Ashes of Abuse: Betrayal of the Mind

What is your greatest fear?

If you had been abused as a child perhaps one of your greatest fears would be to be out of control. After all, as a child you were out of control, and look what happened. Now as an adult you have the desire to never let that happen again. One day you realize that you actually control nothing; including, the one place that you had thought was yours alone: your mind. With that realization, a hellish abyss opens up in your mind.

Children who are abused will often dissociate in order to cope with the pain. You could think of dissociation as a sort of mental vacation. We all dissociate to some degree. For example, who hasn’t had the experience of being in a class and being called on by the teacher, only to realize to your chagrin that you have been daydreaming and have no idea what the answer is to the question that was asked. To be truthful, you don’t even know what the question was, simply that the teacher called your name and now everyone is staring at you expectantly. This is an example of dissociation. Children are able to dissociate better than adults can, and sometimes if the abuse is severe or chronic, dissociation maybe the only thing they can do.

Dissociation occurs on a wide spectrum of severity. It includes much more than daydreaming and for adults it is not a conscious choice. For them it is more like the equivalent of a nightmare or shall we say “day-mare”. To better understand what this is like, imagine yourself sitting in meeting at work and then something is said that triggers you and the slide begins. You can hear someone speaking, but you can’t understand the words. You are overwhelmed by long ignored emotions that rise up and engulf you the way flames rise up and surround a log in the fireplace. Pain, anger and fear battle for your attention. Suddenly you feel that you are on the verge of crying, not a silent tear slipping down your cheek, but sobbing. You begin to wonder if you can get out of the room quickly without making a scene. It does not occur to you that you could simply walk out as if you were going to the bathroom. You feel as if any movement on your part will call the attention of the entire room so you try to act normal. You lower your head and pretend to be taking notes.You concentrate very hard; as you try to keep the fire inside from consuming you, but the smoke and flames are spreading. You struggle to stay in the moment, important imformation is being covered. You try to focus on the voice of the person speaking. And then, at last, the flames begins to die back. Your mind begins to clear, other people’s words come back into focus. You are emotionally exhausted, but you are back. With a sense of dread you wonder if it is really gone, and like the smell of smoke; fear lingers.

This is one example of how dissociation could happen. Another term for this sort of experience is depersonalization. Different people experience depersonalization in different ways. Some report feeling as if they are outside of their body watching themselves. Looking in the mirror and not feeling that the image you see there is you, is also common. Sometimes dissociation takes the form of amnesia. People have experienced dissociative amnesia for important events such as weddings or holidays, or for long periods, even years of their lives.

Dissociation, depersonalization and PTSD are all forms of what I think of as ‘betrayal of the mind’. There is another one: flashbacks. Have you ever had a bad dream that lingered into your day? Throughout the day, you are occasionally reminded of the awful feelings of that dream and you feel them again as if you were still in the dream? Flashbacks are like that. You remember something, some unspeakable memory from the closet of horrors. At first you are surprised; it is like seeing someone you haven’t seen in years. You think, “I remember…”. Then with a sinking feeling, you remember. It is like the nightmare, you feel emotionally as if you were there again, as if the horrible thing happened earlier today. You try to forget about it, but throughout the day like a mental hiccup it returns to you, all the attached emotions wafting over you like smoke.

Then one day it occurs to you, that with all these things: dissociation, depersonalization, PTSD, nightmares, flashbacks…you are not in control at all. Calmly you try and explain this horror to a friend. As you speak, there are no tears. There is no anxiety. How could you speak so calmly? It is possible because of dissociation. Sometimes dissociation works like an emotional circuit breaker, when the circuit becomes overloaded with emotion, then it switches off. The pain subsides. Unfortunately, the pain has not really gone away, it is only deadened for a time, and with it all other emotions fear, anger, happiness, joy are deadened as well. All is still. You sit calmly; or go about the tasks of the day, the numbness a temporary blindfold as you walk the plank towards the hellish abyss. .

What to do:

If you are the person who was abused, I firmly believe there is hope. Healing is possible. Sadly though, you must move forward. The memories and emotions have to be worked through.  They will continue to haunt you if you attempt to ignore them. Get professional help/therapy. If you had cancer, you would seek medical assistance, is this any less than emotional cancer? Also, lean on the support of people who love you. There are people that care about you. They don’t always say or do the right things because they don’t understand, but they love you and they try. Be patient with them and most of all be patient with yourself.

If you love someone who was abused, think of this journey like childbirth. You can give the laborer your love and support, but you can’t take the pain away. There are no epidurals for emotional pain. Your love, support, friendship will mean more than you know. Most of all your loved one needs to know you are there and that you care. Even a simple, “how are you?” can mean a lot, if it is a sincere question and not a casual greeting. I remember when I was in labor, every time I would come to a point where I was certain I could not finish. Every time my husband would encourage me, “yes, you can.” I didn’t believe him. Your friend may not believe you when you tell her (or him) they can get through this, but keep encouraging them.  Healing is possible, but it takes time.


  1. I always thought of disocciation as a way for my brain to protect me. It made perfect sense when it was explained that way to me. My brain couldn't handle what was going on, so I went somewhere else.Flashbacks are completely different.

  2. Kate, I agree disocciation was a life saver for me too, as a child. I am just frustrated that now as an adult it happens without my conscious consent.

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