People who experience unbearable trauma as children often dissociate from the experience―both in the moment and as they grow―because the pain of the experience runs deep. Unless they have therapeutic help or a supportive caregiver who can guide them through it, they tend to store trauma away and may even pretend it never happened. It’s a process that often happens organically, as a defense mechanism, and may not be something they can consciously control. In his book The Inner World of Trauma: Archetypal Defenses of the Personal Spirit, Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched writes that dissociation is both a protector and persecutor, keeping people from being retraumatized and yet foreclosing the possibility for new and fulfilling experiences. “You sell your soul to it to survive in your darkest hour of the past only to miss out on thriving in a more creative and life-affirming way in the present,” explains psychologist Michael Alcee, PhD, who specializes in relational therapy and trauma work. “Dissociation is the psyche’s way of anesthetizing unbearable pain, of temporarily splitting off from it in order to maintain a sense of self.” Often, as children of trauma grow up, their need to disassociate from a painful past or traumatic event leads to drug or alcohol abuse or other addictive behaviors.
Five Things You Need to Know About Addiction and Disassociation
“Addiction is one of many ways to dissociate or disconnect from the challenges and pains of intense and dysregulating emotion,” says Alcee. He makes five important points: 1. Addiction is one of the tools of dissociation to make sure that pain is not felt. But paradoxically, it leads the person further from the source of feeling and creates new traumas. 2. Dissociation protects from overly intense emotion that destroys the person’s sense of safety, but it also cuts off the opportunity to have a creative encounter with the depth and breadth of their feelings and thoughts. 3. Many people who suffer from addiction have had some form of trauma that they are attempting to medicate by their substance abuse. 4. In many cases, people also have not had healthy models or mentors to help them compassionately process their feelings, and so when traumatic recollections get too hot, substances become their vehicle for managing them. 5. We all dissociate to some extent, whether it’s when we space out while driving, zone out during a lecture or completely lose track of all that tension we are holding in our body. We do so because this is how our mind is built: to multitask and toggle back and forth between various self-states. It is what makes us who we are.
Can Dissociation Be Positive?
“Dissociation can definitely be good and healthy in a number of situations,” says Alcee. For example:
- It can be soul saving in that it can lift people out of the most extreme physical, emotional or sexual trauma.
- It allows the most sacred part of the self to be temporarily sequestered so that it will not be destroyed or violated even further.
- It is the psyche’s equivalent to “playing possum.” The defense enables life to go on when conditions become safe again.
- In less extreme situations, dissociation fosters a flexible relationship among different self-states, allowing people to shift their consciousness to deal with life’s complexities with creativity and spontaneity.
“We are built to be sophisticated emotion-regulation machines,” says Alcee. “Just as we don’t notice the gears shifting on our automatic cars, most of us do not realize the subtle state shifts that we all make in order to make creative and fluid adjustments to life’s variety of demands.”
What Are Dissociative Disorders?
Dissociation applies to a wide range of self-states and experiences. Some are more destructive or difficult than others to heal. “Dissociation can be good as long as it allows us to temporarily move between various self-states and come back to them,” Alcee says. But if it totally disconnects us from these states, it takes away our capacity to be fully connected to ourselves and others, he says. This can lead to dissociative disorders. Some people who survive traumatic events may experience episodes of psychotic-like symptoms or severe dissociative disorders, including:
Inability to remember essential personal information.
Amnesia of personal identity, which sometimes leads people to travel and establish a new identity.
Perceptions of detachment from one’s body and reality.
Dissociative identity disorder
Formerly known as multiple personality disorder, this means periodic personality switches to an alternate personality. “It is all in how we relate and use this capacity of the mind and heart that determines whether it will be healthy, hurtful or downright destructive,” says Alcee. “Psychotherapy is the art of learning how this system works, how to reconnect the traumatized places through relationship, and ultimately how to bring back vitality, curiosity and wonder through the provision of both safety and surprise.” By Laurie Sue Brockway