Doing a Disappearing Act

Photo by Magda Smolen on Unsplash

“Where was I? I’m here. At least I think I’m here. Wasn’t I?” —Josh, multiple tour Marine Veteran, Iraq War

Most of us grasp that people exposed to overwhelming horrors may feel that life is just not nailed down for them. A part of them lives in a seemingly rewarding present world while another part of them is avoiding what they would rather not remember. Life in general may not feel real for them. Nor do they feel real to themselves. It may be impossible for them to reconcile parts of themselves that want to be like everybody else and just get on with life’s good tasks, and parts of themselves that still live in their pasts as if it were happening just now. How can they worry about their 401K’s when they’ve just seen a buddy’s head separated from his body? Yet how can they not worry about their work lives? Such discrepancies feel irreconcilable. It’s no wonder that many survivors of trauma do a disappearing act. They involuntarily alternate between being present and not present. It’s the best they know how to do.

What may surprise us is that a lot of us are in the same boat. Even though we haven’t been to war, we space out more than we realize. Some of it is normative. We get involved in a good book and lose track of time. Some of it is mildly neurotic. We multitask and become airheads. We chat on cell phones in our cars while drinking lattes and trying steadfastly to avoid collisions at the intersections while reminding ourselves to file our taxes on time. Hopefully we don’t crash.

However, some of us do. We have serious problems with spacing out. We may lose track of periods of time and repeatedly not accomplish what we need to accomplish and struggle with depression. We may see our loved ones merely as talking heads instead of people we dearly love and whose feelings we ought to cherish. We may not feel real to ourselves and go through the motions of living. After staring at a computer screen all day we may wonder what it all means as we get stuck in yet another traffic jam on our way home from a day we cannot remember. Some of us get mired in cultural patterns that groom us to be zombies. We buy things we don’t need and get transfixed by the latest rage in the pop scene. Some of us have issues from our pasts that prompt us to hide from ourselves without even being aware of it. We become aloof when we really prefer to be close to others.

A very attractive teacher in her early twenties, Marnie lamented, “You know it is so sad. Everybody is always trying to fix me up with somebody. I can’t explain the fact that I’m just not interested. The kids are my first priority. I just want to be a nice person. When you grow up in an alcoholic family you expect a lot less out of life.”

Some of us live with horrifying betrayals of modern emotionally disconnected living. We become used to being treated like an object.

Emily, a market representative who made record profits for her firm over 10 years and was just let go unexpectedly by her company said, “I just sat there at my desk in shock. Nothing around me felt real. Leave it to them to tell me in an e-mail. They just didn’t want to see my face. They just wanted me to disappear. Well that’s exactly what I did.”

Some of us betray others in a horrifying fugue state that renders us temporarily insane.

“I don’t know why I shot him,” cried 10 year-old Eric, who had just killed his two-year old brother, Rickie, while his dad stepped away from the house for a few minutes. “He just kept bugging me and wanting to play with my video games. I looked down at the gun, saw Rickie lying there on the floor and I didn’t know how he got that way.”

In fact doing a disappearing act—dissociating—is a modern epidemic.

What is dissociation?

Dissociation is an involuntary and creative defense against overwhelming trauma. It is a way we flee from an awareness of psychological or physical terror that threatens to destroy us. WeOur dissociated brain often does too much of a good thing: protecting ourselves from awareness. may not feel real to ourselves. We may spectate at life. The world around us may not be nailed down. We may have serious doubts about our perceptions of reality. Spacing out can become habituated in us and has degrees of impairment. It is not the same as being crazy, although often it feels that way. It may occur as: depersonalization (feeling detached from yourself as if you were a spectator), derealization (your environment isn’t quite set in stone), amnesia (memory loss over time and what happened), fugue states (getting lost and losing your identity) and multiple personality disorder (having your personality be divided into separate personality states). According to some research, over 30 million people or about 14 percent of the general population have serious dissociative symptoms. This estimate is likely understated.

Signals of spacing out

It’s likely you already know if you space out. Some signals include:

  • Psychological numbing: an absence of or lack of awareness of having any feelings
  • Gaps of time go by and cannot be recalled
  • Inability to describe periods of years in childhood
  • Repetitive experience of seeing yourself or your environment at a distance
  • Not having a clear picture of yourself or your environment: reality is not nailed down
  • Incapacity to detect body sensations or basic human needs like hunger, thirst, and tiredness, signs of illness
  • Limited feeling vocabulary and alexithymia (inability to put feelings into words)
  • Chronic forgetting of personal items (car keys, checkbooks, cell phones) or scheduled appointments
  • Faulty relationship with time management—can’t anticipate or plan how long things take
  • Unexpected travel—turning up in places with little awareness of how you got there
  • Persisting feelings of detachment from loved ones in the absence of explained conflict
  • Sense that you are constantly pretending or spectating in life
  • Missed appointments with no apparent psychological explanation
  • Identity diffusion: inability to say what you think, feel and need

Tuning in or tuning out

Society is saturated with stress and stimulation. Is it any wonder at the end of the day we want to put our feet up on the couch, turn on our flat screen TVs and hide from the world? It’s not mystery whey electronica has become the modern mecca for escapism. Certainly it’s quite easy to detach ourselves when we are powerless over other people’s problems, or when we crave peace, serenity and a simpler life. Tuning out? The more is better!

On the other hand when our relationships with our families and connection to ourselves are harmed due to our drifting off, then it’s time to tune back in. Use the checklist above or ask your boss or family members to be honest if they see you not being fully present and harming them. Chances are they’ve already told you. Ask them again. Take what they say seriously. At least acknowledge there is a problem. If you continually feel life is controlling you, they you are apt to have dissociative symptoms. Obviously if it were so easy to tune in you would already be doing that. Be patient with yourself. Tuning in is something that is learned over time. It’s not like throwing a light switch; it’s like slowly turning up a very gradual light dimmer in the dark.

Why are we like this?

Our light needs to be turned on but never before we are ready to see the light.Continually doing a disappearing act without really trying is always rooted in trauma. Often we’re not aware of what our trauma was since that’s the nature of spacing out. Dissociation turns the lights out for us so that we don’t fully experience the horror of what has happened to us. Some of us were either emotionally or physically abandoned in childhood, experienced or witnessed horrifying human behavior or else became overwhelmed by tragic natural disasters or accidents. Even chronic childhood neglect can turn our brains off. Most of our trauma gets set not by the horrible acts themselves but by the way those close to us responded to us. When we are left to our own devices we either fight or flee. Some of us who are genetically predisposed to be imaginative may resort to spacing out. We flee by leaving the present. Our brain at the time of our ordeal releases hormones, norepinephrine and cortisol, that essentially turns the lights out, basically to protect us. Unfortunately due this plethora of hormones, our brain chemistry gets altered so that these hormones continue to get released in any situation that remind us of our ordeal. In this way, dissociation is both a short-term fix but also a long-term false alarm and hindrance to our future awareness. Indeed our brain’s way of not knowing can also set us up for not spotting similar dangers in our future. Our dissociated brain often does too much of a good thing: protecting ourselves from awareness. Our light needs to be turned on but never before we are ready to see the light.

Remedies for tuning in

Be especially gentle with yourself if you have problems with dissociation. You are doing the best you can. It’s often possible to considerably reduce your spacing out but first you need tools and healing relationships that can keep you safe without leaving awareness. A combination of psychotherapy and therapeutic bodywork is best. I can recommend reading Understanding Trauma and Dissociation by Lynn Mary Karjala. The Sensorimotor Therapy Institute which specializes in trauma recovery has a local chapter with excellently trained helpers. Therapeutic massage, salsa lessons and walking clubs all ground us in our bodies and lessen spaciness. Some research says they are optimal methods for treating dissociation. I can recommend the Northwestern School of Massage Therapy for trained professional healing. Life is too short. Let’s stay away for it!


John H. Driggs, LICSW, is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men.

This article was first published in our February 2010 issue.

Last Updated on October 13, 2022

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