Recovery from trauma is a feat; the process of healing can b..." /> Recovery from trauma is a feat; the process of healing can b..." />

Anthropomorphizing PTSD Symptoms, Part III: The Escape Artist

Escape key on keyboard

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 All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Athena H. Phillips, MSW, LCSW, Post Traumatic Stress / Trauma Topic Expert Contributor

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Lily

    October 22nd, 2012 at 10:53 AM

    Sometimes we just get too bogged down in the semantics.
    We see something as negative when it really may not be, that’s just how we perceive it.
    And then that perception becomes what we view as our reality and that impedes us seeking as well as receiving amy sort of effective and reliable treatment.

  • nate

    October 22nd, 2012 at 7:20 PM

    while the ability to dissociate may be present in each one of us,it is not too simple to practice the same.I have tried this in the past and failed and anyway,is dissociating from some of your actions the best way out?even if other ways fail,is this going to erase your past actions?I think for some of us this just doesn’t work.

  • Richelle

    October 22nd, 2012 at 11:37 PM

    I’d rather dissociate from my fears and past and learn to live a new free life than to be in touch with them and ruin my future life too!

  • lea q

    October 23rd, 2012 at 7:42 AM

    there’s always many of us in each of us.and it is not just the good and the bad but (yeah) 50 shades of grey in is not uncommon to feel terrible about something we have done in the past but to make hat the focal point of life while not paying attention to the real things can lead to a path that goes in circles.this can further bring down the life and activities of the person to a complete halt if bad enough.

    and because we cannot really change things that we did in the past,because we cannot turn back time,we need to find newer ways of dealing with our ghosts from the past.dissociation seems like a good approach as long as the person knows what he is doing and is guided by an able professional.

  • Kruz

    October 23rd, 2012 at 2:10 PM

    Our priorities change,our ideas change and our attitudes change with time.So it should not be surprising to anyone to find some past behavior of their own a bit strange.I have had this feeling many a times and it is completely alright.And to move on with the knowledge is what should be done rather than to wallow at something you really have no power to change.

  • Gail Oberst

    October 25th, 2012 at 4:27 AM

    Helpful article. Will follow more.

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