From time to time, every person experiences a lapse in memory or struggles with personal identity. However, some people experience this to a much greater extent. When this occurs, it may be called a dissociative disorder. The struggles associated with these disorders are often highly distressing and can lead an affected person to abuse drugs or alcohol.
What Are Dissociative Disorders?
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), dissociation is a disturbance of awareness, identity, memory, or consciousness. While any person can experience memory deficits, it occurs much more severely in someone with a dissociative disorder. There are four types of dissociative disorders, and each has a different set of characteristics.
The four dissociative disorders include the following:
- Dissociative amnesia: This disorder is characterized by an inability to recall important personal information.
- Dissociative fugue: This disorder is characterized by amnesia of personal identity, with possible unplanned travel and establishment of a new identity.
- Depersonalization disorder: This disorder is characterized by frequent perceptions of detachment from the body and from reality.
- Dissociative identity disorder: This disorder was formerly known as multiple personality disorder and is characterized by periodic personality switches to an alternate personality, which is often considerably different.
In most cases, dissociative disorders are linked with traumatic experiences, such as an accident, abuse, rape, or natural disaster. In the case of trauma, these disorders may occur alone as the body’s method of coping.
They may also occur alongside a separate disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or an anxiety disorder. Regardless of this, dissociative disorders are often incredibly distressing.
Dissociative Disorders and Co-Existing Addiction
Unfortunately, dissociative disorders are still largely misunderstood and are frequently misdiagnosed by healthcare professionals. When undiagnosed and untreated, those with dissociative disorders may turn to drugs or alcohol as a way of coping with their condition.
The co-occurring use of substances like drugs or alcohol then makes it even more difficult to diagnose and treat the underlying dissociative disorder. The suffering individual is then more likely to be diagnosed with a substance abuse disorder, attributing the loss of consciousness or identity to the use of drugs or alcohol. The longer people continue to go untreated for their dissociative disorder, the progressively worse it may become.
Treating Dissociative Disorders and Addiction
The treatment of dissociative disorders is largely focused on working through the underlying cause of the disorder. If the dissociation stems from a traumatic experience, individual therapy is likely to be the most effective treatment option. This is also true of dissociative disorders that stem from anxiety or depression.
When addiction occurs alongside a dissociative disorder, it may be considered a dual diagnosis. This is best overcome with a specific type of treatment called integrated treatment. This involves treatment of both the mental health disorder and the addiction concurrently by the same team of healthcare professionals. Appropriate treatment of co-existing disorders may be necessary for a suffering individual to reclaim his or her life.