7 Dissociation Symptoms In Abuse Victims
Dissociation Symptoms When Your Husband Lies, Cheats, & Abuses You
Richard Blankenship is the clinical and administrative director for the Capstone Center for Counseling, DBT and Relational Trauma at the Capstone Center for Sexual Recovery and Transformation. He founded of the International Association of Certified Sexual Addiction Specialists, where he served as president for 13 years, and a founding board member of the Association for Partners of Sex Addicts Trauma Specialists (APSATS). He developed the first graduate course to be taught on sexual addiction along with a colleague, and guest lectures in a variety of university-level courses.
He is married with two children and has worked with churches and counseling centers for over 25 years.
What Is Dissociation?
Richard: Dissociation is, basically, a splitting off of or a detachment. It’s a big word that can sound really scary, yet, it manifests itself in different degrees. It’s something that we all do. We dissociate from difficult experiences. Even daydreaming is a form of mild dissociation, when you’re just checking out of something.
Dissociation is a coping skill in some ways and, at times, it can be healthy. At other times it can be unhealthy.
How Does Dissociation Occur?
Anne: That’s good to hear, that it can sometimes be healthy, as I have experienced quite a bit of dissociation since my ex-husband’s arrest. What does it look like in terms of a wife who is in trauma? So a woman who is experiencing the emotional abuse or the trauma of finding out about her husband’s porn use or his infidelity?
Richard: Whenever women find out about problematic sexual behavior, or chronic porn use, anything on that continuum, they’ll develop a lot of the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One of the things that comes when you’re in a traumatized state is a level of dissociation.
It can be as basic as just zoning out for a few minutes, some daydreaming, maybe even some fantasy of being in a better place, or it could go over to some very extreme levels where people lose touch with reality. More often than not, we see it early on when people are in a state of shock from the betrayal. They may just be staring straight ahead with a blank look. Dissociation
actually does have a continuum that it runs on from fairly minor to much more extreme.
Anne: The reason why I wanted to talk about this is because I found myself not hearing my children when they were talking to me and I wasn’t doing anything else. They would say something, and I would realize that they had been saying something to me and that I did not hear them for like, I don’t know how many times they said, “Mom, Mom, Mom.” Then I was like, “Oh, yeah, what is it?”
What Are The Symptoms of Dissociation?
I was available and ready and willing to talk to them, but just didn’t hear them until they had said my name a few times. I would say that mine would be on the very minor level of zoning out for a little while, but I found myself doing that frequently, so I thought, “Oh, I need to learn more about dissociation.”
I just wanted to see what does an expert have to say about, first of all, this level of dissociation—which I’m sure many of our listeners are experiencing—do you have any tips for that? Then, also, perhaps talk with our listeners about more extreme levels of dissociation and what that could mean for them and how to get help?
7 Symptoms Of Dissociation
- Memory Loss
- Inability to concentrate
- Zoning Out
- Imagining the same scenario over and over and over
- Getting somewhere and not knowing how you got there
- Feeling disconnected from yourself
Richard: What you described, is very normal for any betrayed wife as they’re going through, especially, that initial shock and devastation when they discover the trauma. It can go to a variety of different presentations. When you get over to the extreme ones, you see people who are not grounded in reality, they check out to the point that they can actually be in
dangerous situations and not realize they’re in dangerous situations.
One extreme example I had was with a betrayed woman who was trying to cook for her children and she had started a fire on a gas stove. The thing ignited curtains and the kitchen was starting to burn and she was just sitting there, not realizing that there was actually a fire going on for quite a while. That would be an example of some pretty extreme dissociation.
How Does Dissociation Relate To Trauma?
It can vary across the recovery process for women. As they’re going through the healing process, it may be that they get much better over time and a lot of the dissociation goes away. There are many worse ways people could cope with something. Now, obviously, if you get to the extreme of dissociating when you’re driving a car, you get in a wreck, or the kitchen’s on fire and you don’t realize it. Obviously, those are very unhealthy extremes where someone is really checking out of reality.
Dissociation is healthy in situations like minor surgery, coping with physical pain. Sometimes a doctor or a nurse might even ask the patient to create a beach scene or a mountain scene and check out when they’re doing that. I’ve done that and seen that with people who, perhaps, were going for something as basic as a root canal and used dissociation into a fantasy as a way to get through a difficult time, a difficult procedure.
Anne: I have actually done hypnotherapy, and you’re a certified clinical hypnotherapist. I want to talk about this briefly, because I wonder if my training with hypnotherapy served me well and enabled me to disassociate appropriately through the pain. I’ve never thought about that before, until now, but all of the sudden, I’m like, “Hey, maybe I have a cool skill that I was able to
employ when things got really difficult.”
How Is Dissociation Treated?
Richard: A friend helped her daughter in the emergency room after an auto accident. As her daughter got stitches, she held her daughter’s hand and said, “Where do you want to go?” And helped her visualize a beach scene. That’s healthy dissociation.
Anne: Okay, I love this. I’ve actually been doing visualization with my son every night. I haven’t thought of it as dissociation, until now. I helped him put all his negative emotions about school into a box: “I don’t want to do my work. I hate doing schoolwork.” I asked him if he could pick up a pencil to do his schoolwork while holding the box full of negative statements.
“No, I can’t,” he said.
I said, “Well, where do you want to put the box?”
“I’m going to dump it out in a river with fish that think that stuff is delicious. They ate it all up.”
I said, “Can you pick your pencil up now?”
“Oh, Mom, I can do my assignment now,” he said.
He has improved significantly in his schoolwork. Whereas before, his intrusive thoughts like, “I don’t want to do this. This is boring. I hate this.” were getting in his way. Now he’s able to get his work done even if he occasionally thinks negative thoughts.
Techniques For Dealing With Dissociation
Do you have any tips for me without that low-level dissociation? I want to be present. I want to be able to connect with my children, but I’m having a hard time concentrating?
Richard: If it’s chronic, I recommend EMDR treatment, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. That that often helps women who have a lot of pain to process, process it quickly and reconnect with the present moment.
How Mindfulness Can Help With Dissociation
Basic grounding is another technique. Take a moment, breathe, feel the floor beneath your feet, some things that you know can bring you into the present moment. A lot of even the relaxation techniques can help out there.
Anne: Mindfulness. If I’m unable to concentrate, perhaps touch the couch, feel the couch fabric, touch my child’s arm. Bring myself into the moment by stating his is a couch, this is my child.
Richard: Exactly, overwhelming emotional pain takes women out of the present. Some women stop trusting their emotions. She might not realize when she’s panicking, or angry, or perhaps depressed, even health issues may go undetected.
Can Trauma Cause Symptoms Of Dissociation?
Anne: Readers, how are your symptoms? Please scroll down and comment to let us know how this effects you. Do you see women just naturally improving as they heal, and they go through the recovery process, maybe as time goes on a little bit?
Richard: Absolutely. One of the reasons I love working with women is that I do see them get well. It’s a very difficult journey, especially in those first few months, but most of the women make it. I actually see women return, not only to their previous level of functioning, but often a higher level of functioning.
As things improve, dissociation from trauma typically improves, attention span improves, you’ll find less memory lapses. At first, women will misplace the car keys or even forget how to drive home from work. But as women heal, they become more connected, more present, more able to be emotionally present in their relationships.
Anne: That is exciting news. I’m feeling pretty normal and I’m doing quite well in this dissociation thing. I’m feeling more validated.
Dissociation As A Coping Mechanism
Richard: If you think about it, you could have become a drug addict, you could’ve become an alcoholic. You could have turned to all kinds of destructive coping mechanisms. If the worst thing that you did was dissociate a little bit and had a few memory lapses, in the grand scheme of things, I’d say you’re pretty normal and doing pretty good. I can think of far worse ways that betrayed wives could be coping than occasionally checking out.
It’s also important to remember that there is a lot of hope. It is temporary. It’s not something that has to last forever. It is something that may help you get through some very difficult moments. You just don’t want it to become chronic.
Anne: Right. What would you say the difference is between a healthy use of dissociation to take a break from the pain and numbing? When I first started recovery, many people said, “Don’t numb your emotions.” But in Barb Steffens book, Your Sexually Addicted Spouse, she recommends taking a break from the pain, sometimes. Watching a movie to take a break from the pain wasn’t a bad thing. So I had some compassion with myself and gave myself permission to take breaks from the pain.
Richard: If it’s healthy use, it’s going to be very temporary. If you go to the dentist, they’re going to numb your mouth, but it’s temporary. It’s something to help get through a specific situation or period. If you find yourself numbing your mouth all the time and you can’t talk and you can’t eat, obviously it’s a problem. So if you start dissociating as a way to cope with everyday stress, you know it’s not healthy.
Can Dissociation Be Cured?
However, when dealing with betrayal, women are going to feel numb, at times. Other times, they’re going to be feeling things so intensely that they express in some extreme ways.
Anne: I think viewing it within the framework of the APSATS multi-dimensional partner trauma model is helpful, right? The first phase of safety and stabilization, you’re starting to establish safety for yourself and your family. Then grieving and processing, where there might be a lot of pain during that first and second phase, and those might be the appropriate times to utilize a break from the pain.
Then, the third phase of connecting, if we find ourselves continuing to try and numb out or continuing to disassociate, that might be where we need to look at that and say, “Wait a minute, this is not a healthy way to live. I am safe now. I don’t need to use these coping mechanisms anymore.” Is that kind of what you’re suggesting?
The Varying Degrees Of Dissociation
Richard: Yes, that’s correct. I don’t ever want pathologize a woman who’s been through betrayal because they happen to be numbing out or having trouble focusing early on in that journey, when they’re trying so hard to stabilize and just get a sense of safety and stability back. During those times, it’s normal to have those times of checking out. It’s just that, as a long-term coping skill, that’s probably not one you want to be using.
It’ll take time and it’ll take some practice, but you’ll get there.
One of the things that was pointed out to me in some research on dissociation was that Christians are often taught to dissociate at a certain level. Think about it, even as a kid, “Put on your Sunday best.” You could’ve had a horrible family fight and, yet, you’re still supposed to go to church and look like nothing’s wrong. Well, in a sense, there’s some dissociation. It can be somewhat like the dissociation you might feel, if you are dealing with a supervisor at work and you’ve been traumatized on the job. Perhaps you dissociate some to get your job done. I’ll give you another example of healthy dissociation.
Let’s say that you’re about to have brain surgery and the neurosurgeon had a fight with her husband. I sure hope she can dissociate from the fight and be present while they’re in that operating room. Things like that are examples where dissociation can actually be very functional.
Healing From Trauma-Based Dissociation
Anne: Wow. I didn’t anticipate that it would be a discussion of the healthy uses of dissociation. I thought that it would be that it’s always bad. This is fascinating to me and so exciting that I’m not as terrible as I thought. That’s so cool.
Richard: I don’t think you’re anywhere near terrible, Anne. I tell betrayed wives this all the time, you’re not crazy. I think that’s what’s happened with so many because of their husband’s gaslighting. You get to where you think you’re crazy. Whenever I tell women they’re not crazy, they often break down with tears and say, “I really thought that I was.”
Anne: Yeah. Well, now I’m seeing dissociation as a natural progression to my trauma. Also, I’m seeing where I have used it in healthy ways, both in terms of my own visualization and then helping my son visualize. To my listeners, Yay! You’re not crazy! I’m not crazy!
Anne: The first step to healing is making sure that you are safe. To know if you are safe takes some time and some education. We’ve set things up so that you can know what your level of safety is, starting with “How to Heal: Stages of Betrayal Trauma Recovery,” with Coach Cat. Then, “Am I Being Emotionally Abused,” with Coach Gaelyn, “Detecting and Confronting Gaslighting,” with Coach Sarah, and then “Setting and Holding Healthy Boundaries,” with Coach Sarah.
How Dissociation Protects Against Trauma
You need to know what types of behaviors will hurt you. If you’re constantly being harmed and in pain, you’re either going to confront it continually (constant fighting) or avoid it (no connection).
Next week, we’re going to talk about how people get into patterns of fantasy or dissociating as a way to just deal with everyday stresses in life. That is what addicts do. That’s dangerous and we don’t want to go down that road.
Please let us know what you think and how you feel about dissociation symptoms by commenting below.