SpongeBob is asleep. A contented smile spreads across his freckled yellow face. Sitting on the duvet cover in front of him is another tiny SpongeBob, glowing a mystical, ghostly green. Tiny SpongeBob watches Big SpongeBob, his eyes wide with shock and confusion. The caption reads, “this just me when I dissociate.”
Disassociation-themed memes have bubbled up to the surface of the Internet’s consciousness in the past year. Across Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr, dissociative symptoms have been described using orangutans, oil paintings, and dancing K-pop stars. Adventure Time character Lemongrab manipulates a puppet version of himself to communicate the feeling of being outside one’s body and controlling it from afar. A spaced-out Britney Spears appears to disassociate during a TV interview. You can even follow the adventures of depersonalizeddolphin on Tumblr, in which a cute dolphin documents everyday feelings of unreality and identity confusion.
“There has been a definite rise in references to dissociation on the Internet lately,” says Preston, 14, whose surname has been withheld for privacy reasons. He makes dissociation-themed memes under the name extraterrestrial-gay, using them to capture his own dissociative symptoms. For Preston, creating memes to communicate his lived experience can be therapeutic.
“I remember I was having a particularly bad day, and I felt like I could barely process my surroundings,” Preston, who has been diagnosed with depersonalization-derealization disorder (DPDR), explains. “I remembered this Evil Patrick [of SpongeBob SquarePants] meme going around and it felt like it perfectly represented my dysfunctional brain in that situation. I altered the image, overlaying multiple pictures on top of each other, to make it look like Patrick was dissociating for extra effect, and made it into a meme.”
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Preston isn’t the only one: one common visual trope of dissociation-themed posts takes an existing meme and overlays the image on top of itself, multiple times, to illustrate this fractured psychological experience.
Imagine looking into a mirror and not recognizing the person you see there. Or not remembering anything that happened yesterday. Or feeling like SpongeBob, outside of his body watching himself sleep. This is what it’s like to experience dissociation.
“Lots of people talk about dissociation as though it’s one thing, but that’s really a misnomer,” explains Dr. Elaine Hunter, a clinical psychologist specializing in dissociative disorders at the South London and Maudsley NHS Trust.
Hunter says that disassociation is an umbrella term that covers a variety of experiences. “These experiences might all involve some sort of disconnect from what would normally be integrated functioning [where the body and the experience of that body align], but they can be very different phenomena.”
According to the American Psychiatric Association, there are three main dissociative disorders: depersonalization-derealization disorder, where an individual feels detached from their own identity or surroundings, dissociative identity disorder, where the self feels fragmented into different personality states, and dissociative amnesia, where you struggle to recall information about yourself, often as a result of a traumatic experience. Dissociation as a general symptom is also shared across many different psychiatric conditions, Hunter explains, including bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
At its most general definition, dissociation encompasses very normal, everyday, and non-pathological experiences, like being so absorbed in a good book that you have no awareness of what’s going on around you, or going for a long drive on the motorway and not remembering the act of driving. “Most of us dissociate some of the time,” says Hunter.
So when do these normal dissociative experiences become dissociative disorders? “When it has become more sustained, causes some impairment, and creates some sort of distress,” says Hunter.
Dissociation is most commonly thought of as a coping mechanism in response to trauma, pain, or stress. “It’s quite a useful way of cutting off and minimizing what’s going on around you,” she explains. The mind uses dissociation to psychologically defend itself, but can't stop: its armor becomes its own cage.
Although it’s relatively unknown, dissociation is incredibly common. In The Stranger in the Mirror, a book based on 19 years of research at the Yale University School of Medicine, psychiatrist Dr. Marlene Steinberg writes that dissociation “affects 30 million individuals in North America alone.” She describes it as “a hidden epidemic.”
But despite its ubiquity, the most common pop culture references for these kinds of disorders is dissociative identity disorder (DID), which is often commonly known as "multiple personality disorder." Pop culture tends to depict those with DID as dangerous—even homicidal—individuals, like James McAvoy swapping between the identities of a nine-year-old boy and a middle-aged man in 2016 psychological horror Split. But this is a fiction quite distant from the real, complex experiences of these individuals and their disorders.
Preston's memes are a way for him to explain the reality of living with DPDR, outside of these often negative pop culture portrayals. "Dissociation is a distinct symptom of mental illness that is still experienced across a wide variety of people, but it feels more personal since it describes something that isn’t talked about a lot," he explains.
This lack of knowledge about dissociative disorders even extends to the medical profession itself. As Daphne Simeon and Jeffrey Abugel write in their book on the subject, Feeling Unreal, “[depersonalization] has been noted as the third most prevalent psychiatric symptom, after depression and anxiety, yet the average mental health professional usually knows little about it.”
The frequent misunderstanding of dissociation, both in pop culture and clinical contexts, partially stems from the nature of the condition itself. There is something fundamentally indescribable about the experience of not-experiencing. “Disassociation is quite difficult to put into words,” Hunter explains. “Patients will classically say ‘I really don’t know how to say this.' It’s difficult for a patient to describe the experience of amnesia, for example."
But people are using the language and imagery of memes to communicate the experience of disassociation. Rebekka Hætta Mjøen, 21, of schizomemes, says that making memes about the dissociation experienced as a symptom of her schizophrenia is therapeutic. “I think it's healthy for young people who struggle to talk about it,” she says. “I just know that if I would be able to open up a lot of years sooner than I did, maybe my parents could actually get me some help.”
In particular, Mjøen embraces the humorous edge of many of her posts. “It's probably the most healthy thing to do, to have some self-irony about the darkest parts of yourself,” she says.
The act of creating and sharing disassociation-themed memes also forges a connection with others and helps build supportive communities. Ohigbai, 22, who prefers not to disclose his surname, uses Twitter to share mental health memes.
“It provided a sort of link between my illness and humanity,” he tells me. “Mental illnesses can sometimes make you feel ostracized or abnormal. Seeing other people who experience the same emotions, or deal with the same scenarios, makes it just that little bit easier to handle.”
But dissociation-themed memes have also seen a backlash. The increasing popularity of the term has meant it is sometimes flippantly used as a catch-all synonym for the experience of "spacing out," reducing a serious disorder to a funny quip to retweet on the bus to work.
Nat, 22, who posts on Twitter as Left At London, explains, “After a while, neurotypicals were using the term dissociating to mean ‘spacing out’ or ‘overwhelmed’, which doesn't even scratch the surface of what it's like.”
But what is it about disassociation that resonates for so many people in our current cultural moment? As dissociation is most often a coping mechanism against psychological trauma and turmoil, one answer could be that we are living in particularly stressful times.
While there has always been political and social upheaval, our access to it is unprecedented: we are constantly flooded with this information through technology. Perhaps dissociation-themed memes resonate with so many right now because they feel like a useful metaphor for our need to disconnect from the psychological stress of our world.
While research into this area is limited, it is also possible that our increasingly virtual lives increase our feelings of dissociation. One 2012 study of 1,034 18-27 year olds found a significant correlation between internet addiction and dissociative symptoms.
“If everyone’s living a bit more virtually now,” Hunter asks, “does that mean that all of life is becoming a bit more dissociated from reality?”