It’s funny how a symptom can creep up on you. Blissfully unaware, but indentured to the experience nonetheless. Observing its effects as your regular day, no outstanding incident, just sun shining through a window. Plain. Vanilla. This is no daydream. I’m awake.
Get out of bed, shower, dress. Make the toast. Brew the coffee. I fill up my mug and sit down to drink. Then it hits me—none of this has any meaning. No value. I can’t define anything I’m experiencing. I have no context for it.
I call my best friend to chat about nothing. Just making contact during this era of COVID-19. Stay Home/Stay Healthy. We have the phone. I try to explain the vanilla gloaming to him. He asks if it’s more than just the Quarantine Blues. He pries a little more, asking questions that I’ve heard from him before in times of crisis, like when I’ve been caught in a panic attack. The familiar conversation gives me pause to consider. I’m not in psychosis. My meds are in place.
I explain to him that I can taste the coffee, but I can’t assign value to it. What is the point of the mug? What is a coffee mug for? For that matter, why toast and coffee? Why the kitchen, the chair? Me? What is my value? What’s the point of my hands? I can open and turn them, but how are they mine, and why?
I put down my mug. I tell my friend that I’m feeling disconnected, that my thoughts lack continuity. I can’t relate to my surroundings or my body. It occurs to us both that I’m dissociating.
A phenomenon is the object of a person’s perception, what the senses or the mind observe. With dissociation, there is a detachment from those experiences (not to be confused with psychosis, which is a loss of external reality). I’m not connected. I can’t connect. I don’t even know what it means to connect.
Dissociation is often linked with trauma as a way of coping with the experience. It can also appear as the result of drug or alcohol abuse. It is a common symptom of anxiety and schizophrenia. Being that I live with both disorders, I’ve experienced dissociation on a sliding scale, from mild to severe. An episode can last for hours or days, or in longer durations of weeks or even months.
Symptoms of dissociation can include depersonalization—a state in which one loses all sense of identity, or one’s thoughts and feelings seem not to belong to oneself—and derealization, a feeling that one’s surroundings are not real. Together or apart, these two symptoms create an experience that I find difficult to express, save to say that I feel numb to the world around me, a feeling analogous to shock.
For me, dissociation arrives without a triggering event. I sense that something is out of place until I realize that “something” is me, I’m out of place. I’m not an animal, mineral, or vegetable. I’m out of context, void of content or meaning. I’ve lost touch with what it is to feel alive, to know myself or my surroundings. Like waking up from the effects of anesthesia, taking stock of what is happening around myself. Images of life, but not truly living; snapshots of self, unrecognizable.
While I am considering that my familiar schizophrenic isolation is compounded by the effects of the present quarantine, my friend recounts a story of our shared experience at the hospital when I had been admitted to the ER for a panic attack. I’d been sitting on a gurney in the hallway of the unit, just outside the nurses’ station. My friend interrupted a moment of quiet with a burst of laughter at a message written on the whiteboard on the wall behind me. In large print it read: “Please dissociate.” In smaller print it went on to explain to the staff how best to detach from their patients.
That anecdote served as a reminder that I’d been here before with dissociation, and that I’d pulled through. His logic didn’t dictate a clear path toward relief, but it did help me ground my thoughts for the moment.
Coping skills can be helpful when managing a mental illness. I usually start by talking with my therapist and my closest friends, people who have a history with me and my symptoms. Sometimes those conversations lean toward the humorous. It may be hard to fathom, but sometimes humor pulls me through. Once I get past the discomfort of dealing with a symptom, I look for the most beneficial solution. In the case of dissociation, I initially rely on the effectiveness of my medications, especially when I’m dealing with the inevitable symptom breakthrough. When the disorientation and frustration of not having control over my feelings is too much to deal with alone, it always helps to have someone to talk to.