Back in November, I came face to face randomly with one of my childhood abusers in a busy shopping centre 5 miles from where I live. This was the first time I had come face to face with this man since I was 15.
As a child, although I suffered abuse from a very young age, I dissociated for much of it. In dissociation, the person splits into separate mental states in order to survive overwhelming trauma. So for much of my abuse, I had little awareness of what was happening. The few memories of the abuse that I did carry lacked emotional connection and it was as though I was watching a DVD: it wasn’t happening to me and I didn’t feel traumatised by it. Even as an adult now, I still sometimes question whether it was a dream or whether it really happened. But that is what dissociation is like. I remember frequent occasions where I would watch the news, or Children in Need or Red Nose Day, and feel so abnormal because I didn’t feel traumatised in the way other survivors of abuse did. I felt as though there must be something wrong with me because I wasn’t responding in the way they were.
I felt the same whenever I faced a grief, like after my dad died. Everyone around me was a mess but I was genuinely fine, even after watching him die while he held my hand. I felt there must be something wrong with me to not feel so distressed by these things. I now understand that this too is because I dissociate.
So growing up I never had much awareness of—and certainly no emotional connection to—the abuse I was enduring. As my life spiralled out of control during young adulthood, I was showing all the symptoms of a traumatised individual, but I couldn’t make sense of why I was that way. I would often make up reasons for my behaviour, because that was less distressing than facing the reality that I had no apparent reason for the way I was feeling or living. I couldn’t make sense of it.
Three years ago I discovered I have dissociative identity disorder, and it was such a relief to realise that my response to traumatic experiences was actually very normal under the circumstances I grew up in. It was a relief to learn that dissociation is a common response to overwhelming trauma and that I survived in the only way my body knew how to. I began to make sense of behavioural patterns throughout my life, and attachment patterns and certain events seemed to click into place for me.
For example, when I gave birth to my son I completely dissociated during labour. I woke up and my son was in my arms but I had no recollection of the last hour of labour. I believe this is because it was too traumatic for me, and so I switched in order to cope with it. It could be that this experience triggered a previous trauma and this caused the dissociation, but my body did what it needed to in order to keep myself safe.
Then there was the time when I ran away from hospital and ended up walking 10 miles. I recall feeling that the walk seemed to take just 10 minutes, and yet I was gone for hours, and the entire journey felt like I was in a dream and as though I wasn’t real.
These are just two examples of the many times I have dissociated. Since I discovered three years ago that I have this condition, my symptoms and my recovery have improved significantly. I now no longer dissociate half as much or as severely as I used to and I’m able to contain my trauma now.
However, the flip side of that is that more and more memories are surfacing, and I am responding and connecting emotionally to situations now, whereas in the past I felt nothing. While this is positive in terms of my progress, it can be a very painful reality.
So when I randomly bumped into one of my childhood abusers back in November, I felt frightened, sick, scared and traumatised. As I locked eyes with this man, he looked at me with disgust, and I was sent into an automatic state of shock, panic and anger. I sat in the middle of that shopping centre shaking like a leaf, feeling like a small child. The way he looked at me made me feel repulsive. He made me feel repulsive, even though he was the abuser. I was angry and sickened that I allowed him to have that power over me. What confused me more was that I had only previously remembered him fondly. Even though I knew he abused me, I never remembered feeling scared of him. My reaction to this experience made me realise that, seeing this man now, feelings and emotions that I had dissociated from as a child were floating to the surface. Although this was a frightening experience, it was empowering to realise that I am now in a place where my body doesn’t need to dissociate, where my body can face trauma and contain it.
The weeks following this event were traumatic and painful. I had nightmares, was frequently triggered, and every time I shut my eyes he would be there. And yet this event has empowered me too. He may have made me feel scared, but I still looked him straight in the eye. He may have made me feel like I am repulsive, but the truth is that I have been able to survive what he did to me. I have been able to face the consequences head on, while he still lives in denial of who he is—he has never felt able to confront his inner demons.
It takes courage and strength to face who you are and what has happened to you, and that is something he can never take away from me. I am now a mother, a friend and a counselling student with a passion and a drive to help other trauma survivors. All of this wasn’t possible five years ago. Recovery is possible!
Reprinted with kind permission from Pauline’s blog at https://prachael87blog.wordpress.com