow either, it’s OK.)
9. Understand that people are limited.
Not everyone is going to understand what you deal with and you shouldn’t rely on those people for support if they can’t give it. There will be people who don’t understand dissociation, but they will be open to learning about it and what they can do to help. On the other hand, there will also be people who don’t understand dissociation and they will make zero effort to do so. Do not expect the people who fall into the second category to change their minds. Do not continue to put yourself into a position where you are constantly relying on people who do not have the capacity to offer the support you need. I realize this can be a hard thing to accept, especially if it’s your immediate family, but it can also be a freeing thing if you let it. By approaching people with this mindset, you will be able to gage who can and will offer you the best type of support.
10. Forgive yourself.
Whether you have a full-blown dissociative disorder or you experience minor episodes, you have to forgive yourself for the time you have lost. This has never been and will never be your fault. Understand you are trying your hardest to cope with your situation. Understand this likely resulted from a situation your brain could not process/handle. You are doing your best. You are surviving.