Let’s Talk About Dissociation

Have you ever heard of ‘Dissociation’? I hadn’t heard of the term until a Psychiatrist treating me in hospital said she thought I’d been suffering from this throughout my mental health deterioration and breakdown.

So let’s explain what the term means first of all. The mental health charity ‘Mind UK’ provides a good summary on their website…

“Many people may experience dissociation (dissociate) during their life.

If you dissociate, you may feel disconnected from yourself and the world around you. For example, you may feel detached from your body or feel as though the world around you is unreal. Remember, everyone’s experience of dissociation is different.

Dissociation is one way the mind copes with too much stress, such as during a traumatic event.

Experiences of dissociation can last for a relatively short time (hours or days) or for much longer (weeks or months).

If you dissociate for a long time, especially when you are young, you may develop a dissociative disorder. Instead of dissociation being something you experience for a short time it becomes a far more common experience, and is often the main way you deal with stressful experiences.

For many people, dissociation is a natural response to trauma that they can’t control. It could be a response to a one-off traumatic event or ongoing trauma and abuse. You can read more on our page about the causes of dissociative disorders.

Some people choose to dissociate as a way of calming down or focusing on a task, or as part of a religious or cultural ritual.

You might experience dissociation as a symptom of a mental health problem, for example post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder.
Or you may experience dissociation as a side effect of alcohol or some medication, or when coming off some medication.”

It was such a relief to finally find out about this from a medical professional because on a number of occasions I had incidents which were difficult to explain or process. Granted I had a drink problem and would mix beer, whisky and wine with my medication which lead to abnormal thinking and actions from myself but there were also occasions where I hadn’t had a drink, was taking my correct doses of meds and still had ‘episodes’.

One time stands out from November 2020 where I’d been to work as normal, been out for a run and there were no obvious triggers but that night I lost it in my bedroom and was headbutting the wardrobe doors and mirror, I was mumbling and making no sense to my wife and grabbing my head and crouching down on the floor. Naturally there was no explanation for this and the police, then paramedics were called. At first they were assuming drink or drugs were involved but when it became clear this wasn’t the case I was taken into hospital where the Crisis Team were assigned to me, blood tests taken, etc.

I came out of the episode whilst in hospital and it was agreed I could return home with my wife with the provision I remain under the care of the Crisis team in the community. I was signed off work and over the coming 6 weeks or so spent most days in the house on my own (remember this was during the pandemic) with the kids at school and my wife at work. Unsurprisingly after a few weeks I turned back to drinking as I struggled to understand why I had this episode and my anxiety got a hold of me along with my depression.

One thing that sticks with me is that the paramedics were asking me what the Queen’s name was and what my year of birth was and I couldn’t answer either. In the ambulance my heart rate was through the roof and I had a vacant look. I basically wasn’t me.

I did have more of these moments after that night but they were less severe. I’d be sitting watching TV and then I’d realise I’d been staring into space for 10 minutes. My wife would notice this more and more often and say I looked ‘out of my body’ as if what was sitting there was just a shell. I was once out riding my bike alone and I remember just standing at a bridge overlooking it. I can’t remember how long I’d been there but I was just standing looking at the drop, brought back to reality only by a dog walker who spoke to me as he passed and brought me back to some kind of reality.

The night I was sectioned (which I have wrote about numerous times) did include alcohol but not the high levels I was often consuming so the actions and behaviour from me couldn’t be solely explained as been alcohol induced. There needed to be more to it and as I say, to be told about Dissociation in hospital did help me process this long standing battle I’d been silently facing and not understanding.

Since leaving hospital, getting sober and generally getting consistent and regular treatment for my mental health I haven’t had any severe cases of episodes which would suggest that naturally I’m in a better head space. There have been a few incidents, albeit minor where I’ve zoned out or been slurry (as if I’ve had a drink) and my wife has noticed this – but they’ve normally been when I’m tired or a bit stressed, and they have passed. I haven’t had a panic attack either in what feels like forever (something I wouldn’t wish on anybody!).

There is no cure or standard way in which Dissociation works in people so identifying if you are suffering from it, diagnosing it with a medical professional and managing it as part of managing your wider mental health is all I can really advise. I suspect there are a lot of people out there undiagnosed and regularly experiencing Dissociation.

Photo by Kat Smith on Pexels.com

How to solve a problem like Sobriety

Day 290: It’s thankfully been a better week for me after last weekend’s wobble. Working from home, yoga class, running, continuing my Xmas shopping and getting some nice feedback at work. I’ve been active on Twitter via my Happy Daddy account and find it inspiring to see so many people within the #RecoveryPosse reaching sobriety milestones whether that is a day, a week or a year. It definitely help me ongoing.

I was asked at work earlier in the week what advice I could give to a family member of theirs who lives abroad, is married to a recovering alcoholic and thinks he is drinking too much.

It’s a difficult one to answer because in my experience the defining moment is when you finally realise you are unwell, you know you need to stop drinking and you WANT to stop. I can’t speak for the whole world of teetotallers but I had so many false dawns and spells ‘off the booze’ but in my heart I always knew I’d drink again. I wasn’t prepared to give it up and have a lifetime of abstinence. That changed when at my lowest point I was sectioned during a scary dissociation event and after a few days of being confused, scared and feeling empty – I finally realised I needed drastic change in my life. For my family but most of all for me.

I think once you are accepting and wanting of change it becomes easier to discover the tools to support your recovery. I have written this blog since my early days in hospital and it helps hugely to get the feelings and thoughts out of my head and onto virtual ‘paper’. I read so much more than I used to. In fact, I only read two books in the whole of 2018 yet this year I’m already onto my 14th book. I’ve started yoga, running is consistently part of my week and I listen to a lot of podcasts about recovery and well-being.

Dissociation by Leonardo Santamaria

I could tell others to do the same but it will be pointless if they don’t have the desire to quit alcohol. They might go a day, a week or even a month off the booze and feel better for it. The sad reality is that for most, as I found with myself in the past – if you are not fully invested in sobriety in your soul you’ll relapse. You’ll find a reason in your head to go back and have a drink. Whether that is consciously treating yourself at Christmas or on your birthday, because you’re on holiday or in many cases – because something really shit happens and you think ‘fuck it, I need a drink!’

Look, I don’t want to become preachy and certainly don’t want to be dismissive of other people’s journeys because I can’t guarantee I won’t relapse at some point but I’m pretty clear in my mind as to what has worked for me and what was different from the other times I said I’d stop drinking. I was invested this time and knew that if I didn’t quit alcohol it would eventually ruin me. I’d lose everything and possibly my life. My behaviour was becoming more and more erratic, I was having more frequent dissociation episodes and my wife was scared for herself and our little girls. Maybe if I hadn’t been detained under the Mental Health Act and treated as an inpatient I wouldn’t be where I am now but that is irrelevant to me. It was the point in my life where I accepted and wanted change.

Not everybody needs to experience the extremity of my journey to want change and I’m sure there are people out there who have been closer to the brink than me (not that it’s a competition!) but I do believe that before we can begin the road of recovery we need to want it and be prepared to invest 100% in it.