BOOK REVIEWS

The Stranger in the Mirror: Dissociation - The Hidden Epidemic
Dr. Marlene Steinberg & Maxine Schnall

Helps Create Awareness of a Common Mental Disorder!
Reviewer: Donald Wayne Mitchell,
a co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise from Boston - October 15, 2000


Chances are that you will spend time with someone who suffers from dissociation today. Do you know how to help them? Do you even know who they are? If you are like me, the answer was "no" to both questions before reading this excellent, important book.

Dissociation is defined by the authors as "a state of fragmented consciousness involving amnesia, a sense of unreality and feeling, of being disconnected from oneself or one's environment." One of the extreme forms that this disorder can take is as someone who exhibits multiple personalities. If you ever saw the movie, Three Faces of Eve, that is what is being described here in extreme form. Most people with this condition are experiencing these personality complexities inside their minds, and the external manifestation can appear to be absent-mindedness or a strange reaction to common occurrences.

The actual diagnosis of this mental condition needs to be done by a trained clinician, but there are helpful questionnaires in the book to help you determine whether such a clinician should be sought for you or someone you know. You need to have pretty broad-based and severe symptoms before you have this disorder. Based on broadscale survey research led Dr. Steinberg, it is estimated that 14 percent of the population in North America have this condition. The sufferer usually goes untreated or is treated for a symptom of the disorder, such as depression or panic attacks. The condition is often misdiagnosed, as well, as schizophrenia.

Dissociation "is a healthy adaptive defense used almost universally by people in response to overwhelming stress or life-threatening danger." So, if you've experienced some aspects of dissociation, that's good. What's bad is if these characteristics are present all of the time in extreme ways. I thought the questionnaires were unusually good at differentiating normal, healthy dissociation from the qualities of this disorder.

The book contains three lengthy case histories that show in detail how the disorder can be manifested, and how difficult it is to diagnose and treat. Many mental health professionals will benefit from reading this book, as encouragement for bringing their knowledge up-to-date. When Dr. Steinberg began her research, it was thought that dissociation was relatively uncommon, yet it is reaching epidemic proportions.

The incidence of dissociation is often related to childhood abuse. In relating this information, the authors expose some common myths about childhood abuse. One of the most important is the belief that children would remember such occasions. In fact, the amnesia of dissociation often prevents these memories from surfacing. This abuse most often occurs in alcoholic households. The abuse effects can be complicated by having occurred involving more than one generation in a family.

If you are like me and are fascinated by reports of alien abductions, out-of-body experiences, and near-death experiences, you will be interested that the authors point out that these recollections can be manifestations of dissociation. The alien abductions can turn out to be subverted memories of childhood abuse, for example. The authors are open minded, however, and do not attempt to qualify all such memories as being dissociation.

Treatment occurs though emphasizing personal comfort, more communication, cooperation, and connection. This requires having the patient employ these resources as well as encouraging those who know the patient to use them. Unlike many extreme treatments used in the past for mental conditions, these are gentle and should be appreciated by anyone.

I liked this book for its ability to connect our rapidly-expanding depressed population to a tangible set of causes and treatments. Not every depressed person has dissociation, but many do. Rather than just treat them with drugs, this therapy can provide valuable emotional support and connection to improve the quality of life in other ways.

After you have finished reading this book and sharing with people whom you think would benefit from it, think about circumstances where temporary dissociation can be helpful. It would be wrong to deny yourself the benefits of dissociation when you need it. Mental disciplines like meditation are helping you create dissociation in one sense. Decision-making processes are also helping you depersonalize so your rational mind gets a chance to clear away harmful levels of emotion. When you are first injured in a car accident, you will probably not feel much pain. Pain-killing body chemicals are part of that, but dissociation is too.

Take control over your mind and your life!

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Reprinted with Donald Mitchell's permission.



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