Associating With Dissociation: Feeling Real When Nothing Else Does

I remember staring at the wall and daring it to move. The wallpaper was warped, flowing to the tune of a disorienting rhythm that I couldn’t decipher. While the walls of my college dorm room wavered, my bed seemed to drift across the room like a cushioned iceberg; my desk looked like a movie prop, as if I were looking at it through a TV screen. Outside in the Windy City, the sky felt like an illusion— as if, despite knowing it was there, I wasn’t really seeing it. I wasn’t physical. I wasn’t real. Everything was vague. Everything lacked significance.

I didn’t know at the time that I was experiencing common symptoms of dissociative disorders. I was a freshman-year college student with relatively little knowledge about mental health. I didn’t even know what dissociation was, even though many of us have had some degree of a dissociative experience, whether that be highway hypnosis or drifting off into a daydream. Each time that wave of emptiness returned or the ground beneath my feet seemed out of focus, I struggled to understand why. I couldn’t remember ever feeling so detached from myself or the world around me. But it was eating me alive.

At first, I thought it was my anxiety acting up; I had just gone through an extremely difficult milestone in one of my personal relationships. Anxiety can co-exist with dissociative disorders, which concern a mental process that causes a disconnect between one’s thoughts, consciousness, perception and sense of self-awareness. Oftentimes, a traumatic experience such as abuse, an accident, or a disaster can trigger a dissociative disorder as a way to help someone cope with pain or difficult emotions. Other times, dissociation may be a natural reaction to things we cannot control.

There are three primary kinds of dissociative disorders: dissociative identity disorder (DID) (considered to be the most severe), dissociative amnesia (less severe), and depersonalization-derealization disorder (least severe). Each of them can co-exist with both anxiety and depression disorders. Depending on diagnosis, symptoms may include difficulty with relationships or professional obligations, depression, anxiety, analgesia, changes in appetite, insomnia, thoughts of suicide, and a disconnect with one’s personal identity. Everyone’s experience with dissociation is different, and often has much to do with findings of a professional diagnosis.

A common symptom of each dissociative disorder is a disconnection with one’s self and/or the world around them. Someone who is dissociating may feel as though their surroundings aren’t real, or that they themselves are not real, for an extended period of time.

My personal experience had much to do with this symptom in particular, which is the predominant symptom of depersonalization-derealization disorder, or DPD. I was detached from myself and from the world around me, even though I knew that wasn’t really the case. Out of fear and confusion, my anxiety worsened and my concentration skewed; I was afraid to be alone in this new hazy, dream-like world. I constantly had to reaffirm my reality and, a lot of times, it was confusing for both myself and the people close to me.

Since then, over a year later, I still experience dissociative episodes, though I’d like to say they are less frequent than they used to be. I don’t know if this is a sign that they are fading away completely, with time and space to heal, or (more likely) if I’ve simply gotten used to it. More times than not, professional treatment and correct diagnosis are required to help those experiencing dissociative disorders/persisting symptoms.

Even now (after the whole “nothing looks real” deal, of course), the thing that strikes me most about dissociation is that it can happen anywhere at any time. At home, sitting on the couch, watching TV. In the middle of a Disc Replay. Or sex. Or when it’s your turn to speak in a Zoom presentation. I could be fine, enjoying a car ride, firmly in the present moment, and then I could be transported somewhere else, beyond my body, lingering in some grey space between. It can be hard to anticipate when dissociation will decide to make an appearance, especially when you're out of your home or comfort zone. “Reality checks” and grounding techniques can come in handy here. Some are discreet and easy to conceal in a public setting, while others might require a more personal touch:

  1. Deep breathing. Focus on the breath. Centering your focus on the air entering your nose— one, two, three— filling your lungs— one, two, three— and leaving your mouth. (This pairs great with meditation or yoga).

  2. Grabbing onto something close to you— typically an object in the room that is stable, like a piece of furniture— and feel that it’s there before you, solid and real.

  3. Sleep. Not sleep to avoid or as a method of escapism, but as a way to rest your mind and body. We run better on fully (or mostly) charged batteries.

  4. Keep a journal. Not only is it great to vent, but it is also helpful for identifying triggers. If you notice something that is nearly always followed by a dissociative episode, write it down. Look for routines and patterns. Don’t be afraid to make changes that are best for you and your mental health.

  5. Talk to someone. Not necessarily a therapist, but a close friend or trusted partner. Talking can bring your focus back to the present moment, and in a way that cares for your relationships.

  6. Build a support network— family, friends, a trusted mentor or therapist— anyone you feel safe and comfortable around who you know will meet any dissociative episodes with love and understanding.

  7. Lastly— remind yourself that it will pass. Dissociation is not forever, and it does not define who you are.

These grounding techniques have helped me in the past and present, and have also helped me get through episodes of anxiety.

However, though these techniques can be helpful solutions to dissociative episodes, they are temporary. Professional help from a therapist or psychiatrist can help you manage and work through your dissociative symptoms. It can be scary to reach out or ask for help, but taking a step toward diagnosis and treatment from a medical professional is a step toward lessening dissociative episodes, or having them disappear altogether over time. Support is so important, and I encourage anyone experiencing symptoms of a dissociative disorder to reach for it, so they can feel real even when nothing else does.


A few mental health resources: