Notes on Loving Someone with a Dissociative Disorder
Hello dear ones,
This has been a great time of transition in my life: I finished my book manuscript (which is currently being read by a potential agent!!!), applied to two graduate programs at CalArts, moved into a new apartment, and in less than a week I’ll be heading to LA for two and half months. So it’s not shocking that it’s been hard for me to find the time and energy to write. For this week’s newsletter I thought I’d share some writing from my newest zine Chaotic Love: and Other Essays on Intimacy. I hope you enjoy it!
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I used to think that it was not easy to love me — but I want to revise that statement: it’s not easy to love. I believe that this is true for most people. Perhaps everyone. The world we live in is traumatizing. If you are a human somehow without wounding, you’re still living under the cisheteropatriarchy, with its toxic forms of love that are rooted in ownership, fear, and compulsive monogamy.
The reality is we don’t really know how to love in ways that are expansive, supportive, and life-giving. We are carving out new roadmaps for intimacy and connection that move us away from codependence and towards interdependence. I want to offer one roadmap. Here’s what I’ve learnt about love and about loving someone (me) with complex trauma and a dissociative disorder.
Change, or the unbearable.
Trauma is what happens in our body after an event disrupts our sense of safety, connection, and self-worth. We rarely anticipate these events. And so, when they come, they shock our system, turn our world upside down, turn us inside out. Change becomes tethered to trauma, to loss of agency, to harm.
Trauma is not just caused by a singular event. Trauma can be chronic, the ubiquity of our daily lives. Trauma becomes quotidian. Day in and day out: neglect and abuse punctuate the hours. And yet, somehow, you still don’t expect the next explosion, insult, slamming of the door. Because part of you needs to believe that things can change.
You become hypervigilant: always tracking the subtlest shifts in tone, body posture, eye contact. You wait, perched and ready to take flight or to play dead. And yet, still, you miss the warning signs. A sudden change in mood and the air in the room is sucked out. The landscape of attachment is disorganized. The person you’re meant to seek out for comfort in moments of danger is the very person causing the danger. Dissociative disorders are, after all, caused by attachment trauma.
To cope with the uncertainty, with the chronic traumatization, you split into day child and night child. The day child makes sure that you show up to school, get good grades, complete your homework. The night child keeps watch for danger. But that post is too much for just one person. The night child splits into many others that you’ll learn to call flight, fight, freeze, submit, and attach-cry. Together, they keep you safe by moving you away from connection and towards protection.
And so when life happens and things between us shift oh so suddenly, it feels almost unbearable to these parts of me. Are we okay? Is there still love here? Do we need to keep watch once more? Told you that you still needed us. I know that I cannot ask you to not change, because to do so would require a kind of control over the world that none of us have. I too cannot offer such a guarantee. And so I ask for your compassion, your tenderness, your understanding. I ask that you not shut down in the face of my fear. I ask that you move towards me, towards connection, until the air comes back into the room.
Climbing: an orientation towards the world.
Joan Didion famously wrote: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” She wrote these words in the wake of her husband’s sudden death. She wrote these words in the wake of trauma. I recall her words when I read Deb Dana’s book The Polyvagal Theory in Therapy: “story follows state.” Dana means that our autonomic state (fight, flight, freeze, submit) determines the stories that we tell.
Queer astrologer Colin Bedell, drawing on the work of neuroscientists and Brené Brown explains how, “in the absence of critical information, especially when we’re emotionally flammable about something, we will find two to three limited data points about the situation and make up a story that reduces the ambiguity of a situation which is currently causing us stress. In fact, our brain actually releases chemical rewards, dopamine, when we have a whole narrative plot structure about the beginning, middle, and end…And we’re rewarded by this story’s certainty, not by its accuracy.”
I listen to Bedell’s words and I’m reminded of the ladder of inference, which describes how we move from an observation to data selection, which we then add meaning to, leading us to make assumptions that our data and meaning are accurate. From there we draw conclusions, adopt beliefs, and act on these beliefs as if they're facts. I know this ladder at too well. It has protected me for so much of my life.
I wish I could say that I’ll never make that climb up the ladder of inference, from observation to storytelling, but I cannot. I need you to know that I don’t want to draw worst case scenario conclusions. I need you to know that the stories I’m telling have little to nothing to do with you. I have been haunted by stories of abandonment most of my life. These stories have been ghostly protectors, keeping me safe from harm, ensuring that I won’t be surprised when, surely, you abandon me as so many others have done.
When I share these stories with you, I’m doing so because I want to believe something different. Because when I give voice to these stories — you hate me, i’m too much, you’re just waiting for someone better to come along — they lose their power. I cannot rationalize my way out of these stories. That’s just not how the trauma brain works.
Wherever I am on the ladder, I hope that you can gently ask me to come on back down. That you’ll place a hand on my back and tell me it must have been scary up there. Thank you for trusting me with these stories. I want to help you write new ones. I want to co-create new stories with you. I want us to manifest new realities together. So please, don’t take it personally when I climb up that ladder again. I promise I’ll come back down eventually.
A polyamorous kind of love.
When you love me, you’re loving all parts of me. My inner children. My inner teenagers. All of my parts and the inner little ones that they protect — we come as a package deal. In loving me, you must love them too. This doesn’t mean that you won’t find yourself frustrated by my outer critic, the evidence collector always on the hunt for clues that you don’t, can’t, will never truly love me. Or that you won’t wish for me to not shut down when my freeze part wants to keep me in a state of dissociation.
Drawing on the work of Sigmund Freund, psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes that “we are, above all, ambivalent animals: wherever we hate we love, wherever we love we hate. If someone can satisfy us, they can frustrate us; and if someone can frustrate us we always believe they can satisfy us.” Phillips observes that, “ambivalence is the way we recognise that someone or something has become significant to us,” that “wherever there is an object of desire there must be ambivalence.”
I find myself reassured by these words. I need to hold space for ambivalent feelings. Because I feel them too. There are days where I hate these parts of me, where I wish that they would just go away. But that’s not how things work. The more I try to silence them, the louder they yell. Suddenly I’m overcome by intrusive thoughts, chronic pain flares, dissociation. See us, listen to us, they beg. Healing my trauma has meant that I’ve had to learn how to love these parts of me. And so I need those who love me to love them too. I’m charmed by the idea that this kind of love is different way of imagining polyamory.
I promise to love all of your parts too, for none of us are mono-minded beings. That’s just a myth. Walt Whitman knew this when he wrote the words “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)” The parenthetical a communication from parts.
I accept the possibility that your parts also have the capacity to hurt me. Love, after all, is a confrontation with our own non-sovereignty (so claims Billy-Ray Belcourt, inspired by Lauren Berlant. I am inclined to believe them both). It is a wager I’m willing to take if it means that we can love each other fully, completely, expansively. When I kiss you good bye, I kiss each and every part of you that wishes to be kissed. Can you do the same for me?
Sometimes, I disappear.
I’ve spent so much of my life disconnected from who I am, at the core of me. There’s this tweet that was circulating that read: “just found out my entire personality is a trauma response.” I feel this. Prior to trauma, we have a pre-traumatic personality. When trauma occurs at a young age, and that trauma is ongoing, this personality splits. Day child. Night child.
We learn to live our lives in survival mode. Amygdala always activated. Our window of tolerance shrinks. We think that we’re doing okay, but really we’re barely surviving inside of our faux window. Such a tenuous existence.
I’ve had to disavow so many parts of me in order to receive love, affirmation, tenderness. If I was the good self-sacrificing caregiver, I would be loved. If I was the straight-A student, I would be loved. But I could not be loved with pink hair, with piercings in my face. I could not be loved if I was not going to pursue a practical degree in university. And so I learnt how to disappear parts of myself, until there was very little of me left. I became my own Rochester, locked Bertha up in the attic. Perhaps these parts of me roamed the halls at night too.
I’m no longer living in survival mode. But parts of me are still catching up to the present. Sometimes these parts believe that we’re not safe and they take over. I disappear for a little while. I know that must be confusing. And so when I’m back in body, my adult self online, I will do my best to introduce you to my parts, so that you can understand their fears, desires, needs, and stories. So that you can know which part has engulfed me. Please do not push them away, for when you do, you push away all parts of me. It cannot be any other way.
Here is what I know about myself: I want to love deeply and expansively. And parts of me are terrified of that kind of love. I want to be curious and compassionate and caring. And parts of me wish to remain closed off, shut down, cold, unkind. I’m my happiest when I get to show up in all of my messiness. And parts of me believe that the only way to receive love is to be perfect. I love to laugh and play and be silly. And parts of me never got to to experience these simple pleasures and do not believe that we deserve to not always be on guard. I am trying to show these parts of me that we can come back home to ourselves.
Redrawing the map.
Traumatic events become the cartographers of our nervous system. When you live with structural dissociation, your parts hold the map.
In their book Nurturing Resilience: Helping Clients Move Forward From Developmental Trauma, Kathy Kain and Stephen Terrell explain that “Traumatic experience leaves behind a neurological footprint, a series of breadcrumbs that help us visualize a larger, more complete map of how we navigated and (survived) our early experiences […] Over time, this map becomes the territory within which we understand how to function—it is a constant reference point for new experiences. All of us create these maps, or narratives, about our lives and lived experience. When developmental trauma has occurred, that map, or that narrative, may be organized around the trauma—the trauma is its governing philosophy.”
This trauma map is what I’ve known for most of my life. It taught me to expect danger. That safety could never last for long, and so to not trust it. My “safety map” is disorganized because the person who was supposed to care for me turned out to be the person I needed to be protected from. As a teenager, I became terrified that an intruder would break into our home in the middle of the night. Since my bedroom was the first one up the stairs, I reasoned that I’d be the first one to go.
I took to sleeping in a spare bed in my father’s room (for reasons unbeknownst to me, my childhood bed remained there long after I’d outgrown it). I felt that if I was close to him and further away from the top of the stairs, I’d be okay. It would take years and years before I reckoned with the fact that the intruder was just a stand in for my father — a way that my trauma brain kept me from the grief of realizing that my father was my biggest threat. That is where my map took me.
I’m trying to draw a new map. One rooted in the knowledge that I am safe now. But this takes time. It’s like I’ve been walking the same path every day for my whole life. It is well trodden. My neural muscle memory leads me there unconsciously. And so I’m doing the work of creating a new pathway, of recognizing when I’ve found myself on the old one, and reorienting. Sometimes I need support. Someone to help guide me.
“The crucible within which developmental trauma unfolds is a lack of reliable access to safety and co-regulation” write Kain and Terrell. Will you help me orient towards safety? Can you be there when the need for co-regulation arises? A part of me feels like this is too much to ask of a person. This is me trying to tell a different story. Will you be my co-conspirator?
Chaotic Love: A Webinar for Folks with Disorganized Attachment and Those Who Love Them
Monday, February 13th from 12-2pm MT via Zoom
Recording will be sent to all who register
Attachment theory has become popularized in conversations around healing and intimacy. Unfortunately, the focus tends to be on anxious and avoidant attachment, with very little discussion on the disorganized style. When people do talk about disorganized attachment, it is often through the lens of doom and gloom, as though those of us who’re chaotic in our love will forever struggle in our relationships. But this doesn’t have to be true. What we need is a depathologized approach to disorganized attachment that centers curiosity, compassion, and collaboration.
In this webinar, folks will:
Learn about how disorganized attachment is formed by our intimate relationships as well as through systemic oppression;
Gain an understanding of key concepts related to disorganized attachment, including safety maps, the ladder of inference, structural dissociation, and parts work;
Be offered tools to use with loved ones (that center compassion, curiosity, and collaboration) and that can support us in moving from disorganized attachment towards secure connection.
Elina is a disabled femme that I’ve been in online community with and they have such a big heart. Right now they’re struggling to afford basics like groceries. Their PayPal is firstname.lastname@example.org.