Dissociation & Addiction as Trauma Responses

Dissociation & Addiction as Trauma Responses

What Is Dissociation


Dissociation, from developmental psychology, is a disconnected experience with oneself and others. It is reflective of a state of mind that is like a trance-like state, where as Dan Siegel says the brain is no longer linking differentiated parts: something is impairing the brain where there is no longer a continuity of consciousness and even the sense of self, to the point where one may not feel emotions, their body, and may even lose memory.


Dissociation is associated with Disorganized Attachment, a term coined by Mary Ainsworth building on the work of John Bowlby and Mary Main which began the field of Attachment Research in developmental psychology (See My Post on Attachment Theory). What Ainsworth found was the original attachment categories, which were considered ‘organized’ forms of attachment, meaning they had some functional component to them, could not explain a subset of cases where children behaved in very confused and distressed ways around their caregivers. The conclusion was that children who experience terrifying episodes around their caregivers, in the form of abuse or neglect, often have to split off from their experience in order to survive, and thus develop a ‘disorganized’ form of attachment. 


The reason here is hard-wired into a child is when there is a sense of danger or threat, there is an instinct to go towards their attachment figure. But when the caregiver themselves is the source of danger there is what Mary Main & Erik Hesse call fear without solution – a biological paradox, because it’s not possible to both go away and toward the same person, resulting in the fragmentation of the child’s sense of self. This fragmentation is indicative of Dissociation, thus closely associated with Disorganized Attachment.


Everyone has the capacity to dissociate, and we all do it in one form or another. Most typical is tuning things out from some things in one’s environment and being incredibly focused on other things instead. While it’s estimated that up to 5% of people may have a Dissociative disorder (meaning it impairs functioning and relationships), it’s also very hard to diagnose so that number is likely significantly under representative of the population. The result is these individuals have difficulty self regulating, difficulty controlling emotions, thinking clearly, monitoring oneself, soothing oneself, and especially difficulty forming close and meaningful relationships. It is by far the most troubling attachment categories.

How Dissociation Is Viewed In the Mental Health Community


The mental health community seem somewhat divided on whether Dissociation, and Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID), actually exists and is a real disorder. DID replaced what was previously referred to as Multiple Personality Disorder which became popularized by tv and movies. But the essence of DID is that we all have various states that we can experience, and within various states we can have different energy, different emotions, and even different memories. And there can be a continuum to which people experience Dissociation, with someone on the normal range being so focused on a task that they may not notice the whistling of a tea kettle, and those on the more extreme end of DID getting stuck in states and having very little continuity of consciousness between them – there sense of self is fragmented.


In addition to the lack of consensus in the mental health community of whether DID is in fact real, there is another issue that complicates treatment – Dissociation is in adaptation that a person makes as a result of traumatic experiences, making it a functional response. But the labeling of that adaption as a ‘disorder’, and how it’s viewed even by mental health professionals, can actually be very limiting. As Dan Siegel says, when people start to label themselves or others – I have this disorder, she has that disorder, the labeling can rigidify a person, and fixes that person to continue behavior to align with certain expectations, beliefs and the behavior of others – both the person with the ‘disorder’ and others behavior toward that person – can reinforce further, by maintaining a continuity of the sense of self (however fragmented it may be).


It is important to remember that Dissociation, just like many other ‘disorders’ is an ADAPTATION. Even depression is an adaptation – one that says it’s not safe to feel one’s own feelings and to be oneself, so one shuts down, no longer connected to themselves and at a loss for any vitality in life. In fact, one could argue that personality is an adaptation – no matter how stable or whatever in-born trait-like characteristics we may have, our personality is an adaptation to the sum of our experiences, especially those in childhood, which explain why we are who we are.


People are incredibly resilient, and many times what is labeled a disorder is really a sign of that resilience because it was highly adaptive, at one time or circumstance – it’s just that it may not be adaptive any longer. Dissociation was a highly adaptive response at the time it developed, it just may no longer be necessary as an adult but people get stuck there, their brain becomes wired to repeat certain patterns, and they can stay stuck their entire life. Often times pharmaceuticals can mask the underlying issues which cause the observable pain a person is suffering, and just reinforce this ‘disorder’ mindset where people believe there is ‘something wrong with me’ when sometimes the ‘disorder’ was actually something RIGHT with you, it’s just that you may not need it anymore. And this is why meditation is so important (See My Post on Why You Should Meditate) because it can give you the space to see things with a greater clarity and have consciousness required for change that isn’t always possible with pharmaceuticals.

My Own Experience


As an example, I have a friend who has really vivid memories of shared experiences from childhood that I don’t have any memory of whatsoever – mostly normal stuff. It actually feels quite strange to not remember so much, but given the constant state of terror I was in throughout childhood, it makes sense to not remember so much. This friend is someone who suffers from addiction, and addictive substances. I do not. And the thought crossed my mind about my friend, that despite the outward differences, we actually have a lot in common. Because behind the addiction is pain, that addiction is trying to soothe some sort of pain, and behind the pain is traumatic events that haven’t been processed. Dissociation, which is a fragmentation, is just another way to address painful experiences by compartmentalizing them into different aspects of ourselves. 


Despite all the unfortunate events and memories I do have of childhood, I think the fact that I can’t recall even more detail of my childhood actually helped me. If I recalled more of my childhood, I would very likely suffer from the same drug addiction as my friend who had some very similar family dynamics, minus the terrifying parents.


I believe my lack of vivid memory for various life events at a young age is a combination of Dissociation and stress. Dissociation with having terrifying parents – the fighting, alcoholic rages, jeckyl and hyde behavior, violent acts directed at someone else like my mother, or myself, all of it led to this disconnection from reality most of the time. And a splitting off from myself. Sort of in my own world.


I also think my lack of certain memories is stress related, and not necessarily Dissociation. My childhood was extremely stressful. The same factors that influence Dissociation also just created a constant state of chaos, confusion, and disorganization – nothing was planned well, coordinated, or communicated well. There was a lot missing. So even if terrifying things weren’t happening, stress levels were always high. And stress is known to hinder memory formation because high levels of cortisol can block the hippocampus which is needed to encode things into explicit memory.


How You Can Heal


Whether you struggle with Dissociation, drug addiction, depression, or any other ‘disorder’, it’s important not to judge yourself or stay stuck in shame. The thing you might think is ‘wrong with you’ might actually have been ‘right’ with you, at a certain point in time. What was wrong was traumatic events, toxic family members, or the lack of kind, loving, connected relationships. At the very least Dissociation may be a response to pain which every human being experiences, whether we like to admit or not, so it’s important to have compassion and kindness for yourself even if others did not.


A society that stigmatizes these things is really a society that doesn’t understand these things, and often the people who stigmatize others, lack empathy or compassion, are hiding from something in themselves. What makes Dissociation unique compared to other disorders is a splitting off from the pain, which as adaptive as it is can be severely limiting later in life. But similar to addiction is the notion of pain (emotional or physical).


But change is possible, whether you have Dissociation, addiction, or any other ‘disorder’. Stop telling yourself there is something wrong with you and tell yourself there is something right with you. Find out what that is! Take responsibility for where you are in life! Take control over your life! And take actions that will improve you in the long run!


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