What Is Dissociation?
Dissociation is an automatic, biologically driven mechanism that acts as ‘mental flight when physical flight is not possible’.[vii] Sometimes an event can be remembered, but we fail to notice it’s not a complete memory. What’s recalled can feel dreamlike, disjointed, or exist only as an image, taste or feeling. It keeps the person frozen in time, disconnected from the emotion, pain or powerlessness of an experience. How many times might an ancestor have said they were caned or whipped, genuinely believing ‘it didn’t do me any harm’? This is an effect of dissociation.
There are three main dissociative disorders: depersonalisation-derealisation, dissociative amnesia and dissociative identity disorder (DID, previously known as multiple personality disorder). All are healthy responses to surviving overwhelming trauma – although they can create new problems of their own.
As family historians, we can tease out possible dissociation in our family tree by examining what our forebears left behind. The letter below was between my grandfather’s older cousins Theophilus (aged 29) and Joel (aged 23). The apparent detachment with which Theophilus writes suggests a form of dissociation known as depersonalisation. In the past, downplaying horrific situations may have been seen as an admirable masculine trait or even a life skill. Today, we recognise it as a way of dealing with trauma.
Sailors Rest, Fort Knokks, [SIC] Capetown
2nd April 1900
My dear Bro,
Just a line to let you know I am still alive & well. I have not as yet left Capetown & chill on the docks…. I have a very good job.… Close to where I am living there is a large hospital & nearby is a military cemetery, they are being buried at a rate of 5 per day but, we soldiers must not grieve, we only say so & so has snuffed it. I got the pouch & bacca and you can assume I prized it very much. I will send you something from here that you will like. Give my best love to father & mother & all at home with best love to you hoping to see you soon.
From your loving bro,
To find dissociation in our family tree, we need to look at the many kinds of trauma experienced in childhood. However, it’s important to remember childhood trauma does not automatically lead to a dissociative disorder.[i] Author, blogger and trainer Carolyn Spring helps people recover from trauma and reverse adversity. Carolyn comments that probably the greatest risk factor for developing a dissociative disorder in adulthood doesn’t come from the severity of the trauma, but from having a ‘disorganised attachment’ pattern.[ii],[iii],[iv]
A disorganised attachment style
We saw in a previous article that a disorganized attachment style affects our work, learning, social and romantic relationships, identity, and the ability to recognise feelings in oneself or others. For it to come about, the child would need to experience a caregiver who is persistently ‘frightened’ or ‘frightening’.[v],[vi]
So, what could have happened to my grandfather’s cousins to prepare them for such dissociation later on? As family historians, we cannot know our ancestors’ inner lives; but using current theories, we can examine the available records and speculate in an informed way.
What is depersonalisation-derealisation disorder?
Depersonalisation means feeling detached from yourself, observing yourself and your thoughts and feelings as if they belong to someone else. Some typical symptoms are:
- out-of-body experiences
- loss of feeling in parts of your body
- distorted views of your body
- an inability to recognise your image in a mirror
- a sense of detachment from your emotions
- feeling like you are watching a movie of yourself
- feeling like you are unreal
Episodes of depersonalisation can last a few moments, come and go over many years, or may become an automatic response to severe mental or physical pain and distress.
Derealisation means seeing other people and the environment around you as dream-like and unreal. Objects may change in shape, size or colour. Typical symptoms are:
- feeling like a normal environment is unfamiliar
- a sense that what is happening is unreal
- feeling detached from the world
- a perception of objects changing shape, colour, size
- feeling that people you know are strangers.[viii]
In some cultures, people seek to attain depersonalisation through religious or meditative practices. This is not a disorder.[ix]
Depersonalisation-derealisation can also be induced as a side effect of some medications.
What is dissociative amnesia?
If someone has dissociative amnesia, there will be times when they can’t remember information about themselves or events from the past. They may forget how to do something. Some people find themselves in places they don’t recognise, with no memory of how they got there. These blank episodes can last a few minutes, hours or days. More rarely, they may continue for months or years.
What is Dissociative Identity Disorder?
DID is a severe form of dissociation that was once seen as rare. It is a mental process which produces a lack of connection in a person’s thoughts, memories, feelings, actions, or sense of identity. It’s thought to stem from early, often unrelenting, repeated abuse. The dissociative aspect is believed to be a coping mechanism – the person literally shuts her/himself off from a situation or experience that’s too violent, traumatic, or painful to assimilate with her/his conscious self.[x]
What might have led our ancestor to dissociate?
- admission to a workhouse or hospital
- invasive medical procedures
- natural disasters
- physical pain or injury
- refugee status[xii]
- serious illness
- taken prisoner
Dissociation could have become a primary defence mechanism if your ancestor grew up in a dysfunctional, abusive, addictive, or violent home. Children can easily become overwhelmed. They have fewer skills and little chance of avoiding or removing themselves from abusive or traumatic situations.
The strength of dissociation is that it narrows our focus so we can survive. Its disadvantage is that it can hamper healing. We need to find a way to weave our actions, memories, feelings, thoughts and sensations together, to support our wellbeing. This allows the experience to be absorbed and understood so it can become part of our identity.
Chronic dissociation develops when there is repeated threat or trauma, especially when it starts at a young age and the child isn’t supported and soothed. In an ideal environment, parents buffer children from stress and help them regulate their behaviour, emotions and bodily functioning. If a parent did not have this experience, or is unable to give it, their child may be less resilient. As adults, these children show an increased risk for psychiatric disorders, addiction and serious medical illnesses. If uninterrupted, a repeated inheritance can be passed down subsequent generations.[xiv]
When our ancestors had overwhelming experiences, it may have been helpful to dissociate from debilitating fear, anxiety and arousal during a traumatic event. But while some dissociative responses last a short time and resolve on their own, others continue to play out over years and become a habitual response to abuse or are triggered by reminders of trauma in everyday life.[xv] This can then cause:
- time confusion
- loss of memory
- blurred identity
- difficulty managing feelings
- emotional numbness
- feeling as if one is outside one’s body
It also interferes with later cognitive and emotional processing of the event, ultimately disabling healing.[xvi]
Dissociation in the Parker family
So, what could have happened to my grandfather’s cousins to prepare them for such dissociation later on? As family historians we cannot know our ancestors’ inner lives; but using current theories, we can examine the available records and speculate in an informed way.
To give a personal example, dissociation may have robbed my great-grandmother Ann of her ability to be aware, feel joy, or nurture her children after the loss of her firstborn, Lily. [xvii] I suspect my grandfather Walter Parker’s inheritance left him with a tendency to detach himself from his emotions and his physical sensations. I wonder if he consequently found relationships stifling. It could explain why, according to his daughter, Walter physically shuddered when he heard Cole Porter’s song, I’ve got you under my skin in the 1960s.
Walter’s cousin Theophilus Parker likely experienced depersonalisation-derealisation during the Anglo-Boer War. These are common transitory experiences in the general population but could be present in 30% of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).[xviii] I like to think that Theophilus was a soldier whose resilience protected him ‘in the face of traumatic life-events’.[xix] However, Theo lost his mother when he was just nine years old. Modern research shows us that a quarter of children develop serious psychological issues following a parent’s death.[xx] Children can become socially withdrawal, suffer from anxiety and experience social problems, as well as low self-esteem.
We can hope Theo’s stepmother provided a stable environment and his resilience grew enough to protect him from developing serious dissociation during the Angl-Boer War or the 1901 plague in Cape Town. In January 1917 Theo was living in Rhodesia (now known as Zimbabwe) and he volunteered to serve in World War 1, aged 46. He was assigned to No 2 Section South African Railways, overseas dominion and was sent to France. Theo was discharged from the army as he was declared unfit, cause unknown, after Christmas 1917. Did Theo sustain a psychological injury, a physical injury, or both, leading to his discharge?
When we consider what our ancestors endured, we should be mindful that dissociation is a healthy response to inescapable trauma, which can result in lifelong dysfunction that is likely to affect parenting. Along with other psychological and environmental pressures, this can contribute to the ‘one in four of us [who] will experience a mental health problem’.
The past two decades have seen substantial growth in proven models for treatment of the consequences of trauma, but they are not successful for all. Although the effects are now considered reversible throughout life more research is needed.[xxi],[xxii],[xxiii],[xxiv] The ground-breaking study Genetic Links to Anxiety and Depression GLAD has been set up to help us learn more about ‘how genes and environment act together to bring about anxiety and depression, and to help develop new treatment options.’[xxv] By determining the traumas and patterns in your family history, you can unlock ways to help heal your family now and in the future.
Carolyn Spring is a living embodiment of hope. She shares her personal journey reducing suffering and reversing adversity through her blog, podcasts, videos, training and books. Carolyn shows us how recovery from trauma, attachment issues and dissociation is not only possible; it terminates abusive patterns and in this situation is ‘the best revenge’.[xxvi]
If you need help:
International: Get Help Now—Emergency Mental Health Resources
In the UK: Helpline and crisis centres
About A Victorian’s Inheritance
Anxiety. Addiction. Depression.
We associate these words with the challenges of modern life.
Rarely do we consider how these conditions shaped past generations.
Using archival sources, testimonies, and her grandfather Walter Parker’s experiences, the author not only paints a vivid picture of life in an English Victorian village. She also draws upon psychological theory to explore the lives of her working-class ancestors.
What did your forebears inherit from their parents?
Which psychological characteristics did your ancestors hand down?
A Victorian’s Inheritance can help you find answers.
To read some of A Victorian’s Inheritance go here and click on Your first two FREE chapters are waiting (at the bottom of the page).
Who Do I Think You Were? A Victorian’s Inheritance by Helen Parker-Drabble is an accessible exploration of the life, times and psychological inheritance of Walter Parker, a Victorian working-class youth growing up at the Tank Yard in the English village of Thorney, on the 11th Duke of Bedford’s forgotten estate.
This is not the story of just one man, but of an era. The information and theories introduced in this book can help connect us to our ancestors. They can inspire us to be more mindful of the psychological legacy we leave behind.
About the Author
Helen Parker-Drabble is a counsellor by profession and a genealogist and family historian by experience. According to the online Cambridge dictionary, one of the definitions of therapy is it is a ‘treatment that helps someone feel better or grow stronger’. So as a geneatherapist, I aim to explore mental health, mental illness, and psychology through different eras, in the hope that by exploring what impacted our ancestors we help the present generation.
Helen is also a life-long explorer of social history and weaver of factual family tales, with a Diploma in counselling. Fascinated by psychological theory and the stories we develop to make sense of ourselves and our family, Helen’s original quest was to understand her Victorian grandfather, Walter Parker, born in 1885 in Upwell on the Norfolk/Cambridgeshire border.
Family history doesn’t survive unless it’s in print, which is why Helen set out to write an engaging and accessible biography that would not only explore working-class Victorian life in an English village but could motivate and encourage other family historians struggling to pass on what they have painstakingly discovered. The result, in part, is an exploration of transgenerational legacy of loss, trauma, anxiety and depression.
[i] Kochanska, G., Philibert, R. and Barry, R. (2009). Interplay of genes and early mother-child relationship in the development of self-regulation from toddler to preschool age. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, [online] 50(11), pp.1331-1338. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2882680/ [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
[ii] Spring, C. (2019). Carolyn Spring | reversing adversity. [online] Carolyn Spring. Available at: https://www.carolynspring.com/ [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
[iii] Cassidy, J. and Mohr, J. (2006). Unsolvable Fear, Trauma, and Psychopathology: Theory, Research, and Clinical Considerations Related to Disorganized Attachment Across the Life Span. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 8(3), pp.275-298.
[iv] Liotti, G. (2004). Trauma, dissociation, and disorganized attachment: Three strands of a single braid. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training,
41(4), pp.472-486. Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/08e0/9294f9b3e3476a39c7f08e4e866dbea30da3.pdf [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
[v] Spring, C. (2012). What is dissociation? | PODS. [online] Information.pods-online.org.uk. Available at: https://information.pods-online.org.uk/what-is-dissociation/ [Accessed 21 Jul. 2019].
[vi] Fearon, P. (2004). Comments on Turton et al: On the complexities of trauma, loss and the intergenerational transmission of disorganized relationships. Attachment & Human Development, 6(3), pp.255-261.
[vii] Kluft, as cited in Sanderson, 2006, p.187
[viii]Beaconmedicalgroup.nhs.uk. (n.d.). Beacon Medical Group | Dissociative disorders. [online] Available at: https://www.beaconmedicalgroup.nhs.uk/articles/dissociative-disorders/ [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
[ix] Nordqvist, J. (2019). Dissociation and depersonalization: Causes, risk factors, and symptoms. [online] Medical News Today. Available at: https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/262888.php [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
[x] WebMD. (n.d.). Dissociative Identity Disorder (Multiple Personality Disorder).
Available at: https://www.webmd.com/mental-health/dissociative-identity-disorder-multiple-personality-disorder#1 [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
[xi] Zerach, G., Greene, T., Ginzburg, K. and Solomon, Z. (2014). The relations between posttraumatic stress disorder and persistent dissociation among ex-prisoners of war: A longitudinal study. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, [online] 6(2), pp.99-108. Available at: http://file:///D:/OneDrive/Writing/website/Blog/Blog%206%20%20Dissociation/PTSDandDissociationex-POWs.pdf [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
[xii] Gušić, S., Malešević, A., Cardeña, E., Bengtsson, H. and Søndergaard, H. (2018). “I feel like I do not exist:” A study of dissociative experiences among war-traumatized refugee youth. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, [online] 10(5), pp.542-550. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29154598 [Accessed 10 Nov. 2019].
[xiii] Schapiro, J., Glynn, S., Foy, D. and Yavorsky, C. (2002). Participation in War-Zone Atrocities and Trait Dissociation Among Vietnam Veterans with Combat-Related Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 3(2), pp.107-114.
[xiv] Committee on Child Maltreatment Research, Policy, and Practice for the Next Decade: Phase II; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Committee on Law and Justice; Institute of Medicine; National Research Council; Petersen AC, Joseph J, Feit M, editors.Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2014 Mar 25. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK195987/ [Accessed 21 Jul. 2019].
[xv] Mann, B. and Sanders, S. (1994). Child dissociation and the family context. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 22(3), pp.373-388.
[xvi] Seligman, R. and Kirmayer, L. (2008). Dissociative Experience and Cultural Neuroscience: Narrative, Metaphor and Mechanism. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry,
32(1), pp.31-64. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5156567/ [Accessed 21 Jul. 2019].
[xvii] Fearon, P. (2004). Comments on Turton et al: On the complexities of trauma, loss and the intergenerational transmission of disorganized relationships. Attachment & Human Development, 6(3), pp.255-261.
[xviii] Sierra, M., David, A. and Hunter, E. (2004). The epidemiology of depersonalisation and derealisation. Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology, 39(1), pp.9-18
[xix] Litz, B. (2014). Resilience in the aftermath of war trauma: a critical review and commentary. Interface Focus, [online] 4(5), p.20140008. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4142015/ [Accessed 20 Nov. 2019].
[xx] Worden, J. and Silverman, P. (1996). ‘Parental death and the adjustment of school-age children’. OMEGA – Journal of Death and Dying, 33(2), pp. 91–102. [online] Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.2190/P77L-F6F6-5W06-NHBX [Accessed 22 July 2018].
[xxi] Committee on Child Maltreatment Research, Policy, and Practice for the Next Decade: Phase II; Board on Children, Youth, and Families; Committee on Law and Justice; Institute of Medicine; National Research Council; Petersen AC, Joseph J, Feit M, editors.Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2014 Mar 25. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK195987/ [Accessed 21 Jul. 2019].
[xxii] Brand, B. (2019). Research. [online] Dr. Bethany Brand. Available at: http://bethanybrand.com/research/ [Accessed 8 Nov. 2019].
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[xxiv] Nihr.ac.uk. (2019). On track to make history: celebrating a year of the GLAD Study.
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[xxvi] Spring, C. (2016). Can we heal? | Carolyn Spring. [online] Carolyn Spring. Available at: https://www.carolynspring.com/blog/can-we-heal/ [Accessed 8 Nov. 2019].