Dissociation and integration

I have an understanding of what dissociation is and how it works that differs somewhat from mainstream psychological ideas. I have mentioned this, but I thought I would explain in more detail.

The standard definition is that dissociation has to do with a separation from an awareness of reality. But what is reality? It’s so many things. There are a thousand bits of sensory input from the external world—some of them important, some of them not. There are sensations in the body, how your skin feels, your heart beating, the sensations in your core that are your enteric nervous system and are part of how you experience of emotions. Then there are your thoughts, the pictures playing out in your mind or the verbal chatter of your mind making sense of things or imagining the future or remembering the past or just commenting on life. That’s all reality. Inside and outside of you is reality. It’s a lot of stuff, and normally we focus our attention on some elements of this reality that seem to be important and away from elements that seem to be unimportant. We cannot possibly maintain our conscious attention on it all, because it is too much to pay attention to at once.

We control our attention. All of us have only so much stimulation we can process and respond to at one time, and we do what we need to do in order to keep it in a range of what is possible and comfortable for us. Dissociation is this control of our own attention.

During traumatic experiences and later, the degree of mental and sensory stimulation is too much, and we shut certain things out of our awareness in the same way we normally do, but to a greater extent. This gets the degree of input down to a manageable level, so that what we are taking in is at a level of intensity we can make sense of and respond to. The more intense the experience, the more constricted we need to make our awareness.

We might shut out stimuli that are very painful so that we aren’t saddled with trying to respond to the pain in addition to doing what the moment demands of us—carry on a conversation, think about maths or whatever—or we might shut out everything but the pain so that we can deal with the pain and not what amounts to trivia. Or we might shut out one kind of pain so that we can attend to a second kind of pain. The stimuli are still being recorded. The knowledge of those stimuli is going somewhere, but we aren’t giving it our conscious attention and it isn’t being processed in the same way as what we are giving our conscious attention to in that moment.

If this goes on very regularly, you end up with a very fractured experience of life. You have a fractured experience of yourself, your past, and the world around you. This fractured experience does not occur separately from your social experience and development. If you are a child, and your personality is developing, your sense of self is going to occur in the same fractured way. So awareness of certain kinds of experiences, certain thoughts or certain feelings, is going to be separated from other kinds of experiences, and they are going to feel like different senses of self.

This creates problems.

It creates flashbacks, for one. As we move through life, we are automatically comparing the present experience to other experiences in the past to see which experiences it might be like so that we can use that information about past experiences to help us be successful in the present in how we respond. At the same time, we are discarding experiences that might at first glance seem similar but aren’t.

But trauma is in bits. The process of mining the past for comparable experiences becomes very difficult, because the memories aren’t rich enough or integrated enough to yield discomfirming details.

I’ll use my bathroom floor as an example. So, as most of you know, my bathroom floor is a kind of pebbly concrete that has been painted red. When I go in the bathroom, I see the floor first. It’s quite bright and noticeable. The most intense memory I have of red, pebbly surfaces involved murder and blood. It’s the first experience that comes to mind for comparison.

When this memory wasn’t processed at all, there was no way for my mind to discard walking into the bathroom as being quite unlike witnessing a murder. The rest of the pieces of that memory of murder weren’t processed. They were either totally unsorted—recorded, but not organized in any way—or stored separately. So every time I walked into the bathroom, the closest bits of that memory arose and presented themselves for sorting and processing and making sense of. Which was, of course, too much. I dissociated them again. And the process continued. It went on for quite a long time this way, until finally the memory was processed and integrated and not stored in a fractured way and so I can automatically discard murder as a memory quite unrelated to walking into the bathroom.

Dissociation of that kind also means you keep experiencing the world in a fractured way. The whole world becomes my bathroom—a possibly related experience that prompts memories of intense, overwhelming trauma—and it continues to be necessary to keep your attention restricted in order to keep life to a manageable level of input. So, it’s self-preserving.

One of the things I have done that has been helpful is to use this deliberate control of my attention to help me process the trauma. I went in the bathroom, and I didn’t pay attention to everything. I continued only paying attention to as much of the stimuli as I could and not more than that. I changed what it was that I paid attention to, but I didn’t try to do more, because biologically I can’t. I focused only on the emotion from the traumatic memory and on my attempt to regulate that emotion. About 1/100 of my attention was on scrubbing the laundry—that is what happens in the bathroom that involves looking at the floor for the longest stretches of time. But everything else was on the emotion and on my attempt to regulate. I shut out the pictures of what happened and the sounds of what happened. I shut out most of my awareness of the laundry. I definitely didn’t let my mind trot on to to worrying about what to fix for breakfast or for how the day was going to go. I kept controlling my attention so that it was focused on the piece that was going to help me.

I felt the emotion in my body and I controlled my breathing. Mostly that is what I did to regulate my emotional state. It’s hard to do a lot else when you are in the bathroom and the floor is wet with laundry water. Sometimes I stood up, because that helps with the emotions too. (Being close to the ground is its own trigger.) But mostly I controlled my breathing, because that helps me stay calm. If I were in a different situation or had had more soothing skills, I might have done something else, but what I had was breath control, so I did that. I did that nearly every day for about six months.

Outside of the bathroom, I went on working with that memory. I shut out my awareness of where I am now, and I only thought of maybe one element of the sensory experience, one thought, one emotion, and I went on doing something to try to keep the emotional intensity down in an artificial way. I controlled my breath, or I wrapped myself up in blankets, or I cuddled a hot water bottle, because those things are calming. I kept using my attentional controls to help me process only the amount of the memory that could be successfully processed until I finally had an integrated, whole memory that my mind now understands is quite different than walking into the bathroom.

And I think that is how you recover from trauma. You do something to lower the intensity of the emotions of the trauma—you do a lot of self-soothing and self-regulating—and you focus your attention very carefully so that it is on what needs to be processed but not more than that. Your attention is on only two things: one piece of the trauma and on the self-soothing. Until the trauma memories get sorted. But I am convinced that this is where it is mostly at, from the standpoint of what one needs to do: self-soothing or self-regulating and attentional controls.

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Sam in the night

Sam wakes up again the same way, but not thinking the same thing. Yesterday, he wanted to know where Nata was because he wanted to know she was safe. It worried him that people had stolen her and made her go away. Maybe they are still hurting her.

Now, he is satisfied that she is safe. Still, he is worried about the location problem. How will he find her when he dies? He can stand the idea of separation if it is temporary; if I live 30 or 40 or 50 years more, that doesn’t have any meaning for him. It’s just that I will die, and he can be with Nata again. That makes it bearable.

But he has to be able to find her.

He tries to reason this out. It is tough going. When he is out, I can feel the effort it requires to follow a line of logic. I am there in the background, and I can feel the strain of it for him, but he is trying.

He thinks that Nata—he’s been told she is a “sparkle” now—can find him sometimes even though she is dead. He imagines this sparkle as being something like Tinker Bell, and so it makes sense to him that she would not always be in one place. She might zip around to different places.

And it really does seem to me—as well as to him—that she is with me at times. I presume this is some kind of psychological phenomenon, where I am just very strongly reminded of her.

But for many years there has been a periodic sense of a presence. It comes at odd times: waiting for IT Ma’am to pick us up front of my landlord’s shop last month, sitting in the backyard drinking tea at twilight when I was 13 and she had just died. I don’t remember most of these moments, just that they have entered my experience of life as something I expect to happen from time to time.

Sam called out to her a few days ago and after that he felt hugged all over, in the way that he used to when she was alive. I am not surprised he thinks she comes to visit him sometimes.

So he reasons that if she can find him now, then she will also be able to find him after he dies. There is something about their connection that is like a tracking device—he doesn’t see it in those terms, he is imagining a special magnet or something like an invisible rope between them. He doesn’t know why she doesn’t use this to stay with him all the time, and I imagine that question will come next.

For the moment, however, he is satisfied. He can find her again. He doesn’t have the mechanics of it worked out, but it logically follows.

In the night though, he wakes up tantrummy because he doesn’t want her to be a sparkle. He wants to be able to hug her again, and she needs a body to do that. He can feel hugged by her sparkle still. That happens. But he cannot hug her. He is angry she doesn’t have a body for him to hug anymore. The bad men stole it from her. They made her body stop working, and now it cannot be hugged anymore.

He is really getting down to it now. They stole her body from him. They couldn’t kill her soul—he cannot bring himself to believe she no longer exists and neither can I—but they killed her body. And her body did things she cannot do without it. This is the real loss. The body and soul together is a different creature than either one separately. He loved them together. I loved them together.

It seems strange to be puzzling out an event, as an adult, that happened when I was 13 using a 2-year-old mind. The 13-year-old mind is perfectly capable of processing the event. All the cognitive abilities are there to do it. My adult mind is perfectly capable of it too. But Sam seems to need to. It’s totally inefficient.

But he’s lit on the key element of it all: the body and soul can do things together that they cannot do separately. I’m not sure my adult mind would have gotten to the core of it so well. My adult mind has too much fluff and nonsense in it to get to the core of things very easily.

I grew up in a church that tries to separate the mind and the body as much as possible. Everything about the body seems to be bad. It is “fleeting” if not actually evil.

The physical world is superficial and an involvement in it suggests a certain shallowness of personality. No one wants to be shallow. The fear of turning out to be a shallow person is as constricting as the fear of rejection or disapproval.

Worse, everything negative about the mind and the personality that really are bad—selfishness, pride, the desire to hurt and punish others when you’re angry, impulsiveness—are equated with the body. They are “flesh.” It’s metaphorical, but spirit is good, flesh is bad.

The body and everything to do with the body is bad. At best, it is meaningless. At worse, it harms others.

But the body and mind do complex things together that make our experiences rich. I am not going to be able to explain this well—and it is new to me, but probably not to you. If I were merely sitting next to Natashka, something happened inside my body that created an emotional response. I felt safe. Being away from her does something equally powerful and mysterious: I feel a sense of longing and uneasiness.

I was safe with her. But your body—I am sure of this—responds to the physical proximity of your “people” in a way that motivates you to stay close to them. This is not just about a cognition—this person makes me safe—but is chemical.

It has to be.

It’s oxytocin. There are other things going on—we are a complex species—but one piece is completely in the body. And the result for us, the attachment, comes from the interplay of body and soul together.

That’s just one example.

 

Communicating with parts

I know from years of experience with both children and adults that people who don’t feel they are being heard are not very good listeners. Whenever it seems you are caught in pointless exchange with someone—where you are both just restating the same arguments—it’s time to stop and just listen and make sure you really understand what is being said to you.

Today, I just listened. When dealing with parts, listening many times involves feeling. That is the self’s way of listening. So, for several hours, I listened to Ghost tell me how it felt not to matter to anyone. And then for a few more hours, I listened to Katie tell me how ashamed she felt. And I listened to Vivianne tell me how much she wished she could die or at least hurt herself.

After that, I put some dal in the rice cooker for dinner. (Yes, you can do that. It takes a long time. But apparently electricity is easier to come by than a new gas cylinder, so I use electricity when I can.) While doing that, I felt like a failure because in terms of visible accomplishments, I hadn’t done very much today—actually, nothing much all weekend. However, I told myself, “Well, that’s one way of looking at it. You could also say I sat with my feelings for most of the day and that was very difficult to do.”

And this little voice answered back, “Oh, you can look at things differently?”

This was evidently news to some part of me, despite years of trying to do this.

I’ve been thinking a lot again about intellectual freedom, that I am entitled to think how and what I choose. That is my right. It seems to be difficult for me to quite grasp. I know it, and yet I don’t know it. I keep backsliding about it, which means the idea has not taken hold firmly.

Perhaps that’s why: I wasn’t listening. I silenced those parts of myself, and so they didn’t listen to me. Today, I did some listening. And someone finally heard. Yes, there are multiple ways of evaluating situations. Some ways of perceiving them make you feel more positively about that situation than others.

This is one kind of freedom to think your own thoughts. There are others.

Setting my own goals is another. I frequently let other responsibilities slide when I can in the interest of spending more time on integration, because integration is my highest priority. For example, today I did not clean the house, although that was the original plan for the day until feelings began to assert themselves.

I don’t exactly know how this will pan out, but my instinct about it is that this will be worth it in the long run—in fact, that it has been worth it. Sometimes I feel guilty about how I choose to spend my time, however, as if I am being lazy even though sitting and thinking about what I think I need to think about is never easy and usually not pleasant: in other words, it sounds a lot like work. That is because it is work.

I am fairly certain that my doubts about this are related: some part of me still believes there are rules about what goals you can set for yourself, just as it thought there was only one way to view situations—in that case, in a way that made me feel disappointed in myself.

The implications of feeling free to think my own thoughts and set my own goals are enormous. Suddenly, I can judge myself according to my own standards and consider my success according to the accomplishments I value. It makes me feel differently about myself. I have, I suppose, a decent career and a lot of education. I’m not terribly impressed with that–studies are not a particular challenge for me—although being able to keep it together well enough to hold down a job is a bit more of an achievement in my view.

But getting my head to this place—although it is by no means the place I want to be in the future—now that is something. That is really something. When I can look at myself through my own eyes instead of the eyes I think I should have, I can see that.

Communication is bi-directional. As I should know by now, you can’t just keep lecturing people (or your parts).

Deconstructing the parts

We left school yesterday at 10:30 am. Someone looked around, said, “We don’t have any work to do. Better we go home.” And off we went.

I don’t really understand the Country X start to school. What seems to be happening these days is that the children are arranging desks in their classrooms and cleaning the school after a two month-long break. This is interspersed with games of tag and general mucking about.

Most of the children were also home by noon. So, none of this takes the whole day and unlike schools in the West, where we decide up-front how long something should take and then declare half-days and minimum days and other special days as needed, here people go when it makes sense to go. They do come at a certain time—everyone is supposed to report to assembly—but they go whenever they feel like it.

At some point, I presume this will change. Probably around March 4, when we are supposed to actually start teaching the curriculum. Instead of, you know, moving desks and playing tag.

Roll with it. That’s my plan.

So, this is what I did instead. I probably should have cleaned more windows, but my head has been an extraordinarily busy place the last week and it seemed high time for a bit of internal tidying up. I deconstructed the parts.

In the interest of integration, which is my personal focus at the moment, I went through my mental catalogue of important parts are decided what they are most essentially about. There aren’t so many of these left, so it wasn’t difficult.

Ghost

I have already worked out this one a few times in various other posts. Ghost is the sense of not really counting, of not being seen, of being ignored in some instances and of being kept secret in others, and it also has to do with just not being possible—as if it’s not possible that I feel the way I do or perceive the world in the way that I do.

It’s also a lonely state to be in, and involves a large degree of isolation and disconnection. Because, if no one realizes you are there, you also can’t connect to anyone either.

Lana (The boring self)

I have been working at understanding this one also, so this one is nothing new either. I used to call this part Lana, but over time the personality has become more diffuse and less singular—as other bits of parts have been absorbed in it.

Nonetheless, Lana is how I feel when I’m anxious. Don’t get confused about this. Lana is not a fearful part. Lana is practical, goal-oriented, no-nonsense, purposeful and determined. Because that’s how I feel internally when I’m afraid. I split off the fear, but still think the way you think when you’re fearful.

And it’s a boring way to feel, so attached to this personality are other things that seem boring to me: such as the color brown and a rigid adherence to time and schedules.

Katie (The girl)

At its core, the female gender role in Western societies is about being social, wanting to have good relationships and please others. So that is what Katie does. And because this part is about gender, everything else associated with being female is thrown in for good measure (at least what was associated with being female in the mind of the little girl who first thought all of this up).

So, when I went shopping for household items in the Capital City, I ended up with all pink and purple belongings. I am not in love with pink and purple, but shopping for bedding and laundry clips is a bit of a “girl thing”—thus, I bought “girl colours.” Fortunately, the pink buckets do look rather smashing in the bathroom and I’ve got nothing against having two sets of purple sheets plus a red and pink blanket.

But there is some humour here, I believe. Because my bedroom does look a little like that of a seven-year-old girl.

The point of all of this is that the core elements of the parts are me, or at least have something to do with how I feel on a regular basis. I do feel sometimes that I don’t count—I used to feel this way much more of the time, because my experience of life was so invisible to others.

I do feel anxious frequently. I am interested in relationships. I do sometimes want to please others and I want to fit well into groups.

But there are bits of the parts that are arbitrary. Ghost tends to wear gray all the time. I’m not sure how I feel about gray, but I don’t think I’m terribly crazy about it. However, gray expresses that feeling of being ghost-like.

You could say the same thing about Lana. Lana is the reason I have a brown blanket—I must have been feeling stressed that day about everything I needed to buy, and I came home with a blanket in Lana’s favourite colour. Which is actually a nice relief from my little girl’s bedroom. But brown expresses that sense of being boring.

I wonder now what it is I do like. I’m not wild about brown or gray or even pink—to stick with colours, since they are easy to talk about. But the strange thing about being in parts is that integration doesn’t, as it turns out, mean a gradual blending of pieces into a whole. It doesn’t even mean peeling away layers to reveal some kind of “authentic self.” It means that a space opens up for a new self to form that was never there before.

I am also struck more than ever how our preferences arise out of a desire to express a social role—I am “this” kind of person and therefore like “this” kind of thing—as much as they are about what we really prefer. In other words, our choices often reflect who we think we are. The reverse is still true—we do get an idea of who we are from what we like. But both processes occur all the time. And I don’t really know what kind of person I think I am just yet.

Ghost

At night, when I should be sleeping, I want to write. There is too much crowded up there in my head and I can’t fathom sleeping up there with all that mess. It needs to be organized first.

Mostly, I’m looking at myself. One of the parts I called Ghost has been a great deal on my mind the last few days. This business of accepting where and who I am—instead of focusing mainly on where I want to be and how to get there—has made a great difference for us.

In explaining why that’s come about, I also have to mention my idea about parts: they involve memories of how others saw us.

I had a therapist once who used to tell me on a regular basis, “You need to feel seen.” Or, “You need to feel heard.” As if that was something special or unique about me. She was wrong. We all need to be seen and heard. What I was articulating to her—what she noticed—was my experience of not existing in the eyes of other people, including her eyes.

Ghost is the embodiment of that experience. For the pedophiles who paid for my services, I did not exist as a real child with real feelings and real needs. I had only the wishes and emotions of their fantasies. For my natural parents, my pain did not exist. For the state of California, my need for protection and nurturing did not exist. For so many people, I simply wasn’t there. Someone else was there, but that person wasn’t me. Ghost is what it feels like for no one to recognize or understand what it’s like to be you.

As I simply accept where I am in my life and how I feel about things generally, Ghost is seen again. I am seeing myself. It isn’t all sparkles and rose, this seeing myself thing, but it’s honest. When I wrote last night that I think next year will be hard, I felt better because that’s the truth. The truth in many ways is easier and more straightforward to deal with than wishful thinking.

In all probability, next year is going to be a hard one. But I could stay at home in LA and have a hard year for different reasons. It’s being alive that’s really so difficult for me. Because of that, I’m always wondering, “Will I make it through this one?” It’s always by the skin of my teeth that I make it. So the next challenge that comes around, I wonder about that too. Just as I’m wondering now if I’ll make it through a year in Country X. But the wondering is at least honest.

Ghost is honest. More specifically, Ghost is what it feels like to be honest when everyone around you is trying to uphold a complex web of lies. Ghost is what I lived through all that for, the reason I kept going afterwards when escape did not end the pain.

I think I’ve assumed for many years that I wanted to be happy or to enjoy being a fuller person—like whatever happened after I had “healed” would be a lot more fun. But my goal all along has been to be able to tell the truth, not just about what happened to me but what it’s like to be me—the sublime, the ugly, the hideous, and the ordinary. I just want to exist. Like everyone else does.

Parts, Country X, an announcement

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A totally gratuitous dog photo. Because that’s what’s going on while I write. Her name is Chintu. She bit me yesterday, but that’s a story for another post.

I should announce, first of all, that my application for Country X has been approved. I now need only submit four different bodily fluids and two or three thousand scanned documents and I will be on my way.

That is a slight exaggeration. But you get the idea.

So they have given us packing lists, and there is a series of online webinars—mostly held in the small hours of the morning for me when there is also no internet connectivity (I blame the call centers and their many pesky computers for this)—that are supposed to help prepare us.

As yet, I have no idea what part of the country I will be posted in, or whether there will be ass-freezing winters there or simply a damp chill, whether it will be too high in elevation for mosquitoes or whether I can expect the place to be buzzing with them, whether I will be in a small metropolis or the back of beyond.

They hope to be able to tell us next week. So I am expecting to find out by the first week of December.

But in all of this, I feel the same urge as everyone else is probably feeling about this: a desire to prepare. And there are lots of ways you can do this. We are all probably doing it in our own way.

You can read up on the culture and geography. You can try to make connections with people who have done this before. You can buy things to take with you. And you can pack.

They have been playing next to my feet ever since.
They have been playing next to my feet ever since.

There is a great deal of talk about food and what kind of foods are available, as well as what you will miss. A former teacher suggests bringing tarragon, but no one has uploaded their favorite fern frond recipe, which to me seems a lot more useful.

I already know what I will miss most, because I already do: raw things. Vegetables, mainly. Yesterday, I was craving a head of cauliflower something fierce. You know, just chopped, with perhaps some kind of creamy dressing—the whole head, all at once.

There’s nothing to be done about that really. You can’t carry clean with you. Perhaps I’ll pack a vegetable peeler and hope for the best.

But mainly what I need to do to prepare is to keep integrating and working with parts, for general reasons and then also for some more specific ones. Generally, life is easier and less stressful if I am in a less divided state. Unity, although I know not everyone aims for it—is like having telepathy as a means of communication rather than words. In other words, it’s efficient. And my mind works better and faster—I can take in more and make decisions more easily—the more integrated I am.

And one thing I know about the first year teaching in a new place is that there is a lot to take in, there are a lot of decisions to make (both large and small), and all of this newness can be very stressful.

The same holds true for simply living in a new place, even if you aren’t working at all. There’s a lot to take in and a lot to learn. You need all of your brain for this. And it’s just much, much easier if communication with yourself is simple, direct, and effortless.

So integration is a priority at the moment, because whatever I can do now to reduce potential sources of stress or to make the stress more manageable will help in the long run.

Also, I said there were some specific reasons this would also help. Let’s start by saying there is a particular part that has been responsible for managing most aspects of life in India for me. This is not a new part—it’s been around since my first trip to India 20 years ago—but neither has it been around since childhood.

Presumably, this part has a great deal of experience with how to acculturate. I need that. I need that knowledge and experience not to be on the other side of a wall from, say, my understanding of teaching or my ability to form relationships. I need it close at hand, so that finding it and using it isn’t effortful.

Making sense of parts

I have grown tired of the metaphor of the elephant and the blind men, and am shifting my allegiance to bicycles. Image credit: Merriam Webster.
I have grown tired of the metaphor of the elephant and the blind men, and am shifting my allegiance to bicycles. Image credit: Merriam Webster.

I am struggling with the idea of not being parts. It’s an idea that tends to roll around in my head at night when I’m trying to sleep and then disappears by morning. Or, I think of it when I first get up and by the time I’ve bathed and dressed and headed out into the world, the idea has subsided, so I never end up grappling with it in a genuine way. It just floats around.

I should give you an example of what I mean by not being parts. Yesterday, I was feeling a bit low.  In fact, I was feeling almost beside myself. I’m not really sure why, but I was. And so all kinds of old notions were bouncing around in my head–not the nicest ones, obviously–and I also felt about two years old.

Actually, I do know why I felt that way–it had to do with the degree of helplessness and dependency I have been feeling–which is simply a part of being a foreigner at least for a while and of being in a new place.

There is a water filter here in the kitchen, but I did not have the remotest idea how to turn it on. Also, I could not find the dish soap for the life of me, although it was sitting right there on the counter. I have never seen dish soap bottles like that before. Aunty uses a blue bar of something or other, and most other places I have stayed have kept the matter of washing dishes a complete mystery to me. So then I didn’t know that soap can come in large yellow jugs.

That sort of thing.

But getting back to feeling two years old. You could say this was one of the younger parts, and indeed, feeling this way I was reminded forcefully of other aspects of being two, including ways of seeing and thinking about things that I would have used then.

Or, you could say it was me being reminded of having been two, when I was also helpless, and that reminder had activated other memories, and the way that I was remembering it all was so intense that I felt I was reliving them.

Lately, I have felt periodically that I am someone else, that the unfamiliarity of my own thoughts and feelings is so great that I don’t seem to be myself any more. And I think this is the same kind of phenomenon. Mental states I might have felt belonged to someone else before now seem to be mine.

And it’s just strange.