Learning to control switching

by | 24 January 2019 | Posts | 18 comments

‘I can’t help it though,’ I complain, with a mixture of forlornness and mild outrage. ‘I just … disappear. And other parts come. I don’t mean to switch. It just happens.’

The therapist looks at me and nods understandingly, but I can tell she’s not finished. I prefer things to be black-and-white, all-or-nothing. She seems to relish the grayscales.

‘Yes, I believe you,’ she says, but her eyes have narrowed determinedly. ‘But that doesn’t mean to say that you can’t learn to stay present and not switch, or that there isn’t an element of choice sometimes.’

I frown, bothered.

Sometimes,’ she reiterates, balancing sternness and sympathy.

I look away because I know she’s right but it feels important to hold to my position of ‘nothing’ in case that means I have to jump to ‘all’. I’m scared that ‘sometimes’ actually means ‘always’.

‘But why?’ I ask, a tad petulantly. ‘Why does it matter that I stay present? Why can’t I dissociate? Why can’t I switch during my session?’ – I’m not sure of the difference between the two words and we seem to use them interchangeably – ‘All of my parts are me, so what does it matter which part of me is ‘out’?’

She thinks for a moment. ‘I’m not saying you can’t switch during session. And you’re right: your parts are you.’ She knows that I don’t believe this all the time, but doesn’t remind me of this now, as that’s a different battle. ‘But what I’m wanting us to work on is the uncontrolled nature of your switching. I want you to be able to have more choice about when parts come, and when they don’t come: for you to have a sense of choice, rather than the choicelessness of trauma.’

She pauses, checking that I’m still with her.

‘Often what happens,’ she continues, ‘is that instead of processing something yourself – instead of you feeling a feeling – you switch. And so that emotion remains stuck, because it’s not being processed and felt by all of you. You’re delegating it, but in such a way that you have no knowledge or awareness of it.’

Hmm. She has a point.

‘Then why is it okay to switch at all?’ I ask. I genuinely want to figure this out, but I also want to argue, because, having grown up in a dictatorship, it feels delicious to ‘talk back’. And it also feels unsafe to agree with everything she says, in case I’m doing it just to be ‘good’.

‘Because those parts of you hold emotions and memories and beliefs that you don’t have access to. And we need them to be shared across all of you, so that they can be integrated and worked through. So while you stay just as ‘you’, then we don’t access them and they remain stuck. And stuck is a powerless place to be.’

I feel all the ouch-ness of this last statement, so I ignore it – for now.

‘But we don’t really have access to those feelings and memories, though, do we?’ I am, now, genuinely confused. ‘Because when I switch to those parts, I don’t remember anything.’

‘No, that information currently isn’t being shared. It’s being siloed. And hence is stuck.’

That word again. The ‘stuck’ feeling is what brings me most shame: a sense of incompetence, of hopelessness, of despair for the future. It makes me feel inadequate and less than other people. It makes me hate myself: that I am uselessly, endlessly ‘stuck’. But I can’t face that right now, so I edge around it.

‘Then how does it get to be shared rather than siloed – dissociated?’

‘That’s what we’re figuring out …’ She smiles a little wryly. ‘I think what we agreed on as our hypothesis was that if could get those parts to start to feel their feelings and think about their thoughts with me, then I could be a kind of network hub for sharing that with you, and vice versa.’

‘Aah.’ Now I remember. We had this conversation a few weeks back. I get frustrated with my frequent forgetting. It’s as if I can’t always hold information, even non-trauma-related factoids, across time. It’s not that I’ve forgotten it. It’s that I’ve mislaid that information in my head.

‘So …’ I’m trying to figure this out. ‘So why is it a problem then for me to switch to other parts, if you do want me switch to them too?’

This, to me, is my eternal confusion. Unlike many therapists, mine has never ‘banned’ me from dissociating, or switching, in session. She has reasoned – and, as I’ve since discovered, the clinical literature supports her perspective – that engaging with parts is more profitable than excluding them. Because by denying their existence and presence, it reinforces the dissociation.

But neither does she swing to the other extreme and allow sessions to be dominated by parts. It’s a precarious, middling stance which requires a great deal of attunement on her part, and frequent frustration on mine: at times I want to be dissociated, because it all gets too much, and at times I hate its inherent loss of control. I am in therapy to resolve the dissociation, and yet paradoxically I feel affronted if not ‘allowed’ to dissociate.

‘It’s about what we’re trying to achieve at that moment,’ she explains. ‘If we’re working on you processing something and you run away in your head by switching to another part, because the emotion becomes too much, then we’re not really getting anywhere.’

‘But if it’s processing information, then it’s okay to switch?’ I say this with a hint of challenge, because deep down I’m worried that she’s saying that my parts are unacceptable and so is rejecting me.

‘It’s all okay,’ she says, clarifying, because she can see that my shame and sense of failure is rising. ‘Whatever happens happens. You are you, and all of you is welcome. We always make progress somehow. We muddle through, don’t we? All I’m doing is pointing out a frequent pattern, and encouraging you to think about whether it’s a pattern you might want to challenge: the way that you automatically switch to a different part when there’s emotion in the room. The way you struggle to feel your feelings here, with me.’

She’s absolutely right and I’m close to admitting it out loud. And she’s also right that sometimes I could do something about it, if I wanted to. Sometimes I can’t – that’s a certainty. It just happens and the next thing I know it’s minutes or hours later and I feel like I’ve been a long, long way away, or waking from a dream. But sometimes I give into the pull, because it’s easier – so much easier – and I don’t do enough to resist it. It’s like the difference between a door slamming shut, caught in a gust of wind, and a door blowing gently to. The former I can do nothing to prevent, but the latter I could if I wanted to. And what she’s challenging in me is this latter scenario: and the fact that I don’t want to.

I feel sad and a bit disgruntled and I can’t tell if it’s with me or with her. I wish she wouldn’t challenge me so much, because it activates my shame. I feel crushed by it and that she just doesn’t get me, or get how hard it all is … And those are the times when I want to kick back at her and pout and sulk and argue. But I also, conversely, find it strangely exhilarating. It makes me feel believed in – that she thinks I’m up to the challenge of change – and it evokes in me a deeply satisfying sense of aliveness.

I realise I’m at that point right now, at the crossroads within myself of taking up the challenge or dismissing her help as too hard.

‘Some of the time I could stop it happening,’ I admit, and I feel like I ought to be whispering. ‘There’s an emotional black hole, and it starts pulling me in. I feel like things are distant and foggy, that I’m drifting away from everything. It’s like I stop being in my body, or really in the room. And sometimes, when that happens, I can just about dig my heels in and stop the slide, if I need to. I have to work really hard to do it though,’ I say, and I wonder if she believes me.

I wait for her wrath, but it doesn’t come. She just nods slightly. ‘And sometimes for me,’ she says instead, ‘I don’t know what the best thing to do is. Sometimes I help to ground you, and get you to come back. Sometimes I try it but you’re too far gone, or it’s happened too quickly. But sometimes too I don’t know if I should be pulling you back, or letting you go … because it’s important that parts get to talk to me too.’

She lets this point linger in the air, almost as a question. I had rather hoped that she would know the answer to it, but she seems to think that I might be the expert on me.

I don’t know what to say so I go on word strike and wait for her to speak. Eventually she does.

‘It’s a difficult balance,’ she says, ‘because I do believe it’s important for every part of you to have a voice and to have that connection with me. But …’ she pauses, and we both have a sense that it’s more than me that’s listening to what she’s about to say. ‘I guess the ideal would be for you to be in much more control of that process, and for parts to come through a process of collaboration and cooperation, rather than you being hijacked by them …’

The statement sits awkwardly between us, as if she’s not sure – and I’m not sure – if I want to halt the hijacking. I’m momentarily baffled, because the concept that I could control my switching feels alien and almost insulting.

‘So what do we do?’ I ask and I’m desperately hoping that she’ll just pronounce a definitive answer, because this grayscale is uncomfortable.

‘What do you think?’ she replies, predictably and yet infuriatingly.

I sit and think for a moment. What’s the real issue here? I wonder.

‘Sometimes when you try to ground me and bring ‘me’ back,’ I say eventually, cautiously, slowly, as if girding myself from violence, ‘it feels like you’re saying that my parts aren’t welcome here, that they aren’t acceptable.’ I dare a look direct into her eyes. ‘As if they’re wrong.

She holds my gaze, softly. I think she can sense my simmering aggression, ready to defend myself, and she’s trying to dial it down with the gentleness of her response. Everything about her, in this moment, feels like a winter duvet, soft and saggy and inviting, compared to my brittle, jagged edges.

‘They’re not wrong,’ she says, quietly. ‘They’re you.’ She pauses, and then looks intently into me. ‘I don’t think they’re wrong, and never have done. Do you think they’re wrong?’

I look away sharply. Ouch. I feel suddenly naked and slightly drifty. I try to look at her but she’s become translucent.

‘Do you think they’re wrong?’ she asks again, and I don’t have any words with which to reply, so after a little while she continues. ‘I’m just wondering if that’s what’s going on,’ she says. ‘Because there’s a real reaction in you, isn’t there, when I try to hold a boundary with them? When I ask, sometimes, for them to stay back and for you to be present? On the one hand, when they come, afterwards you feel ashamed and out of control, so it’s something that you want to stop happening. But if I ever suggest learning to take control of your switching, you feel like it’s a personal rejection?’

Ouch, ouch, ouch.

I sigh semi-angrily. ‘What is the matter with me?’ I say, exasperated. ‘I don’t want to have parts, but unless I feel that you’re 100% accepting of them, I feel rejected …’

She swivels slightly in her chair, as if she’s trying to come closer without reducing the physical distance between us. ‘But I am 100% accepting of them,’ she says, ‘and that’s what’s strange …’

‘It’s shame,’ I say, suddenly, and my gaze immediately fixes on the roses outside the window, as if these words are only safe if I absent myself. ‘I’m ashamed of having parts. So it feels physically painful if you try to curtail them. Because that shows that I’m right to be ashamed of them …’

We sit quietly for a few moments.

‘I hear you. But you’re jumping to the wrong conclusion there. When I ‘curtail’ them, as you put it, it’s because I’m trying to do what’s right for all of you, therapeutically, in the session. Limiting them is not rejecting them. And that’s a typical shame response, to experience a boundary as hurtful.’

‘I know.’ My voice is full of agony, because I do know. I’ve seen this pattern before. Sometimes my emotional membrane feels so thin, as if the only filter through which I see life is one which interprets every action as an attack.

I look down, looking for the answer somewhere near my ankles. I push at the carpet with my shoes, trying to force it out.

‘It’s not you who doesn’t accept my parts, is it?’ I say at last. ‘It’s me. I’m just projecting onto you what I really feel and think. Because I am so ashamed of being this messed up, of having parts in the first place … and so the only answer to that is to defend them, to cede control to them whenever they want it, because if I don’t then it’s like I’m denying them. All-or-nothing. So when I think about controlling my switching – or at least learning to – it’s like there’s this eruption on the inside of me, that by saying ‘shush’ to them I’m silencing them, and by silencing them I’m …’

I don’t know what the right word is, so I look up at her for help.

‘Abusing them?’ she eventually offers.

Aaah.

I nod, and study the floor again. ‘Yes.’

We sit silently, with the weight and pressure of this confession between us. I feel smothered with a simultaneous sense of shame and relief.

She bends in towards me, seeking me out, because I’m closing down connection with her by huddling into my body and staring at my feet. ‘Your parts don’t feel accepted by you,’ she says, gently. ‘They don’t feel that you’re on their side. You don’t collaborate with them most of the time. You ‘curtail’ them. So they hijack you.’

I look up suddenly. ‘I hate them!’ I exclaim, with more emotion than I’d intended. ‘I don’t want them to exist. I don’t want to know them. I don’t want them to even be.’

‘And therein lies the rub …’

Again, sadly: ‘I know.’

I sigh. ‘It’s a paradox, isn’t it?’ I say. ‘I don’t want to have parts, and I hate them. But I insist that you allow them to come. I refuse to engage with them, and feel nothing but contempt and dislike for them, but I don’t want to learn to manage my switching. I’m a bag of contradictions!’

‘Yes,’ she says, softly. ‘You have dissociative identity disorder. Which means that you are a bag of contradictions.’

We both laugh a little.

‘So if I were to try to stay present a bit more, rather than switching when emotions come up … what if I couldn’t manage it?’

She looks at me quizzically. She’s not following my train of thought yet.

‘That’s my underlying fear,’ I explain. ‘That I can’t manage my feelings. I need the get-out clause of dissociating, or switching. I need to be able to opt out. By trying to learn to manage my switching, and staying present more, it feels like I’m closing off an escape route. It’s too scary.’

‘But it’s not all-or-nothing,’ she counters, as she frequently does. ‘We’re talking about you starting to make active, conscious choices to switch or to stay present, rather than it being an automatic habit. That’s all.’

‘But I can’t help it,’ I complain, and we’re back where we started. ‘I just … switch.’

She nods, again, apparently unsurprised that we have cycled back to the beginning. ‘Sometimes you can’t help it,’ she says. ‘How about we just work on the sometimes that you can? Because it’s not all-or-nothing?’

Doh. I’m momentarily amused at how easily I assume this perspective. And even as I think it, I go further into nothing. ‘But what if I can’t?’

She just smiles and says, ‘Okay, it’s up to you. When you’re ready …’ And that is how we leave it, but the seed is sown in my mind. I leave the session full of contradictions still, but at least a little more aware of the tiny glimmers of choice I have in tackling the dissociation that is both my greatest source of pain, and my greatest source of comfort.

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18 Comments

  1. What you share in this article is exactly where I am currently in my healing journey. Your thoughts and feelings are the same as my own. Thank you for this post as it normalizes my experience and is encouraging as well.

    Reply
  2. This is amazing! I loved reading every bit of it. It made me laugh & cry, as it’s exactly the sort of conversation I have with my therapist, so it’s reassuring to hear someone else have similar experiences and crazy conversations. Thanks for being so brave and sharing this with the world, I would be mortified at the thought of someone being privvy to some of the stuff that comes out of my mouth during my therapy sessions but after reading this it seems a little more normal, so thanks x

    Reply
  3. Wow, I remember these feelings so well! I think I even started this process then got too scared of who I would be and how I would cope without parts and abandoned it. Thank you x

    Reply
  4. Brilliant article, I find this so validating of how Im trying to work

    Reply
  5. Rarely do I read something that strikes me in the gut like your words do! This resonated with me so much, thank you.

    Reply
  6. It has always felt like a hate/Love relationship. It is exhausting!

    Reply
  7. I may be totally streaming with tears right now, but it’s because what you say is gut-wrenchingly true. I still don’t believe I’ll ever control switching and that if I do, it’ll be like all the therapists that told me my parts were bad infantile behaviour I needed to grow out of. I think my go to point for younger parts is, “I didn’t get to be little back then so why can’t I do it now?” However, I know I need and want that to change.
    The battle for selves-acceptance continues…

    Reply
  8. I/We are in the same spot. This part, ” ‘Yes,’ she says, softly. ‘You have dissociative identity disorder. Which means that you are a bag of contradictions.’ ” gave me tears! It feels very emotional and I cry. Thank you so very much for sharing this!!! I have been in therapy since 1988, diagnosed in 1990 and left therapy a few times – been back since May of 2017 and am making good progress.

    Reply
  9. Thank you very, very, much, Carolyn, for writing this exceptional article that I/We struggle with! Lari

    Reply
  10. Whenever I am particularly low, I come to this site, because here someone else understands what I am experiencing.

    Today, I stood to teach a class and dissociated 20%+ of the time. I left frustrated, embarrassed, and defeated. I couldn’t stay focused on the material or my thread of thought because of the young men talking in the back of the room, because of memory I was going through earlier in the day, because I had been sick—who knows.

    It’s days like this, when I am looking for any reason to hold on, that I consider that someone has made it through this and is now helping others with their onerous battles.

    I appreciate your work. Thank you.

    Reply
  11. 🙂 you do have a way with expressing. I find it soothing and comforting to read and hear your material. I also find myself trying to break away from it, escaping somewhere numb. I trust you. The funny part, is I used to imagine things I had read here or you speaking of recovery when it all seems useless. And now I can imagine all these wonderful ladies in the comments who also experienced the same.
    So empowering and hopeful. I’m about to start my therapy and will remember their comments here.

    I hope despite your busy schedule, that support groups who identify very much with your content and trainings can be brought together around the Uk.

    Reply
  12. This resonates so much…….it’s so very painful.
    I hated my parts but I know I have to come to accept them.
    I sometimes don’t want to come back after switching in therapy, because coming back meant feeling those pain.
    I just had this conversation with my therapist this week.

    Reply
  13. My counsellor printed this off and gave it me after our session yesterday. I have read and re-read this. Wow. I am speechless. This resonates so deeply with me and my journey at present. Thank you for writing this and for allowing me to feel less alone. I too am a bundles of contradictions and, at times, feel incredibly stuck. This made me laugh and made me cry. But mostly, it gave me hope. Thank you.

    Reply
  14. Oh my gosh! I have never ever before read something that so brilliantly encompasses my experiences. I am speechless and need to read this over again….. I really am not the only one. That same dialogue dominated about 4 – 5 yrs of my therapy…… until finally automatic dissociation in therapy session began to lessen and I started to lean to take control.
    Thank you thank you thank you!!!

    Reply
  15. Thank you. Learning to recognise when I have automatically switched and learning to take control is where I am at the moment. I have described feelings of contradictions and bewilderment because I don’t know which part to listen to. I have a wonderful therapist who helps me to sort things out.
    Thank you for writing this. In a world where no one understands multiple parts it’s wonderful to hear from someone who ‘gets it’.

    Reply
  16. Thankyou so much for sharing your journey. I’m able to understand my own journey more, and with that understanding I feel less alone and am starting to be more gentle with myself. Thankyou again.

    Reply
  17. I live in the USA. I have a 14 year old that has just been diagnosed with complex trauma and dissociative amnesia. There is not enough help here in the US for her. We are trying everything. 8 hospitalizations and many attempts of suicide. I continue the fight for her. Thank you for your articles, it s the only thing remotely close to help us.

    Reply
  18. Thank you Carolyn for another article that helps explain where and what I am. This is what happens in my sessions too. Ian tries to bring me back by asking what prompted the switch, the disssociation. I can rarely answer him. It is sometimes as if we get uncomfortable with the prospect of recovery. I know one of me is. He is comfortable in his discomfort. May I say thank you to Derek as well, it good to see a male survivor express their thanks.

    Reply

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