Dispatches from nowhere
Quarantine and dissociation, a match made in hell
At the time of writing, it has been 179 days since COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. It often feels like two. Or ten. Or 700. Or a number I don’t know yet.
What has happened in almost 200 days? Well, everything. But nothing. We’re in the midst of a mass uprising against racist police violence. Tristen Durocher is drawing ever-closer to the end of his ceremonial fast, while – as he says in updates on Facebook – the Saskatchewan government would rather protect the grass on the legislative lawn than stand up for Indigenous people’s wellbeing. Paid sick leave is more important than ever, and so are disability rights, for the people COVID-19 affects the most.“Essential workers” make us realize how much we rely on the exploitation of others for dangerous, high-risk work. It feels so often like we are on the brink of this system’s inevitable collapse.
Yet, everything is still. I wake up each of these 179 days in my bed, sometimes hours past morning, and I speak to no one. I touch no one. The day passes and it takes a thousand years, or maybe a thousand seconds. I leave my bed, and my apartment, and my planet, and then I blink and I wake up again. And the world that’s on fire around me keeps slipping through my fingers as I scramble to hold it still. I’m sometimes afraid it is not where I’m from anymore.
Dissociation is an experience of psychological/mental disconnect from the self, the environment, and one’s sense of reality. To some degree, it’s an experience that everyone has from time to time — “spacing out” is the most frequent experience people have with it. For others, with dissociative disorders, it is a pervasive pattern of disruption that affects every part of life. It can mean frequent lost stretches of time and fragmentation of the self and the personality. I spoke about it to a therapist for the first time a few months before quarantine, after a lifetime of not realizing what it was. Then quarantine began, and it got a lot worse.
Dissociation is a coping mechanism, a response to danger and trauma corresponding to the “freeze” in the evolutionary “fight, flight, freeze” response. When your body and mind are geared to react to stress this way, upsetting situations cause you to shut down and distance yourself from the now. People with dissociative disorders pick up this little trick that allows them to forget or ignore bad things that happen to them early in life, but this also means that for the rest of our lives, we tend to keep using that trick even when it hurts more than helps. Separating myself from reality right now is not what I need to be doing – I need to be “getting back into the swing of things,” adapting to my new normal, and participating in social events and movements that will allow me to still feel connected. But that’s not how I’ve been taught, psychologically, to survive anything. The inner child who looks to me for guidance is still convinced that actual interaction with the world will only make things worse, and the one-size-fits-all solution to dealing with stress is to… not deal with it. To close my eyes and go somewhere else until it (as far as I’m aware) goes away.
COVID-19, a worldwide pandemic (I’m getting so tired of writing that damn phrase), is certainly a source of stress in the external world. Because of the “worldwide” part, it’s also one that, externally, is literally impossible to escape. Not only that, but I’m spending most of it inside, in my room by myself, with much less to do because of how things shut down around me. It sounds like a great time to just check out for a while. Until I’m able to forget this happened. That’s what’s worked for me before – except it won’t work this time. Because it’s everywhere, it’s happening to everyone, it’s going to last a lot longer, and it’s more or less how things are now. My options are to keep diving deeper into myself, trying to avoid and forget stress that I’m not equipped to handle, or to take this on along with every other painful thing I’ve been avoiding my whole life. Which one sounds more viable to you?
I’m lucky enough to have peers who also live with dissociative disorders (it’s a breathtakingly lonely thing to go through without others who understand), and when I talked to one about how our symptoms worsened over quarantine, they outlined a few reasons they thought things were so difficult to manage. Most pressing was that when you lose time and contact with reality (they personally tracked all their activity and routines in an Excel spreadsheet, so they would know what they’ve been doing, where they’ve been, and what they have to do) you rely on external structures and other people to understand what’s going on around you. Without things running the way they normally do, without people to speak to and spend time around, and with everything about the future uncertain, it’s totally possible for a dissociating person to lose track of the date, the time, and whether or not they know anybody they can talk to at all. We all joke that we forget what day it is, that it’s not September but just a very long March. When the world can distort itself like it does during a dissociative episode, those things are more than jokes. They become the reality you have to try to live in. Not only that, but with the rest of the world just as uncertain, what do you have to lean on while you try to get your senses back?
Even our therapists are living in this same state, the way we interact with them different, because we can’t see them in person. My peer noted also that, in Zoom calls, dissociating could mean not being totally convinced you’re speaking to a real person, or that the name you see on the screen really belongs to you. I often feel like I’m reduced to Descartes, the philosopher who searched for logic by radically doubting everything, including his own existence; I wonder if I can even be sure that “I think, therefore I am.” There is no guarantee these thoughts are mine. I float in this dream-world constantly now, and my jobs, my classes, my sense of connection to humanity… it all feels made up more often than not.
I’m not sure what I mean to say by writing about this – that we’re all falling apart in our own ways. That there’s a horrible tension in me between the enormity of the world’s grief and my utter numbness to it. That mentally ill people are simultaneously extremely prepared for and totally devastated by the way institutions are crumbling around us right now. If nothing else, I hope my honesty can make some of you feel less crazy, or less alone. I am failing to connect with things and people in every way, yet as a writer I deal in connections. Did I make any just now? Are you out there?