Not as rare as you might think
By Rebecca Peterson, Staff Writer
“Well,” the psychologist said, “You’re not psychotic.”
I was back in the hospital two weeks after an episode of the Great Mystifying Brain Thing I’d been struggling with all my life sent me to the emergency room. My memories of that night are hazy at best, nonexistent at worst. Technically, the episode had started the day before, and had just worsened exponentially over the 24-hour period until I couldn’t tell up from down, real from not-real.
It wasn’t an anxiety or panic attack, as I’d been told it was a few times before. I knew what those felt like. No, this was different. And most frustratingly, most terrifyingly, no one seemed to know what was wrong with me.
The psychologist mentioned above diagnosed me with Borderline Personality Disorder, one in a string of diagnoses I’ve received over the years—clinical depression, OCD, PTSD, GAD, maybe ADHD, enough letters to make an alphabet soup of mental health problems. The GAD (generalized anxiety disorder) seemed to have been the only thing anyone could agree on as a definite diagnosis. However, it did not explain the “episodes,” nor some of the other uncomfortable aspects of my mysterious, unspecified disorder.
Borderline almost made sense, but only because it was the first diagnosis I’d received that addressed the feeling I didn’t realize had a name: dissociation.
Dissociative disorders affect the mind’s perception of concepts such as memory, awareness, identity, and reality. Essentially, it makes these abstract concepts harder, if not impossible, to process. This can be extremely distressing to experience, and episodes can last anywhere from a few moments, to a few days, and can continue on and off for years.
The most infamous dissociative disorder out there is dissociative identity disorder, more commonly known as multiple personality disorder. However, there are several disorders that fall under this umbrella as well: dissociative amnesia, dissociative fugue, and depersonalization disorder. These were once thought to be relatively rare conditions; recently, however, psychologists have found that the symptoms of dissociative disorders occur as frequently as anxiety and depression. The idea that dissociative disorders are rare has led to many people being misdiagnosed over the years as being bipolar, or having OCD, ADHD, schizophrenia, psychosis… the list goes on and on. Some of these misdiagnoses are actively dangerous. Antipsychotic medication, for example, can have some serious long-term side effects, and obviously shouldn’t be taken if it isn’t needed.
You can experience dissociative symptoms and not have a dissociative disorder the same way you can experience anxiety and depression and not suffer from them clinically. The symptoms include a warped perception of reality, a sense of disconnect from one’s body, and memory loss in extreme cases. However, a proper diagnosis can go a long way to helping figure out a treatment plan.
Knowing what’s wrong in the first place is half the battle. “Dissociation,” to me, is a far less terrifying term than “Mystifying Brain Thing.” If nothing else, it’s a place to start.