The Nature of Dissociation, Part 3

In the first part of this discussion, I shared a basic picture of dissociation that I hoped would demystify the coping strategy that the mind/body system takes for all unaddressed trauma and pain. Then in part 2, I laid out a simple definition of how I’ve come to understand dissociation and the cascading effects it has upon a person the longer it becomes entrenched. Now in this last section, I’d like to give some examples from my wife’s system which I hope will clarify things and show the practical relevance that comes from a better understanding of the process.

As stated in part one of this series, dissociation is simply the mind/body’s over-arching coping strategy for any overwhelming pain or fear caused by trauma. It only becomes entrenched and systemic if the trauma is ignored for a prolonged period of time. In my wife’s case, when her trauma began as a toddler, the first dissociation began by the formation of the 3 littlest girls in the system: Sophia, Tina and Jenny. My wife was so young that I believe, she simply couldn’t hold the trauma in one place. And so Sophia held the feelings of being dirty from the trauma. Tina held the specific memories and threats from her abuser. And Jenny, I’m honestly not sure what place she holds. Sometimes I think she holds the basic fear response, but that’s only a guess. Because my inlaws were emotionally dysfunctional from their own childhood trauma, they were never able to comfort and assuage their daughter in her trauma. And thus the original trauma, though only short-lived, was ignored and became entrenched.

Even though we are unaware of any further extreme trauma happening in her childhood, the entrenched dissociation weakened her entire system and so it became easier for future trauma to entrench as well. Amy seemed to be formed because of her desperation to have her parents’ affection, affirmation, and protection which she never got. Alley was tasked with the herculean duty to protect everyone in the absence of parental protection, and KA and Shelly were ‘support’ for the overwhelmed other girls. KA was the inside mother to Amy who was somewhat in charge of Sophia. And Shelly heaped adulation upon her big sister, Alley, for the thankless job she did. And with each new instance of dissociation as my wife’s mind/body tried to cope, the host, Karen, was left with less and less ability to function and enjoy life outside of a black and white, flat-Sam-ish experience.

Thus, in our experience, only Jenny, Sophia, Tina, Amy and Alley had original trauma to deal with in the healing process. KA and Shelly were support, and the host, Karen, was spared the trauma in the mind/body system’s attempt to carry on ‘normal life’ despite the trauma and entrenched dissociation that had touched the other girls in the system. But that doesn’t mean KA, Shelly and Karen sat things out on this healing journey. For though they were largely untouched by the trauma, the dissociation and its effects reached every single girl in various ways.

Here are the five, main aspects I see resulting from or connected with entrenched dissociation. 1) Dissociation causes each person within the system to only have partial access to the personality traits and mental abilities of the overall system. 2) Entrenched dissociation may cause some of the people in the system to become ‘deactivated’. 3) As the dissociation prolongs, neural atrophy further ‘hardens’ the separation of each person in the system.  4) Many of the extreme and discomforting experiences of the sufferers and to those around are a result of the dissociation that causes overlapping mental states to be experienced simultaneously. And 5) the internal working model from attachment theory is the key concept  that helped us begin to eradicate the dissociation between the girls.

1) Partial access to personality traits and mental abilities.

To me this is the most basic understanding of dissociation. This is the place that everyone loves to talk about how the ‘alters’ are different. This is one of the flashy neon lights that people point to when describing ‘alters.’ But to me, it’s also a very superficial understanding of dissociation.

Yes, each ‘alter’ will be uniquely different from the others in the beginning. I could go thru the list of girls in my wife’s system and catalog their unique abilities and traits. Shelly, though the smallest in scope, was the first girl to show any mechanical aptitude (now Jenny has done so , as well). I have also dubbed her the ‘coal miner’s canary’ as she maintains a healthy sense of fear when the other girls would rush headlong into dangerous situations. Amy and Karen control the vast majority of the separate, though overlapping abilities, especially the ones that allow them to test on the genius level. Amy loves adventures. Karen is the seamstress of the group. KA loves romance and is the fashionista of the group. Alley is the social warrior. Tina organized 15,000 .svg files when the mere thought of doing so, put all the other girls in tears.

But, so what? The problem is most people never get past this basic understanding of dissociation and how it presents in the various ‘alters.’ But this part of dissociation has major implications when you get past the circus-show perspective from which so many view d.i.d.

The most important part of this aspect of dissociation is that this is where so many of what the DSM calls ‘disorders’ occur, and here’s the reason, I believe. Because each person only has partial access to the mind’s overall abilities, that means that each person has strengths, yes, but more importantly, each person has built-in weaknesses. The strengths of each girl directly correlates to the weaknesses in the other girls.

Karen has pretty severe ‘body dysmorphia’ which pushes her close to having eating ‘disorders’ as well. At age 53 she is 5’7″ and 126 pounds, and yet just last night she was telling me about all her body flaws and how she can’t stand how heavy she has become. Yet, KA loves her body and once told me, “I look damn good for 50!” And the little girls love to eat and have no desire to constantly be on a diet. KA and the other girls are quite happy with how they look for their age. Sure, it’s not perfect, but it’s ‘damn good’ compared to most of our friends. And so, the trick to addressing my wife’s ‘body dysmorphia’ is simply tearing down the dissociation enough so that KA and the others can counterbalance Karen’s unbalanced view of herself. We’ve come a long way on this issue, but Karen is still, partially, internally separated from the other girls even though they can ‘talk’ and so their influence upon her is mitigated somewhat.

Here’s another simple example. When Tina first joined us, she was terrified from the abuse. When we first met, she more than once tried to jump out of our car moving at 70mph because she was scared of me. Once I helped her thru that, then she attached to me more securely than any other girl. And yet she was still terrified. She begged me to not get out of bed in the mornings until she was awake. And for an entire year we didn’t go anywhere except to do our errands once a week. No church. Nothing outside the house, but the bare minimum. If an ‘expert’ would have diagnosed my wife, s/he would have errantly said she had extreme agoraphobia. But that wasn’t the case. She simply was scared and alone internally from the dissociation. Once we were able to dissolve the dissociation between her and Sophia, Tina’s ‘agoraphobia’ melted away, and we were no longer housebound nor was Tina terrified.

The last example I will give concerns self-injury. When the trauma was over, and the dissociation had taken shape, my wife’s host, Karen, had been stripped of so many traits and abilities that she needed to function in a healthy manner. One of those abilities she lost was experiencing and processing emotions and feelings. She lived on a flat plane without the highs or lows that many of us experience as we walk thru life.

Well once we began to address the trauma, and ‘tear off the bandage’ so to speak, Karen was assaulted by all kinds of traumatic feelings that she had no ability to process. It overwhelmed her, and to mitigate the feelings, she would viciously bite her hands to redirect her attention to the pain in her hands rather than the pain in her mind. But as the other girls healed, matured and connected with her, not only were the trauma memories healed, but she now regularly expresses her ability to feel joy, anger and more via the other girls over a host of normal events. And though I’m not sure she understands it, each time she expresses these and other feelings, I silently rejoice at the healing that took place to undo the dissociation and allow her to experience those emotions.

I could give many more examples, but what is important to understand is that many of the so-called DSM ‘disorders’ aren’t disorders at all. They are simply evidence that the person has been internally split up and the mind’s wonderful, balancing abilities are no longer accessible to the various people within the fractured system. And it is only with healing and tearing down the dissociative walls that the imbalances come back to balance.

2) Arrested development of personality traits and mental abilities

A second aspect of dissociation is the deactivation of some of the people in the group. When my wife experienced trauma during her childhood, over the course of time, her personality was split into 8 semi-autonomous girls. But one of the aspects of dissociation is that it seemed to freeze the various girls to the time when the trauma each one held occurred. Looking back, I only see clear evidence of 3 of the girls in the first 20 years of our marriage: Karen, Alley and KA. But I’ve shared in the past how my wife seemed ‘stuck’ in the past, unable to grow or change. She used to brag about how unchanging her views were about certain things. But it was even more than that: the other girls that were completely deactivated from my wife’s personality were frozen in time. Their abilities were linked to the ages they fronted which meant Jenny, Sophia and Tina had the abilities of a toddler. Shelly was about 4. And Amy about 6, and yet each of these controlled traits and abilities that any healthy adult would need to be a well-rounded person.

Once we unstuck the various girls, we gave them as much outside time as possible. And over the last 11 years, the traits and abilities that each girl controls have begun to mature. KA, as the group fashionista, has done an overhaul of my wife’s wardrobe and makeup, pulling in various aspects of the other girls. Alley has become a mature and eloquent social justice warrior as she leans on Karen and Amy for the logical aspects of her passions. Some of the girls began to explore their sexuality with me as they matured. Amy unleashed her desire to be a business woman. And the littlest girls added emotive personality traits and attachment aspects to my wife and our relationship that have made these so much richer and healthier. I truly am amazed and proud of how beautiful my wife has become as each girl has healed and matured and now lends her unique traits and abilities to my wife’s overall personae.

Let me finish this section using Sophia as an extreme example. When she first joined our family, she literally had the motor skills of a toddler. She would hold crayons in her fist when she colored. Her speech was barely intelligible. She was literally like a 2-year old in every way. But over the years as she healed and then began to connect more deeply to Amy and then Tina, she has transformed and has become a linchpin of the group.

I remember the first time our son came home from graduate school and watched her fronting to drive our car: I think he was sure his death was imminent. At this point she can do anything she wants because she ‘sits on Amy’s lap’ to access the skills for it. But it’s more than that. She is the access point the 5 older girls have to Tina and Jenny. All communication goes through her between the others. And beyond that as the 3 littlest girls have healed and matured, they seem to hold the most robust expressions of physical attachment emanating from my wife. My cold and somewhat aloof wife has been transformed into an affectionate and snuggly one because of them.

3) Neural atrophy.

To me this is one of the harshest aspects of dissociation. It’s bad enough that the trauma is sequestered from what is left of the personality so that victim and attachment relationships can try to pretend it never happened. It’s bad enough that each girl was left with strengths but also fundamental weaknesses that the DSM then labels ‘disorders’. It’s bad enough that those abilities were arrested in their development so the person can’t enjoy the use of them in adulthood, but then neural atrophy, essentially makes the healing process so much more difficult by ‘cementing’ the sequester.

There has been no ‘dam break’ event for us over the last 11 years. We fight and claw for every square inch of healing we gain by the girls repetitively doing things together every single day. I try to engage each of them… We push activities that all or most of them will join in… And slowly the neural atrophy has been reversed thanks to, what I believe, is its converse: neural plasticity. But it comes at a cost. I don’t understand the physiology, and they may say the brain has no pain receptors, but with each step forward in which the girls tear down the dissociation comes debilitating headaches. The pattern never changes: as the girls tear down the dissociation between themselves, the debilitating headaches return, and my wife can barely move. The beginning of this week was another one of those times as, I hope, Jenny is finally ready and able to begin connecting to Sophia. But every step forward for Jenny has been agonizingly and painfully slow for her, the other girls and me. She was buried so deeply inside that we’ve spent as much time helping her heal and connect as nearly all the other girls combined.

Another aspect that I believe is related to neural atrophy is from time to time my wife will fall into mini seizures. Her eyes will roll back in her head and begin furiously twitching, and she is completely unreachable. But I began to visualize this like an old motor that is restarted, and it coughs and sputters as its pistons and gears begin moving again. Or it’s like a computer that glitches when switching between windows or programs. And so these mini seizures were just a sign that my wife’s brain got stuck as it tried to switch between girls because the pathways weren’t fully re-established. I simply had to help her thru the switch by gently calming her and calling various girl’s names until one of them was able to break thru and come to the front, but once the girls got better connected, the seizures rarely occurred.

Another issue that I believe is related to neural atrophy is when my wife would fall comatose. Tina was especially bad about that. She and I would be talking, and then she would go inside, and if I wasn’t ready to catch her, her body would literally have hit the ground. For more than a year I lived in this constant state of alertness, ready to catch her. But again, it was simply a part of the dissociation and the girls weren’t connected enough so that Tina could ‘hand off the baton’ to the next girl to take over the fronting duties. And so when Tina would go inside, and my wife’s body would go limp, I would bear hug her to keep her from falling, and then simply call out Amy or Sophia to take back over things. Once Tina and Sophia were internally connected, the comatose episodes never returned until Jenny joined us, and then we again started the process of connecting her to the others.

The last comment I’ll make about this aspect of the dissociation is that I grow frustrated with the ‘experts’ at ISSTD. I try to minimize my criticisms of them on this blog, but their naivete about how dissociation works and how it must be undone is unfathomable at times. They love to talk about ‘integrating’ and ‘fusing’ the ‘alters’ together as if they can wave a magic wand and with one decision, poof, the long-dissociated persons are now connected. That’s just not how it works, and it saddens me that they promote this simplistic idea to their followers and their patients. Neural atrophy and neural plasticity create the parameters that must be followed, and as much as I want that magic wand, we simply don’t live in Harry Potter’s world.

4) Overlapping Mental States.

I believe that the healthy mind is a delicately balanced system. We’ve already seen that dissociation can cause some of the DSM ‘disorders’ but when dissociation begins to chop up the mind into semi-autonomous regions, it’s like some part of the mind fights against the forced sequestration in an attempt to bring everything ‘back online’. And this attempt to force the dissociated areas back online is what, I believe, causes some of the ‘extreme’ mental states that people experience.

I believe that the mind’s attempt to forcibly reopen the sequestered/dissociated areas is what causes the extreme mental states like ‘psychosis’, flashbacks, panic attacks, triggers, ‘hallucinations’, depersonalization/derealization, and other experiences to occur. At the heart of these experiences the sufferer seems to be experiencing multiple mental states simultaneously, and just to complicate things, so many of those experiences are rooted in distant childhood memories where perceptions are not always accurate and highly symbolic as well. There is the current reality that he/she shares with everyone else, but then the mind tries to extricate and reintegrate one of the dissociated regions to restore the balance. But because it’s not done as I have shown in my attachment series, the sufferer becomes overwhelmed, disoriented, frightened and unable to distinguish between past and present.

Now I walked my girls thru every single one of their ‘extreme’ states using the attachment concepts that I explained in that series. I was able to calm my wife’s mind so that she could properly reintegrate those dissociated areas, and at this point her mind is mostly back in balance so she doesn’t experience the ‘extreme’ states anymore. We are still dealing with other aspects of the dissociation, but this is one aspect that, happily, we have for the most part left far behind years ago.

5) The Internal Working Model(here)

I owe so much to John Bowlby. How I wish the Bowlby Centre in the UK would have given me the chance to show them how incredibly insightful his teachings were and how they provided me a detailed map for healing my wife’s d.i.d. The internal working model from his attachment theory was the key to finally eradicating the effects of this coping strategy.

If you revisit my original analogy, I gave the example of a person whose leg remained broken for 4 decades. After 4 decades of disuse the person’s mind/body system would have developed a nearly-natural work around for the loss of that limb. Life would become ‘normal’ as best as possible from the use of a cane or wheel chair or whatever became part of the person’s coping strategy.

After the trauma of the broken leg was fixed correctly, after the physical therapy was completed so that the atrophied muscles and over-stretched tendons and ligaments were once again usable, the person would still have to retrain him/herself to use the leg. He/she would reflexively grab for the cane anytime a walk was suggested. And it would take a certain amount of time and effort to undo that reflexive use of the no-longer-needed coping strategy.

The same is true for someone who has suffered extreme dissociation. Even though 5 of the girls are mostly connected, Tina and Karen are partially connected, and even Jenny is subconsciously connected, their default is to do things on their own without enlisting the help of the others. And so it’s a process of each one learning to now function as a group instead of individually. In many areas that response is becoming natural, but I still see the reflexive response for some of them to ‘go it alone’ especially Karen since she is still ‘visually’ separated from the girls on the inside.

It was extremely frustrating to me because I knew they were capable of doing so much more together than they typically did, but I didn’t understand why they’d ‘go it alone’ when they didn’t have to do so. Then we discovered that the IWM serves as their default perspective, and that was the source of the problem. Since I wrote 2 entries on that subject here, I won’t belabor the point, but this is the key for fundamentally changing the perspective of each girl from independent to interdependent personalities in the group.

And to help the girls change their IWM, they often have me sketch a new layout for their internal world. I sketched their new internal world when we moved Tina out of her dark solitude and connected her to Sophia’s room and created a ‘common room’ where they all could gather. I did another sketch for Jenny, though her new room is not yet connected to the others. And I’ve done other little sketches through the years after we learned of this great tool. The healing must come first, however, because when I tried to ‘cheat’ and change Jenny’s IWM first, she simply wasn’t able to access the changes until she was ready. And so the sketches are just the final piece of the puzzle that the girls use to show they are moving away from their trauma model and toward a healthier, interconnected one of them to each other.

So this is my perspective on dissociation. It is the over-arching coping strategy that the mind/body system takes when it is confronted with any overwhelming pain and/or fear from trauma. And if that trauma is not addressed, the dissociation will slowly become systemic as it entrenches. There is no magic wand to undo it. We do not live at Hogwarts, but we can take heart that neural plasticity assures us the damage is never permanent if one works hard enough and has enough support to help and encourage along the way.

Wishing you well.


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