Experiencing the world through the lens of dissociation – or derealization in my case – is like being the audience of a real-time movie; the plane in which the movie lives is moving, loud, and filled with people, but as an audience member, you can never truly be a part of it.
It is really quite unfortunate that I have had dissociation for nearly three years, and as much as I consciously understand it, I cannot escape from it. Important life events, ones which I had deeply valued and looked forward to, like high school graduation, are sadly ingrained in my head as whirling, faceless blobs. Dissociation not only steals my life in the present tense, it siphons away memories from the past, too. Thus, both my short and long-term memories are decorated like a checkerboard, peppered with empty frames here and there, and it is with great struggle that I manage to recall nearly any part of the year 2012.
Dissociation is not a disease. It is not caused from deteriorating neural pathways. It is not well known. What is known, however, is that dissociation occurs after a traumatic life event; it is the brain’s way of “shutting down” the perception of sensory information to prevent the body from experiencing high-stress experiences any further. In other words, dissociation is the brain’s protective reaction to severe stress.
As said before, I have had dissociation for nearly three years, and I cannot say it has improved since it first began. In fact, my dissociation has seemed to spread into almost every facet of my life, so that now, when I am exposed to even a minute stressor – which can be rushing to school (meeting schedules and deadlines are particularly triggering of my dissociation), having to talk to people (especially when it is one-on-one), and even being in brightly lit or loud areas (whether inside or outside) – my dissociation kicks in and mellows everything to a point which, oftentimes, leaves me incapable of doing even basic cognitive tasks, like choosing what to say in a conversation. Essentially, my brain has evolved over the last few years to not differentiate between types and severity of stress, and I can’t say I actually need it as a defense mechanism anymore. Life is good – well, I mean, objectively. I am not sure my brain chemistry agrees.
And speaking of chemistry, it is hypothesized that, chemically, dissociation is the brain releasing opiates into the body. (Opiates! The family of drugs that fueled the Opium Wars!) Specifically, the brain naturally releases substances called endogenous opioids, like endorphins, which help bodies react to pain; thus, it seems probable that dissociation is rooted in the regulation, or lack thereof, of these endogenous opioids. Opiates cause many of the same mental and physical symptoms that occur when in a dissociated state, which seems to further support this hypothesis; unfortunately, there is a considerable lack of research to support this point.
Thus, I hope to study dissociation in the future, simply because it is not well understood – and, of course, to overcome it myself. It is not depression. It is not anxiety. It is dissociation – and it is real. For me, it is a real problem, and it affects my everyday life. It steals away the intricacies of my experiences, and it alienates me from friends and family. It is a handicap as much as it is a mechanism for putting a cap on stress. I hope it does not continue for the rest of my life because I, truly, have been sitting in this uncomfortable cinema seat for far too long; my popcorn is getting stale, and the movie hasn’t even ended yet.
This article was written by Megan Graham. Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Megan Graham