What Does Dissociation Feel Like?

Imagine seeing thousands of colored pixels like a malfunctioning television screen about two feet in front of your eyes

You go to the eye specialist and he can find nothing wrong with your vision. Yet, this occurs over and over especially when you are anxious or upset. As you process your early childhood traumas you come to understand that the television you watched was both soothing and trance-inducing.

You dissociated from the real world and connected to the screen as if it were another person. Even where the screen went to a test pattern or the images turn to “snow” that TV set was the most reliable thing in your world. In fact, it was the only thing you could count on since your parents were so wrapped up in their drug habit.

Imagine seeing yourself your own body from another vantage point

A coal miner who is trying to stabilize the roof of the mine was suddenly surprised when the ceiling of the mine chamber collapsed on him.

In a split second, he felt that he was at the top of the chamber looking down on his body covered in rubble. His first thought was “Wow, I bet that hurts!” After he was rescued and treated for his broken bones he began walking as part of his physical therapy.

He had the feeling that someone was walking behind him. He tried to catch that guy but never could until he processed his trauma. It turned out this was a phantom body he was experiencing.

A young woman was chronically out of her body after she had been pistol-whipped by her ex-boyfriend and held captive for 24 hours. For seven long years, she had the sense that her body and her consciousness were separated.

She drew a picture that showed what it was like to have her physical body in front of her consciousness, tethered by a cord. She then added another depiction of her consciousness even farther away from her actual body to represent being under extreme stress.

In a hypnosis session, she had a spontaneous reversal of the out-of-body experience when the therapist helped her merge the actual and the imagined bodies.

A middle-aged man had a cerebral aneurysm (a brain bleed) for which he needed brain surgery. The surgery was successful but he suffered transient symptoms of an organic personality disorder with rage attacks and persistent memory problems.

Most distressing of all, he experienced himself as a phantom hovering above and behind his body. However, his intelligence was unchanged and somehow he was able to function. He even returned to his job as a psychotherapist. He constantly felt out of his body but kept it a secret.

He struggled for another four years before seeking help. His therapy began with a hypnotic reconstruction of the surgery. He watch the operation as a hidden observer in the operating room when the scene shifted to his postoperative hospital room. He visualized two of himself side-by-side in the bed.

The therapist guided him to look at a specific object, first from the eyes of one body and then the other, ultimately merging the two together. When he reoriented himself to the present he described feeling like he was now in his body. He was himself again.

Imagine looking in the mirror and couldn’t recognize yourself

What if you had a conviction that you were of another gender with blond hair and blue eyes when you are actually a brunette with brown eyes.

One woman told me of the extreme distress she experienced one day when she saw a hand reaching in front of her to grab a knife from the kitchen drawer. She reached for the knife and then was aware that it was her own hand.

The two hands battled for control of the knife. I had a suspicion that she was describing a dissociative episode so I asked: “Who I am talking to?” The reply came in a voice an octave lower than her normal voice and said: “Wouldn’t you like to know!”