Dissociation is very common in people with PTSD. Those who have experienced trauma, particularly from childhood sexual abuse, often fragment themselves. At the time of the trauma, it is a very effective defence. By dissociating yourself from events that feel like they threaten your existence, those events seem less real. The dissociation enables a victim to separate him/herself from their trauma, creating a distance between what’s real and what isn’t.
This strategy helped when I was little. I was sexually abused by my older brother in our family home. Sometimes in my own bed. At the time, I was so terrified that I disconnected myself from my experience. I convinced myself it was happening to someone else. Either that, or I took myself away by counting lines on the duvet, or focusing on the pattern of the wallpaper. I can see those blue sail boats on his bedroom wall still now, as though it were yesterday.
But none of it was yesterday. It was twenty years ago now. And dissociation doesn’t help me anymore. In my therapy with J, I’ve been working on stopping myself from ‘disappearing’. Since I’ve been in therapy, I have been prone to closing myself down when we talk about the most difficult things. It is a bizarre experience to be physically present, yet totally removed in my head.
Gradually, this situation has improved. Part of this change came from simply sitting differently. I used to sit on the floor and curl into myself. When I felt myself becoming upset, I would curl even tighter and split away from J. I could hear her speaking to me, but I wasn’t able to respond. Retreating so far into my mind, I would find it almost impossible to return to the here and now. Often, J would have to come closer to me and put a hand on me before I could really feel she was there.
Dissociating that badly in adulthood, when there is no threat, is horrible. It is frightening to feel so lost in yourself and so far from reality. When those difficult feelings come up, I don’t want to be alone with them. I do truly feel safe and held with J, so I want to be with her in those moments.
I now sit beside J in our sessions. I am close enough that I can stay connected with her, helping me feel less alone when my thoughts prevent me from speaking. It really has made a huge difference. That said, I still experience myself in distinct parts.
Today J and I talked about getting the parts to communicate with one another. I’ve been feeling a lot of sadness recently that sits with a very young part of me. When I’m in that place, I feel small and lost. I feel vulnerable and need someone else to reassure me, to bring a sense of safety.
At the same time, I’ve got this headstrong adult in me that is perfectly capable of taking care of the little one. A friend commented on a post I wrote a few days ago, saying exactly that. Big Laura needs to look after little Laura. She needs to nurture her. When I imagine seeing another little girl in the kind of distress my child self feels at the moment, I want to reach out and wrap her up. I want to hold her close, protect and comfort her.
The missing piece is that I don’t do that for myself. I don’t have the compassion for myself that I would show to another traumatised person. I get frustrated and angry with that child part of me. I am ashamed of her, and embarrassed by her weakness.
That leaves me in a self-perpetuating cycle of destructive self hatred and persistent loneliness. I want that vulnerable part of me to be nurtured, but I don’t want to have to do it myself. So I ask it of others. I ask it of J and my wife and family. I search for it in all my relationships. But I know that somewhere within me is the capacity to love that broken child. I hold so much love; I know it could be a powerful force in my healing.
Ultimately, the hardest part right now is figuring out how to open my heart to my own suffering.
Photo: Ajari, Creative Commons.