Talked to my therapist about Recent Events this week, and was more honest than I have been about how I'm doing/what I've been feeling lately.
[cws: detailed discussion of dissociation, mention of self-harm]
He pointed out that I'm still using a lot of the extreme dissociative coping mechanisms I used to fall back on in high school, except in high school I knew it was happening, had named dissociative parts, and frequently dissociated on purpose, whereas in college I really wanted to believe I was “better”/not depressed any more, so I increased the dissociation and compartmentalization even further by pretending to myself that I wasn't dissociating, while still dissociating.
(The way that I dissociate now is more like Extreme Compartmentalization than a multiplicity thing, the way it used to be in high school. So when I say dissociating, I don't necessarily mean the classic feelings of unreality symptoms, although I get that too—I mean things like having an emotion, then deciding it's inconvenient and shutting it away Somewhere Else so I don't have to deal with it, or having a breakdown in one context, then after some time passes or after switching contexts, pretending and even feeling like it never happened or happened to someone else, but not me. My left hand doesn't have to know what my right hand is doing, so I can do things like be in a pattern of self-harm and have one part of me orchestrating that and making it happen while the other parts of me continue to be convinced that while there's evidence that it's happening, in some sense it's not really happening, or it's not a big deal, or it's somehow not really me doing it, or it's not a pattern, it's just a bunch of unrelated events.)
I think he's correct that this is what's going on. It explains a lot of things—like how I've been feeling so depressed lately, but simultaneously feeling like it's not a big deal, or kind of like it's happening, but it's never happening right now—it's always something that has been happening, but isn't presently and probably won't again. And how it's almost impossible to talk to my friends about it, because all my mental health stuff gets compartmentalized and assigned to a different persona than the persona that talks to my friends. It's hard to tell my friends “I've been struggling lately” because the “I” that's talking to my friends hasn't been struggling lately—he's always fine, because I need him to be fine so my friends don't know what's going on with me. But now I do actually want to tell them I have a problem and this is what it is, and it's extremely hard to get that out and let the mental health compartment and the friends compartment simultaneously be open. The me that handles my friends can be talking to them about how he is fine and has had a good week while the me that handles my mental health issues is inside losing his shit about how he's not fine and he wants help, but he's not allowed to communicate with them. And yes I know how Dramatic and Edgy this sounds :[
Similarly, there's a particular persona I have who is allowed to feel certain things in controlled, specific ways, who writes these posts. It's like I have a mode I can switch into that makes my real feelings slightly more accessible, and I use that mode to write about being depressed and stuff. Then when I'm done, I turn it off, and that's when I add the “I'm fine” coda and optimistic framing to the end of the post, because I just stop feeling any of the negative emotions I wrote about.
This was upsetting to realize in some ways. Now that I fully understand that this is what I'm doing (my therapist and I have been skirting around the topic of compartmentalization/dissociation for a while now, I think he was waiting for me to be comfortable enough to discuss it more seriously) I find it alarming how pervasive it is. When I was actively trying not to feel anything or decompartmentalize/defragment my shit, this wasn't upsetting at all. But lately in therapy I've been trying to, e.g., work through my feelings about my parents, and I find myself unable to express or feel them at all. I even find myself laughing and smiling while describing things I find seriously upsetting, which disturbs me. It bothers me to look back on college and realize how heavily I was doing this—putting up a facade/persona for my friends doesn't bother me that much, because like I said I've done that for a long time and it's sort of an extreme version of normal image-cultivation behavior. I mean I want to stop eventually, but I can live with hat for now. But the fact that I've been able to successfully fool myself into thinking I wasn't doing this for so long is... troublesome. I'm (sort of) okay with having weird and slightly dishonest coping mechanisms, but I want to know that I have them and be able to use them consciously.
I also feel overwhelmed by the idea of trying to find a “ground truth” in all of this bullshit. I told my therapist that I feel like there is some kernel of truth to all of the compartments I've created: a part of me genuinely is an optimist and a part is genuinely a pessimist, and a part of me genuinely likes writing, and a part of me genuinely despises my parents and another part genuinely is sympathetic to them and likes them, etc. But right now it's sort of like I can only experience one of these things at a time, and only in a very controlled, muted way that feels safe to me. I sometimes feel like I get closer to feeling the genuine emotions I have under all of this—sometimes in a panicky way, like “oh god if I don't box this away and shut it down right now something awful is going to happen abort abort abort” (that happens in therapy semiregularly), but also sometimes in a good way, like the conviction that I do like writing, even if my relationship with my writing is really confusing right now. I just feel like I'm still too nervous to really engage with those feelings unless it's in a really controlled way and I know I can dissociate from it at any second.
Anyway, I still feel weird about all of this because it still feels like it's Not Really A Big Deal even though both my friend and my therapist reacted pretty strongly to what I said (my therapist suggested more frequent sessions, which I don't plan to do). But if the dissociation stuff is really what's happening, then it would make sense that it only feels like a big deal to some parts of me and not others. And of course the version of me that handles most of everyday life—which is a version that has zero emotions because he needs to be functional—would be one of the versions that doesn't think it's a big deal. Damn, okay, I see why I named all of these people back in high school, it would be much easier to talk about this using names.
I feel like I made a lot of progress just by finally being able to access one of the more honest parts of myself in therapy and being able to talk about this stuff in a more serious way with my therapist. And I was able to describe some of what is going on with my friend today, although he doesn't know how buckwild I was with the dissociative stuff in high school, so without that context it was more difficult to communicate what exactly I am doing. I need to think about this for a few more days before I can figure out what exactly I'm going to do now, though.