We all dissociate to a degree, such as daydreaming, or when involved in a project and not aware of surrounding distractions, and sometimes when driving and unable to recall the last five miles or so. This is a mild form of dissociation. If there is trauma or other intense stressors in our childhood, the dissociating may become more pronounced. If the traumas are many and continue through the years, then the memories from traumas may be partially or totally blocked from the conscious mind. This is experienced as amnesia regarding a survivor’s past and as “lost time” if it occurs presently. Dissociative Disorders exist on a continuum depending on the severity and duration of the traumatic events.
Dissociation occurs when a child experiences extreme trauma and pain and cannot escape the shock of what is happening to them. When they are not able to tolerate the pain, betrayal, terror or confusion, the body is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol from the amygdala part of the brain. This surge of chemicals shuts down the normal functions of the brain. The hippo-campus part of the brain then causes the traumatic experiences to be blocked from consciousness. If the trauma is experienced over and over, such as with sexual or physical abuse, the brain of the child may create an alter/part of the self that will absorb and hold all such similar events and the feelings associated with them. This part will hold the child’s negative beliefs about the abuse they face such as, “I deserve this” or “I am bad” or “this is what I must do to be loved”. Each time the abuse ends the “part” recedes into the brain, taking the event with them and the original self surfaces and has no memory of the abuse. The part also carries the cognitive distortions and lies they believe about themselves. They will act out accordingly whenever they are present.
DID is NOT a mental illness any more than holding up ones arms to block a blow is a illness. It is instead a mental injury. Dissociation is a way of surviving and an incredibly creative and life-saving coping mechanism. Parts can form as early as in the womb and up to age six. Once this way of dealing with trauma is well established, the survivor may create more alters in the face of future life stressors, difficulties, challenges and traumas on into their adult years.
For some traumatized children, there is too much to contend with and dissociated “parts” or “alters” have to come forward often to manage their world. These parts take on a life that is very separate, quite different from, and sometimes in opposition and disagreement with the true self. These parts and the true self may not know of each others existence due to the amnesia barriers that often exist between them. This can leave the person in confusion as they try to navigate through life with blank spots and in “survival mode”. Sometimes they will seem very capable, engaged, productive and show incredible abilities, and then at other times unable to get out of bed and withdraw, dealing with anxiety and depression. This can seem confusing not only to them, but to their friends, family, loved ones and partners. They may engage in risky behavior, self-harm and then be filled with anxiety, shame and fear. This can make no sense to those in relationship with a survivor. However, when one understands dissociation, it becomes more clear that these are alters that have often been triggered into coming forward to help a survivor handle the feelings of stress and being overwhelmed.
Dissociation develops as a result of severe abuse and maltreatment. It is not the fault of the child…or the adult living in its aftermath..EVER. There is healing through individual, group and art therapy. We personally believe that during the often challenging process of recovery, in usually long-term individual therapy, that sustaining hope can come for each wounded heart through the unconditional love of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. It is that love we endeavor to share with survivors no matter where they are on the healing journey at The Restoration House.
An excellent explanation of dissociating is stated in the booklet “United We Stand”, by Eliana Gil. See more books and resources here.
For more information or questions please contact Bonnie Richards at 360-694-6440, Carla Ashton at 360-903-0632 or contact us.