We have to socially distance right now, but let's not emotionally distance.
With my own county officially in a shelter-in-place order, schools closed until who knows when, kids at home, many non-essential businesses closed down, people working from home/remotely (I myself am now conducting all my sessions with clients via videoconferencing), concerns about our under-resourced health care system, and everyone having the same spoken and unspoken fears of economic instability and insecurity on the micro and macro levels, shit is hard right now. Our collective future is unknown and uncertainty causes all kinds of anxiety and psychological disruption. This virus is calling on all of us to cope in ways some have never coped before. We are having to stretch hard and fast. That is generally not easy to do. How are you coping with it all?
I am going to stray from writing about my usual human sexuality content today; hope that's OK. In psychology there is a concept: dissociation. This is when a person disconnects from their own body and stops being present to and with whatever is happening for them in that here and now moment. If you have been an astute reader of mine, you know that I frequently write about a person’s inner life. Your inner experience - what are your thoughts, feelings, physical sensations, reactions, decision-making processes, values, etc. What you are noticing and how you are taking that information in. Similarly, dissociation is another kind of inner experience - however it is not taking any information in at all.
Dissociation happens on a spectrum. On the far, severe end of the spectrum is the type of dissociative episodes people describe doing who have experienced extreme bodily violation and/or abuse (torture, rape, profound abuse): “I left my body” or “I watched it happen to me from outside/above my body” or “I have no memory” or “My memory of the event is spotty, like flashes”. (Those flashes of memory represent how the person came in and out of their body.) On the other, lesser end of the spectrum of dissociative behavior is what every single one of us does, probably several times a day: daydreaming. We mentally leave wherever we are and let our minds wander to something more pleasant. “I wonder what my life would be like if X was different?” or “It would be so nice to be back on that beach in Hawaii right now instead of dealing with this.” Other language people use to describe this lower-level dissociation is they “check out” or “numb out”.
Dissociation is at the root of most compulsive behaviors. Have you, or anyone you know, ever said or done the following: “I started binge watching Netflix/playing video games/watching porn and before I even knew it 4 hours had passed”? This is another example of that lower-level checking out, of dissociating. Not staying present in your body to experience whatever you were experiencing.
Dissociation has been pathologized by my profession, and I disagree with this interpretation. Why? Because it is a perfectly appropriate response to a terribly difficult experience. It is the psyche's attempt to lessen the pain.
A “terribly difficult experience” is, of course, subjective. What may be intolerable to one person may barely register as a blip on the screen to another. That does not matter; we are not here to rate the legitimacy of anyone’s coping response. In my experience as a mental health professional I have repeatedly seen my clients over the years “check out” when they experience things like boredom (cue sexual dysfunction); anger, resentment, or overwhelm (cue sexual dysfunction); pain or fear (cue sexual dysfunction); and even joy and pleasure (cue sexual dysfunction). This is a way of emotionally distancing from the pain or intolerability of that particular emotion. Dissociating is way of distancing from your present reality.
So, like I wrote earlier, shit is hard right now. You may be having moments of being gripped by panic and fear. You may be struggling to regulate yourself in the face of near-constant Coronavirus information on every single media platform. You may even find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of reading/watching everything Coronavirus. And when you get overwhelmed, you most likely dissociate a.k.a. check out a.k.a. distance yourself emotionally from your current reality. You pull away or numb out. But I am curious: where do you go? Into your phone? Your own private thoughts? A mood-altering substance? A compulsive behavior?
It’s OK if you find yourself doing this. Like I said, it’s a perfectly appropriate response to a terribly difficult situation. For most people I know here and around the world, this qualifies as a terribly difficult situation. The key is, once you notice you have emotionally distanced from yourself and those around you, just come back. Please. Don’t judge yourself for emotionally distancing - that will most likely start up your particular brand of shame spiral. Instead, praise yourself for noticing where you were and what you did. And then come back to the present moment. And breathe. Your community needs you.
© 2020 Diane Gleim
I am a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and AASECT Certified Sex Therapist located in Sonoma county, California.