THERE BUT NOT THERE
I realized I had dissociation a few years ago when I started therapy. Until then, I was oblivious that this was even a problem. Before I landed on my therapist's couch I had already dissected my life. And, up until that point, I thought I knew all the pieces of my puzzle and exactly why I was there.
I recall being very open with my therapist when I told him about not being able to feel my feet or recognize myself in the mirror. I shared that I had difficulty feeling my emotions, that oftentimes I felt completely numb. Hearing this, he went on to tell me that those symptoms sounded very much like dissociation and, perhaps, even pychogenic fuge, a more complex form of it that deals specifically with amnesia with identity.
Dissociation is a mental process that causes a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memory, and sense of identity. It can fall on a continuum of severity from mild to chronic. To understand this better, ask yourself this: Have you ever gotten lost when driving down a familiar stretch of road? Maybe to the point that you don’t remember the last stretch of several miles you just drove down? Or maybe you’ve ever felt like you got completely in a really good book? Those are all examples of mild dissociation which are different from daydreaming.
As I look back now I realize I was dissociating in many ways, ranging from mild to more chronic. The signs had been there for years. My ex-husband had once confronted me about the fact that I seemed disinterested to the point of being rude every night when our family, which included him, myself, and my mother-in-law, sat down at the dinner table. I remember staring blankly outside the window every single day while seated for dinner. It was all that I could do. I didn’t realize it then, but now I understand that this behavior was me dissociating.
Last year, I visited my brother and sister-in-law after they had their baby girl. I was left alone with her for a few hours and, at one point, I remember holding that tiny one-month baby without being able to feel her in my arms. The feeling was so strange that it even felt as if someone else was holding her and I was watching that person hold her. Physically, I knew I was holding her. I knew that I was her aunt and that she was my niece. But there was this strange sensation of none of it being real. The entire experience was overwhelming, and I cried for hours on end about the numbness in my body in addition to the sadness I felt for not being able to be present with her. This precious little girl to me deserved so much more than what I could give.
"I remember staring blankly outside the window every single day while seated for dinner. It was all that I could do."
For about a year, from 2014 to 2015, I was unable to identify or recognize myself in the mirror. I would try to look and simply didn’t know who I was looking at. I didn’t know which was worse: The knowing that I couldn’t recognize myself in the mirror or the fact that I couldn’t recognize myself. To cope with the knowing part, I compensated by showering in the dark, without lights on at all or by simply not looking in a mirror creating a coping mechanism for my coping mechanism. A terrible vicious cycle.
Though dissociation can often be an excellent survival mechanism when in the middle of trauma, the long-term repercussions of it can really be awful. And, unfortunately, it doesn't come with a switch I can turn on and off. My therapist was extremely kind and told me that it wasn’t impossible to change and, overtime, by doing “the work” I would be able to process, recognize it is happening, and then create new healthier mechanisms to reintegrate myself back to - myself.
I started brainstorming about how I was going to help myself after all, no one else could do this work for me. As a special education teacher, I co-created a school program for children with special needs focusing on the sensory system. This system included work on the two hidden vestibular and proprioceptive senses, the senses that help you know where your body is in time and space. Not being able to feel my feet connected to my body was a very prominent symptom of my dissociation. Knowing this was the case, I began trying activities that would provide opportunities for me to put pressure in my feet, allowing me to become aware of where they were in time and space.
"Not being able to feel my feet connected to my body was a very prominent symptom of my dissociation. Knowing this was the case, I began trying activities that would provide opportunities for me to put pressure in my feet."
I immediately created a prescription for myself of movement activities that I thought would help me feel and connect to my body. The prescription I crafted included vinyasa yoga four times a week, bachata partner dancing three times a week, and a drum circle one to two times each month. I dove into all three of those with extreme consistency, almost to the point of making myself exhausted from trying to fit everything in. (It’s not like I also didn’t have a job that I was barely holding on to.) I did this regimen for months. EIGHT MONTHS to be exact.
So, did I find my feet?
Yes, I found my feet at Gaia Flow Yoga on February 22, 2017. I first joined the studio on October 1st, 2016 and, in a strength building yoga class with my teacher Chrystal, called “Mountain” almost four months later, I finally found my feet. And what a glorious day and moment that was! During the next few months sensing my feet connected to me came and went on its own accord until about four months later. It was only that I finally stopped my vigorous movement routine that was self prescribed. Gaia Flow Yoga was the first place that I found my feet and I am thankful for this gem of a studio where I still practice to feel feet and body weekly. I look forward to telling you in another post how, Chrystal who lovingly has become a friend and a mentor and Gaia Flow Yoga continue to help me find me feet and, well, so much more.