Dissociation

Some symptoms of depression are obvious. By the time I realized I was depressed, I was painfully aware of how much I hated myself, how slow and foggy my mind was, and how everyday life had become a crushing weight that I could barely keep aloft. I knew that I felt mentally raw and sore, like my cerebrospinal fluid had drained away and left my brain without any shock absorption. But there was one major symptom that I was completely unaware of: dissociation. Well, it might be more accurate to say that I forgot what it was to be associated.

I didn’t realize it at the time, because it happened so gradually, but I felt miles away from my body. It was like I was on Mars and I was controlling my body on earth like a rover. I forgot that there was such a thing as feeling embodied and acting intuitively or unself-consciously. I thought other people were just really good at controlling every muscle and planning every expression. I was angry that I couldn’t remember how I had effortlessly choreographed my robot before things got so bad. Part of me just wished I could put her away and commune with the desolate landscape within.

Throughout my cognitive behavioral therapy, I got better at acting natural. I worked out some heuristics that saved me computing time. I learned some all-purpose responses that could be preloaded without having to wait to hear what people would say. I entered an uncanny valley of social interaction, where my facsimile of presence almost fooled me into believing I was back. My teeth are showing and the corners of my mouth are turned up… this is a smile, right? The robot really benefited from the exercise. But I was still worn out. My mood got better, but I was still so disconnected from the rest of the world and myself. It was like I was powering the rover with an exercise bike, and while I was getting stronger, I couldn’t see keeping that up indefinitely.

I wasn’t even that low when I started taking anti-depressants. Just tired. I was one of those people who responded to SSRIs right away. The next day, I felt thrust back into my body. Everything came so naturally all of a sudden. I wasn’t pulling on the muscles in my face like a marionette to make the right expression. I wasn’t trying to anticipate what someone might say so I’d have time to transmit a response. I was just there in the moment.

I recognized the feeling of immediacy and presence once I was there again. I realized what a key ingredient it had been in so many happier times. But I couldn’t access those memories before when I was so estranged from myself. The difference between dissociation and embodiment was simply something I couldn’t grasp until I had seen both sides.

When I came out of anesthesia after my knee surgery years earlier, I had no sense that the world contained shapes or colors or even me. There was no world. There was no future and no past. There was only an all-consuming urge, which I was somehow satisfying through the exertion of will (I later found out the urge had been to thrash around in my gurney). It was the most primitive state of consciousness I have ever experienced. Re-associating was like waking up from emotional ether. I opened my eyes and there was a world all around me that I hadn’t even remembered to forget.

It’s truly bizarre. When I tell people about dissociation, I mostly get skeptical looks, but occasionally I find someone who knows exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve met a few people who independently arrived at the “controlling a remote robot” metaphor. And other, familiar metaphors and myths scream new meanings to me now. I understand why Lethe runs through Hades. I get now what it meant to be separated from your daemon in His Dark Materials. Depression took a knife to the layers of my soul and pried them apart. They are back together now, but I will always know where that seam is in my consciousness. I can’t tell if that’s a profound insight about the makeup of the human mind, or just a scar.

 

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