Lesson 2 - What Is Dissociation?
Dissociation is a God-given, self-protective mechanism which enables us to deal with traumatic situations in a way that does not overwhelm us and allows us to continue to cope with life.
Present day psychiatry treats dissociation as Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). Earlier it was called Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) and some talk about Fragmentation.
The Diagnostic Statistical Manual (DSM-IV-TR), published in 2000 by the American Psychiatric Association, the current psychiatric Ďbibleí, describes DID in this way:
Diagnostic criteria for 300.14 Dissociative Identity Disorder
The presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states (each with its own relatively enduring pattern of perceiving, relating to, thinking about the environment and self).
At least two of these identities or personality states recurrently take control of the personís behaviour.
Inability to recall important personal information that is too extensive to be explained by ordinary forgetfulness.
The disturbance is not due to the direct psychological effects of a substance (e.g., blackouts or chaotic behaviour during Alcohol Intoxication) or a general medical condition (e.g., complex partial seizures). Note: In children, the symptoms are not attributable to imaginary playmates or other fantasy play.
Psychiatrists consider this condition to be a serious pathology and somewhat rare. However, given their way of defining what is and what is not dissociation, it will become obvious that they only encounter the more extreme cases, and so for them it would seem to be relatively rare. The misconception partly stems from an inadequate model of how dissociation happens in the brain. It is also evident that psychiatrists have very little ability to effectively treat the patients they do receive, so they naturally see it as a serious pathology. After all, if they canít handle it ... !
Many Christian counsellors also consider dissociation rare. For example, Tom Hawkins believes that 1 to 5 percent of people in most local churches are DID, and 97 percent of those are through sexual abuse (Child sexual abuse, in Doris M. Wagner (ed), How to minister freedom. Ventura, Ca: Regal, 2005 p.226). The truth is somewhat different. Dissociation is not at all rare, and its causes are far wider, though sexual abuse is a common one. In fact, probably almost everyone dissociates. By this we do not mean daydreaming or tuning out, which some people wrongly call dissociation. Dissociation occurs across a wide spectrum, from mild dissociation in response to fairly normal traumas in a childís life, to severe dissociation as a response to trauma and abuse of various kinds, through to high-level dissociation as a result of highly ritualized abuse, systematic torture or Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA).
Psychiatristís View of the Dissociated Population
The Reality of the Dissociated Population
Psychiatry treats DID as if the mind is split into a number of pieces, each of which can be considered to be a personality, called an alternative personality, an alter ego, or simply an alter, and the person is able to switch the focus of their present existence from one part to another, and so appear to switch personalities. Brain scans of DID patients during switching have confirmed that such a shifting of the locus of activity from one part of the brain to another does actually take place.
It is easy to see how such a theory developed, because when a highly dissociative person switches to an alter it is like dealing with a completely different person. However, the splitting of the personality is still an assumption that can and should be questioned.
Many Christian counsellors have treated dissociation using this model, with limited success. The ministry usually is difficult, takes many years of regular sessions, and is often inconclusive.
Peter and Heather Toth of Anazao Counselling, through years of helping highly traumatized and dissociative people, have developed another model of what happens in the brain. This model does not allow for the splitting of the personality. In fact, the mind is not split at all. Rather, when an alter is created, it is an addition to the personality, not a fragment.
[Diagrams from The forgotten factor in healing, page 80. Used with permission.]
An alter is a replicated portion of the mind that influences and is influenced by the emotions and will of the person. An alter doesnít have its own set of emotional or will responses. It is an extension of the soul, independent of the soul but operates through the soul. (Anazao Cutting Edge School 2006: Dissociation manual, p. 19.) The alter is only a part of mind created to cope with the traumatic situation, and to process and store the resulting memories of the event, so that the person can continue functioning through and after the trauma. Nor does the alter have a spirit, because the human spirit can not be split.
When a dissociative person is operating through an alter, the alternate area of mind with its associated memories is in control, and it applies its memory of how the person felt during the trauma to the emotional processes of the body, adapting them to the new situation. When the alter recedes again into the background the personís emotions will eventually return to how they were before the switch. Many who come for help have difficulty trusting Jesus, although they may be believers and really love him. Often we discover an alter who hates Jesus, or has difficulty trusting him because of the experience they have had. Once the alter meets Jesus the internal civil war ceases.
Because a human person comprises body, soul and spirit, and soul is made up of mind, emotions and will, it is clear that mind alone does not make a personality.
What Dissociation is Not
Dissociation occurs across a wide spectrum, from mild, through severe, to highly dissociative. However, these levels do not coincide with different states as commonly believed. They just indicate different degrees of differentiation between the person and the dissociative parts.
Therefore, states such as unconsciousness, coma, amnesia, hypnosis and daydreaming are not varieties of dissociation, but are entirely different states of mind.
For example, in amnesia an event of which you were once fully aware is no longer accessible to you. In dissociation the whole experience of the trauma is held by the part rather than experienced by you. Your lack of memory is not that you have forgotten bits of what happened. You never experienced it so it was never yours to forget. If you do eventually gain access to the whole memory of the event with the physical and emotional trauma the part experienced, it will be the first time for you.
The Mechanism of Dissociation
When we are overwhelmed by a trauma to the degree that we are unable to continue to endure it, another part of our brain takes over and experiences what is happening. It then holds the memory of what occurred. Once the trauma is over the mind returns to its normal state, but, depending on the extent of the dissociation, we may or may not remember very much, or anything at all, of the trauma. Those who have been involved in a car accident will testify to their inability to remember all the details of the accident and shock can cause such gaps in memory. Particularly in childhood trauma the shock will result in dissociation and the inability of the child to recall what has happened.
This newly created part of our mind has the rudiments of personality, based on the memory of events it has and its memory of the feelings experienced. If the trauma is repeated over time the dissociative part may form a more extensive worldview and appear to be a more developed personality.
However, a part does not actually have all of the components required to be a person in its own right. It has mind, and influences the will but shares the emotional apparatus of the body and soul with the real person. It has no spirit of its own.
Earlier methods of therapy treat parts as personalities. This is an understandable mistake, as the parts do present as if they are personalities, however it is a mistake, because the part is actually using aspects of the true person in its interaction with the therapist. Given their faulty model, it is easy to understand their difficulty in bringing true healing to the client. Among the errors made by Christian therapists is that of believing that parts can sin and so must repent and become Christians. They also often believed that parts could be demonized. Without a spirit neither of these is possible for a part. Demons in the person can affect the part, but the part itself does not have a demon.
Consider an analogy which may help to reinforce the idea that a person performing an action while in dissociate state is not guilty of that act. Suppose you are home in bed asleep, and your car is locked and legally parked in the street outside your house. During the night someone steals your car without waking you, uses it to commit a crime, then puts the car back, locked and undamaged. To your surprise, the next day you are arrested and charged with the offense, because your car was identified driving away from the crime scene.
Despite the difficulty of needing to prove you were in fact asleep at home and unaware of the use of your car, you are not guilty of the crime. The car is not guilty either, not being a responsible entity. The person who is guilty is the one who used your car without your knowledge. In this analogy, the car represents your body and its dissociate parts. Any true guilt attaches ultimately to anyone who is responsible for the creation of those parts, if this was done deliberately with the intention of gaining control of your body in the future, as is the case with deliberate programming or satanic ritual abuse. Of course, if you left the car unlocked you share some of the guilt.
Of course, the law does not generally take dissociation into account when determining guilt or innocence. It is enough that your body committed the offense, and you are responsible for the behaviour of your body.
A more general error resulting from the incorrect understanding that parts are fragments of the clientís personality is the attempt to integrate them back into the person. Because the parts are newly created bits of mind created by the traumatic experience, they are not a part of the personality, but are just a portion of mind containing memories. Therefore, rather than being integrated into the person, they need to be removed so that the barrier they represent that prevents the person accessing those trauma memories is taken away.
Another difference from conventional ministry is that the spirit of a person cannot be fragmented. This was a belief erroneously Ďprovedí using verses about a Ďbroken spirití. We suspect that any such fragmenting of the spirit would result in death, as would the separation of the spirit from the body and soul.
We will not go into great detail about how the brain is structured, nor about the mechanism of dissociation, except to say that the process is well documented and has been observed in scientific studies using brain scans, as well as in ministry experience. Peter Tothís book, The forgotten factor in healing. Sydney: Ark House, 2006, gives an excellent account of the process, easily grasped by the layman. A definition is given on pages 11-12:
Dissociation occurs when the intensity of a trauma overwhelms our normal ability to cope, and we can no longer remain consciously aware of what is happening. We Ďdisconnectí, and another part of our mind takes over and functions for us or Ďis presentí during the trauma. When the trauma is over, this other part of the mind recedes and we have no memory of the trauma we have just experienced.
To outline the process simply, there are parts of the brain responsible for receiving sensory inputs from the world outside the person, such as sight, touch, sound, smell, pain, etcetera, and to organize and classify these inputs so that other brain functions can decide what they mean, what to do with them, and to send them for storage in our memory. Central to these functions is the part of the brain called the amygdala, and there is a limit to how much and how quickly it can process the data.
Each time there is a new experience, the amygdala is required to work harder than when processing something familiar, because more sensory data is produced. If the experience is far more intense than the normal things experienced in life, again a great deal more information must be processed. If the amount of data is too great the system becomes overloaded and is unable to process it. Consequently nothing will be passed on to the following brain functions for processing and nothing will be stored in memory. This would create a complete gap in the personís experience - as if they were not even present. If allowed to continue the person might become catatonic.
To handle this situation, when overload occurs a mechanism is triggered which creates a new area of mind and assigns it to handle the data from the traumatic experience. Then the overloaded amygdala resets and it is able to resume assessing and passing on information about the experience. But now the data goes to this separate, newly formed part of the mind. This is a dissociative part, which as a result is present for the traumatic experience and holds the memories and feelings associated with it. The creation of this part happens in an instant, so nothing is actually lost.
Once the trauma is over the brain resumes functioning as before the trauma, except, of course, the person does not remember what happened. If the trauma is especially severe or continues for a long time, this overloading of the brain may occur numerous times in sequence, resulting in a number of dissociative parts holding the trauma.
If the person experiences a similar trauma later, a new part might be created. However, the same part might take control each time. This results in a more highly differentiated part with a more extensive set of experiences and a more developed worldview. Such parts have greater ability to take over from the person, and the person will be less aware of them doing so.
Depending on how differentiated a personís parts become, the person may be co-conscious with the parts, or completely unaware of them. When a person is co-conscious, a part can assume a degree of control but the person will be aware of it and what it is doing. They may even converse with the parts and listen to the internal dialogue between parts.
At the extreme ends of the dissociation spectrum, if a very highly differentiated part comes forward it will assume complete control with the person completely out of the loop and unaware of what transpires while the part is out. On the other hand, people with very poorly differentiated parts - probably most of us - may be completely unaware of parts, or of even having parts, and find it very difficult to get in touch with them, even in ministry.
Fortunately, in a ministry situation, it is easier for a very lowly differentiated part to come forward in a ministry situation when attention is focused on it, than in a normal life situation. So, with some instruction, even those on the low end of the spectrum can usually get in touch with parts while being counselled.
Some of the relationship between a person and their dissociative parts may be easier understood by considering an analogy of the relationship between the government of a country and the secret service department of that government. The secret service exists to take care of events that the government (and by extension, the country) would prefer not to know about and would not know what to do with if it did.
The secret service operates below the surface of public scrutiny. The government knows it exists, and finds covert ways to fund its activities, but operates as if the secret service did not exist at all.
If a nation has no secret service already, when an international or civil crisis occurs such an organisation may need to be created to react to the need. After the crisis is resolved the secret service will become self-justifying and will be allowed to continue to exist, handling all future crises with relative autonomy.
If the covert activities of the secret service do reach the attention of the public, the government will deny any knowledge of it. The relationship between the government and the secret service is based on the principle of Ďplausible deniabilityí.
The secret service may even sometimes take covert action against elements of the government if this appears to it to be in the greater interest of the security of the nation.
Why Dissociative Parts Need to be Removed
While the ability to dissociate is a God-given ability that helps a child cope with excessive trauma, later in life the dissociative parts become a dysfunction and for a number of reasons they should be removed.
Because parts continue to try and protect a person from any situation they perceive as threatening, the person may act in unexpected and bizarre ways. For example, if they meet a person who reminds them in some way of a childhood abuser they may suddenly attack him, or run away, without knowing they are about to do so, or why they did it. In highly differentiated dissociation the person might carry out the action but then be totally unaware of having done so and deny it when challenged. As another example, a person may be unable to eat certain foods, go to certain places, or wear certain clothes because of their association with earlier events, but not know why this is so.
Dissociation is, at its core, a denial mechanism, designed to keep the truth of certain experiences in a personís life from that person, because at the time they happened the experiences were too much to process. However, because those events actually occurred there will still be consequences in the personís life.
Jesus makes it clear that it is truth that sets us free (John 8:32), not ignorance. He desires "truth in the innermost parts" (Psalm 51:6), and without it the complete control God wants us to have over our lives is reduced.
Refusing to face the truth about our past, when God makes it possible to do so, is sin. This does not apply only to the minority of the population with recognized and diagnosed DID. The Tothís have established that almost everybody is dissociate to some degree and needs to come to grips with what happened in their past before they can be truly whole. It is hard to deal with the legal rights we give to demons to interfere in our life if we do not know the circumstances by which those legal rights were gained.
When, with the co-operation of the parts a memory is accessed in its entirety, the person will be able to deal with any factors that have given the demons rights by repentance and forgiveness, releasing judgments and expectations and renouncing vows and dedications, and experience the presence of Jesus with all his healing grace in ways that brings wholeness. One SRA survivor who has been finding out the depths of sin perpetrated against them, and the things they themselves have done, testifies that they have a new awareness of the completeness of Christís blood, the power of forgiveness and the depths of his love for them. This all builds intimacy with Jesus, which is his desire for all of us. When parts stop this, when demons stop this, where lies, sin, unbelief, generational curses or anything else colour our view of God, then we have the responsibility to work with the Holy Spirit and allow his light to shine.
"Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit. For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ."† (2 Corinthians 3:17-18, 4:6)
We know of one person in history who could have dissociated under the extreme torture he suffered, but chose not to. Instead he endured to the end. This was Jesus. If he had escaped into the denial of a dissociate state then he would not have born for us the sins of the world, and his purpose on earth would not have been achieved.
Similarly, if we are to truly come to maturity as the sons and daughters of God, then we must learn to face what happens to us in its fullness. To put it another way, we need to grow up and get real! It is not OK to want to keep out parts, even if we have come to think of us as our friends; even if we donít think we can get through life without them. It is only YOU, the REAL Person, who can fulfill the purpose for which you were created and so bring glory to God.