The Symptoms of Dissociative Disorders

Only a professional trauma therapist can diagnose you. For sure.

Now that’s out of the way, let’s be real. Therapy is expensive and scary. You have to accept that something is wrong, and admit you’re not okay. That’s hard! Reading the symptoms and relating them to your own experience is a good way to decide if you need professional help.

Remember, if you find yourself emotionally overwhelmed, take a break and do some grounding. Or head to r/StartledCats, it works for me 🙂

Normal dissociation is when your conscious mind detaches from your surroundings.

It can be caused by stress or even boredom, and feels like zoning-out or going on autopilot. You might drive home without really thinking about it, find yourself losing your place in a book, or “missing time” during a Netflix binge. Your mind checks out for a bit, kicks back, and takes a break.

If that sounds familiar, don’t panic. These experiences are a regular part of everyday life.

In dissociative disorders, this disconnect is so severe that it impacts your ability to live like a normal person. This feeling of detachment or “not me” can extend to your memories, sensory perceptions, emotional responses, actions, thoughts, and identity.

“Wait, who AM I?”

Detaching from yourself is called depersonalization. You might not recognize yourself in photographs and mirrors, or feel like part of your body belongs to somebody else. Your memories can feel foreign. This feeling of “not me” can be so intense that hearing your own name freaks you out, because you don’t recognize it. You may feel like you don’t exist or that you’re a robot.

Depersonalization or dysmorphia?

If you have Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD), you tend to think about your real or perceived flaws for hours every day. Your mental image doesn’t match what you see with your eyes, which can be super uncomfortable.

In depersonalization, it’s not usually opinionated. There’s no particular like or dislike for your body; you feel like it belongs to somebody else. It’s also possible to have both.

Derealization makes you question the fabric of reality.

You may have difficulty recognizing familiar places, objects or people in your life. You may feel like you’re dreaming, watching a movie, or hallucinating. Time can feel distorted, making recent events feel like old memories. You may feel like you’re watching your life from the outside.

Symptoms also include feeling no emotions in situations where you should be, like when a loved one dies (or when Firefly was cancelled). Shock can create this sensation in the short term, but it shouldn’t be a regular occurrence or persist for more than a few days.

Both problems can cause mental confusion, with additional symptoms like dizziness, disorientation, anxiety, difficulty forming sentences, blurry vision and “head fog”.

Dissociative amnesia, aka “I don’t remember having memory loss?”

When reality is so utterly horrifying that remembering it would make your mind snap, your brain does the smart thing and tries to pretend it didn’t happen. The memories are isolated from your conscious mind. You lie to yourself very, very well, with no idea you’re doing it.

Localized amnesia is when you have trouble remembering the details of a single event. You can also forget a period surrounding the event, from moments to months. It’s common if you have a dissociative disorder, and contributes to feelings of “lost time”.

Systemized amnesia takes out a whole category or subject, as if your memory has been censored. You could have no recollection a caregiver who should be present in your memory, or forget the existence of childhood pets, school friends, social groups, and your involvement in hobbies or sports. It’s common in trauma based disorders.

Generalized amnesia comes on suddenly and looks good in movies. Affected patients can’t remember anything about who they are or their past. Blindspot did it right 🙂

Last up is continuous amnesia, where you forget events as they happen. A bit like a goldfish.

These last two have a lot of potential causes and aren’t as common in dissociative disorders.

Dissociative parts, alters, and “multiple personalities”.

Several different conditions can make you feel like you have parts. Feeling the presence of “others” doesn’t mean you have Dissociative Identity Disorder.

Read that again and take a few breaths 🙂

Identity, ego and sense of self can be complex topics. Rather than explain, here’s a list of the types of experiences people with DID have when it comes to parts. 

  • Waking up in a strange place, with no idea how you got there (aka dissociative fugue).
  • Discovering you’ve completed a task, anything from a simple chore to a major project, without remembering how or when.
  • Finding pictures of yourself but having no recollection of the event, location or people. Especially in pictures of yourself as a young adult or older.
  • Meeting people who know you, but you don’t recognize them, or remember the experiences you have had together.
  • Finding things you don’t remember buying or using, like art supplies for painting. This can come with heavy self-guilt, leading you to believe your passions are fickle. They’re not, you just have lots of them 😉
  • Trigger-responses that change drastically. For example, you may feel terrified of spiders most of the time, but recall having petted a furry one recently at a zoo with no anxiety.
  • Changes in personality that go beyond mood or style. Your political views, sexual preference, religious beliefs, and other core values can change, along with your attitude, memory and emotional range. Your preferences for music and food, your professional skills and expertise, and even your resting heart rate can change.
  • Tone, slang and accent changes, particularly if your “normal” accent has changed over the course of your life.
  • Hearing voices that feel like “self” as well as “other”, a confusing contradiction. It’s easy to dismiss this as the voice of an inner child or inner critic. They can be clear or distant, talking or crying, aware of you or oblivious.
  • Feeling like somebody else is controlling your body, doing and saying things can’t predict. Being surprised by your own actions is common, and you might feel possessed.

Sound crazy? Yep! Crazy is exactly how it makes you feel. When you read these symptoms it’s easy to understand why suicide is so common in people diagnosed with DID (75% or higher based on which study you prefer).

You can read about the creation of dissociated parts via the theory of structural dissociation here, if the science is your jam.

Final Notes

If you’re not having fun yet, people with DID also frequently suffer from:

  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Personality disorders (such as BPD)
  • Mood disorders (such as depressive disorder)
  • Anxiety disorders (SA, GAD, PD are common)
  • Personality disorders
  • Eating disorders

That’s a lot, which is why it’s so important to get a therapist. If these symptoms sound familiar and they’re disturbing your life, find help. Be honest about your experiences and your history, no matter how painful it is to share.

You’re not crazy, and you can learn to heal.

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