I’ve realized that when I talk about dissociating, I can really be talking about a number of different experiences. So I decided to categorize and define some of the versions I talk about most often. This is just my experience, not universal; some aren’t even necessarily clinically dissociating at all, but, to me at least, have some kind of resemblance.
This one resembles what some people call productive meditation. I experience it most often when I go on my morning walk, adding a repetitive, moving element. It’s not necessarily bad, and I purposefully invoke it for a reason. But, it’s like a form of dissociation to me because it can be very consuming and kind of hard to snap out of. Using the same ritual every morning helps me ease in and out of it at that time, but it can also happen—purposefully or not—at other times. I keep my route very simple, on small streets, and the same every day, because I can get pretty lost in my head for this, which is dangerous in other areas. It usually looks like I’m a little lost in thought, though it’s more like diving into an internal world entirely. It usually involves decision making, planning, or problem solving, whether it’s what I want to work on that day, what my next larger goal should be, or what I should do about (or if I should do something about) a problem. Ends more smoothly if I’m done thinking on the topic and have written down any takeaways for later, otherwise I remain very consumed by finishing my loose ends, or keeping track of those takeaways.
Telling a Story
This one kind of feels like productive meditation, except it’s less so on purpose. It can also happen during my walks, pretty commonly on the swingset, and at other times. It’s not necessarily bad, though it’s not very productive, either, and again, consuming and hard to snap out of, though a little less so. This one involves mentally telling a story to a usually ambiguous audience. Sometimes things like blog posts are born of this, but oftentimes it’s random anecdotes (or a connected collection of them) from my past, or a recounting of something I’ve written/media I’ve consumed. It’s kind of like Drunk History, except sober, inside my head, and of personal stories or media. I get very sucked into the story. Often comedic, sometimes touching. If it’s a retelling of something I’ve written (or sometimes other media), characters may join in the narration. Sometimes I’ll laugh out loud, gesture, and make other matching expressions for this. Ends when the story ends, kind of, though it might loop or expand.
This is where the story actually happens. This one strikes me pretty much everywhere, on purpose and, frequently, not on purpose, and is probably the most frequent type. Not always bad, though I do write a lot of doom and gloom, angst and tragedy (and even more stays just in my head), and sometimes it’s not a great coping mechanism, a form of escapism. This one is especially consuming and hard to snap out of. The real world pretty much goes away entirely, and I at least see and hear (and frequently other senses) as if I’m a fly on the wall in my fictional worlds, or my characters. It often functions much more like a hallucination than a visualization (I also sometimes react in real time as if it is—my eyes track motion or mimic characters’ eye movements, so on—or go completely blank); most maladaptive daydreaming descriptions fit, but it still feels like… more. While arguably the most disruptive to my life, I wouldn’t give this one up for the world. As a fiction writer, this is where the magic happens.
When I get kind of stuck in a thought loop of some kind. This could be a general anxious thought, a ritual, or an eating disorder thought train. I really noticed this the other day while my wife and I were getting ready to leave the house. I realized that in the external world I was standing there, still, silent, staring blankly at nothing, long enough my wife was like, “… ‘Kay. I’ll go cool the car down.” It frequently looks like this, or you might see mumbling/counting on fingers, or actually doing the actions, sometimes anxiously or repetitively. What was going on in my head, however, was mentally running through my leaving the house rituals. I have many rituals like this, for everything from leaving the house to cleaning the kitchen, and they have a hard time changing. I later explained to my wife that one bullet point I had in my head, for leaving the house, was the word dogs, which meant that I should give the dogs their treats before I leave. We don’t have dogs. This bullet point comes from when my mom and I lived on our own in a rental house briefly after my parents’ divorce, and I would give our two dogs some treats before I went on a walk to the park… eight years ago. At least one of those dogs is dead now, and probably both. Still, my mental rituals change on years of delay, with a lot of conscious work if I really feel the need to put it in, so, in that moment, I had to check gave the dogs their treats off in my head (several times, as I frequently go through all of my related rituals until I’ve reached something not checked off, do that thing, and then start over, then go through them like twice after everything has been checked off). This can be brief, but completely consuming, and I get much more anxious if I am pulled away from in it any way. In a way, I can’t function without this, but due to the rituals not being malleable, and how many times I have to go through them, it’s mostly unproductive. I’m currently trying to focus on having the important parts written down, and looking at those lists a reasonable amount, not going through old rituals in my head over and over.
The one where nothing’s going on in my head. You see the blank stare, and that’s actually all there is. I don’t get it a lot, and this tends to be a stress response, so it’s almost nice when it does happen, a reset to neutral, though it’s ultimately escapism. I might also just be that tired. Everything goes away. I could live without it, and it’s not the most common, though it’s often what people assume is going on when I get the blank stare. Completely consuming and hard to snap out of. Hard to do on purpose, and I generally don’t. Frequently goes with being nonverbal (or at least serious flat affect/monosyllabic responses) and/or catatonic. Frequently ends in sleep.
Occurs when I’m in sensory overload. Not much is going on in my head typically—distracted attempts at escapism or coping, generally, or really, really trying to focus. I might look jumpy and distracted, frustrated, or somewhat catatonic (or be actually trying to escape the onslaught, closing my eyes, covering my ears, etc.). Could definitely live without this one. Less so consuming and moreso distracting, can’t really engage when I’m in it. Frequently renders me nonverbal. Never on purpose. Breaks only when I escape whatever’s causing the sensory issue for a while, usually after a bit of lag.
Occurs when I am in the grips of a new/active delusion. Somewhat rare with meds and all. Most common subtype might be more of a depersonalization—like looking in the mirror, sometimes literally, often not, and thinking, Is that really me? The only thing in my mind is usually thinking through the delusion—sometimes leaning away from it, trying to logic myself out of it, other times, building it up, defending it, finding out what it is. I tend to be talking about it, very quickly, or possibly catatonic/nonverbal. Mostly not in touch with reality. Could definitely live without this one, too. Never done on purpose. Completely consuming, very hard to snap out of. Solved mostly by time and sleep. Delusions have been about anything from believing in the existence of magical notebooks to believing neither my wife nor my usual pharmacy existed.
Rare, kind of. Occurs in phases. Happens when I feel extremely depressed, usually in a more anxious way. Looks like: desperately trying to self harm, or else very twitchy if I’m trying to resist, possibly trying to distract myself. Might do anything from laugh to seem frustrated. On the inside, there’s the obsession, usually racing and anxious thoughts, existential, that sound like depression. (The psychologist who gave me my diagnoses had a theory that I never had depression at all, only anxiety, and I see where she’s coming from when I examine what these thoughts look like.) Yeah, could live without this one, but it’s also weird to think about my personality without it, or without where it comes from, at least. Not done on purpose, though it might look like it; I’m not really me when it’s full blown. Consuming, hard to come out of on purpose, but I tend to snap out of it abruptly and within a few hours at most. If I do succeed in self harming, it stops, though it usually turns into something like Blank/Zoned Out.
Hallucination/Flashback/Waking From Nightmare
When I am partially consumed by something that isn’t real. This type varies wildly, really, but I couldn’t think of any further ways to break it down. Happens in phases, overall somewhat frequent. Not done on purpose. Might look anxious/scared (sometimes visibly shaking), distracted, twitchy/jumpy, staring at a certain spot, overall reacting to seemingly nothing, or suddenly zone out briefly and repeatedly. Could largely live without this one. I’d keep the dog, I guess. Partially to totally consuming, sometimes responds well to distraction, or will fade with sleep/time. I might be going somewhere else entirely (the dog’s/Farrah’s white void she hangs out in, the whole scene of my trauma, back into the nightmare) or seeing something projected onto the real world (corpse, dog, etc.) Could also involve other senses, especially auditory (voices, music, etc.) and tactile. Sometimes terrifying, sometimes amusing, sometimes just distracting or unnerving. I have another post in mind about most common hallucinations…