Dissociating My Life Away

There’s an electric feeling in the air when a storm is coming. The charged atmosphere. The distant smell of dark, rain-soaked clouds that drift ever closer. Dark, snarling and flashing clouds. The pleasant breeze that flower petals and fluff danced in now turns angry, violent and haphazard. The firmament flashes, like a white-hot blade slicing through the sky. Crack! Rumble! Furious rain lashes down, and then, as the storm’s anger cedes, the air is cooled by the calm, soothing pitter-patter of light raindrops.

Scents, sounds, and sometimes, physical sensations — these are my lost memories.

I am comforted by storms. The zap in the air is like a fuzzy blanket. The sounds are amazing. The flashes, the smells. There’s a subtle change in scent between rain soaking clouds, falling rain, and fallen rain. I love them all. It’s a whole experience to me, one that has a predictable beginning, middle and end. The particulars may vary, the force may vary, the brilliance of the light, the crashing of the thunder, the destructive power of the wind— but storms always follow a familiar pattern.

I remember that when I was small, my mother took me outside, under a porch cover, and we watched and listened to the storm. Enjoying nature, snuggled up together, in awe. But I don’t remember it really, I remember remembering it. I can’t recall doing it, I don’t know how often it happened, though my mind spins a heartwarming story of loving togetherness with every storm that came.

I smell alyssum and I’m wrapped up in feelings of carefree childhood fun. Of rock gardens in Ontario, where I was born and spent my childhood, and alyssum grew like weeds through cracks and gaps between the rocks. Of walking on the stone fences that were common where we lived. Holding my arms out as if I was flying. Feeling like a gymnast, standing on one foot, as proud of my accomplishment as if I’d been walking a tightrope. Playing at parks, in creeks, paths, or fields — with the sun warm on my face, without a care in the world. An adventurer, an explorer.

Roses remind me of my mother, who loved rose-scented powder and would put it on after baths and if I was lucky, she’d let me have some after a bath too.

At least, I think these things really happened this way, sentimentally.

My rational brain tells me that that’s all romantic concocted syrup. Is any of it true? Most likely. I’m sure most of those things happened at least partly the way I see them when I claw back a memory of there and then. What I’m not sure is true is the cozy, enveloping bliss that I recall surrounding those memories. Those serene and contented feelings were short-lived and often quickly crowded out by other, darker emotions. Stress, fear, anxiety, sadness, helplessness, hopelessness, spite and anger, frustration and despair. These were my mental companions, more often than not.

I read about dissociation, I knew it existed, but I always thought it was something you were aware of on some level. As if your consciousness floated away to save you from realizing the truth of your current situation, and you just… drifted on the breeze, out of your body, enjoying the scenery. Later on when it’s safe, you just quietly slip back into your body, and you’re happy.

When I sought counselling a couple of years ago, suffering newly triggered PTSD, with no emotional range at all and forgetting most of my life, my therapist pointed out to me over and over that I couldn’t remember because I had dissociated. I wasn’t recording, that’s how she puts it, I’m on autopilot and otherwise shut down. That I learned to dissociate like I learned to breathe. It almost seems like something I was born adept at, and I’m finally beginning to recognize when I’m beginning to do it.

My life is compartmentalized and in episodes. Episode One: Ages 3 to 5. Episode Two: Ages 7 to 10. Episode Three: 11 to 15, perhaps, and the time clumps continue. Episode Four: Ages 16 to 21. The married-mommy-tumultuous 20s; the unmedicated bipolar years. I will be 40 next year, and my whole life up to this point is disjointed, boxed up, refusing to share many of its secrets with me. I recall things here and there the way I would recall a movie, I recall them as things I saw rather than things I experienced. They feel separated from me, even though I know they are part of me

I remember snippets, and a lot of them are tied to scent. The bulk food store that my mother took me to when I was small, where she would sometimes get me sugar-free suckers. When I smell that store or taste that candy, it feels warm and familiar. The thrift store we frequented had an old brass smell. The lounge areas with cigarette machines, dim lighting and carpet throughout, complete with a delightfully musty old cigarette smoke scent. I love the smell of gas and oil change shops. Why I love those smells is beyond me entirely.

I tried to revisit the place I lived from the time I was 3 years old until just before I turned 7, hoping to find some of those good memories that I’ve lost with all the bad. When I drove into the town, I went full-on manic for about 10 minutes, everything was exciting, everything was great, I remembered all the places, and then… the ground dropped out from under me. All the bad memories came screaming back into my brain, not nicely, one by one, but as an angry hoard that felt almost physically crushing. The weight of it was astronomical, and I still have panicky nightmares about it, nearly 2 years later.

I feel a huge sense of loss and a very real feeling of incompleteness. It’s difficult for me to reconcile who I am, what I’ve experienced, and what I’ve overcome — with the huge black holes in my personal timeline. Remembering events but not whole experiences, forgetting people I used to know, remembering a face and a name but having no memory of spending time with that person, sometimes not even being able to pinpoint what year something happened. I piecemeal things together strategically, trying to remember anything else that gives me a clue — what grade was I in? What else happened then? What house did we live in? Who was I dating? Who were my friends? And having to play sleuth to my own life, though it sometimes gives me an accomplished feeling if I succeed, also reinforces that sense of freakish abnormality about my entire existence.

Now I’m focusing on simply asking others to tell me what went on at different times throughout my life. What we did together, what was going on, what did we like? I’m on an adventure, trying to get to know myself like I would a new friend.

And at the end of the day, the days when I remember to – I warm scented wax, turn on a white noise app to play rain, and for those few moments before I drift off to my typical restless sleep — I’m at peace.

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