The Dissociative Experience: What Is It?

I stood in a corner halfway up a parking garage. I was lost despite using the garage for the last four years. I didn’t know where I had parked my car an hour prior. I aimlessly walked around, unsure if I was going up or down levels. My head hovered above my body, and though I felt like I was going to cry like a child lost in a store, I couldn’t physically cry.

I walked to the middle of the garage and peered over a ledge to see the ground floor a few levels down. I wasn’t extremely high up, but I still felt that dizzying sensation like I was looking down from the top of a skyscraper.

One thought entered my head: I could jump from this ledge to the bottom, and all of this would be over.


I’m not sure how much time passed between that thought and when my mind came back to me long enough to call a friend for help. While that suicidal thought is alarming, it was one of many during my senior year of college.

We drove up and down the garage as I pressed the lock button on my key until it led us to my car. I played the ordeal off as me being spacey with Haha! Of course, would forget where I parked my car.

I didn’t want to go into the details of what happened for fear I’d dissociate again. I had dissociated to that magnitude before, so I knew what it was.

Earlier that day, I had driven to campus to meet with a counselor at my university’s disability center. It was my second meeting after I had applied for disability accommodations for the rest of the year.

I hadn’t received a diagnosis of bipolar yet, but I had severe depression. I needed assistance with my school workload and flexible attendance. My counselor told me I didn’t “prove” my struggles enough to qualify for accommodations, which sent me into the dissociated state.

Eventually, my accommodations were approved after I shared more detailed and vulnerable information with the disability center. But issues with having to prove invisible disabilities is another post on its own.


Dissociation is feeling disconnected from your thoughts, memory, and sense of identity, according to the National Association for Mental Illness (NAMI). Dissociation is an involuntary escape from reality and can be a response to trauma or other overwhelming situations.

Some dissociation is common such as daydreaming or forgetting the last few miles of your drive home (highway hypnosis). Dissociation can be a symptom of a wide array of mental illnesses, but there are three dissociate disorders where it is the hallmark characteristic:

Dissociative identity disorder (DID)

This was formerly known as multiple personality disorder. People with DID have two or more distinct “personalities” or identities. Each identity behaves and thinks differently.

Depersonalization/derealization disorder

Depersonalization is feeling as though you are watching yourself or having an out-of-body experience. Derealization is feeling as if the world around you isn’t real. You’re detached from your environment. During depersonalization and derealization, you are aware that what you’re experiencing isn’t normal.

Though I do not have this disorder, the feeling of my head floating above my body in the parking garage is an example of depersonalization.

Dissociative amnesia

Dissociative amnesia is the inability to recall an event(s) that was stressful or traumatic. This can range from not remembering a specific event or time period to not remembering who you are or your life.

Think of a person who has been in a car accident, but, despite not having head trauma, doesn’t remember the accident.

All information about these three disorders was collected from the American Psychiatric Association.


You don’t have to have a dissociative disorder to experience dissociation. It can happen to people with and without a mental illness.

People with bipolar disorder like me have an increased risk of experiencing dissociation. In a 2018 study, researchers noted that people with bipolar disorder are more likely to experience dissociative symptoms during a depressive episode than those with unipolar depression.

I’ve dissociated when I’ve felt extremely overwhelmed, helpless or hopeless. I felt all three when I was denied disability services. Dissociation is usually associated with trauma. My trauma was related to being severely depressed for months with no substantial help, despite reaching out for it. Mental illness can be a trauma itself.

Other disorders that commonly have dissociative symptoms are borderline personality disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder. This isn’t surprising considering both of these conditions are related to experiencing trauma. Dissociation is also a common side effect of drug or alcohol use.

It can also happen in depression and anxiety. A common complaint from people with depression is that they feel “numb.” Emotional numbness can mean dissociation, though we may not think of it that way.

 

Feeling numb for me is a sense of being detached or behind an invisible curtain separating me from the rest of the world. I’ve also described this as feeling “far away.” This only happens during depressive episodes.

Most people have experienced dissociation, and some dissociation isn’t bad. Daydreaming is a perfectly fine way to pass the time when you’re bored. Like many aspects of the brain and life, it’s only considered a problem if it’s distressing or impairing functioning.

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