Dissociation is a word that could be in all of our vocabularies because to a certain degree we all do it. It is defined as a feeling of numbness or detachment from emotional and physical experiences.

Imagine you are driving in the highway and you have 20 exits till you get to yours. You calculate and it means 25 minutes at the least. No problem: you can disconnect from exit watching momentarily. You continue to drive, feet on the pedals, eyes on the road but a part of your mind drifts off into planning your upcoming vacation or remembering what happened when you left. The next think you know, 35 minutes have passed and you have missed your exit: You have dissociated and detached from the present experience. It can also happen when “I’m just going to check my Instagram” turns into a 30 minute adventure. Dissociation is also tied to another trait many of us know: multiple ego states. The person I am at work is different from the one at home, or the person I am giving a speech is another from the person at a small dinner party. That can also be useful and if kept in check, remains within the safety net of mental well-being and health.

But what about those moments when dissociation is a defense mechanism? A way to not feel or experience the present moment because it is too dreadful? Dissociation allows you to not live the moment lived, to not be present, to not feel the pain. Dissociation is what occurs when after a car accident you ask the person driving “what happened?” and they don’t know, or when a girl has been raped and she can’t really remember how it all came to be.

Dissociative disorder is the extreme. It used to be called multiple personality disorder and is often the result of extreme traumas such as child abuse or war. It says something like “My reality, my past, and who I am because of that, is hard to bare so I’ll sometimes escape and become someone else.” People suffering from dissociative disorder can have up to 30 personalities and usually have about 8 – with different voices, tones and mannerisms. The dissociation can be so extreme that one of the personalities may suffer an allergy that the others do not. It has even happened that one of the personalities has diabetes while the others do not.

The need to leave reality is known by almost everyone. Going on holiday to disconnect, or diving into a movie or a book that momentarily absorbs you and lets you forget about real life. There is also escape through alcohol or drugs – it is often a path taken by those who do not suffer from dissociation disorder but need to escape. It is true that it is easy to get it and take it but the problem is still there when you “come back” – here we have one of the roots of addiction.

Dissociation is that extreme when the external or internal reality is so hard to stand that the mind alone decides to take control of the situation and become that person for whom life is easier, a person who does not have those things that are too hard to endure or remember, a person who has no conflicts or who if he or she does, is not afraid to take control of the situation.

To read more on dissociative disorder:

Psychcentral: Dissociative identity disorder in-depth

New York Times: New focus on multiple personality