An Explanation of Dissociation: In Laymen’s Terms


Shirley J. Davis

There are many terms in psychology which, if you are not in the know, may seem obscure or strange. In my experience in speaking with in public, dissociation is one that many folks have never heard of or are confused by. That’s why I decided to attempt to write an explanation of this term in my own words. I can only speak from a non-professional stance as one who has lived experience with Dissociative Identity Disorder, the most extreme expression of what is a normal human behavior when confronted with overwhelming experiences.

Dissociation isn’t an unusual or unhealthy mental mechanism. It is something all humans experience. A common incidence people may have of dissociation is what I have termed the movie theater experience.

You go to the theater to see a movie you have been anticipating  seeing for months. You sit down in an empty row with your popcorn and soda and the movie starts. Soon you get involved with the film, so much so that you lose all concept of time. After the movie, you become aware that there are people sitting beside you and that you have eaten your popcorn and drank your soda. You have no recollection of the other people seating themselves beside you or of your eating and drinking your treats.

This is a common form of dissociation.

Dissociation is just a fancy word for “checking out”. When I dissociate I become disconnected from my thoughts, feelings, memories and who I am. In this condition, one of my ego states comes forward and lives my life for me in an effort to protect me from what I have determined to be overwhelming circumstances. These ego states are found in every human, however in most people they can communicate with one another forming a running narrative of the events in one’s life. In my case, my ego states have been separated by amnesiac walls which I began to form in early childhood, which prevent communication. So, when faced with something I feel overcome by, one of my separated ego states becomes energized and takes over. When I am “checked out”, I am dissociated.

Dissociation can be a wonderful coping mechanism when one is in danger, however it can be destructive. In my life living with Dissociative Identity Disorder, it has destroyed friendships, romantic relationships, jobs, and many other aspects of life that most people take for granted. Because I lose my sense of right and wrong with some of my alter ego states, I have been in trouble with the police and had to declare bankruptcy due to credit cards that I normally would never have gotten, let alone used. I got married in a dissociated state, literally waking up next to a man on our wedding night. As one can see, it is not a disorder to be desired.

One aspect of dissociation I should like to speak about is who and what these alter ego states are and are not. They are parts of me, fragmented parts of my personality. They ARE NOT different personalities. They ARE NOT nor could they ever become monsters such as was portrayed in a recent popular movie. They do not possess supernatural strength, (such as the ability to climb walls), nor are they violent. Being dissociated does not make me dangerous or more likely to commit a heinous crime. It is a coping and defense mechanism, nothing more, nothing less.

I will give one more explanation to what dissociation feels like. It is one that most Americans have experienced at least once, especially in our adolescent or early adulthood years.

You go out drinking with your friends and get wasted. After a while you black out. You wake up the next day and your friends begin telling you about all the things you said and did the night before but which you have absolutely no memory of saying or doing.

This is what it feels like to dissociate, only it happens to me every day. It is not fun, it is not something to be desired, and more understanding of what dissociation is needs to be spread among the public so that movies and television programs that attempt to use dissociation to sell movie tickets and advertising spots lose their flavor.

People with dissociative disorders are not weird or strange, we are ordinary people who have taken our human ability to escape overwhelming trauma to the next level.

Perhaps this last statement is the most important point I wish to get across to all who read anything I read.