Some call it detachment, dissociation or disconnection; I call it evaporating.
It wasn’t until I started researching C-PTSD that I understood the phenomenon of dissociation. Having been physically abused in childhood, I don’t remember dissociating when the abuse was happening. In fact, I remember many of the beatings rather vividly. As I got older, I confronted aggression with aggression instead of passively enduring it, which I suppose is it’s own form of dissociation. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that a form of dissociation was occurring under very different circumstances. However, before I describe it, please indulge me for a moment while I provide some context:
I discovered my enjoyment of writing as an adolescent. I had to make up a short story in the sixth grade, and my teacher was very impressed with it. Once in high school, I had several composition books full of angsty teenage poetry. As I matured, so did my writing. I brought some of my poetry to open mic venues in my early twenties and was a contributing member of a poetry and erotic fiction website where much of my work was well received. Writing gave a voice to a part of me that didn’t have one. I found that when I wrote, I had the time to organize my often cyclonic thoughts and present them in a linear and authentic fashion. What’s more is that when people are truly interested in something, they will read about it, and they will pay attention. That’s not always the case when one speaks.
I had abandoned my writing for more than a decade. I would jot down a quick poem here and there, but most of my writing was dedicated to either my college course work or my early recovery work. I had vacillated from the prose and poems that gave life to a very real and very vulnerable aspect of myself. After my divorce and a few nightmarish years that followed, a dear friend told me about a very small and very gentle room where he played guitar and I could most definitely read poetry or short stories. That room saved my life.
Now, with that in mind, imagine this scenario:
Two women, mother and daughter, are sitting in a bedroom and they’re having a conversation. The mother observes that the daughter doesn’t seem quite herself and asks if everything is alright. The daughter takes a breath, tries to gather her thoughts and begins talking about her feelings of isolation and loneliness. She utters maybe a sentence or two, and the mother proceeds to hijack the conversation, talking about how lonely and isolated she is and goes on for over an hour. Imagine that this happens every single time the daughter tries to open up about her feelings.
That very situation (and several others like it with different people) have happened to me many times. Speaking about my deepest and most difficult feelings is a very vulnerable spot for me, and I’m still navigating vulnerability. So, when I’m about to open up, or just begin to and someone derails me, something very strange happens.
Have you ever wiped a surface with a damp cloth and saw how the moisture left behind in short time just vanishes? That is exactly what happens and what it feels like during that period of dissociation. I can feel a part of myself literally wiped over and that authentic, vulnerable self evaporates into thin air. I am alert during the conversation; I am responsive, engaged, my feedback is meaningful and pertinent, however, I’m not completely “there.” Part of me has evaporated. I feel as insubstantial as a veil of mist or a wisp of smoke.
In those vulnerable moments, my truest self, my most vulnerable self was negated, and I can actually remember at times thinking to myself “I may as well be invisible” and in a sense that is exactly what I did. I learned to become invisible.
In some ways, it’s not a bad trait to have, I had even learned to do it at will even when not “triggered,” so to speak. I could at one point be an active participant in a conversation and in a second slip away undetected. I could be among a group of chattering people and fade into the background and quietly observe. In those instances I came to enjoy the ability.
The problem is that, like most trauma responses, it becomes maladaptive. There are times when I do need to be heard, especially when trying to express difficult, painful emotions or experiences. C-PTSD gave me hypervigilance and a heightened sense of awareness, so I know when someone really isn’t paying attention. There’s an almost tangible connection I can feel when someone is truly engaged, and once that connection is broken, the evaporation happens. When it does, whatever it was that I was trying to express evaporates with it, and I have yet to master the ability of bringing myself back to that place where I can again be vulnerable.
Understand, this is not a common response to a normal and unintended interruption or distraction such as a waitress coming to the table asking if we need anything or an urgent message/phone call where I know irrefutably that the other person truly is engaged, it’s just that this temporary circumstance necessitates distraction.
No, what I’m talking about is when someone engages and then later intentionally cuts the connection, as would be the case with someone extremely self – centered or narcissistic. It’s probably one of the reasons that stronger empaths in due time will out a narcissist. We don’t just identify behaviors, we can actually “feel” the effect of their covert behavior at a visceral level.
This handy yet horrid trait has also given me the ability to separate the terminally narcissistic from the often times self – unaware, maybe just a little selfish human who just doesn’t realize what they’re doing. The litmus test comes when I mention to them how that experience felt for me. Someone high on the narcissistic spectrum will likely not respond well, and someone with an all out personality disorder will usually display the tell tale signs of narcissistic injury.
The other benefit of this ability is that it has made me an exceptional listener; an empathetic listener. I know what it’s like to try to express the deepest, darkest, most vulnerable parts of myself and be shut down or negated. Therefore, I wouldn’t intentionally do it to another person, much less someone I love. I know too well why a molting animal hides while it sheds its skin. Human vulnerability is the most unique and most fragile. We are the only species on this planet that walks with it’s most ill protected parts forward; and whoever’s design we are, I believe they knew exactly what they were doing when they created us this way.
Until next time……….