Posted by: Kate | May 5, 2008

Not Over

I dissociated last week.

Not for the whole week, or even a large chunk of it.  Just an hour or two on Sunday night.  Nothing terrible happened during that time.  I’ve been able to account for it all.  I know I didn’t leave the house or do anything life-threatening or embarrassing.

I know why it happened, too: I took an Ambien – a prescription sleep medication, a benzodiazepine, in the same family as Ativan.  Ssshhh, don’t tell, it’s not my prescription.  Willem has them for the occasional crisis week in school, and he never uses enough to finish the refills before they expire, so I didn’t feel too bad about pilfering one.  This was a day or two into Jacob’s pneumonia, and I was desperate for a full night’s sleep to be able to keep my game face from falling off onto the floor.

The problem is, I don’t respond exactly right to this medication.  We knew this; it happened once before.  Perhaps six months ago, I took one, and sat on the couch folding clothes for another hour, waiting to get tired.  In theory, they kick in after about 20 minutes.  In my case, I get loopy and my IQ takes a sharp plunge, but I remain upright and can carry on minimal (read: stupid) conversation.  I seem like I’m in control of my actions, but later I have no memory at all of that time.  I suspect that I have little micro-sleep periods in the space of blinks, not long enough to register in my consciousness but nonetheless disruptive to my ability to form long-term memory.

So last week, I should have known better, but didn’t.  I took a pill and waited to get tired, and my next clear memory is dredging myself out of bed in the morning.  I had a few moments during the day where I thought, “That’s odd, I wonder how that got there,” or similar, but generally wandered through the day contentedly enough.

Until that evening, when we had visitors.  Willem had been at school all day and into the late evening.  He came home and made the sort of sideways comment that long-term couples can make in mixed company, to communicate the execution of certain procreative efforts the night before.  I treated him to my very blankest, cluelessness-filled looks for several seconds, while he nodded knowingly, and then simultaneously started laughing – a bit hysterically – and crying.  I pulled it together, avoided the topic, and maintained until our guests went home, and then sat him down to figure out details.

Turns out, my awake-but-drugged status wasn’t clear to him, and he was following the larger we’re-trying-for-a-baby agenda, and one thing led to another.  I can’t fault him for this, but I was inwardly horrified.  It had been years – at least nine, perhaps more – since I’d lost time like that, and I’d fallen into a comfortable complacency.  I felt like it was over, a thing of the past, a sad but closed chapter in my life.

I spent not quite ten years immersed in a quagmire of PTSD, following a violent rape at 12.  I didn’t tell anyone for a long time – I was told yesterday that I’m stoic, and while I’d never considered it before, it’s true, I can maintain and function on the surface while all sorts of nastiness is simmering just below.  Then when I did tell, I got ineffective treatment or I resisted it; it all ends up at the same, impulsive, anxious, hypervigilant, self-destructive, unhealthy place.  I ended up in bad situations, and my brain started to pull back, to set my consciousness in some back corner while I continued to, very convincingly, go through the motions.

After a while, I started dissociating even in good situations.  Not all the time, but there were certain triggers that some part of me interpreted as imminent threats, even in the absence of actual evidence.  Things like a walk in the woods, or certain smells.

Or sex.

I know I was sexually active during college; not promiscuous, I don’t think, since you can count my partners on one hand.  But active.  I can remember some interactions with each person, but I also know there are huge, dark spans of time that are just gone.  Blank spots, as though I was just asleep.  I suppose, in a way, I was.

It took a long time, and a lot of work, to pull out of that.  A lot of therapy, the right medications, and constant focus and self-awareness, with room for setbacks and slip-ups.  I can’t quantify the process, but I know that it happened, because by the time Emily was born, I was able to articulate when I did, and did not, want to engage in any sort of physical contact, instead of engaging anyway and just retreating elsewhere in my brain while my body did the work.  It hasn’t been a smooth, perfect alignment since then, because my only partner and I are still separate people with different baseline levels of interest and motivation, but it’s been better.  Good, in fact.  Healthy.

So it was an unwelcome shock to realize that there are certain defense mechanisms still lurking somewhere in the depths of my psyche.  That the right – or wrong – combination of medication and stress can trigger the automatic behavior that I thought was a past-tense phenomenon.

The good news is, it was a one-time event.  It hasn’t happened again, and I was able to recognize, address, and explain it before it grew into something larger than it was.  I believe it was largely the fault of the medication, and I can easily enough avoid that.  I’d rather have insufficient sleep than a pile of self-doubt and sad memories.



  1. I don’t even know what to say – can’t imagine the pain and emotions you’ve had to deal with all these years…. seemingly successful, but obviously, deep down, it is still all there.

    At least you understand and know the triggers and can stay away from them.

  2. {{{HUGS}}}

  3. Kate I don’t think you’ll ever get rid of those under the surface woes but stay off the sleeping pills. Try a little Panquil instead . . .gentle sedative that won’t bomb you out. Or just do what I do and blog at 3am! Hope the kidlet is feeling better!

  4. I have never heard that term before but it sounds unnerving to say the least. However, given the trauma you experienced at such a young age, it sounds totally understandable. I don’t have anything helpful to say except to send you virtual hugs.

  5. […] It’s hard for me to come up with a coherent narrative, because I spent the day being decisively incoherent.  I had been given a prescription for Halcion, meant to be taken an hour before arriving at the dentist’s office. I’ve taken Ativan before, and Ambien, both of which are in the same class of medications.  Benzodiazepines are all sedatives, with the same course of action.  The difference is in speed of onset and intensity of drool.  On one Ativan, I can drive, attend staff meetings, and generally appear to be a fully functioning adult.  On two, I’m sleepy and moving slow, but could drive if I had to.  One Ambien knocks me out within half an hour, though apparently there’s a period of time between ingestion and unconsciousness in which I seem normal but am not. […]

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