Recovery from trauma is a feat; the process of healing can be grueling and overwhelming. The decision to seek treatment seems to happen in spite of obstacles impeding this pursuit. The imposition of negative diagnostics inferring illness, cultural denial alongside attribution of shame and responsibility placed on the survivor, and a fear of being “crazy” are some such barriers. Posturing posttraumatic stress presentations as “symptomatic” assumes an illness that needs to be eradicated, fixed, repaired. While nightmares, flashbacks, isolation, dissociation, and other challenges associated with trauma are undoubtedly undesirable experientially, perhaps a reconstruction of their meaning may soften some of the interference in pursuing treatment and the process of recovery.
The goal of this article (and Parts I and II) is to begin to formulate that reconstruction with a specific focus on dissociation and its purpose. Conceptualizing dissociation as an internal character who exists in all of us and is thrust into action in the face of the unmentionable hopefully fosters a shift in how we approach it. Our internal escape artist has a positive intent and specific duty. She is activated when otherwise there would be no way out; this is perhaps the most profound method in which we demonstrate the capacity for self-directed mercy.
According to Dissociation and The Dissociative Disorders DSM-V and Beyond (Dell, O’Neil, 2009), dissociation can be identified as a splitting of self-awareness to the extent that experiences, perceptions, thoughts, motives, and action are organized by a self that is transiently absent (fugue), alien (depersonalization), or so fundamentally altered as to seem to be distinct, other selves. It is also stated that dissociation developed as an automatic (verses consciously controlled) attempt to reinstate bodily integrity by shifting the mode of operation from self-regulation to self-preservation (page 472). This is the goal and action of the escape artist—our internal superhero attempting to rescue us from the unbearable.
Nearly a century after his death, Harry Houdini is a household name, to the extent that his name is synonymous with what he is famous for (escapology). His ability to contort his way out of contraptions and life-threatening stunts lends mastery over the impossible. There was connection between his actions and outcome in the most adverse circumstances. When we think of an escape artist, images of someone with strength, skill, and agency comes to mind. Those who employed dissociation as their form of escape are often thought of as avoidant or weak. We may not even “think” this consciously, however it may be the unspoken assumption in the therapeutic dyad (or in the relationship between the individual and his or her culture). Considering dissociation as a capacity, as a form of agency and skill when no other tools were available, is a very different posture. Reconceptualizing symptoms of trauma as inherently adaptive, an indicator of internal capacity, as highlighting our morality (because what bothers us the most is that which violated our belief system), and as occasionally our own capacity for internal mercy may shift our perception of why we are experiencing this constellation of symptoms.
Vigilance and isolation work to keep us safe after witnessing what can happen, nightmares and invasive thoughts show us aggressively what part of the trauma needs to be tended to and highlight our inherent goodness (these things wouldn’t bother us if we weren’t good), and dissociation saves us from the full experience through perceptual distancing. Our internal characters—the private investigator, drill sergeant, and escape artist—are available to us and carry the burden of our healing. They protect us from both the past and potential future threat. Recognizing these characters as being present in all of us (versus just trauma survivors), that they can be deployed under duress, and that they are protective in nature could shift the relationship survivors have with themselves as well as the way we relate to them.
© Copyright 2012 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Athena H. Phillips, MSW, LCSW, therapist in Portland, Oregon
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