Ghost child. Dorothea Lange. 1936.
I love extended periods of time off.
They provide a chance to do what some might refer to as narcissistic navel-gazing. I prefer to think of it as therapy.
Meet Ghost. I did. Sort of.
It’s difficult, however, because Ghost does not exist, or barely exists. If you tried to shake her hand, your hand might very well go through her. Ghost is an invisible child, a child who escapes notice, blends in, does not present with difficult needs or feelings. Ghost keeps it cool, keeps it together. Keeps it on the down-low.
Ghost is an ego state.
Well, I think so. Because I don’t really know what ego states are. I’ve read about them, but I still don’t get them. They don’t make any sense to me, and I don’t know if that’s because I’m reading inadequate explanations or if I’m just slightly stupid. Perhaps both.
What I seem to be able to piece together is that an ego state is a dissociated part of the self, but which lacks the amnesiac barrier of a dissociated identity. As far as I can tell, it functions in every way as a self functions and it is formed in the same way.
I do not, I should say, have Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I do, however, have dissociated ego states. Ghost is one of them.
I’ve worked with a lot of them. Most of them have nicely collapsed into a more integrated self. (Thank you, ego states!) Ghost is a hold-over. She has not gone away.
I just met her today. This is what I mean about time off. I am either becoming psychotic or making tremendous progress. I vote for progress.
So, that said, let’s talk about identity for a minute. From what I understand, there are three basic sources of identity.
First, we understand ourselves based on identity-bound behaviors: in other words, through behaviors that have meaning for us or are generally held to have meaning in our larger social world. If I consistently score well on math tests, I am likely to come to see myself as someone who is good math. If I keep appointments and show up on time, turn in my homework or fulfill work obligations, I will see myself as responsible.
We also see ourselves as we imagine others see us. Our imaginations may be wild or accurate, but if I believe everyone adores me, I will start to think of myself as being pretty important.
A third source of identity is our ongoing experience of ourselves. If I regularly feel energetic, physically active, and wanting connection, I am likely to see myself as an outgoing, lively person. If I regularly feel sad, pessimistic, and without energy, I am likely to see myself as depressive.
Ghost comes from all three forms of identity, which gives her a surprising solidity. I am and was dissociative. I experience much of life as if from the other side of a curtain, and both my own internal experience and the world often feel remote, unreal, or in some way numbed or washed out. My experience of both myself and everything else is, in a very real way, ghost-like.
That is also how I was seen by important people around me: as someone who did not have real feelings or real preferences. In a word, I did not count.
It’s interesting, because I’ve spent a lot of years sitting with therapists and telling them in a variety of ways, “I don’t exist, I don’t count, I am not really here. I am elsewhere.” And they, in their kindness, have told me that I do exist and I do count.
And again, my experience has not counted. I am, again, a ghost.
Because I am dissociative and I do have discontinuous ego states, I often find myself difficult to understand. I don’t always present a continuous image either to others or to myself, and the responses I get back are therefore discontinuous and contradictory. But what I find interesting is how often what I have said or what I have presented about myself has been the truth–regardless of how puzzling it has been. When I have said, “I do not exist,” I meant it.
Dissociation is a form of non-existence and is summed up best in the way my child’s mind first constructed: as paper-thin, unreal, ghost-like. That is how life feels to me from the very inside.
What is also interesting is that to step out of this position of non-existence is to face an acute ontological challenge. If I exist, then who am I? If I exist, then I can no longer exist.
Zaharna, Z.S. “Self-Shock: The Double-Binding Challenge of Identity.” (1989) International Journal of Intercultural Relations.” Retrieved from: http://www.american.edu/soc/faculty/upload/self-shock-the-double-binding-challenge.pdf