Sharing my experience of bipolar dissociation with tips on how to improve it.
Trigger Warning: Self-harm, suicidal ideation, childhood abuse, bipolar dissociation
When I was in my late twenties, a well-meaning psychotherapist diagnosed me with dissociative identity disorder (DID). Doctors used to call DID multiple personality disorder. The diagnosis was my first connection to bipolar dissociation.
While the diagnosis was incorrect, my therapist saw a part of bipolar disorder that’s a struggle for many of us. Both a blessing and a curse, bipolar allows your mind to dissociate from the world around you.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, “Dissociative disorders are characterized by an involuntary escape from reality characterized by a disconnection between thoughts, identity, consciousness and memory.”
In simple terms? Dissociation is like watching a movie. You’re a main character, but not in control. Typically, you have no feelings about what’s happening in the scene.
Those of us of a certain age may have images of Sally Field in the movie Sybil (affiliate link) when we think of DID. In fact, that was where my mind went when the therapist said the words.
While Sally Field did an excellent job of portraying mental illness, the reality of dissociation, at least in my experience, is nothing like what we saw in the movie.
Dissociation can be a Protection
You don’t have to have a mental illness to dissociate. We humans are wonderfully made. Our brains know the value of dissociating when things are too intense. This is especially common in children who haven’t developed the abilities to cope with the horrors of this world. By disconnecting, they can endure the trauma thrust upon them.
As adults, we’re a little more prepared for the awful things in life, but trauma can still be devastating. Soldiers who have fought in wars and rape survivors often dissassociate as a way of coping. The mind does what it can so it can survive the worst moments.
While the dissociation can be a protection, it can also hold a dark side.
Bipolar Dissociation can be Dangerous
More than just protecting the mind, dissociation can come with negative symptoms. Commons bipolar dissociation symptoms include:
- Loss of self-identity
- Out-of-body experiences
- Significant memory loss
- Intense depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation
For these reasons, dissociation is something to take seriously. When you don’t care about anything, it’s much easier to hurt yourself. It was during my dissociative episodes that I was most prone to engage in self-harm.
The dangers of dissociation are another reason it’s vital to have a professional care team. Be open and honest with them. Medication and therapy can be your best friends for battling dissociation.
Watching the Wreck
Bipolar dissociation includes a sense of powerlessness. Sometimes it’s like watching a car accident. You can see the damage happening, but you’re helpless to stop it. Worse yet, nothing in the scene touches you emotionally.
It’s no wonder my therapist thought I had DID. As I recounted various horrific events from my childhood, I displayed no emotion. I didn’t cry, and apparently had no look of concern on my face.
My therapist was so deeply touched by my words and lack of emotion that she frequently cried during our sessions. Needless to say, she was not effective in helping me gain mental stability. She did, however, give me something new to think about.
Until then, I believed everyone felt like me. When you thought of terrible memories, you reflected on those events without emotion. That was normalcy to me.
Cope with Bipolar Dissociation
The best way to cope with periods of dissociation is by making wise choices the rest of the time. If you are taking medication for bipolar, faithfully taking those meds at the same time every day will do a lot to keep dissociation at bay.
Your everyday habits can affect a lot. If you don’t keep alcohol in the house, you’re less likely to abuse alcohol during a dissociative state. If you’re a kind and generous person, you’re less likely to be violent or destructive.
Prolonged bipolar insomnia can induce a dissociative state. While you can’t always control the insomnia, you can make sure you’re allowing yourself at least eight hours of time to be in bed. Some rest is better than none, and rest is essential for mental stability.
When you come to terms with past trauma, you also decrease your bipolar dissociative episodes. I know this is much easier said than done. When I finally faced my childhood abuse, I didn’t think I would survive it. I had the gift of a kind therapist. She reminded me every week, “The only way past the pain is through it.”
If therapy is an option for you, I highly recommend it. I think everyone, regardless of their mental health status, should spend some time in therapy.
In reality, most of us don’t have the choice. In fact, if I were facing this enemy today, therapy would not be possible.
If that’s the case, find a healthy group, either online or in person, or look for helpful books.
Mike Lew’s book, Victims No Longer, (affiliate link) was instrumental in helping me come to terms with my abuse. Just knowing that other men had been abused and survived facing those memories gave me the strength to keep going. I also gained strength from Cathryn Taylor’s, The Inner Child Workbook. (affiliate link)
There are still times I do things I don’t want to do. Sometimes I remember them, sometimes I don’t. When I do, it’s like I’m watching somebody else do something stupid. Coldly I watch as some lab animal makes poor choices. I see the disaster but don’t care. Nothing matters in a period of dissociation.
Most of my dissociative episodes these days are milder than in the past. Rather than a full dissociation, they are better described as bipolar blur. I’m present in the world and feeling something, but most things are muted grays.
Dealing with dissociation is one of the unique challenges of coping with bipolar disorder. Ultimately, you have to learn which things will work for you. Your dissociation may have its own triggers. Past trauma is often a trigger. Learning to face and accept your trauma gives the dissociation less power over you.
What matters most is that you never stop fighting. Coping with dissociation can feel like too much on top of everything else bipolar throws at you, but you can conquer it.
My mom loves to say, “Where there’s life, there’s hope.”
You’re still here. If you keep fighting, you will get where you want to be.
Do you have suggestions for coping with bipolar dissociation? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.
Until next time, keep fighting.