The Dissociation of the Artist

Longtime friends of mine know my conundrum. I can’t recall ever having a fleshed out sense of self. I can rattle off qualities and “values” but I don’t feel like I own any of them. They describe a thing, but I am not that thing. That said, am I any thing?

I’ve searched high and low over the years for a sense of self. I’ve tried equating personality disorders with self, but that’s just another quality of some “thing” that I don’t associate fully with. I’ve tried values exercises, where I assign words that are important to me, but I still don’t “feel” that those things do anything but describe an entity, an entity I still cannot feel either.

I’ve also lamented about my inability to remember things. I have to keep rolling reminders and notes on my phone because I’ll forget within minutes the things that popped into my mind. And then later, I’ll look at the notes and usually have zero recollection of writing them.

Experiences are weird too. I can see friends and family and places near and dear and they all seem “new” or “unfamiliar” to me. I know they exist and have meaning and some measure of importance to me, but that doesn’t stop the strange feeling of being confronted with something for the first time … even though I’ve seen or heard or interacted with them scores of times before. Even my own reflection seems strange most of the time; I recognize the being but not the nuances.

I’ve been lamenting about all of this a lot in therapy lately. I feel perpetually in my early twenties, though I push forty. I know time moves forward, but yet, I do not. I can remember much of my childhood with a clarity that I cannot recall that of my adulthood with. I’ve chalked these things up to former alcoholism, electroconvulsive therapy, Bipolar mania, all the things. However, it must be said that I still function, somehow. I’m not demented and I do seem to exist in some fashion in a productive way, most of the time. So a categorical source of brain damage doesn’t seem plausible for what I’m describing.

My primary care physician of all people suggested that the reason I never fully broke in a delusional separation from reality during my very, very long manic state was potentially due to disassociation. I laughed when he told me this. It made no sense to me, wasn’t that reserved for people with Dissociative Identity Disorder, formerly known as Multiple Personality Disorder? So I shrugged it off and went on my way, but as I mentioned, once mania subsided and my trauma therapist and I began working on a plan for the future, issues of identity and memory kept creeping up again and again with more and more urgency.

This week, I was asked by my therapist to fill out the DES-2, a diagnostic for scoring levels of disassociation, because we were starting to believe I was on the spectrum somewhere. I filled it out, and my off-the-cuff score for a first pass was almost 60 (the scores range from 0-100, with the average neurotypical scoring in single digits). I then went through and intentionally filled it out as conservatively as possible, but still being truthful, and still scored 50ish. The inventory asks questions that I often asked myself. Why can’t I remember how I got places? Why do things seem a bit unfamiliar or unreal? Why do I have such a high pain tolerance, so on and so forth. And the answer is that I undoubtedly fall on the dissociative spectrum.

From there, the light bulb went off. Dissociative spectrum residents are almost universally created from trauma. If I feel a certain age and no older, if I can only remember prior to that age, then there must be something about that year in particular that caused me to go down a path of dissociation. And I can pinpoint the capital ‘T’ systemic and recurring trauma at that exact year in question now, even if I have not been able to ever really ‘feel’ that trauma since the initial events presumably.

I’m 99% sure I do not have DID. But I am going to inquire about Depersonalization/Derealization Disorder. My inability to have identity or memory, my feelings of not truly existing or having sense of self, my memories being in third person, my vacant lapses, my inability to know things I interact with as real … it’s all DPDR to the highest degree, at least classically from what I’ve read. I need my therapist to guide me, and this realization more than fucked me up having come to it, but I feel both dread and optimism finally about things that have bothered me for a long time.

What is learned can be unlearned; I might get back my ability to be truly alive. But I know that we are going to have to, again, descend into hell and resurrect this husk to get there. Sigh.