Dissociation: My Lifelong Frenemy
A quick Google search defines dissociation as “disconnection… between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions, and identity.” It’s more common to talk about now than it was thirty years ago when the memories of my childhood sexual abuse finally surfaced. I remember my therapist explaining dissociation to me as an incredibly helpful tool as a child to survive a trauma, especially one that repeated over six years. But he told me that it’s not a healthy way to live the rest of your life.
I can remember sitting in a middle school classroom completely zoned out. I’d start by staring at my carrot-red split ends, then my gaze would slide out of focus between my hair and the linoleum floor tile.
For years I’d run into walls, doors, or furniture corners because I walked without fully being present in my body.
I fell roller-skating when I was 22, my toe catching a bit of gravel as I crossed the street on my way to the park, my feet flying out in front of me as I landed smack on my butt like a cartoon dog. I knew I was hurt, but instead of taking off my skates and going home, I went on to the park and skated for 45 minutes.
If I’d known about dissociation earlier, I might have made the connection between that fall and the back pain that dogged me for years, diagnosed as sciatica but unrelenting as it radiated down my left hip and hamstring.
Ten years after that fall I rode my bicycle across the Florida Keys, the sunshine turning the capsaicin cream on my hip into blistering fire to numb the pain.
Twenty years after that fall, the pain became unbearable. The spinal surgeon took one look at my x-rays and explained that my back was actually broken. The crack in my lowest lumbar vertebrae had allowed my spine to crush the disc and the nerve bundle running down my left leg.
Had I been embodied sooner, might things have gone differently? A spinal fusion fixed the break, and relieved most of the pain, but living with that pain for two decades set me up for chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.
It’s always my inclination to dissociate, and I must work hard to fully live in my body, know where I am in space, and be present. It impacts my relationships at times, like when I zone out during an important conversation, or avoid dealing with hard things because I don’t feel like I have the bandwidth to handle.
I’m 61 now, as resolved as I can be about the childhood sexual abuse, the chronic pain, and the frustrations of living with migraine disease and a mild case of fibromyalgia. I’m working with my latest therapist on mindfulness and being present, learning to be rather than do. Listening to short meditations on the free Plum Village app helps, as does a light yoga practice and walking.
One way I practice mindfulness is in the kitchen, taking my time when chopping vegetables, cooking beautiful food, and expressing gratitude for an abundant plate. I can’t change what happened to me, but I can move forward and be present.
Stephanie Weaver lives in Oceanside, California with her husband and Golden retriever Daisy. As a chronic illness advocate, she shares her story on her social media accounts @sweavermph and via her books. She’s the author of The Migraine Relief Plan and the brand-new Migraine Relief Plan Cookbook.