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.

We Are Women Born to be Our Own Saviors

They confiscated our skins because we did not obey their rules,
cut off our hands in a deal with the devil,
and cut off our feet for the sin of wearing red shoes.

They told us Eve’s Apple and Pandora’s Box unleashed the sins of the world
and we inherited eternal punishment on their behalf.

They tell us we are less than human:
slaves and whores, devouring mothers and hags,
baby making machines to be ruled by the laws of men.

They chain us to the stove,
throw acid on our faces,
and burn us alive at the stake.

They rape us as a weapon of mass destruction.
Rape is a weapon of mass destruction more devastating than a missile.
Rape is a weapon of mass destruction because women are the makers and nurturers of culture.

It is time to own our responsibility as Culture Makers.
We are born for this.

We are women born to know our power,
power over our lives and power to rewrite the stories
passed on by generations of mothers abused and destroyed.

We are women born to be our own saviors,
no longer surrendering our sovereignty
to one controller in the hierarchy of patriarchy.

We are women born to be resilient;
to make beauty and meaning, to transform our trauma and grief;
to prove the story of powerlessness a lie,
a lie that keeps us from believing we can transcend what happens to us.

We are women born to claim our agency
and transform this rape culture into a feminist culture.

We are women born to create a nurturing culture
of interdependent people who respect the dignity of all beings.

We are women born to raise our children to be whole,
to teach them to embrace their light and integrate their dark,
and to be themselves rather than projections of who we think they should be.

We are women born to build bridges of connection
between ourselves and our children,
ourselves and other women, ourselves and our men,
ourselves and our earth.

We are women born to live by principles of inclusion,
because we know everyone needs to belong to someone
and everyone belongs to us.

We are women born to know that attention is connection,
that if we attend to the needs and cares of each other
we will form bonds that cannot be broken by men’s violence.

Hearts shine bright in our chests as we pray with Mary.
We are women born to love with a ferocity that will suffer no abuse.

Skulls rattle around our necks as we dance with Kali.
We are women born to burn the old ways of being down.

Hips rock in our beds as we demand our pleasure with Lilith.
We are women born to defy the superiority of men.

Throats sing our stories as we walk out of the darkness with Persephone.
We are women born to lead our daughters out of the winter of silent suffering,
into the spring of justice and liberation.

Transformative Justice at Home

“Transformative justice argues that we are all involved in complex relationships of oppressors and oppressed, domination and dominated.  I may be the oppressed in one situation, but I may be the oppressor in another situation.  I may be the victim from one perspective, but I may be the offender from another perspective. Transformative justice is not about destroying and building anew, and it’s not about creating win-lose solutions common to social revolutions in which the oppressed become the new oppressors (Skocpol, 1995).  Instead, transformative justice asks that everyone and everything change—we as individuals, as well as our systems, structures, and relationships…

Social justice activists often identify the oppressor as the enemy.  While this is understandable, transformative justice actually challenges this perspective: no one is an enemy; instead, everyone needs to be involved in a voluntary, safe, constructive, and critical dialogue about accountability, responsibility, and the initiative to heal.”  Anthony Nocella

After 10 months of separately doing deep work in harm reduction and intimacy nurturing based on the foundation of the Alive program, we are now two weeks away from our adoption triad meeting where we will account for the hurt and harm we caused one another, mediate new agreements, and begin restoring relationship between all parties. I am scared to face the pain I caused two people I love so deeply I shared my son with them, and I am excited because I anticipate being permanently reunited with my son and his parents once we are complete. I long with all of my heart to be part of his/their life again.

I would never wish for the breakdown in our relationship or the tremendous pain it caused our families and ourselves; however, I am immensely grateful for the personal growth and transformation that took place since. My relationships with myself and my husband are transformed. My beloved friendship with our facilitator has deepened beyond measure. I gained a whole new level of emotional stability this year. Having my relationship with my youngest son on the line compelled me to face myself like never before – to face my pain, my grief, my old traumas, *and* my capacity to cause hurt and harm when I am in pain. In facing my own violence I now have a deeper understanding of the all the ways we violate our own and one another’s dignity, how we try to coerce and control others to meet our needs and desires. I have a deeper understanding of how we cause one another pain and how we can heal when hurt and harm happen.

I see how criticism of my husband’s ways about the house violated his dignity as I tried to control our environment. I see how trying to bully the adoptive parents into mediation violated their sovereignty by coercing them into specific action. I see how withdrawing from friendship when I was hurt told people I loved that they no longer mattered and I did it because I felt some control over the situation when I walked away. Ouch.

I see the ways that because of previous traumas I chose the prison of my pain over the loving connection I might have had with people who deeply cared. They couldn’t understand the immensity and shape of my pain and grief partly because I didn’t share it with them. I hid away and dissociated. I wrote about it from my mind on Facebook instead of talking about it from my heart with my Beloveds. I mistakenly believed I was protecting us all from the bigness of it when really my avoidance was causing everyone pain. I violated myself by trying to navigate life altering grief on my own when I could have been witnessed, held, and loved. I let the story of my pain and past aloneness rule my experience and relationships.

And I see how the practice of harm reduction and transformative justice can safely address the fractures in my relationships, whether with my self, my partner, my coworker, or my community. While I cannot coerce anyone else into participating, I can offer the opportunity. I can own my part in fractures and offer amends.  I can strive to make myself safe to be with. I can share that another ways is possible, not because I am an expert but because I am a lived example.

Transformative justice is possible even for the most intimate betrayals. We can navigate and heal relationships impacted by high emotional risk, big pain, and/or trauma with care and intention that honors everyone’s experience. I kind of want to shout it from the rooftops. There is power in this for us as a human family. But we have to be willing to face our own pain and our own violence in order to achieve the sort of intimate or social justice that we long for. It’s the hardest, hurtiest, scariest work we can do. And it is so very worth it.

A Different Way of Being is Possible

My first selfie 20 years ago. This was the time I claimed my visibility and my body after a knife was put to my belly, my breath was taken from my throat, and a gun was put to my head for speaking my mind with a lover.

I grew up believing violence was a language of love. And it was in strange ways. Like when you add to the story the beautiful girl who sparked to life in my womb on the worst night of my life (#metoo) and inspired me to save us from the legacy of abuse. This is why I am driven to untangle the language of violence from relationship. I could have died while my son slept in the next room. I could have easily passed on violence to my babies the way it was passed in to me.

Oh goodness, how I feel such love for this young woman who was raising two babies by herself, living on welfare and going to college to become a good provider, all while trying to get her trauma broken head on straight. She loved the dark of Gothic style, music, and literature because it felt real and honest. It was the only home she knew. She hid in the comfort of the dark because shining the light on her pain was too damn hard.

And yet she tried with all her might to turn her tiny family toward the light, toward love that lifts up rather than tears down, toward a way of being where our dignity and sovereignty were at least honored in our home. After all the self help, spiritual teachings, therapy, medication, and mistaken diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (actually Complex PTSD), she didn’t understand that her traumas were lodged in her cells. We didn’t know about the lifelong impact of trauma on psyche and body like we do now. She always did her best with what she did know and she relentlessly pursued learning of the self and healthy relationship so she could do better. How can I not adore her? Despite all the ways she was broken and had to repair while mothering, she miraculously raised two children who love themselves and follow their dreams. Now it’s our turn.

I am 44 and I am still claiming myself and trying to untangle the old pain from the self that I am today. I am still learning to speak love for myself and others without causing harm, to untangle the words of love from the words of criticism that cuts a person and domination that diminishes a person. I know people don’t like to talk about the reality of our deep pain and the ways we violate others because of it, but this is necessary work for healthy relationship at all levels of society.

We need to face our capacity for violence, as well as the depth of pain and trauma that drives us to violate. We are conditioned by a culture that tells us all that we can demand, coerce and control others to submit to our belief in what is right, often in the name of love and justice. Most of us use words instead of guns to establish our superiority of thought/feeling/belief over our children, partners, friends and/or peers. This is what drives our conflict to violence – our need to be right and impose our rightness on the other at all costs.

I want that young woman of 1997 to know that today I have a marriage that builds me up every single day. I am part of a love based adoption triad with a third child that is resolving the deepest hurts caused with revolutionary harm reduction practice and restorative justice. I have Beloved Friends and community members who radically include all of who I am and treat me with respect even when I fail.

I now know for certain that a different way of being is possible and my deepest desire is to share that possibility with others who hunger for a different way as much as that young woman did so long ago.

Learning How to Stand for Myself

Wrestling with how to shine my light in a way that is clean, full of grace, and within my integrity amidst conflict is kicking my ass.

When you grow up in the shadow of a narcissist, it can be an excruciating and decades long process to overcome your conditioning and stand for yourself. When you are a child seeking belonging with your Mama, you will do anything to make her happy. So I became a people pleaser. Passive. Receptive. Adaptable. Flexible. I learned how to adapt to my mother’s every demand in order to avoid her wrath. Or make myself the Invisible Girl so that she remained calm at the center of our little universe.

As a young adult I called myself deeply service oriented, but it was really that I believed I had to serve others in order to be seen or loved. I often slipped into martyrdom.

I am also an empath who could feel people’s pain and would compromise everything to try make them happy (as if I ever had that power). Everything about me was oriented toward dimming my light to make others more comfortable, from my children to my partners to my friends. No one I chose to be in relationship with would recognize and honor my full self and so I made unconscious bargains for my belonging. It wasn’t until the past few years that that I established a small circle of Beloveds who radically include all of me.

It’s taking a few years of on-again/off-again practice at using my voice and standing up for myself to learn to do it with any grace. I’m still struggling. Making myself vulnerable to people who repeat the old patterns of dominating the space, mean criticism, bullying, and other verbal and emotionally violent behaviors stirs up a belly storm of anxiety. I am afraid that if I offend or if I disagree then I will no longer be valued and I will no longer belong. Isolation I choose is far better than isolation due to exclusion.

My trauma based defense mechanism to protect myself is to withdraw deep within (I am a Cancer crab after all). When I was faced with my mother’s anger and banished to my room. I would lose myself in music and reading fiction. I would retreat into the safety of my own shell where no one could dim the inner light that shined when I was connected to other people’s creativity that expressed my experience of being human.

As a deeply damaged young adult confronting the reality of raising two children alone while trying to go to college and get my head on straight, I spent most of my time hidden away in my apartment. My friendships and lover relationships were fraught with drama and pain as we triggered one another’s wounds over and over. My bedroom remained the sacred cave I would withdraw to in order to heal my many heart shatterings.

Most recently, when birth mother grief became too much for me to process I withdrew again. I isolated more deeply than ever before, even disassociating from myself. For a time I didn’t let my own Beloveds or children close to my heart. It was too much pain to share and no one understood the complexity of my experience.

Withdrawing from visibility is what I know how to do to protect myself when I am afraid. It isn’t an excuse, fragility, or an intention to avoid, it’s simply the way I know of providing myself relief under big emotional stress. It is how I know to pause before the train to emotional reactivity takes over. This is what it means in practice to be working with trauma, to recognize these patterns and learn to interpret the stimuli coming at me in the present rather than as a body memory from the past.

I’ve been actively doing trauma work for two years and I have no idea whether or when I will be fully healed. I never know what’s going to send me careening into the maze of pain at the center of my being. But I can’t allow that to keep me from shining my light, speaking my truth, or trying to build trauma informed community from an open and appropriately boundaried place. All I can do is continue to deepen my self awareness and do the work to untangle my soul from the hurt and harm of years past. And hold space for you to do the same.