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Ideas | Sarah Gailey

Dissociation is scary. Dissociation is safety.

Jeremy Traum for the Boston Globe

I look around the room, naming things in my mind like my therapist taught me.

Doorknob — that’s always the first one, because there’s always one nearby.




. . . ?

It takes me 30 full seconds to come up with “lip balm.” It’s hard to come up with names for things, but that’s why I’m supposed to do it — because it shouldn’t be hard. Because my brain should know “lip balm.”

But my brain, my memory — it’s not here right now, not really. I’m not really here at all. I’m partitioned, behind frosted glass, somewhere else where I can’t feel my hands or my face. I’m wrapped in tissue paper and cotton wool and placed into a foam-lined crate. I’m not here.


Dissociation is scary. Dissociation is safety.

Once I’ve named enough things that the words flow smoothly (lip balm, scissors, mousepad, inhaler, earbuds), I try to take a deep breath. I can’t do it, but I try.

The smell of vomit isn’t too strong, but I’ll still want to rinse out the trash can that sits under my desk. I don’t remember throwing up, but I’m glad my aim was true. I’m not crying, but tears simmer on the edges of my eyelids, trying to decide whether to fall. I look up, pinch the bridge of my nose, and they slip back into the nasolacrimal duct that connects eyes to nose to ears to throat, and nobody has to know they were ever there.

I learned that trick a long time ago.

I get up to make a pot of tea, so that nobody will come to my desk to bother me. I can feel myself slipping away again, so: doorknob, kettle, mug, countertop, dishwasher. It’s not as hard to stay present if I catch the dissociation early. I rub the pads of my fingers against the zipper of my jacket, trying to feel textures. “Put your hands on things,” my therapist says. “Feel sensations so you stay in your body.” I can’t feel the zipper, even though I can see it turning my fingertips red.


I have grown used to this.

I run the water hot and hold my wrists under it, trying to thaw my numb fingers. When your brain detects that you are in mortal danger, it withdraws blood from your extremities, keeping as much as possible for itself and your internal organs.

“Your hands are always so cold,” my husband said, when we were first dating. “Warm heart,” I replied.

When I get back to my desk, my to-do list is waiting. I stare at it, and the words swim like koi in a fountain. After a few minutes, a phone number resolves, and I remember I am supposed to call this person to get updated contact information for my client, the one who won’t pay me.

The work is waiting.

I make the call, and the person on the other end gives me the new phone number, and it takes me four tries to write it down correctly. I shouldn’t have tried. I hang up once I’ve gotten the number right and try to take deep breaths. My chest feels like it’s full of stones.


I startle like I’ve had a dream about falling.



Diet Coke.


I stare at the thing in my hand for a long time before the name floats to the surface. I repeat it three times, like an incantation that will make me stay here and now.

Pen. Pen. Pen.

I glance at the clock and realize I lost 30 minutes — thank God everyone else is on their lunch break. I should eat lunch. I probably won’t eat lunch.

I take a deep breath. The smell of vomit is stronger now. I take the trash can into the kitchen —





— and rinse it in the sink, run the garbage disposal with soap so the room will smell like lemon instead of bile.

My tea has overbrewed in the time I lost. I pour it out.

My therapist says that I’m doing better. She says that because I haven’t had a full-blown dissociative episode in months — an episode where, instead of being wrapped in cotton, I’m trapped in memories and can’t tell who my friends are and who is hurting me — I’m succeeding. She says that soon, I won’t have to name things anymore.

Soon feels far.

Soon feels impossible.

Soon feels unfair.

But it’s the best I can hope for.

“Soon” but not yet, is why. It’s why I had to leave the room, leave the conversation, get off Twitter.

It’s why I’ll get men in my inbox, always men, shouting about censorship and their first amendment rights. They want to use their first amendment rights for



And when I say



They won’t. And it’s not a coincidence that when I said “please, stop,” they didn’t, and they won’t. It’s not a coincidence that this is the same, the exact same exchange.

“Please, stop.”


“Please, stop.”

“You can’t make me.”

“Please, stop.”


There’s no way out of it, not really, except to learn how to remember the names for things, and to keep the tears from falling, and to find ways to warm my fingers when my nails are turning purple because my brain thinks it has to choose between my fingers and my kidneys. And when I’m in the little dark room of memory, surrounded by words that remind me who can hurt whom, the only thing to do is to grope around in the blackness, trying to find a doorknob.

Sarah Gailey is an Oakland-based writer. She tweets @gaileyfrey.