Dissociation is scary for any family member or friend first witnessing it in a loved one’s behavior. Not quite knowing what they are experiencing, the best grasp of a term might be “psychotic,” that societal catch-all for “crazy”.
It need not be as feared nor certainly as misunderstood as this, however.
Dissociation, demystified, is a defense mechanism to things too difficult to be processed in any given moment.
Memory and especially consciousness, or awareness in the moment, become impaired. A fragmentation or separating-out occurs, in what is unconsciously selectively remembered, or in the ability to talk and attend to the (albeit stressful) conversation and task at hand.
The individual thus appears to an observer as almost talking and reacting as if somewhere else — reacting to something other than reality, or is even oddly amnesiac.
A great example of “good dissociation” is given by Sandra L. Brown. She describes a rare scenario for therapeutic dissociation: “Like in a root canal — who wants to be ‘present’ and ‘aware’ for that?”
Dissociation need not be long-term, because acute, “hard-to-handle” stress has the potential to mentally impair anyone. (Once witnessed for the first time, though, the observer can sink low into despair whether his or her friend has lost his or her marbles for good.)
Early trauma can cause dissociative episodes without an individual having to be diagnosed with dissociative disorder. It can therefore show up in people with a variety of disorders. Zoning out, drifting off, and becoming emotionally numb are benign signs of this psychological occurrence that is literally keeping someone from fully experiencing the present moment or correct, full memories of events.
Part of the scare in seeing a family member go through this, certainly, is the identity disturbance usually present. The affected individual is physically as well as emotionally detached from the happenings immediately around him (as well as from the thinking on the genuine and full memory of a past experience). Weird mannerisms, odd voicing, and strange tonality can accompany dissociation. People in a dissociative episode may even move differently.
Low self-esteem and shame issues often present in people who are dissociating to get through some of life’s more painful moments. It is essentially the psyche’s way out of pain.