FURTHER UNDERSTANDINGS ABOUT DISSOCIATION
If you’ve ever laid a hose end down on some fairly level but still uneven ground, turned the water on at the spigot and then watched what the water does, you will have a part of the wordless image that relates to what I want to write about next. It often seems strange to me that I cannot figure out in my mind ahead of time what I want to say until the words pour themselves out of my fingertips and find their way across a page like that water would across the ground. I am left knowing what it is I want to say only after I have said it.
As I read my brother’s story today, and as I wrote my response to it, I began to become aware of a particular pattern related to my ongoing experience of this process. I will see, now, if I can explain in words as I write them here what that process was, what it felt like, and why this information is important. I do this because while I have intimate first hand knowledge about dissociation, I am motivated to learn how it operates inside of me and how it affects my own experience of myself in my life.
I find as I begin to write that my thoughts are flowing in two different directions. There’s a splitter on the hose!! Before I can describe the difference as I see it between memory retrieval and disclosure, I need to first describe how dissociation contributes not only to the act of perpetrating abuse on others but also how dissociation contributes to our fragmented experience of being a conscious self in our own lives.
I believe that when dissociation is built into an early forming brain an infant’s growing connection with its own self is being negatively and permanently damaged. Under ideal safe and secure conditions of attachment, an infant will ‘grow down’ into its body and into the world through an ongoing, uninterrupted inter-relationship process. If the infant is forced to endure traumatic experiences within a malevolent, rather than within a benevolent world during its early developmental stages, the patterns of ‘rupture without repair’ that exist in the infant’s chaotic and traumatic environment will build themselves directly into the infant’s growing brain, body, and nervous system.
Most importantly, these traumatic experiences build within the traumatized infant a pattern of dissociation between the infant’s growing sense of a FELT SELF within ‘the ongoing experience of having its own experience of its own self within its own life’. I realize that this is a mouthful of words to take in, process and digest. At the same time they represent the most unique aspect of being a member of our species because without this ability to have a felt self, an individual will not be able to have an organized, oriented, congruous or coherent linked-together, ongoing experience of living within their own bodies in their own lives.
They will, therefore, be forced for their entire lifetime to live with dissociated fragments of experience within themselves. At the same time the power of conscious awareness will not fluidly apply to their experience during the times these dissociated aspects of their being are triggered. These dissociations are most likely to ‘break and enter’ one’s ongoing conscious experience of life at the weakest moments. These weak moments lie at every place that a ‘state shift’ occurs.
We can think about these state shifts in terms of shifts in our state of mind, shifts between our emotional states, shifts between things that catch and demand our attention, shifts in the ongoing situations as they happen during a day, shifts in our responses to events, shifts between our ‘day dreaming’ states and our states of conscious awareness, and shifts between feeling perfectly safe and feeling in extreme danger. If we have trauma and its corresponding patterns of disruption of experience (e.g., no logical patterns of cause and effect, patterns of rupture without repair, etc.) built into our bodies, every time a state shift occurs we are, in fact, ‘standing’ at a spot of a weak link in the chain of our ongoing conscious, felt-sense experience of ourselves in our own lives.
Every time our body detects the slightest change in ongoing experience, it decides if it is important enough to bother the body’s ‘tenant’ with information about the change. People who were able to form their brain during infanthoods of safety and security can experience a continuous life without ever having to pay special attention to the state shifts that occur probably millions of times in a normal day.
Having a body and brain-mind that is able to flexibly and appropriately respond to change means that consciousness can continue and the body can be trusted to bring into awareness anything that is important – right time, right place, right response sort of scenario. If trauma has built the body and brain from the start of one’s life, none of what I have just described actually works RIGHT. That is to be expected when the early development occurred in response to circumstances that were not only not right, but absolutely WRONG.
These altered bodies are on an unconscious level constantly monitoring the environment for threat of immanent extinction. Because early trauma built corresponding patterns of dissociation into the body-brain-mind from the start, this same body-brain-mind structure is NOT concerned with ongoing consciousness. These bodies are designed in similar ways to how our species’ bodies were designed way back in our early beginnings before consciousness began to appear.
Consciousness is frosting on the cake, not marrow in the bones. In the ‘worst of all possible worlds’ automatic unconscious responses are what will save a body, not slow ‘ponderous’ thought processes of deliberation. If faced with immanent extinction, we need ‘fast and sure’ not ‘slow and iffy’. Dissociational patterns allow the ‘fast and sure’ to intercede on a body’s behalf at every conceivable point that this same body has detected a possible threat to ongoing life.
Unfortunately, when these altered body-brain-minds, formed within severely traumatized children, leave their malevolent worlds and enter the bigger benevolent world, it is far too late for their bodies to automatically adjust to a safe and secure world.
Remember the Aesop’s child’s story, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf?” Believe me, when one’s physical body is in perceived constant danger of extinction, the body’s cries of ‘wolf’ will always be paid attention to – first, foremost and always. When our entire body, including the brain, nervous system and immune system was built in, by and for an extremely dangerous world, NOTHING about us works the same as it does for people whose bodies were built in, by and for a malevolent world.
Every single time our (trauma adapted) body detects perceived danger and screams WOLF, some form of a dissociative break occurs in our ongoing experience of ourselves in our lives. Our ‘felt sense’ of ourselves as being conscious within our lives is interrupted and can easily disappear all together. When those whose first response to such an interruption, caused by the body’s unconscious detection of threat-to-ongoing-life, is (believe it or not) absolute blinding terror of immanent extinction — and this includes unconscious perceived threat to the psychological self – is to fight their way out of the situation, all hell can and often does break lose.
When the unconscious body decides that the most drastic physical FIGHTING response possible is needed to ensure continued survival, violence, anger and uncontrolled rage can erupt beyond what any ‘normal’ person might even begin to be able to imagine. While humans are a predatory species, even a prey animal like a rabbit or a horse will fight for their survival if there is nothing else they can do. I believe that when the fragmented foundation of dissociation within a traumatized human being becomes wired to an automatic ‘blind’ fight
Parenting is a demanding job that requires massive amounts of internal and external resources to be done effectively. If someone is a parent who was themselves designed and built within a malevolent environment, they are quite simply without the resources to accomplish their task successfully. Their heightened sensitivity to threat of danger (including psychologically), their dissociated foundation of themselves in a body in the world, their easily broken connection to conscious awareness, and their automatic defensive fight reactions to threat means that they are a danger to their own offspring.
When we see someone acting like the father did toward his son as my brother describes in his Red Robin story, or acting violently and destructively in the ways my mother did so often toward me and less often toward my siblings, we can know for a fact that some major form of dissociation has at the same time occurred in response to some unconscious perception of threat. Some ‘state shift’ occurred that caused one of the ‘weak links’ within their body-brain-mind to snap. These people literally ‘switch’ at those instants into an entirely different state of being in the world than they might have been in just a split second before something happened to trigger their ‘trauma’ response.
I believe my brother witnessed that father in the midst of such a dissociated ‘switched state’.
Having written all of this, I am now ready to write about disclosure.