On Social Gatherings and Dissociation

I try to be a good mom. The kind that’s attentive and engages with her child on a regular basis. The kind of mother who laughs and jokes when things are silly and lighthearted and listens and processes when things are difficult. The kind of mother who is an active participant in the life of my child.

Today was a challenge. We were invited to a birthday party for one of my daughter’s friends. Not a small, low-key birthday party, either. I’m talking 16 or so kiddos running around a rented gymnasium with a bouncy house, play tunnels, face paint, music – the whole nine yards. Does such a setting have anything to do with my particular traumatic experiences? Not really. But sometimes with anxiety disorders, over stimulation can trigger panic attacks or dissociative episodes all on its own. (Because life would be far too simple if I could just avoid specific, clearly-related-to-my-trauma situations and be competent and confident in handling all the other life-things.)

When I had to duck out of this party or stand with my back firmly against a wall finding every single blue object I could possibly find in an attempt to ground myself, I felt like a pretty shitty mom. Dissociating is the exact opposite of being present for my daughter. I felt my hands and arms begin to tingle and my feet begin to get cold. My ability to focus on the party slowly decreased. My heart rate increased. I felt myself “drifting”. (These are the physical “red flags” that I am about to dissociate and potentially have a flashback.)

Thankfully, I was able to utilize the grounding techniques I’ve learned through cognitive and dialectic therapy to prevent a full blown dissociative episode from occurring, but it was a close call. And the last thing I wanted was another parent or worse, a child, noticing me staring blankly at nothing in a corner, shaking and hyperventilating. To be fair, it was sort of a setup. I was unable to take my anti-anxiety medication prior to going to the party, and I didn’t get nearly enough sleep last night, either. In hindsight, it may have been better to try and drop my daughter off at this party and pick her up when it was finished. Or to come in really prepared to ground myself. (Instead, I went in with a little bit of willful denial – you know the kind? “You got this, Sheila. You’re stronger than this. You can handle it.” All of this, of course, is true, but you can’t blow through a snowbank with a 2-door Ford Escort on willpower, you need the 4-wheel drive truck with a plow attached. You need know which tools you’ll need and have them readily accessible. By not preparing to need to ground, I made things much more difficult on myself.)

The point of this post is not the irrational faith I placed in sheer willpower or my lack of preparation for what I knew would be a difficult event. What I want to take a moment to explain to you what dissociation is like for me. I think there’s a lot of misinformation about flashbacks and dissociative symptoms. You see a lot of stuff in movies where the veteran grabs his gun and holds people hostage because he thinks he’s back at war or people act out, moment for moment and word for word, their traumatic memories. This may happen to some people. My therapist has told me flashbacks take many forms. But these depictions are not at all what happens to me. My friends tell me I am “catatonic” when I dissociate. When I have a full blown flashback, I am also “catatonic” though my muscles tense up and I tend to move my right leg a lot (for whatever reason). For me, at least, flashbacks are nothing like what you see in the movies. There’s no dramatic reenactment of a traumatic event, there’s almost never any pushing people away or yelling (it has happened a handful of times, but it’s certainly not my norm), and I don’t often script (repeat phrases or words I may have spoken during the actual trauma). For me, a flashback (or any dissociation) feels like I’m between worlds. Like I’m half here and half somewhere else. If you speak to me, I can hear you – though it is often difficult or impossible for me to respond. I feel disconnected on both a psychic and a physiological level. It’s like being half way to an out of body experience, but being kept mostly in my flesh by some sort of mysterious tendrils that still connect me to the here and now.

The photo which accompanies this blog is one I took while at the party. It is a perfect representation of what dissociation feels like for me – the party reflected in a window with a solid brick wall outside. I caught the reflection in the window while I was searching for blue objects to use to ground. Once I thought about taking pictures, my attempts at grounding improved. Grounding is all about mindfulness – being completely engaged with and focused on the present moment. Photography, for me, is a perfect way to practice mindfulness. It forces me to focus on my surroundings and really notice the details. What is the light doing? What angle makes this particular object look most interesting? Where do I need to be in relation to the subject of the photo to convey what I hope to convey?

Traditional mindfulness is a struggle for me. Photography is a fantastic alternative.

My daughter had a blast and was blissfully unaware of the difficulties I was facing during the first half of the party. Once I was grounded and I began just taking pictures of her and her friends, my ability to engage was back in full force. By the end of the day, I was present enough to play with her and some of her friends. I was able to be the mother I always strive to be. Sometimes PTSD robs me of the ability to do that. I am so happy to be able to use the coping skills I’ve learned to not only help myself, but also improve my ability to engage with my beautiful, creative, funny, amazing daughter. Right before the party ended, the two of us built a tower out of cardboard blocks that was taller than her! She loved it, and exclaimed, giggling, “Mama, it’s like Jenga!” I chuckled as I thought of the post I made last night. Don’t worry, though, we built a really solid base!

6 thoughts on “On Social Gatherings and Dissociation

  1. I feel you hardcore…I cannot stand social gatherings, and I get the exact same symptoms as you. It doesn’t make you a bad mama…yes, you care. And you try! You’re a good mama. I know you know that, but hear it from someone else too! Thank you for adding this eye-opening post to the #OffFridays Mental Illness Blog Share ❤

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a part of Adobe creative suite. Specifically connected to photo shop. But it’s not, like, traditional photo shop. It’s a program that allows you to work on RAW photos and adjust lighting and white balance. You can change the lighting in the whole photo or just in a particular part, you can sharpen just the areas you want or make the background a bit more blurry to really make the subject stand out, mess with contrast and saturation, etc. The ex is a photographer and I learned a bit from him.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ohhh that sounds really cool. I used to do a little photography, but just film photography. It was a long time ago…I liked it though! Anyway you’re very very talented

        Liked by 1 person

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