From Dissociation To Association

“Elite Hide and Seek” digital art by Vennie Kocsis

You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.” Brene’ Brown

I spent a very large part of my life dissociated as I grew up in extreme trauma. My days were carried out in dissected sections of memory and darkness which were always merging and weaving together in confused images, memories, words and off putting smells. Depending on the circumstances happening in my life, my stress levels, whether I was in memory immersion and writing, or going about my everyday activities, my brain was constantly moving around chaotically from section to section as it navigated itself.

I was on a multi-layered auto-pilot, flying through life in a fog that morphed through endless dimensional spaces without any organization. Dissociation disorders may ensue when dissociation is used as a way of surviving complex and sustained trauma during childhood, the period of human progression when the brain and personality are still developing.

I share my own story of living with dissociation disorder from my personal perspective.  I am not self-diagnosed.  I have been through extensive testing for psychological diagnoses which have allowed me to understand myself and why I see and experience this planet and its society as I do. Please don’t diagnose yourself or Google your symptoms. There are a vast array of dissociation disorders and not all of them include identity struggle.  It’s so very important to me that I did not talk about living with this without having an actual valid, psychological diagnosis in my hands.

It is not an easy diagnosis to discuss since people have pre-conceived notions of what it’s like living with this impairment. First, many people find it difficult to wrap their head around and ask my questions such as, “Is it like being on LSD?” Not even close. It’s much more humanly complex.

I have never experienced dissociation disorder such as it is portrayed in movies like “Sybil“, “Split” or shows like”The United States of Tara.”  When I read the book, “When Rabbit Howls”, I felt angry inside. I felt the psychiatrist who treated her and wrote the book grossly exploited Truddi Chase instead of helping her. She died young. She died miserable. She died still living with dissociation. It’s certainly not like “Fight Club” or “American Psycho.”

I do not believe in the ideal that different people live inside my brain. Instead I view my brain like a super computer with differing drives created during that childhood trauma. These drives or canisters, inside of my brain are precious to me. After all, these sections of my brain stayed active and kept me alive in times when I fought death.  They deserve, in the least, to be held with a bit of humility and reverence. In essence, I have deep respect for my own brain.

Through most of my life, from the time I was taken into Sam Fife’s Move of God cult at three years old, I lived continually drifting in and out of my brain’s canisters as both my long term and short term memory stayed dissected.  I never felt that I was becoming different people. I simply lost time and memory.

What Happens When We Dissociate?

I had memory gaps. I said and did things I couldn’t recall. I was confused. I checked out when there was too much stimuli around me. Had you looked at me in those days, I would have seemed present. I actually was.  I was both “there” and “over there” because living with dissociation involves being in multiple spaces at one time.  Living with dissociation means that your conscious mind might not remember these stressful moments. I wrote about my childhood near death dissociation experiences in detail in my memoir, “Cult Child.”

When I say my brain works like a computer, I describe it this way because it was designed through childhood trauma to have many different sections I identify as hard drives. It created this special computer system in order to keep me alive as a child. There were parts of me which needed to stay and parts of me which needed to go away in order for me to survive.

For most of my life, I was operating back and forth, moving my brain between these different drives, opening and closing browser windows in my life without much of a conscious awareness about the way I was living. 

Amnesia and transitional states of being have been the main way that dissociation disorder has manifested itself in my life. I have lost gaps of memories which at times, can be daunting and haunting. Such as when one of my children remembers something fun from their childhood, something we did together, and I wrack my brain to bring the details into view. Such as when someone reminds you of a whole afternoon I spent with them, but I don’t remember any of it. 

Science has made incredible advancements in the study of mind sciences and understanding what happens to the human brain when it is held in traumatic dissociation. 

One such study states:

Machine-learning and neuroimaging techniques have been used to accurately distinguish between individuals with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) and healthy individuals, on the basis of their brain structure, in new research part funded by the NIHR Maudsley Biomedical Research Centre and published in the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Could Multiple Personality Disorder explain life, the Universe and everything? A new scientific paper argues the condition now known as “dissociative identity disorder” might help us understand the fundamental nature of reality. In 2015, doctors in Germany reported the extraordinary case of a woman who suffered from what has traditionally been called “multiple personality disorder” and today is known as “dissociative identity disorder” (DID). The woman exhibited a variety of dissociated personalities (“alters”), some of which claimed to be blind. Using EEGs, the doctors were able to ascertain that the brain activity normally associated with sight wasn’t present while a blind alter was in control of the woman’s body, even though her eyes were open. Remarkably, when a sighted alter assumed control, the usual brain activity returned.” Scientific American

A 2006 study, Dissociative Amnesia and DSM-IV-TR Cluster C Personality Traits stated, “Dissociative amnesia is a disorder characterized by retrospectively reported memory gaps. These gaps involve an inability to recall personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature. Dissociative amnesia most commonly occurs in the presence of other psychiatric conditions, particularly personality disorders.

As defined by Tulving, humans have three major types of memory.

1. Episodic memory is remembering events as one would recall a movie.

2. Semantic memory is knowledge about the world and memory of words, dates, and facts.

3. Procedural memory is the ability to remember motor routines, such as combing one’s hair.

Loss of any of these types of memory can arise from organic damage to the neocortex, as in the case of a traumatic brain injury, a cerebral vascular accident (CVA), a space-occupying lesion, or a toxic exposure. Alternatively, memory deficits can result from extreme psychological stress, as seen in dissociative disorders.” National Center for Biotechnology Information

All humans have a propensity to dissociate if the circumstances are right. I’m referring to non-drug induced [LSD, Shrooms, Ayahusca, etc.] dissociation. Examples of non-drug induced dissociation triggers would be incidences such as a rape or a car accident, soldiers battling in war conditions and extreme fear and little children in unknown and physically, mentally and sexually violent environments. As this applies to my experiences, I lived in full blown dissociation as a child. In a complete state of escape and survival, my brain dissected and turned its many wheels rapidly, shifting in and out of differing states of being, which left my brain in a constant spin.

Living in dissociation was a confusing and frustrating existence. I morphed through states of being without warning. It manifested mostly in memory gaps. I didn’t understand my body signals. I didn’t know dissociation existed. It was important for me to put a name to these canisters so that I could easily identify these sections of my brain. To others I sometimes presented as having it together and sometimes to others I’m sure I appeared very borderline in my behaviors and personality, or a forgetful and flighty person.

The forgetfulness which accompanies living with dissociative disorder is very daunting. It creates a platform for deep victim blaming. I was called selfish, flaky, inattentive and other things. It is difficult to explain this disorder to others. Often, we are accused of using mental impairments as excuses. This is very presumptive since so many of us with mental impairments would gladly get a new brain if that was possible.

I used to say that I’d trade my dissociation, childhood trauma, TBI and NDE rocked brain for a normal one if I could. I don’t know what it’s like to live with an unimpaired brain. Yet, the ways my brain is able to function after integrating dissociation has opened up amazing channels of discovery for me. Now, I wouldn’t trade my brain for anyone’s.

The journey of integrating, organizing and accessing all of my brain’s compartments has taken time and is a continued work in progress. The years and every day moments that dissociation stole from my life, and that of my children, can never be retrieved. It can be re-formed, though, re-molded and sculpted into something new.

Writing was the main way I could put a tangible perspective on what had been done to my brain. I had random information missions my brain enacted, one significant part of my journey I share in this post, The Dolls. These events were part of what kick started one of the most fascinating journeys I’ve taken into myself thus far. Since then, I have opened more compartments of my brain, dissecting and categorizing as I search through their many libraries for more truth. I light up the rooms and access what my brain has recorded. 

The more I have allowed myself to access and scribe the information I stored as a child, the less I find myself in flight and flight response.  While I find isolation a necessary part of my life and maintaining my mental health, I am no longer afraid of my own brain. I have embraced my mind and every bit of information it holds inside. 

Taking the step into acceptance began a movement from dissociation to association.  Instead of checking out, I began to check in. Instead of running, I stood in the moment and held hands with my emotions. I stopped fighting my grief and my tears. I faced it, gazing eye to eye with memories so terrible they will always leave my mind blown.

If you organically remember it, it’s your truth.” Hillary Whitaker Clark, PsyD   

I want to briefly share my understanding of DID as learned through therapy and the lengthy testing I’ve taken over the years which has allowed me to chart my organization process. Unbeknownst to me when I met my psychologist, I would come to understand how much writing “Cult Child” had allowed me to naturally enact organizational processes.

I could not write my trauma until I created a timeline of the memories which are stored in the many canisters in my brain.

I worked to build coping strategies for the side effects of exploring my own childhood torture.  I released all outside stressors. I keep my mental environment as clean as possible. I stepped away from toxic people and situations. Doing this work requires staying inward focused on the process of staying in association with myself instead of dissociating.

Where disassociation was a seemingly constant attempt to avoid my life, association is a process of embracing my life and standing within it. This doesn’t mean every day I skip through roses. For me, this means I remain mindful of staying rooted in my currently reality.

Sometimes our current reality feels so damn crappy.  So what do we do? 

Humanity has been in “fix it” mode with each other for a very long time. I am a deep supporter of solutions as they apply to inner healing. What if healing involves the simple act of accepting our current emotion?

I tried this perspective, and actually found comfort in it. I can use a hypothetical situation where maybe you are feeling deeply hurt, sad and attacked by someone you felt you have given as much support to as you possibly could. 

Here I can show you the difference between reacting from a place of triggered dissociation and standing inside of awareness and association of the emotion.

Dissociation goes on the defense in situations where we felt attacked. We would open that brain canister and unleashed an arsenal. Dissociation releases an army and doesn’t ended until it has finished the war.

Association instead takes to focusing on self-care. We understand that situations will be as they are. We process the anger so that we can sit with the pain and monitor how our emotions were doing. We rest. We write a lot. We focus ourselves on processing the emotions. There is no processing in dissociating; only shut down.  Emotions can only be processed through association.

I take baths. Water soothes my skin, quiets my mind and allows me to drift around in meditative REM states of mind.  I make collage art. I sketching and release situations from my cells.

All of my post-cult life, I’ve dissociated from my pain, letting my brain remain scattered, satiating the emotions in unhealthy ways, and I ran a muck in life, displaying self-deprecating behaviors. 

Associating with my emotions, feeling them instead of numbing myself, let me become a friend of my sadness, a sister to my hurt, a scribe for my memories and a mother to my inner child. 

My creativity has blossomed since I made nice with myself. I have held the hands of my guilt and read her palms. I have sat beside my failures and listened to our laments. I drained the river of my denial and embraced the power to change my behaviors. I have grieved the lost years and the erased existence of who I was. I became a carpenter of my own environment, building boundaries and erecting my own mending fence.

When we live in association with our senses so much about how we see the world changes.  Many people live their lives trying to change everything about who they are in order to fit the world. I have changed my world to fit the reality of my life. I am who I am, and releasing all toxic behaviors, I embrace my needs.

Acceptance has made me my closest associate.  I can be my harshest critic. I have to depend on myself to refocus into mindfulness of the why, where, when and how. I awaken to see the day as it is, standing still in this place which allows me to exist.

Remember who you were meant to be before they formed you into who they wanted you to be. That is who you truly are. It’s waiting for you to release it.

“My Inner Child” photo by Vennie Kocsis, 2014

“There are two people who experience complex-PTSD. Soldiers and abused children. Children should never knew the horrors of war.” Vennie Kocsis

Vennie Kocsis’s is soon to release her second and final edition of her memoir, “Cult Child.” Grab a first edition before they’ disappear!