Today you have the opportunity to read one of the most interesting accounts of dissociation that I have ever encountered. I am extremely proud and grateful to have the opportunity to premier this piece on Betty’s Battleground, even though–and probably even because–much of the information is new to me, and different from my own experience.
I don’t talk about spirituality often, mostly because my spiritual ideas are these super weird combinations of physics theories and creative imaginings that have little to no basis in organized religion, but this post is about one person’s experiences with integrating spirituality as a form of mental health recovery. That might seem ironic, considering I recently posted that I don’t follow the 12-steps because I don’t consider my addiction the result of a god-shaped hole, but as I have mentioned numerous times, I enjoy posting perspectives that are different from mine. Also, as you’ll read, this is a bit more nuanced and intelligent than what is typically offered by the 12-steps..in my opinion..
The author has asked to remain anonymous, but I hope you will enjoy reading about their experiences of mental health recovery and spirituality.
A newly minted sophomore in college, I did what many 18 year olds do at age 18: got together with a gaggle of friends and smoked some weed.
Alas, for me, this wasn’t an everyday traipse into the world of college substance use. Up until that point I had always been staunchly anti-weed, convinced by health class propaganda that it ruined people’s brains. And I had an honors student superiority complex.
Despite my attempts at positivity and wellness–going vegan, exercising–I was in a depression so deep I physically could not eat. I wanted to, but my body wouldn’t let me. This got so bad I couldn’t sleep at night because my stomach was, as I’d always say, “eating itself.”
So in an attempt to regain my hunger, I decided to disavow my values and smoke some weed in search of the munchies.
The bowl passed around the circle over and over and over, I kept inhaling more and more and more. I was hysterical with laughter. Dizzy with lightness and forgetting my sorrows. Ok, I get why people do this.
And then–a crash in my vision and complete silence.
I’m drowning. I’m screaming for help, why is no one answering?
My heart is racing, my thoughts are fleeting, and the world seems one million miles away. I feel like I’m dreaming, but I know I’m awake.
This goes on for hours until, gratefully, I fall asleep.
The next morning I do not have the munchies, but instead have chronic depersonalization.
This disabling mental health condition goes on for years until, painfully, I wake up.
Dissociation Rules Everything Around Me
Depersonalization, in brief, is a sensation that the world is unreal. Like you have been plopped into a dream, or onto a movie set that was formerly your life. Like you’re watching yourself exist in this human form, rather than being in the driver’s seat of your own soul. Your name feels foreign; your closest friends look like strangers.
And all the while, you know that this is your life and your body. You know that this is your name, that those people are your friends. But you feel like an alien.
I recognize that it’s difficult to imagine if you haven’t experienced it–although up to 70% of people have. So, I’ve discovered two useful analogies for the (thankfully) uninitiated.
1) You know that feeling you get when you repeat a word so many times it stops making sense? That’s how depersonalization feels, but the word is everything in your life.
2) You know how the world feels a bit odd when you get off a treadmill? Like you’re still on the treadmill even though the floor isn’t moving under your feet? That’s how your body feels all the time.
My depersonalization days were a living nightmare. I dragged myself through the rest of my three years in college, disconnected from the world and disembodied from myself. Daily panic attacks and obsessive intrusive thoughts convinced me I was either 1) developing schizophrenia, 2) dying, or 3) dreaming.
Previously outgoing and socially confident, I could barely hold a conversation without spiraling into fear so big I thought I’d explode. My friend circle dwindled quickly, and the emotional depth of my friendships evaporated.
I became a hypochondriac, convinced I had a brain tumor. One time, in Germany, I went to the ER three times, fearing a blood clot in my leg that I knew wasn’t there but what if it was?
Worst of all was my relationship to myself and all that was most familiar. I’d look in a mirror and panic. That’s supposed to be my reflection but that’s…not…me. Talking on the phone with my mom, the person who literally birthed me, I felt like I had never heard her voice before in my life.
My previously keen sense of smell and taste suddenly disappeared. Like seriously. I couldn’t smell or taste anything. I could barely remember my own life, but would occasionally become overrun by childhood memories I hadn’t accessed in years. And none of it felt like mine.
My grasp on reality felt tenuous at best, and my awareness of that fact made the dissociation all the more frightening.
I went to therapist after therapist, read article after article, watched video after video. Nothing really stopped it. Not exercise, not vitamins, not talking, not meditation, not herbs, not meds.
I kept pushing forward, but I was certain this was a life sentence of complete disconnect. No longer would I feel love, elation, awe, or calm. Just absence or fear.
Releasing my white knuckle hold on rationality
After a lot of duds, in the fall of 2016, I finally found a good therapist. I had always known that I’d dealt with abuse growing up, but she was the first person to ever shine a light on how serious and far-reaching it was. She explained how, “Actually, Molly, your excessive daydreaming and boredom were symptoms of emotional neglect.”
She explained that I’m highly sensitive. But not in the “Molly, you’re too sensitive” way that I’d often hear growing up. In a matter-of-fact way. My nervous system processes stimuli differently than ~80% of the population, according to Dr. Elaine Arons’ research into the trait of sensory processing sensitivity. It’s a type of neurodiversity that brings both gifts (creativity, attunement to others’ emotional needs, and conscientiousness) and challenges.
My therapist was the first person to hear about my experience with weed and recognize what had happened. Amazingly, it had happened to her, too.
Much to my dismay, she explained that I had indeed experienced, in her words, “Psychosis Lite” while I had smoked weed. Her preferred phrasing (one that feels less stigmatizing) is that I entered an extreme state.
She explained that I entered this state because, well, marijuana is a hallucinogen. So…I got sort of hallucinatory. And while I was there, some serious shit came up. It caused decades of trauma to bubble up to the surface of my consciousness. So I also had an incredibly intense panic attack.
Afterwards, because my only coping skills were to avoid and repress, all of this traumatic material resurfacing caused me to dissociate into the ether. It was the only way my tiny brain could deal, basically.
And then she went a step further, telling me something that shook me to my core:
“There’s nothing wrong with you.
You’re having a normal response to trauma. Yes, you’re depressed, but it’s because you’ve been traumatized, not because you’re broken or diseased.”
At first I was skeptical. But I let it sink in. I burst into tears. I believed her.
Stunned by this revelation, I opened up more.
See, there’s this secret part that I never really talk about.
It always felt a touch too bonkers to share publicly. Like if I admitted this either privately to myself or out loud to others, it would be confirmation that I was officially off the deep end. I would finally be “out of control” just like I always feared in my days of acute depersonalization.
“I think…I think that was a spiritual crisis.”
“I think you’re right. What do you think you’ve learned from it?”
This is where my healing really began.
See, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been intuitive as hell. Knowledge came to me easily and also seemingly out of the blue. People’s emotions were always accessible to me, and I was easily affected by them. Even strangers’ feelings were enough to shift my own mood.
At age 5 I used to draw pictures of animals dying, their souls ascending upward. At age 12 I picked up a copy of Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss and continued on with Life Before Life by Ian Stevenson. If you haven’t heard of these, they’re books written in favor of reincarnation.
I read them in amazement. Weirdly though, the amazement wasn’t because past lives were novel to me. It was because for as long as I could remember I believed in reincarnation. It always made sense to me. And now these books were telling me…it was true? It was wild.
I picked up tarot reading around age 15. Growing up, I used to occasionally see my mother reading for friends and family. With her knowledge as a basis, I memorized the cards’ meanings within two weeks.
Years of going through the American education system quickly squashed these “eccentric” beliefs out of my awareness.
In a misguided attempt to take control over my life story, I adopted a Paragon of Intellect persona. While this helped my self-esteem stay somewhat present, it did no favors to my spirituality.
As a foil to those who had wounded me, I decided, I would be Smart. Pure. Supreme. Where they had flailed around, fucking up in school and taking extra time to get into and finish college, I would be valedictorian and go to Yale. (I did neither of those things, for the record.) Where they would stumble home drunk and smoking cigarettes, I would live Above The Influence. (This was true until I started drinking at parties in college.)
In short, I became a tightly wound, over-controlled and deliberate shard of my full self, a mask unconsciously crafted from self-defense and a sort of ironic moral rebellion.
There’s not much room for spirituality when you’re trying to convince the world that you’re Intelligent by pretending to be neurotypical and highly logical.
Fast forward to my weed incident, and suddenly there I was, an emerging adult, high as a kite and looking face to face with death and suffering. It wasn’t a pretty look. There goes grad school, here comes insanity.
Bear with me here. It gets intense and also definitely out of the realm of reality and reason.
I was horrified, shaking and sweating and before I could even pray for death, the impression of words flashed through my imagination:
“You want to kill yourself right now because you want this pain to stop. Guess what? This won’t stop. You can’t escape it anymore. You can’t keep lying to yourself. You’re hurting right now. If you die, everything will just hurt more. Easier to deal with this suffering as human than as soul.”
In my mind’s eye, I was seeing what looked like, honestly, hell. But not fire and torture and demons and such. It was liminal and lonely and dark in this place.
It was full of souls stuck in the in-between, unable to connect to their loved ones on earth, but unable to move on to whatever comes after. The lost spirits of people who died in immense suffering, who were so consumed by their own guilt and trauma they were physically chained to wherever they died, forced to make sense of what happened.
They were still here, on earth, but looking on at everyone from beyond the veil. Unable to comprehend why no one was listening to them. Unable to understand the terror of their new reality.
For a moment I swore I was looking at my own soul from lifetimes ago, stuck in that place after suffering the horrors of war. I understood that I had been in that place over and over and over again.
Honoring the Crone
This shadowy revelation about eternal suffering shook me to my core.
That moment in the void is where I’d always return to in panic attacks.
This won’t stop. You can’t escape it anymore.
Depersonalization always feels like a brief visit to that in-between place. It felt like a place my spirit would retreat to out of fear and longing for something (ironically) familiar.
I had spent years of my life–probably lifetimes—running away from my own suffering.
Of course, as a child I had to escape in order to survive. But then as new adult, I was on track to keep doing it. I kept consciously choosing to avoid how much pain I was in. Even when the emotional suffering came out in my body, I didn’t listen. Pain intolerance and avoidance had become habit.
Whether this was a glimpse into the metaphysical or simply my brain’s own metaphorical processing, it meant that I needed to feel the intensity of my suffering. That I was obligated to sit with it. By ignoring it, I was abandoning myself. By avoiding it, I was perpetuating my own trauma.
This is why it was a spiritual crisis.
I was face to face with a spiritual truth that was in diametric opposition to my ego’s framework of relating to the world.
Pain is meant to be seen, heard, and felt–not avoided.
So it can be transmuted into deeper understanding of self and the collective.
So that it can be alchemized into healing through the power of witnessing.
By successfully traveling through our shadows, honoring the fear and the discomfort along the way, we are able to hold a light to guide others’ through theirs.
This is the power of the crone. At peace with death and at one with shadow, lovingly ushering others through their own underworlds.
I’m gradually growing into this wisdom.
After a year of intensive therapy and soul work, I’ve made the decision to prioritize my spirituality and develop services as a tarot reader, intuitive, and writer.
I’ve released that which no longer serves me.
I’m unlearning the abusive messages I internalized growing up. I’m learning how to set boundaries. I’m discovering who I actually am, and accepting that who I am is actually not a people-pleasing, self-sacrificing helper. I’m coming to terms with the fact that my mere existence will piss people off–and that’s actually not my problem!
I’ve realized that my assigned-at-birth gender of “woman” isn’t who I am. It’s far too limiting, requires more maintenance and performance than I have energy to give. My gender, like my psychology, exists in the in-between. I’m learning to love the liminal space I occupy.
I’ve moved on from friendships and living situations that enabled me to recreate my abusive patterns of relating to others. I’ve processed my victimhood and transmuted it into survivorship.
And none of this would have happened without someone giving me compassionate permission to listen to my inner-knowing. To trust that not just my brain and my body needed tending, but my soul, too.
Suffering for all, spirituality for some
Suffering is an inevitability. The goal of healing is not to avoid pain, it’s to be able to sit with it when it arrives. That is a universal human truth for us all to digest.
But the spiritual component? That doesn’t need to be for everyone.
The thing is, though, that there are so many of us who feel called to spirituality. We feel drawn to the deep wisdom of symbols, the belief in something greater and unseen.
I’d love to see some research on this, but I hypothesize that especially the highly sensitive among us are drawn to the spiritual. We feel a lot, and we feel it deeply.
Just as our sensitivity is often reprimanded, our spiritual inclinations are rarely given room to blossom.
Even as I unearthed and processed deep emotional traumas, even as I made huge lifestyle changes–it wasn’t enough. I always say my healing has been 65% therapy and 35% woo.
By allowing myself the space to rediscover both my intense emotions and my spiritual beliefs, I’ve actually found contentment. I’ve found myself again.
I’ve come to terms with my pain and also my power.
Re-framing my experiences as a journey of the soul has been liberating and cathartic. Working with the power of narrative has sped up my healing immensely.
One of my favorite ways of re-framing is to view my “weakness” as evidence of strength. Dissociation, I’ve learned, is an incredible human superpower. A magic spell for the sensitive.
As the awesome queer artist Kyle Shelby writes, “Disassociation is a spell of survival, the child of disembodiment and levitation.”
For those who are sensitive, we dissociate as a means of survival. It is a cloak of invisibility in a world that is overstimulating, or in a household rife with abuse and neglect. It is a broomstick that lets us fly above the horror or monotony of our day-to-day, liberating us into the liminal. It is a psychic shield of fog that removes the sting and venom from those who seek to harm us.
While it’s not a spell I’d like to cast everyday, I can’t imagine where I’d be without it.
Inviting in your spirituality
If you are getting caught in a fear of criticism, know this: You are free to see your experiences as magical and menacing, light and shadow, scientific and spiritual.
I hang a piece of art about dissociation as magic in my room. I have a tattoo on my body honoring my depersonalization, and it feels like a sigil of personal power.
I also spend hours reading empirical research that seeks to identify the neurological and psychological basis for dissociative and psychotic experiences.
Sometimes the ol’ inner critic in me says, Molly, don’t you think this is all a bit delusional? To which I reply: Don’t you think the version of me convinced that a brain tumor was going to explode in my brain and give me psychosis, somehow landing me in prison, was a bit delusional?
Really, critic, if I’m going to be delusional, I’d much rather the belief be that by the power of an unseen force I will live even after physical death, and that I am deeply connected to all of human history.
We’re humans who must make sense of the world through story.
Either you write your own narrative, or somebody else will. And right now, that inner critic? That’s somebody else–an abuser whose voice we’ve internalized–writing your story for you.
You get to write your own story.
Should your narrative include magic and spirit, so mote it be.