“I’m Not Here”: Disassociation as a Coping Strategy

 “I’m not here.” 

Have you ever heard your inner voice say those words as you dealt with goodbyes and repeated separations from your favourite places and belongings?

I was born in South Africa. At the age of nine months, my family shipped on the Union Castle line and then rode a train to Sheffield, England. At three years of age, I shipped back with my family to Johannesburg. When I was six, we flew to Toronto, Canada, and I spent the rest of my childhood expecting to move again. 

There. You know my geographic and overall cultural story. Your journey is probably similar, and you won’t make assumptions about me related to language, holidays, prejudices, and the rest because you know it is more complicated than geography and culture. 

I lost myself in all the moves. My confused sense of direction is not only geographic. I can’t find my way out of a paper bag, and I started to lose the desire to do that. Hiding was coping. Disappearing was a way to stop being hurt. Not speaking was the ticket to an inner fantasy that I could manage. CCKs and TCKs have a rich treasury of geography and experience to draw from. If we say we are not here, we can be in many other places in our minds and souls. 

My family kept to itself in Canada. There were enough of us that we made our own society. We didn’t want anyone telling us how weird we were or how to fit in. The fantasy in my mind gave me agency and power to say, “I’m not here. I’m in a place where you can’t get to me.” When my school supplies were stolen, or nasty words were written across our driveway, I felt threatened and took refuge. 

“I’m not here. This isn’t happening to me.” This form of disassociation is a safety net for children when chaos invades their lives.

I told myself that I was nestled in the arms of my grandmother, singing funny songs with my grandfather, petting puppies with my cousins, and colouring pictures with my school friends on another continent. Fantasy helped me survive the world outside that no one thought to explain or even introduce. 

“I’m not here. This isn’t happening to me.” This form of disassociation is a safety net for children when chaos invades their lives. We stop feeling. We manage and store memories for calmer times when maybe we’ll have what it takes to understand, process, and assimilate the event, so it won’t hurt. 

My younger siblings remember things I don’t, but I can tell them the context of events they don’t know. It’s like my memories are at a higher level. The motivations, history, and outcomes of the people involved—not what actually happened at the moment—informed me because I had checked out. My body went through the motions, but my mind and soul were far away. 

If we say we are not here, it is a cry for help. We want someone to come alongside us, to be interested in our perspective, and maybe to help us clear some of the confusion. We want to engage as equals in the land and culture we are in. Not fitting in because we know a different set of cultural norms does not make us stupid or less competent than those around us. We have compassion, insight, and many other gifts to add to our world when invited and welcomed—when we can say, “I am here.” 

Writing helped me to replace the narrative of escape with presence and attention in my current space. When I began writing my novel, Leoshine, I did not know of the global community of children and adults who have similar experiences to mine. 

In the story, the protagonist, Leoshine, is transplanted without explanation. The protocols to engage change overnight. The new people dismiss everything she knows and does and hold her captive apart from her family. Does this sound familiar? Can you feel the twinge in your stomach? Do you know why Leoshine begins to tell herself, “I’m not here”? 

Fiction peels away layers that other forms of engaging can’t touch. There are studies that show how the brain activates in the same way while reading about something as when physically doing it. Reading how a fictional character navigated sudden, unexplained change gives us a framework to negotiate our own survival. Writing for my intended audience taught me that my hiding fantasy was not needed for survival anymore. As an adult, I have more resources to be in the present, to plant my feet in my current geographic and cultural situations, knowing all my other experiences are relevant and make me valuable. 

I came face to face with those three words—“I’m not here”—when I narrated Leoshine. When her surrogate mother figure accuses her of being a traitor, Leoshine’s loyalties are more confused than ever. She retreats deeper into the escape mindset. I recorded those words over and over in many ways, hunting for the right intonation to convey all the pain, confusion, grief, anger, and fear CCKs and TCKs experience and long to express. It was hard to choose just one since each iteration conjured a new tug at my heart, a new jolt to my memories of why I said those words as a child. 

For now, I’m here (most of the time). I am sharing my gifts and I want to partake of the gifts of others. 

Nicola MacCameron

South Africa calls me her child. England calls me an expat. Canada calls me a settler. I teach piano, write flash fiction and novels, and narrate audiobooks.

Painting the In-Between

Painting the In-Between

Today we are featuring artwork that was published first in the December 2021



Life as a TCK has various seasons with storms that can toss and turn your life