Sometimes…you just have to get away. Peel out of there like a shot. Bail. Abandon ship.
There are moments when it’s nearly impossible to be in the body, to stay with the body. I’ve found that this usually occurs in times of intense feeling, trauma, anxiety, or fatigue. If you’re anything like me, your feelings are massive, earth-shaking, and, well, bigger than the universe. Feelings are messy, deranged, reckless, momentous, and impossible to contain. Our feelings are so big that we’re often afraid of them and sometimes so raw that it feels like they’ll choke us (or at least, do tissue damage). Damn emotions. 😉
Whenever something gets too close, hurts too much, or feels too big or confusing, I bail on my body. This is called disassociation; it’s pretty common in people who have been abused. I do it subconsciously, of course, and it happens so fast that I can’t stop it. Most of us disassociate to some degree. When you daydream, that’s disassociation. When you drum, you enter a disassociated state. When we trance while listening to music, deeply relax, or even when some of us do yoga, that’s a type of disassociation. But, some of us disassociate dozens of times per day (or more) to avoid feelings. Some of us live more “out” than “in”. I lived more out of my body than in my body for decades.
For the longest time, I didn’t know that I was employing this type of coping mechanism. I didn’t even know what it was until I went through therapy. Analysis revealed to me that when the sh*t goes down, I leave my body effortlessly and instantly. My spirit vacates. Again, for years, I did this without realizing it. And, it was a real process to identify my penchant for disassociation.
I was in my second year of high school and going crazy. Years of living with abusive parents (four of them between both sides of the fam) and siblings (two of them between both sides), plus gobs of other physical and emotional trauma, had literally brought me to the edge of sanity. I was a complete and utter wreck. I was anorexic/bulimic and torridly addicted to cigarettes (1.5 packs) and caffeine (1200 milligrams) per day. I ate one meal per week. My life was imploding all of the time, but, hey, I looked competent. I acted brave. I was thin and beautiful. People thought I was well.
At the end of my Sophomore year in HS, I was trying to move out of my dad’s insane household and struggling to pay for food, school supplies, clothes, and the bare essentials. I was working under-the table at a video store and putting in as many hours as I could get, in addition to going to school. So, there was intense pressure in my life, intense pain, and heaps of childhood damage that I was doing my best to hold down and avoid. It was a truly awful time. And, being in high school, with all of its pressures and torment, was the last thing I needed or wanted. But, of course, I went to school every day, because if I hadn’t, my dad, (read: bad-ass cop/investigator), would find me and drag me back into the hell from which I had escaped. He warned me that he would. I knew he would. So I toed the line, stayed in school, did my time.
“Doing my time” included a stint of living in my car, which was preferable to actually going back and living with the damn-family. Yep, it was pretty bad. But, my ego had me convinced that I was fine. What other 16-year-old lives on their own? I didn’t need any help. I just needed to stay away from my crazy family and work harder, that was all. This was the stuff my ego was routinely telling me and since I was rarely ever in my body, it was easy to believe my ego, easy to believe that I had things under control.
In talking with an older friend of mine one day (who was a regular at the video store where I worked), I let some of the “crazy” out. I admitted that my childhood had been pretty abysmal and I was often so depressed that I had trouble getting out of bed. He suggested that I call a therapist with whom he had worked and gotten some help. At first, I balked because “everyone has families like mine, right?” He assured me that no, what I suffered through was actually far worse than what many people go through; it had damaged me; I clearly needed help. His words burned me. They did. I felt them pinging somewhere deep inside of my body as he spoke them, and I knew he was right.
I called the shrink soon after, made an appointment, and in the consult with the doctor, I begged her to help me. I offered to pay her $10 per week for our sessions, because it was all I had. I ended up going to her for three years. And, despite the fact that my therapist tried really hard to turn me into a Christian (a story for another post), the therapeutic process actually saved my life. In my sessions, I finally caught up with the damage that had been done to me. I saw and re-experienced, in garish detail, the abuse, the trauma, the heartbreak, the devastation, the agony. I crawled through the dark woods of myself over and over and got lost inside of those woods many times and sometimes for days on end.
I learned about disassociation and how I had used it exclusively to avoid my feelings. I learned when I do it, how to catch myself doing it, and how to stay in my body (or at least, how to return to it faster and catch some of the feelings that I was trying to avoid). And, while therapy made me feel like sh*t, often, it also began to work in subtle ways, ways that I couldn’t articulate until much later. I learned how to descend into the body and hold the feelings that I was running away from. This work was harrowing, painful, awful, and at the same time, illuminating and beautiful. Analysis helped me so much. I loved and hated it. But, I did the work. I kept going.
Truthfully, even now, it’s a daily struggle to stay present and descend into the depths of my body versus pop out and retreat to my mind or somewhere “out there”. Sometimes, it’s such a chore to dig in on my feelings, trace them to the thoughts I was thinking, ask questions, wait for the answers, and not run away from my emotions. Sometimes, I just can’t do it. I have to leave. And, I’ll be honest, I like bailing. I like being “out there”. It’s safer. There are fewer feelings “out there”. But, I’ve learned that it’s not always helpful to bail.
While disassociation is a coping mechanism that serves a purpose, is necessary, and even arguably “natural” for human beings, when we do it too much, it can keep us from healing our inner wounds and fully living. It also cements a less-than-healthy relationship to the body because you’re not fully feeling the body or living in the nuances of experience from the body. You know what I mean. We all struggle with body image issues. We all reject our bodies sometimes. I had to learn how to dig in versus bail out and I had to learn how to walk into my wounds. When I did that regularly, when I did the work, huge transformation happened for me.
So, tell me about your experience. Do you disassociate? How does that feel for you? What is your journey with it? Have you come up with some ways to manage your departures? Tell me about it in your comments. Let’s talk.