Disassociation

What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with mental illness, and what would you say to teach them?

People might not know that I am able to disassociate myself from my anxious thoughts and feelings when I am ‘on show’. This does not mean that the anxious thoughts and feelings are not present or that I experience anxiety any less, but rather that my anxiety is hidden by a conditioned response from years of exclusion and stress. I am a lecturer, and have taught large classes numbering in hundreds of students. I have been teaching for over ten years and have always suffered anxiety episodes in the lead up to classes, especially with groups of new students. However I have a well-rehearsed strategy where I constantly practice by myself and with my husband or a close friend prior to a class. This is very similar to an actor learning stage positions, lines, facial expressions and even accents and responses to audience questions.

Yes, I just referred to my students as an audience.

I only learnt of the term ‘disassociate’ this week at my psychiatrist appointment in relation to what I do to survive with my anxiety disorder. In particular, the doctor was surprised at my ability to appear calm and reasoned whilst my head was a jumble of racing thoughts. He was intrigued that I had learnt such a coping mechanism and was able to perform so highly in our regulated society.

Disassociation for me is like holding my breath. My brain suspends my active thinking functions and switches into automatic mode. Much like the example before of an actor, I have so many set of learnt responses or ‘masks’ that they automatically appear when required. Such as times, like when I am teaching and need to be professional in order to achieve in my work. Most recently my dissociation has assisted me in managing to continue to look after my baby despite recovering from a severe episode. I feel that myself as well as my constituents are safe from my anxiety when I am able to don my mask. However the masks also preclude me from actually managing my anxiety and so it continues to get worse, festering under the surface like the pus inside of a burn blister.

It would be great to live in a society that was not so regulated by how well you seem and that we could all be unique in our experiences of mental illness, much like someone with a broken leg is free to use crutches without fear of ridicule. But until then please believe me when I say that I am not feeling well and that I am struggling with my anxious thoughts, even if I seem fine, because I may have dissociated myself from them.

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