Dissociated ego states

Two weeks ago I felt like what I would usually describe as ‘anxious’ during football training. This week I started reading The Myth of Sanity by Martha Stout, a study in human consciousness that focusses on forgotten trauma, dissociated mental states and multiple personalities in daily life. As I got halfway through the book I started recognising a possible certain altered mental state in myself, that up until now I had been putting away as anxiety alone. I realised that what I describe as anxiety is certainly anxiety but that it’s preceded by something which then causes the anxiety.

The experience that precedes my anxiety and continues during that feeling is a little odd. To me, during such an experience, it feels as if I’m outside my own body and self even though I am right there. I’ll feel distanced from everyone else and when I’m talking to people it doesn’t feel like it’s me who is answering. I sound different too and when someone makes a joke I don’t feel the same joy that the others feel. I don’t understand how the others can feel so happy while I don’t feel anything. I also wonder how I manage to run when it feels like I’m not really there. It’s as if an automatic pilot has taken over which allows me to continue functioning to some extent. No one will question it though, a lot of people probably won’t even notice it and if they do it’ll be put down to how I might be having a bad day. Up until recently, I put it down to the very same thing, but Strout’s book has taught me that I might have been triggered by something that should be in the past and as a result I’m unable to be in that moment.

Just to clarify, I have not been severely traumatised in any way. The Myth of Sanity certainly mostly covers severe childhood trauma’s but also points out that a lot of us, if not everyone, will have probably experienced something that could have been traumatising to them. This is especially true when you’re a child as you’re new to the world and have everything yet to learn. Therefore, dealing with a death of a family member can become traumatising. Fighting parents can be traumatising to a child while that very same fight might not have as much impact on another adult. It’s also important to note that it depends on person to person how traumatising any event can be. For this, Strout gives the example of two parachutists. One of them has been doing it for years while the other only just started today. After jumping out of the plane their parachute does not open. The experienced jumper doesn’t panic as she’s very aware of the emergency parachute. For her, the jump will have been like any other. However, the new parachutist freaks out and only realises she has an emergency parachute after about 30 seconds; the experience becomes traumatising to her.

If a human being experiences something that is traumatising, they have the capability to remove themselves from a situation. I don’t know if what I’m saying is true, but as a child, I might have felt the need to remove myself from the situation when my parents were fighting. Removing oneself is a mechanism that helps us survive and can, therefore, be incredibly effective during the circumstances. In some extreme situations, it can even mean the difference between life and death. The only problem is that once a defence mechanism has been put in place it’ll stay in place even when it’s no longer needed. This means that anything reminding someone of a ‘trauma’ from the past can trigger said defence mechanism. If then, the experienced trauma wasn’t severe enough to cause severe problems in later life (such as addiction, major depression, or suicide attempts etc.) people continue to live with a defence mechanism they no longer need which can be problematic.

Strout gives the example of an intelligent man who can get triggered in the middle of a conversation. He will fall quiet and zone out until someone taps his shoulder or shakes him. He doesn’t recall the conversation he was having before he zoned out. This seems odd but his friends will explain it by giving him the label as an absent-minded professor. No one will question his behaviour again and neither will he while in reality, his defence mechanism is triggered. His mum used to shout at home and in order to cope he basically fled his body. His defence mechanism can be activated by any topic that reminds me of that past situation. His situation might be problematic, but not problematic enough to ever discover that he is suffering from a past trauma. In the same way, I put my experience down as anxiety and believed it was simply a part of who I was. I thought it could be a part of my genes, my personality, just me. I had come to accept it as a fact of life rather than considering it could have been caused by life. 

So let’s go back to this idea that I might have created a defence mechanism in order to cope with the fights my parents had. This defence mechanism might, in fact, be an ego state. This is different from a dissociative identity disorder, as when ‘a person merely influenced by a dissociated ego state retains an observing ego, which is simply the capacity to observe and evaluate one’s self.’ (Strout, p. 91) Some of my friends will recognise that I have referred to myself before as an ego and myself. It’s quite possible that I have described something similar in blog posts by saying that I feel like I’m someone else at times and now that I’ve read this book it makes sense. Something poignant though, is that I am always aware when my ego state comes up. However, up until recently, I believed my description of what I now believe might be an ego state was just a way to describe how I felt. Imagine my surprise and relief when I realised this is an actual thing that I might be able to solve.

How am I affected?
How am I affected by this trigger in daily life? For one it can happen at any moment during any day. I am still unaware of specific triggers so I’m kind of clueless. I never usually remember what triggers me. One moment I’m fine and then the next thing I remember and am aware of is that I feel different. I have been able to identify this feeling for a long time now but I can’t change it or snap out of it by will. Because it’s such an unpredictable thing I am reluctant to set meetings in advance with anyone. I don’t like to tell my flatmates that we can go shopping together in the afternoon if it’s the morning. I never know if I could suddenly change into someone who isn’t really there.

Another recent example is when I had the opportunity to sign up for a tennis tournament outside of Aberystwyth. It’s always a guess whether I’ll be fine on a day of a match or anything, but it’s even scarier to commit when I would have to travel to a place I don’t know where there will be people I don’t really know because what if I am triggered that day? It’ll cause anxiety, I’ll act weird and probably anti social. How do I explain that if it happens and how do I even get through a day like that? I wouldn’t be able to run away because I’d be in a place I don’t know.

However, it truly bothers me in relation to football. It’s so strange because it won’t matter how comfortable I feel with a team or how long I’ve been with them. There will always be another moment that this happens. It can happen weekly and it’s very disheartening because I could feel absolutely amazing one week, thinking nothing can break this feeling now, while I’ll feel like running away and hiding in a corner the next.

How has it affected my life?
I can give another more predominant example of how this has affected my life in relation to my home country. 1.5 year ago I moved to Aberystwyth, a completely new country and place far away from everyone I knew. I felt very different in Aberystwyth compared to how I had felt at home. I still struggled with depression but I felt like a different person. During my first year, I went back home for Christmas and looking back, I now know for sure that I was in my ego state during the duration of my stay. I was aware that I wasn’t my normal self and I tried to explain this to my mum and myself, as I had before when I still lived in the Netherlands. However, it was impossible to explain and it all caused a lot of frustration on both sides. I left the Netherlands thinking I would probably continue to feel this way for a while now, but the minute my plane landed in the UK I felt completely different. I felt alive again; the haze had been lifted and The Myth of Sanity describes this exact same happening for someone else.

For an incredibly long time just being home or in the Netherlands triggered my ego state causing me to be out of it and to be rather unpleasant for my surrounding. Once again, I was always aware when I changed to my ego state, but as much as I wanted to I couldn’t change it. To this day, I’m pretty sure the same state gets triggered when I’m around a big part of my family. All of this explains why I didn’t often want to talk about the Netherlands or go back to visit at all. But as you may have read in a previous post, I have accepted my Dutch past and I do feel able to go home now. For a really big part, I have gotten this thing under control to a certain extent. However, the fact that I still get triggered without realising until I’m in my ego state shows that I’m not completely there yet.

The only way to stop getting triggered is by remembering and opening up my ‘trauma’. I said before that it might have been the fights between my parents but that’s really just a shot in the dark. I don’t even remember many fights between my parents. In fact, I used to tell people that even though my parents divorced the fighting was never that bad. It’s possible I repressed these occurrences through switching to my ego state but it’s also possible that this isn’t the case at all. I wouldn’t know because I don’t remember and I may need help, therapy, to solve all of this completely. I don’t think it would be difficult to recall the ‘trauma’ once I remember it. I might have perceived the happening as traumatic when I was a child, but it shouldn’t be traumatic now that I’m an adult. I probably won’t be able to go to therapy while I’m at university or in the UK but I’m not going to keep this for the rest of my life. I want to enjoy life to the fullest and will not be held back by things from the past that no longer matter. Thankfully I never experienced something severely traumatic and I am not in a life threatening situation so it can wait, but I believe the answer to Strout’s question: ‘Can we now overcome our memories of trauma, and learn truly to live?’ is a definite yes.

Of course, I can’t diagnose myself. The things that I’ve written are based on my own thoughts and analysis and are never meant to be taken blindly as a 100% truth.

The Myth of Sanity by Martha Stout

‘A startling new study in human consciousness, The Myth of Sanity is a landmark book about forgotten trauma, dissociated mental states, and multiple personalities in everyday life.

In its groundbreaking analysis of childhood trauma and dissociation and their far-reaching implications in adult life, it reveals that moderate dissociation is a normal mental reaction to pain and that even the most extreme dissociative reaction-multiple personality-is more common than we think. Through astonishing stories of people whose lives have been shattered by trauma and then remade, The Myth of Sanity shows us how to recognize these altered mental states in friends and family, even in ourselves.’

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