Dissociation, emotional significance and why going through the motions is not enough

One thing I have come to appreciate so, so much is the power of emotional significance. I think it is the main reason why not a single therapy I attended before I came to live with my family did me much good. Thinking back on those years, I think I spend them in a state of near permanent dissociation. Which is the smart ass way of saying I was feeling numb and emotionally dead inside most of the time. In therapy, I listened, occasionally I was even willing to try and make sense of what we talked about, willing to try and get better, but nothing ever worked.

I did DBT. I learned about states of mind (wise mind, emotion mind, rational mind), emotional regulation and stress tolerance. I was taught “interpersonal effectiveness skills” (how fancy sounding). I learned “what” skills and “how” skills and whatnot. And didn’t improve. I did other therapies, too. In group settings. In one-to-one settings. Learned relaxation techniques. I don’t even remember all the stuff I did. And it doesn’t matter because I didn’t improve. After everything I tried I just felt like even more of a failure than before.

I think today I understand why. Because I only went through the motions. I tried to do what was asked of me, but nothing really reached me. Not on an emotional level. How could it have? I was not even emotionally there. I either felt like my feelings had been cut off – a painful, overwhelming inner emptiness – interspersed with triggered episodes that felt like a flood of emotion was pouring down on me like fiery rain, burning me up. Nothing in between. I went through the motions of therapy, but the feeling part of me wasn’t even there.

The feeling part of me only returned after I went to live with my family. Therapy never managed to retrieve it. I know the aim of good therapy is to make the people feel safe, but I never felt safe in therapy. I never felt safe with anyone. Not truly. And it took a long time until I felt safe with my mom – over a year. But as I started to feel safe, feelings returned. That in itself was enough to scare the shit out of me, but my mom helped keep it safe for me. Kept me safe. And suddenly stuff became meaningful.

Today I still dissociate easily. Ever so often I will just fade out. Most of the time I will keep on reacting, but I am disconnected. I don’t feel anything. I’m not aware of what’s going on in the same way. I have no emotional reactions whatsoever. I often don’t recall things, even if they happened only a moment ago. I kind of notice them when they happen, but then they fade. Or they don’t fade, but I feel indifferent towards them.

The difference is that today mom can tell whether I’m in a state of dissociation or not. She doesn’t ask me to learn new stuff when I’m not even fully there. When I’m not feeling anything, nothing is meaningful. Even when I go through the motions of doing something helpful, the new information doesn’t register where it is needed in the brain, because the emotional part is shut down. Some people say “fake it ‘till you make it”, but that doesn’t work for me. I used to fake it in therapy. I tried to follow the techniques that I learned, but they were empty, meaningless shells. Or I was the empty, meaningless shell. I don’t know.

When my emotional part is shut down, the only thing my mom focuses on is helping me get access to it again. Sometimes by making me feel physically safe by holding me, because that makes me feel safe. Sometimes by finding something that can penetrate the fog, like music or something she says to me or does. And sometimes by directing my attention at stuff. Or at dissociating itself. Helping me become aware of how “spacey” I am, so I can do my part to get out of it.

My plan for the future is that I want to try and be more aware of where I am at, emotionally, and to communicate it. It’s the first time I actually WANT to do that, instead of feeling indifferent towards it, and that makes a big difference. It is the very same skill that DBT tried to teach me, and I knew of its relevance, yet it was never relevant to me. Now it is. Because I can see in my mom’s face it’s meaningful to her. That makes it meaningful to me. Emotionally meaningful. I don’t just go through the motions anymore. Now it feels important and like it actually changes something. Yay for emotional significance.


7 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. marquiest
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 15:37:08

    Reblogged this on progressera.

  2. wellcallmecrazy
    Oct 30, 2012 @ 22:25:38

    I am so happy for you to have this emotional unfolding and unravelling happen. Every person’s journey is theirs alone, but we are all here to support it. I support you in your journey. Keep on going.

  3. Sparrow
    Oct 31, 2012 @ 07:21:39

    Awesome! I think wanting something can sometimes be the hardest part, because you can’t force it. Now you want it, you are halfway there 🙂

    • Lola
      Oct 31, 2012 @ 10:53:39

      I totally agree that wanting something – like, not only saying it, but really, truly wanting it in a way that motivates me to do and keep doing something to get it – is the hardest part, but also half of the success already. Now that stuff is important to me, it’s become easier to want things. 🙂

  4. vwoopvwoop
    Oct 31, 2012 @ 11:23:54

    i avoided this post for a little while because the word “dissociation” is close to home for me and i needed to be in a better mindset to read it. i was totally gonna ask you about whether you had tried DBT, since they say it’s so useful for BPD. i personally didn’t see what the fuss was about, wise mind is something i think i really understood coming in to it. actually what you wrote about here makes me think far more about my sister than it does myself (because even on days where i feel a bit borderline, i don’t get the sense that the DID is the big issue for me), and she acts pretty similarly to a lot of what you have been saying. just last night she came home and was spacey like she used to be a couple months ago before she started therapy. she was just so not present in the moment at all, and really forgetful and disconnected like she used to be. it freaked me out because she has been so much more clearheaded and decisive since doing therapy, but it worried me to see how easy it is to switch back to how it was. do you find that too, lola? you make progress, but do you find it really easy to slip back into old patterns of living in a fog?

    • Lola
      Oct 31, 2012 @ 16:27:02

      Yes, I find it relatively easy to slip back into old patterns. It’s often in response to triggers – a conditioned response, probably – and usually I’m not even aware of the trigger until I can look back on it when I’m out of the fog, Well and sometimes I am never the wiser, or don’t know for sure. Being unwell, physically or emotionally makes me space out easily. Small things like my mom saying something that I take personally, or just thinking of something triggering can bring it about, too. And by myself it can still be real hard to snap out of it, even when I realize that I’m really spacey. I’m sorry your sister is dealing with similar issues, but glad she’s doing better with therapy. Maybe something has been up that’s been bothering her and that she’s not fully ready to deal with yet? That usually makes me very prone to dissociation.

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