Personal stories about dissociative disorder: "System Management"

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System Management is an experimental personal essay about being diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. The essay grapples with the complexities of trauma, the human condition, and the subjective nature of reality.

Personal stories about dissociative disorder: a woman stands in front of the mirror her hand touching the glass.

System Management

System Management is an experimental personal essay about being diagnosed with a dissociative disorder. The essay grapples with the complexities of trauma, the human condition, and the subjective nature of reality. 

We watch her from behind the safety of glass. Her skin is marred with fresh scratches down her chest and arms, pink lines opening flesh to empty air. She feels no breeze. Her only source of light is a fluorescent bulb. There is silence beside and behind me – no one moves. We barely breathe. All we can do is watch. We cannot let her out no matter how much our heart contorts and contracts when her mouth opens in a scream only she can hear.            

A white dressing gown hangs past her knees. It used to drag the floor, but she has ripped the hems. An image floats to the surface of my mind, and I know eventually, she will unravel the entire garment in an attempt to draw our attention to her pain. A vessel can only contain the unspeakable for so long. I wonder if her wounds are from untrimmed fingernails or from terror and grief and heartache breaking free from its chains.

She falls to the ground. Damp curls stick to her cheeks and forehead. A sad sight, to be sure. I rest my forehead on the glass, and she turns her haunted eyes to mine. Guilt worms its way inside, and I step back, dropping my gaze. 

"All she does is fucking cry," a disgusted voice says from behind me. The interruption feels wrong – like a hollow laugh on hallowed ground. I look over my shoulder. His eyes are hard. They dart to the glass and then back to mine before he shakes his head and crosses his arms, giving up trying to talk sense in a place like this. 

 "Of course she does," I say quietly. Some of us nod, others purse their lips, while others turn away.

Not everyone is here. One of the younger among us is collecting herbs and scribbling in her notebook in the garden. 

She is wonderfully observant. 

Always watching. 

Always writing. 

Always prepared to bust through the door with a remedy or tincture to ease the pain. Resourceful little thing. 

She gathers dandelions and skeletons in her oversized shirt the way she used to collect fallen crab apples. 

An outsider slips in quietly, giving my hand a squeeze. Her presence steadies me. She won't let me stay here too long.

What do you think she needs?" Outsider asks.

I turn back to the woman in the room. She is sitting with her knees drawn to her chest, letting her head rest. Her bare toes wiggle, trying to find warmth. We read something once about how walking barefoot in the grass helps a person connect to the earth. I wonder how long it's been since she walked through a meadow. If I think hard enough, I will remember yellow fields, the color of sunshine. I look down at my own feet. The red polish is chipped and fading. 

"You'll need to repaint them soon," a voice whispers. I glance up and smile weakly, nodding. What would we do without this one? She keeps us in a state the world finds acceptable. Polished. Groomed. Tame.

"What do you think she needs?" Outsider interrupts, cutting my ruminations short. 

I gaze inside the room. "A bed." I don't know how I know it, but I am certain she needs one. "She is tired."

"She ain't gonna sleep." the rough voice from behind me says.

I turn to look at him. "Let's try." 

He looks skeptical but shrugs and leans against the wall.

When I look back, a small cot with a pillow and blanket is tucked in the corner of the room. Behind the glass, the woman lifts her head and slowly stands. She stares at the cot and then at me again. Her face is lined and drawn – too young to look this old. The corners of her mouth twitch, and for the briefest moment, I hoped she might smile. She doesn't. Trudging to the bed, she sits on the side and puts her head in her hands.  

The sadness of it all is overwhelming.

I feel the tears on my face and hear scuttling behind me. We have tried to sit with her before, wanted to hold her in the grief, but she pulled us under. We don't want to drown. Sometimes though, I wonder how it feels to give in. To see the darkness coming and step inside. I imagine us standing together facing the water. Maybe the sun is beginning to bloom over an angry tide, or maybe the moon reflects its secrets onto the still, black water. Will it be warm and enchanting if we put our toes in, or will the icy unknown steal our breath?

"The system is going to flood." One whispers.

"Is the door locked?" Another asks.

"Jesus fucking Christ," the harshest rumbles.

"Let's get her away from the glass. She's gonna try and go in."           

"If we can just figure out what's happening to her - "

"We know what's happening. Knowing doesn't change a damn thing."

"We know what's happening. Knowing doesn't change a damn thing."

I sigh and try to tune them out. They worry when I come here. Observing the woman behind the glass is a painful exercise in futility. I try not to bring them here, but some days the sirens coming from inside is too loud to ignore. And then I see her and can't leave. I want her to feel seen, to know she isn't forgotten. To know I value her, even like this – because of this. 

I am still gripping Outsider's hand. This is her first time here, but I see no revulsion. No pity or judgment. She is sad, but that's the nature of this place. It's not for the happy. It is a jar. A box. A glass coffin to be put on a shelf and examined at some unknown, future date. It reminds us of being a little girl and leaving the coolness and comfort of air artificially pumped through vents to step into the wild. Humidity would suck the breath out of our lungs, leaving us lightheaded and dizzy. 

I slip my hand from Outsider's and put it on the glass. The woman inside lifts her head. Our eyes meet before she reaches for the blanket and pulls it around her shoulders, turning away from us. 

"I'll come back soon," I tell her. My voice comes out strangled. The gruff voice behind me clears his throat in a reflexive habit. I can picture him lifting his chin, trying to stretch out the lump that makes it hard to swallow. Others shift their feet and sneak quick, furtive glances. I do not turn to them. 

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"Is there anywhere you'd like to go?" Outsider asks. "Think about somewhere you feel safe." She gestures toward the room. "I know this is hard. We aren't going away forever, just for now."

I close my eyes and conjure up the little cottage we stayed in so many years ago. Where the sea outside our window glistened in the sun. Where the air smelled like salt and baby powder. Where a blonde-haired boy toddled and cooed, and a couple laughed together. Where the woman wasn't behind glass. Before silence swallowed us whole. 

No. We don't go there anymore. Instead, I take us to a new cottage. One covered with vines and surrounded by trees. A place where it rains gently, and the air smells like fresh dirt under my nails. A place where birds chirp and a breeze blows through the windows, breathing life into our soul. Yes, here we can stay for a while. Far away from the pain rotting behind glass walls and shattered smiles. 

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Article by
April Pride Sharp

April Sharp is an English instructor and Contributing Editor for The Masters Review. She graduated from the Northeast Ohio Master of Fine Arts program with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction.


"We know what's happening. Knowing doesn't change a damn thing." | Photo ©Яна Айбазова/Adobe Stock