It's Hard To 'Live In The Moment' When You Dissociate

Most of the time I can't be present no matter how hard I try: not at the beach, not at a concert I've been eagerly anticipating, not with friends or family. It's frustrating at best. Image: Unsplash, Francisco Moreno

It's not that I don't  want to enjoy each moment. It's more like I  can't.

Content notice: mention of sexual assault.

I'm sitting at Santa Monica beach after working on a rare Sunday. I love the beach. The sound of the waves rushing in, the cool sand on my bare feet, and the breeze that — by Los Angeles standards — feels fresh.

And yet this whole reverie lasts about a minute before my attention is pulled to Twitter to make sure my apartment isn't burning down, to take a photo, back to the beach, and then to a perfect stranger admonishing me to “enjoy the moment” while I'm here.

Those words — enjoy the moment — are somehow emblazoned in my brain as the gold standard of living.

These trendy platitudes about “being in the moment” or “living in the present” have burrowed their way into my expectations because they are ubiquitous.

Supposedly, the happiest people are living in the moment, seizing the day, and generally living like it's their last day on earth. It all sounds inspired, wonderful, and profound. And simple.

Who wouldn't be on board?

Me, that's who. And somehow I suspect I'm not alone.

It's not that I don't want to enjoy each moment. It's more like I can't. Living in the present — giving myself, carefree, to the adventure of life, to take things as they come — isn't something I am capable of yet.

As a result, these well-meaning phrases actually do more harm than good.

I am in the process of working through trauma related to sexual abuse. To cope, I dissociated and disconnected from reality. The hardest memories are like watching a movie: experiencing a sense of remove from the world with muted feelings, like things aren't quite real or I wasn't really there.

This is a common response to trauma. My awareness often skates above and around reality — because that's how I’ve stayed safe and how I’ve been able to survive.

And this tendency persists, even though the abuse is now years in the past. As a result, most of the time I can't be present no matter how hard I try: not at the beach, not at a concert I've been eagerly anticipating, not with friends or family.

It's frustrating at best.


 

I learned from past experiences that sometimes living in the moment would be unsurvivable, and I am not able to force myself out of the safety dissociation provides. To my physiological self, that feels like deliberately putting myself in harm's way.


 

Dissociation is an excellent survival mechanism when in the middle of trauma, but not so much later. It also doesn't come with a switch I can turn on and off. It comes with a lengthy and painful process in therapy to reintegrate my trauma memories and remember what it's like to feel safe in my own skin without dissociating.

Until I get to that point, I simply don't have the power to pull myself fully into the moment, no matter how manycarpe diemsI conjure.

It's taken years of therapy to understand why I can't simply stay present, why it feels unbearable and dangerous.

I learned from past experiences that sometimes living in the moment would be unsurvivable, and I am not able to force myself out of the safety dissociation provides. To my physiological self, that feels like deliberately putting myself in harm's way.

Though I realize none of this is my fault, the truth is that I don't feel any less guilty because I can't live in the present.

No matter how hard I try, for now, my attention will always be pulled inward or all over the place. I am sometimes mentally checked-out and spacey, even during a wedding or a dinner with family. The details of a long chat with a friend get lost, and I struggle to respond in a meaningful way in real time.

I don't do these things on purpose; it's frustrating to remain disconnected from even the people I love the most. I do the best I can with where I am at any given moment, even though it doesn't feel like enough.

And that's why these throwaway mantras bother me.

I work every day to heal from my past and start living a meaningful life where I can be safe and present at the same time. In the meantime, I don't have any time to dwell on hollow “live in the moment” platitudes, no matter how many times they come up in pop culture, mindfulness self-help books, or the suggestions of well-meaning people. These phrases don't help in getting past trauma.

It's just not that simple, and I am tired of feeling ashamed when my mind wanders.

What phrases do help? The words I find most empowering come from friends, family, and therapists who don't rely on canned phrases. These people validate who I am at any given time and provide love and support to help me get to the next step of my recovery.

They understand those times when my mind wanders, and they gently help bring me back to reality.

The way I “live in the moment” is to take life and healing one step at a time.

It may not be the same as fully being present each minute, but it keeps me going forward — keeps me on the path of working toward a happier, healthier life.

And that's what really matters.

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