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‘I’m not ignoring you, I’m dissociating’: how a mental health condition became a meme

The term’s boom on TikTok and television has led to greater visibility for the disorder, but at the same time, runs the risk of trivializing it

There and not there at the same time: dissociation has echoed throughout the literary world and has certainly gone viral more recently, but it’s also a mental health condition that needs to be treated.
There and not there at the same time: dissociation has echoed throughout the literary world and has certainly gone viral more recently, but it’s also a mental health condition that needs to be treated.

¡Chicas, estoy tan disociada! (Girls, I’m so dissociated!)” The four words sprang from the mouth of Samantha Hudson on January 14 in an episode of Spain’s Operación Triunfo (Operation Triumph) TV talent competition. She was on the brink of launching into a talk that would become one of the most viral moments of the month. But first, Hudson declared that she was dissociating. She didn’t mean it literally, though. It’s just that the moment (which you can check out for yourself in the series’ episodes on Amazon Prime) was so intense that her mind was unable to process it in real time. Her body was there, her brain was not. Recently, on the internet, it seems like everyone dissociates sometimes. “I’m not ignoring you, I’m dissociating,” says one meme. “This is dissociation,” reads a TikTok video that shows a woman staring at a point on the wall, but paying attention to precisely nothing.

What is dissociation? Literally, it means to separate two elements that were previously linked. Clinically, it refers to being in a place in a physical way, but not mentally (in an involuntary way) and feeling separated from the action taking place around you. It’s a defense mechanism and mental health condition that can sometimes be experienced after traumatic events. It’s not dissociating when you ignore another person who is talking to you, though that is a common interpretation of the term online. Psychologists warn that treating a mental issue “with too much humor” could trivialize it.

“I realized that during certain conversations, I was dissociating. Nothing was getting in,” says 26-year-old Elena González. Her psychologist diagnosed her after the pandemic’s lockdown. “I dissociate when I come into contact with a stimulus that I am not able to process.”

“It’s like a sensation that things aren’t real, that your body isn’t yours, your life either, and that you aren’t where you need to be,” says Alicia (not her real name), a woman in her thirties who is also affected by the mental health condition. She just gave birth to her first son. Motherhood and its associated stress have caused her to have more dissociative episodes. “There’s no set moment. It’s more than an emotion, kind of automatic,” she says. Maturity and her entry into the labor market has a lot to do with it. “They increase the number of times I dissociate and it’s become necessary to seek treatment,” she says.

Experiencing a separation between earthly and mental realms may sound like Buddhism or metaphysics. But the reality could not be more different. Dissociation is associated with a mental response “when faced with a stressful or oversaturated situation,” says Tauana Matias, director of Madrid clinic Implica Psicología. According to the DSM-5, the psychology manual used in the diagnosis of mental conditions, there are three kinds of dissociative disorders. Here, we are concerned with the depersonalization-derealization type. “It’s when you perceive your own actions from a distance, it’s not that you’re another person, but that you’ve left your body and come back. It’s an escape,” says Matias.

According to the severity of the condition, it could cause serious consequences, like “self-harm, suicidal ideation or attempts, drug abuse, sexual dysfunction, depression, anxiety, and problems associated with sleeping, diet, social relationships and other physical symptoms,” says Juan G. Castilla, a doctor of clinical psychology and health at the Autonomous University of Madrid. “It’s rare that a person who experiences this condition maintains consciousness, because it has an amnesiac component. They are not the ones living this reality, it’s someone else.”

Because of this, the boom in the use of the term has become a double-edged sword: it’s made the mental health condition visible, but at the same time, it’s turned it into a trendy catchphrase, similar to what happened with anxiety. This can have the effect of trivializing or romanticizing the condition, or even worse, leading people to self-diagnose. “We can all have symptoms of a disorder, feel sad, experience phobias. The key factors are intensity and duration, how it is affecting your daily life,” says Alicia Rodríguez. For Castilla, it’s a positive that there are famous people who “de-stigmatize mental health”, but she warns that, “Theirs are individual experiences that don’t always describe the totality of a condition. For example, anxiety manifests itself in different ways, depending on the person experiencing it. You shouldn’t diagnose yourself based on what people with a large following say.”

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