You know that feeling when you finish reading a good book, the kind you get sucked into completely, and it’s like you’ve just gasped for air? You start to take stock of what’s around you and slowly recognize your “reality,” while the characters dance around your head. That’s probably the easiest way to describe dissociation for me. That small window of time when you’re feeling out of place, lightheaded, and detached from your surroundings.
In the UK, during the strictest COVID-19 lockdown, we were able to go outside for an hour to exercise. A small mercy when other countries, like Italy, were forced to stay inside for weeks on end. Each day, I would walk along the beach by my house and back, to try and establish a routine. Trains would chug past and I would stop to count how many people were on board. Three, six, two, none. And none the next day, and the next.
Seeing empty carriages and bare streets just reminded me of the state of the world. Despite my initial surroundings being safe, there was a feeling of danger nearby putting me on edge. The coronavirus is a threat, so you have to be wary. But how can you be wary of something you can’t see?
How do you place that in your mind, this invisible threat to yourself and those you love? That’s where dissociation comes in.
According to the Mayo Clinic, dissociative disorders are mental disorders in which a person experiences “a disconnection and lack of continuity between thoughts, memories, surroundings, actions and identity.” It’s a way of separating from reality, and it can be harmful. I’ve experienced dissociation for years, often without realizing it. It’s a coping mechanism your mind might use to deal with an overload of stress or trauma. Many people experience it during their lives — they may even be unaware of it, as episodes can be quick.
The mental health charity Mind says, “For many people, dissociation is a natural response to trauma that they can’t control. It could be a response to a one-off traumatic event or ongoing trauma and abuse.
“You might experience dissociation as a symptom of a mental health problem,” according to Mind, “for example post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder.”
I know I’m going through an episode when the sky seems too bright — it’s as if everything has been lit up like I’m on a movie set. Nothing looks real. I can’t emphasize that enough — everything feels like I’m in a dream, but it’s a dream I can’t escape from. I can’t seem to turn off my mind.
I find it hard to judge my distance from people. I might bump into strangers, or to save anxiety and embarrassment, cross the street repeatedly so I don’t have to worry about stumbling into them.
But there are dangers when the world around you doesn’t feel real — your judgement for safety can be off, meaning you might do unsafe things just to get everything to feel a bit more “real.”
You can feel lucid and far away from yourself, wondering, am I dreaming? But in dreams, you wake up and everything is okay. In the pandemic, when many have lost their jobs, their loved ones, and they might be experiencing trauma for the first time, the dream doesn’t stop. When you wake, the stress and grief is still present — and we don’t know when ‘normal’ will return fully.
Some people jokingly call lockdown ‘a day in the life of The Truman Show,’ but when you experience mental health issues, there feels like no escape. Your sleep can become disturbed as stress penetrates every area of your life, even without you noticing. Grinding your teeth, tense muscles and bad tempers. If I become so stressed, even walking outside can cause anxiety.
In episodes, I become acutely aware of my surroundings — of how glassy and bright things look, like through a filter. I have to remind myself of reality by touching my surroundings or listening to music to distract myself. As soon as I realize I’m unexpectedly dissociating, I can panic, which makes it worse.
When lockdown started and the world realized the seriousness of the pandemic, everyone was put into a situation they’ve never experienced. The world has never paused like this before. And while staying at home may have been the right thing to ensure our safety, seeing normality but being acutely aware of a faceless, invisible threat can crank up your anxiety.
Therapist Sally Baker told me, “The pandemic has heightened levels of anxiety for others, with some struggling with the feeling of dissociation. These people are often being triggered by feelings of overwhelm from previous trauma. It could be events from their past that they have not considered for a long time.
“The pandemic could be reminding them of previous times when they felt out of control or an unresolved experience that involved feelings of anxiety and powerless.”
I’ve had to consistently remind myself what’s happening. My brain is saying “we’re stressed, but where is the stress? Why can’t we fix it?”
To cope with dissociative episodes, I try to anchor myself — touching the sand on the beach, dipping my toes in the sea. Sometimes I find even naming objects around me, to bring myself out of the start of an episode and bring focus to my surroundings.
Right now, experts are drafting research journals into the effect of trauma and dissociation due to the pandemic. We may not get answers immediately and the effects of the pandemic, across industry, lifestyle, health and the economy will be felt for years to come. Therapy helps, although for many that isn’t an option.
If you feel like you’ve been experiencing dissociation for the first time, try and contact your local mental health hub or doctor for expert advice. You can get through this, and you’re not alone.