The Pain and Necessity of Dissociation as a Trauma Response

Woman with ornamental mandala and abstract background.

It was 5 years ago around this time of November that I learned I was 17 weeks pregnant at 39 years old with my third child. I was devastated by the news because I dreamt for years of my first child free experience of adulthood. I’d been parenting mostly alone for 23 years, and while I adored my children I wanted to be free of the responsibility for someone else’s life.

I knew that no matter which choice I made it would be traumatic for me and my big feeling heart. Abortion never felt like a choice I could make and I was so far along that it made the idea more challenging. Keeping my child meant giving up all dreams of mid-life freedom and choosing motherhood as my primary responsibility for life.

Which left adoption and a dear friend who deeply desired a child of her own. It appeared to be the perfect solution. Someone who would raise my child as her own and allow me to have an intimate relationship with him, both because of our friendship and her belief that open adoption is best for the emotional health of the child. In less than a week’s time I decided on adoption and refused myself the option of reconsidering after I told her the news. I never once reconsidered. It just wasn’t an option for my integrity once I made the commitment. And as an empath I couldn’t bear the idea of the pain I would cause if I changed my mind.

What I understand in hindsight is that I dissociated from the trauma I experienced at becoming pregnant and having to make a choice at all. Every choice would have been painful and life-changing (which is why birth control is a necessity for women). So I shut down. I disconnected from myself and the enormity of my heartache. I disconnected from my faith and stopped believing in a divine anything. And I disconnected from everyone I loved.

I intellectualized my grief experience by writing about it online and I kept anything that fell outside of our love story away from my consciousness. I didn’t disclose my deep feelings or fears to my partner, the adoptive parents, or other beloved friends who held space for our situation. On the surface I appeared to be adapting well because I convinced myself the love overshadowed the pain.

It is difficult for me to admit to dissociation and behaving unconsciously around such a huge and complex life transition. I am ashamed. I recognize that the human brain does what it needs to protect itself. I always said that I believed the only thing that might break me was losing a child, so perhaps dissociation was the only way I could come back from giving my child away with a whole mind.

But I take deep pride in my self awareness and the resulting resilience. I’ve been actively developing my conscious awareness since I was 15 years old through psychology, self help, philosophy, and spirituality. I’ve survived abuse, a mentally ill and addicted mother, teen parenthood, intimate partner violence, rape with a resulting child, poverty, a bad marriage, and single motherhood while managing Complex PTSD (which was misdiagnosed as Borderline so I thought I was crazy for 20 years). Surely I could manage a radically open adoption where my child would be loved by four parents instead of me alone. Surely making the dream of motherhood come true for someone I deeply loved was enough to overcome the inevitable birth mother grief I would experience.

There are so many ways my mind tricked my heart into believing it was all ok.

I was dissociated for the first two and a half years. And then our magic baby started choosing Mommy over everyone else. Suddenly he was calling for Mommy when I was alone with him. He was running to her when he got hurt. He wanted her hugs more than any other. He was doing exactly as he was supposed to be doing as a healthy two year old human – he was forming a unique bond with his primary caregiver. And it crushed me.

It was everything I wanted for them and it was everything that I was giving up. No matter how close I would be to him as Amma, I would never be Mommy. There is a divide that I will never bridge with my child because I chose to give that precious bond to my beloved friend. I became depressed and withdrawn because I was triggered all the time and I didn’t want the other parents to be hurt by my pain. But it was a primary source of our fracture anyway because pain won’t let itself be ignored for long.

Instead of intimating with my partners I violated our friendship and co-parenting relationships by withdrawing from them. I abandoned myself and then could only see abandonment around me. I abandoned my co-parents and then accused them of abandoning me because I felt so alone and isolated in my grief. I let my pain blind me to what was real – a chosen family of beloveds who would have witnessed me if I had just asked.

I am committed to my self awareness because I utterly refuse to let my life be destroyed by pain the way my mother did. And yet I did let my pain confound my ability to be in healthy relationship with my birth son, my husband, my other children, my parenting partners, and everyone else in my life at the time to varying degrees. I failed my young adult daughter at a time she needed me most. I severed precious friendships. I lost two years with my birth son and chosen family. I almost drove my husband away. I could have lost everything.

But I didn’t. Once I woke up I held on as best I could to the pieces I had left. I gave myself space and time to heal a lifetime of trauma and evolve into someone new. And now I am here, on the other side of the darkness and isolation. I am deeply connected to my own soul. I am in a vibrant, healthy, and deeply intimate relationship with my husband. I am in restored relationship with my daughter. And I am in a new relationship with my birth son and his parents.

I am transformed. While reclaiming an intimacy with my soul means returning to things that always expressed my soulfulness, so that I  seem more like “me” again, it also means accepting every way that I have been changed by these past five years. I am no longer a full-time mother and I am finally comfortable in my empty nest. I am in a marriage that transcends all my hopes and wishes for a consciously evolving partnership. I am doing the work of my heart with writing, community building, and transformative justice. And I am trying to build relationships again.

Dissociation was necessary because it kept me from being overwhelmed by my pain until I could process it. And it was painful because it isolated me. Coming back to myself and my precious life has been a years long process that is still unfolding. Most of my relationships are reborn and healing. A few may be lost forever.

I wouldn’t have chosen dissociation as a way of dealing with my pain. But I am grateful for this complex human mind and it’s ways of doing whatever it takes to stop itself from fracturing completely. I believe that somehow, without my awareness, my mind saved my life.

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