While there are many commonalities among those who experience dissociation, every person who experiences it is going to experience it as an individual. No two people will have the exact same experience or perception of their experience. There are many formal psychological terms for specific types of dissociative experiences, some of which I have included below, and then there are other terms commonly used but not specific to the psychology community.
- Dissociative fugue
- Losing time
- Hearing voices
- Dissociative Identity Disorder (or D.I.D., formerly called Multiple Personality Disorder, or M.P.D.)
The sensation or experience of watching yourself but feeling as though you are not connected to yourself; that you are speaking and acting but you are not in control of your body. Depersonalization and derealization (see below) are often reported by those who do not normally have regular dissociative experiences in times of extreme crisis (ex: during a car wreck or an assault), when the nervous system is catapulted into an extremely highly alerted state.
The feeling or experience that nothing is real; that the world or the things in it are not real. Some have compared it to feeling as if they are in a dream.
Dissociative fugue is purported to be the sudden inability to recall part or all of one’s past, combined with intentional travel away from home or workplace. One may or may not take on an entirely new identity (either complete or partial) during the episode, and the episode cannot occur within the context of a prior diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder. This experience also cannot be attributed to alcohol or drug use, or any other medical condition.
I have not personally experienced this, and do not have any extra insight into it.
Most people experience this symptom in mild forms, particularly when they’re extremely engaged in a particular task or experience. For example, a very mild example of losing time would be a person sitting down to read a book and becoming so engrossed in the book that several hours pass without the person’s awareness. On the more extreme end of the dissociative spectrum, some people experience the loss of time on a grander scale and lose days, weeks, months, or even years of their lives. They are amnesic for these periods of time, or may have partial amnesia for it. Many people who struggle more severely with dissociation lose smaller increments of time, but more often, leaving gaps in their awareness that, when taken alone, are insignificant. But cumulatively, those frequent losses add up to a bigger generalized loss of awareness of what is happening in their daily lives. This can be confusing to their friends, co-workers, and/or loved ones as well as the person themselves.
For symptoms involving smaller increments of time that happen more frequently, it often begs the question, “How do you know you’re losing time if you can’t remember having lost it?” The short answer is, you can’t. Many people experience this symptom for years without conscious awareness of it. Only when faced with evidence of the passage of time, and the realization that they cannot account for it, do people start to comprehend that such a thing is happening.
Many people who experience dissociative symptoms that are on the more extreme end of the continuum report hearing voices, which often prompts them to seek help out of fear that they may be “going crazy.” Both those with dissociative disorders and those with schizophrenia commonly experience this symptom. The two differ in that those with schizophrenia can usually perceive that the voices are coming from somewhere outside themselves, and the voices are often combined with visual hallucinations. Those who experience dissociation usually feel or sense that the voices are coming from inside their minds, similar to thoughts, but of a nature or tone that doesn’t feel totally natural or familiar to them.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
Dissociative Identity Disorder is the most extreme form of chronic dissociation on the continuum, the development of which is usually associated with severe, repeated, prolonged traumatic events (such as abuse, severe neglect, or an ongoing crisis situation such as exposure to war or natural disasters) occurring in childhood from which there was no escape for the child. As a result of the terror, pain, confusion, and lack of emotional resources to cope with extreme situations, “alternate personalities” (sometimes called “alters,” and/or various other terms) are formed.
To be formally diagnosed with Dissociative Identity Disorder, there must be at least at least two or more distinct personalities, and those alternate personalities emerge and take control of the body (referred to as “switching”) on a regular basis. During the time an alternate personality is in control, the person has complete or partial amnesia for personal details that could never normally be forgotten, and the memory loss cannot be due to alcohol, drugs, or other medical conditions.