Stranger in a Strange Land: My Depersonalization Story

What Depersonalization feels like

“I find myself regarding existence as though from beyond the tomb, from another world; all is strange to me; I am, as it were, outside my own body and individuality; I am depersonalized, detached, cut adrift. Is this madness?… No.”  

  – Henri-Frédéric Amiel

Depersonalization (DP) is painful to live with. It scares you, exhausts you, torments you, and then teases by giving you a little break, only to take tackle you again when you least expect it.

I developed DP over four years ago over a period of two months that just completely took me by surprise. The carpet was suddenly pulled out from under me and I found myself standing on molten lava.

I felt completely disconnected from the reality which I used to take for granted. The sheer terror of looking in the mirror and feeling completely alien to myself can never be serialized into words.

What made it more painful was that I wasn’t able to share how I was feeling with my close friends and family because I felt like they would not understand. The feeling is very hard to describe and also very hard for people to comprehend. It’s like telling someone what taking a tab of LSD is like; they are not going to get it unless they’ve dropped acid before.

Often depersonalization comes bundled with derealization (DR), as if it were some kind of super-saver pack of dread. A buy one, get one offer that you never wanted in the first place. I will refer to the condition as DP/DR since they almost always cohabitate with one another.

DP/DR robs you of your confidence to feel like yourself.

If you are walking around, watching your life like a movie inside your head, experiencing everything in the third person, then how can you respond normally to people? There were so many times I felt like an alien that had just landed on this dreadful planet called Earth. Now, in my mind I knew that this was not true, but I felt everything was different than how it used to be. I longed for the day I would be normal again.

I yearned to wake up one day to find this feeling gone and feel reintegrated into reality. The fearful thoughts would subside once in a while, like when the tide goes out, only to be replaced with a mild sadness and anguish about my predicament. The uncertainty of how long I would have to endure this was taking a toll on me. I had no answer.

Nevertheless, I was fully functional on the outside. I still showed up to work, hung out with friends, practiced with my band every week, and went on dates, even though I felt like there was a thin veil between myself and the rest of the world. At times, when the DP/DR was in full swing, trying to hide my discomfort was so taxing to me.

I wasn’t ashamed of feeling this way, I just thought people would not be able to understand me. It felt like being high on marijuana to an uncomfortable level, and just being there in that place for years.

My experiences included the following:

  • A general feeling of disconnect from reality.
  • Fear that I might go crazy.
  • Fear I will dissolve into non-existence.
  • Often looking at my hands and not feeling like they were my own.
  • Feeling detached from friends and family. People looked very new and alien to me.
  • Watching my reflection in the mirror and unable to feel that it was me.
  • When I spoke, I’d feel as though the words were not mine. They felt alien, even though on the outside I was very coherent.
  • My memories seemed so vague. I remembered old memories and could form new ones, but the memories had a dream-like quality to them.
  • Extreme sensitivity to caffeine, alcohol and other stimulants.
  • Being excessively concerned with existential questions like, “Why am I here? How do I exist? Is existence real or is it a dream? Am I dead and in some kind of purgatorial world?”
  • Having a racing mind that was filled with thoughts which were very nonsensical in nature. I had trouble concentrating.
  • Experiencing panic when the intensity of DP/DR increased. The panic and DP/DR would feed off each other.
  • Feeling a general sense of doom and dread about losing my sanity.
  • Experiencing somatic symptoms like a blunt pressure on my forehead, general dizziness, weightlessness in my hands and legs, tightness in my chest.
  • Feeling disoriented, as if I were walking upside down or sideways.

There were other strange experiences that I felt but these were the most pronounced.

The Path Towards Recovery

Fortunately, I came to understand early on that my DP/DR was just an offshoot of anxiety. It is something that develops when the stresses in one’s life become greater than the resources that are available to cope with them.

Reading other people’s recovery stories on the internet filled me with hope. I was still unaware of the cause of my anxiety but I was willing to accept it for what it was.

Acceptance is the key towards recovery.

This was an insight that I gained and for some reason it resonated deeply with me. I was really resistant to the idea of taking medication for my condition. The strongest reason being that there was no medication that had been invented yet specifically for DP/DR. Other reasons that prevented me from reaching for medication included the possible side effects of the drugs, and not wanting to be dependent on an external resource to manage my illness. However, I am not completely opposed to people taking medication to manage their anxiety.

As I learned to accept my anxiety, I still felt depersonalized, but it wasn’t scary anymore.

I understood that your perception changes when there is too much adrenaline in your body. When the mind is stressed out, it disassociates to protect itself. Evolutionarily speaking, it is better to go through life feeling detached than to be completely broken down by multiple stressors. Because of my understanding, I knew that there was no need to be afraid of how I was feeling. My DP/DR went from being really scary to just very unpleasant.

I journaled about my fears, thoughts, physical sensations, and feelings. Instead of letting these fears hang around in my mind, I gave them a voice and channeled them into my journal entries. When things were lurking inside my head they seemed really dreadful, but when I put them into words they seemed to lose their intensity. It helped me to defuse their power.

The other major benefit of journaling was that whenever I had a setback, I’d go back and read about the days when I felt better. This instantly calmed me down. When you are in the throes of anxiety or in the full swing of DP/DR, you tend to forget that you have been there before and have come out of it. You need a reminder that what you are experiencing is only temporary unpleasantness.

I was well aware that there would be setbacks: it’s how this recovery process works. Weeks would go by without any particular incidents, and then suddenly one morning I’d wake up feeling anxious for the next few days. One has to accept this cycle of progress.

However, with every setback and eventual advancement, I grew confident in the knowledge that what I was experiencing was not going to kill me or drive me insane. I had been through it many times before and had gotten out unharmed every time.

Another realization that helped me move towards recovery was when I realized that it was a waste of precious resources to worry excessively about one’s condition, even in those dark moments.

It is exactly because of this unnecessary worrying that the stress hormones are elevated, which results in more depersonalization.

This cycle has to be broken.

The best place to start is to realize that worrying works against you. Start there and nip it in the bud. Realize that you are not in harm’s way: you are simply experiencing a weird protective mechanism of your mind. Once I found solace in this fact, I could relax and let my guard down. There was no need for me to be always vigilant against anxiety. When I accepted my fear, the fear lost its meaning. I still felt the fear and would be out of touch with reality for a while, but it did not bother me as much as it did before.

The recovery process takes time. The mileage may vary for every individual.

Acceptance is a practice that requires long-term commitment. I eventually started taking the backseat to let my body and mind heal themselves. When you have a broken bone, all you can do is set it in place, put a cast around it, and give it time. The body will gradually grow the bone back to its original setting.

Similarly, I accepted the depersonalization, the fear, and the unpleasantness, and got on with my life. I did what I really cared about and left the rest up to the automatic healing mechanisms of the mind and the body. I gave myself permission to feel whatever I was feeling at that moment. My body and mind were doing the best they could and I understood that if I got out the of way, healing would occur automatically.

Along with acceptance, I felt action was also necessary. Action not in combating the DP/DR, but in other areas of my life that demanded some attention. I discovered that exercising not only made me stronger but also helped in warding off the anxiety. By incorporating weight lifting and rock climbing into my fitness routines, it was incredibly refreshing for me to stay in the present moment as opposed to being lost in unwanted rumination about what was going on inside of me.

I had found that caffeine greatly increased my anxiety. As I had not been much of a coffee drinker, I easily switched to decaf. Also, cutting down on drinking not only staved off the anxiety, it also made me healthier. Even though I have a medical marijuana card, I had to cut down and, on occasions, completely stop using marijuana for recreational use.

And finally, I got a lot of help and support when I started seeing a therapist. The first therapist I found did not have a sufficient understanding of dissociative conditions like DP/DR, but eventually I ended up finding someone who had firsthand experience of the phenomenon. That was a big relief to me, to be able to talk to someone who understood what I was going through and to see that this person had come through to the other side.

These days, I do feel depersonalized on a few occasions, and sometimes it can be for days at a stretch, but it does not startle me like it used to. I am able to live with this feeling and not be overwhelmingly consumed in trying to rid myself of it. It has even enabled me to experience reality at a unique level, one that I’d not be privy to if I did not have this condition.

Note to Sufferers

I understand how you are feeling right now. I’ve been there before. I want to tell you that you are going to be fine.

Trust me, even though right now you might be on the edge of your being, feeling nervous and in a state of confusion, know that this will all pass over time.

You are not going to lose your mind, you are not going insane, you are not going to die, you are not going to harm yourself or others. That is just your mind talking. This is what I wanted to hear when I was in the middle of the DP/DR storm, and I hope it brings comfort to you when you read it.

When you are in a state of extreme stress and panic, your cognition (the process of thinking) changes. Once the stress levels are back to normal, your thoughts will be too. You will have your personality back.

In fact, you will emerge from this stronger than you were before.

Accept these feelings without trying to resist them. You don’t have to do anything special to accept something: you just have to do nothing. That probably goes against the grain of what you are thinking right now. You may feel the need to battle this DP/DR demon, or put up a fight to get rid of your anxiety, but those efforts are always in vain. You need to understand that you are having a normal reaction to the high level of stress that you are experiencing in your life. DP/DR is serving as a protective layer against the incredible stress you are feeling, some of which can arise out of the depersonalization itself. It is not a perfect mechanism, but it is how our brains are wired.

Stop consuming caffeine and see how you feel. Same with other stimulants such as nicotine and herbs like ginseng. Cut down on your alcohol consumption. If you use recreational drugs, experiment with not taking them for a few weeks and notice if you feel any different. Do not use any psychedelics without the support of a well trusted companion. If possible, avoid them until you start feeling better.

Use the internet to find a professional who specializes in dissociative disorders; talk to them and ask them if they understand what you are going through.

I also offer coaching and support over Skype/phone or in-person for sufferers to get through these difficulties in their life.

Though there is helpful information on several forums on the internet, you have to steer clear of the resounding hopeless sentiment that can sometimes exist in these places.

As Buddhist philosopher Alan Watts once said, “When you get the message, hang up the phone.” You have to disconnect from the practice of constantly searching and reading up on DP/DR. That can exhaust your already tired mind. You need to engage with life, rather than just your computer. A walk in the park fosters more healing than sedentary time in front of a screen.

Even now, on some days my DP/DR can be very strong, lifting me from the calm present moment to a state of surreal confusion. Nevertheless, I know that these feelings don’t last very long. They always dissipate like the sweat on your skin. You can either allow these feelings and let them come and go as they wish, eventually leading to their extinction, or you can hold on to them, worry about them, and prolong their stay.

Connect with the world and the people around you even though it is overwhelming at times. Start small and progress gradually at a pace that you find comfortable.

Let me reiterate that there’s nothing wrong with you and that you are not going crazy, however bleak the situation looks. Don’t waste valuable energy trying to hide it from others. I understand that people may not be able to comprehend what you are going through, but that doesn’t mean they can’t empathize with your suffering.

You’ll find that once you open up to your loved ones, the people you are close to, it becomes easier for you to be in the same room with your feelings and other people.

Just as you wouldn’t try to hide a fractured bone from your friends and partners, don’t stress yourself out by concealing the way you feel. And no, these feelings do not make you a weaker person.

I hope that by sharing my story I have instilled some hope in you. In my early struggle with DP/DR I wanted assurance that I was going to be all right. That is what I want you, the reader, to take away from this article. You are going to be fine. You will get through this.

 Credits:

  1. Opening image – https://www.flickr.com/photos/omardearmas/2857174054
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21 thoughts on “Stranger in a Strange Land: My Depersonalization Story

  • January 21, 2016 at 2:01 am
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    Hello,
    Your story is very inspirational. However, sometimes I feel that my case is different from others out there. I’m not even sure if what I have is DP/DR. All of its symptoms definitely match with the ones I am feeling but I haven’t been formally diagnosed with DP/DR. A question that always bugs me is whether people with this condition have brain damage. I believe my DP/DR was caused by drug use and I am terrified by the idea that I might have caused irreparable damage to my brain. Are there any tests that could confirm nothing is wrong with my brain and that things will be back to normal? I have been in this state for two years and due to it, I had to take a break from school. I am so terrified by the idea of being stuck like this forever. Any thoughts or comments?

    Reply
    • January 26, 2016 at 4:00 am
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      Hello Nathalie,
      I don’t think you have any brain damage. So many people feel the same way. However, I am not a doctor and cannot formally diagnose you. You could ask your doctor to do an MRI Brain Scan and see if he/she can spot anything unusual. But if you ask me, chances are very very slim that this is nothing other than DP/DR brought about by having intense anxiety (which could have resulted from experiementing with mind altering substances).

      Your symptoms and mine won’t exactly match 100% simply because we are different people. Your body and mine work differently. But we are human, so we both would experience some of the same symptoms.

      Reply
  • Pingback: Çrregullimi I depersonalizimit-derealizimit | Mbi shëndetin mendor, terapitë, shkaqet dhe parandalimin e çrregullimeve mendore.

  • May 8, 2016 at 9:50 pm
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    Hello, your story gives me so much hope; thank you for sharing. Ive been dealing with anxiety on and off for about 2 and a half months, even though it does not seem very long, it has been a nightmare. The anxiety symptoms are gone because I started to no longer fear them, however, derialization has been tormenting me. I often question why I’m here, whether I’m dreaming or not because I feel so out of this world. Its been a nightmare. I am well aware its party of intense anxiety and I’m really trying to cope, but its been hard. I pray for the day I feel normal again. I just wanted to thank you for sharing your story and Im so happy you were able to recover. 🙂 Thank you again.

    Reply
    • May 17, 2016 at 8:47 am
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      Thank you Karla for saying that. De-realization can definitely be very disturbing and disorienting. But each day you inch closer to those feelings that are distrubing, unpleasant or down right scary, you take the power away from them. Good luck with your recovery.

      Reply
  • September 10, 2016 at 4:53 am
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    This is very good article on DP/DR. I experienced the same for 2 years and found my way out of it almous completely. What I think that people don’t realize is that it takes time and effort to get yourself out of it. It won’t just go away. You do have to break all the bad habits like drinking, drugs, even smoking, eating shity processed food. You do have to start moving your body and to be in nature more and to rethink your life and see if you made the right choices, and to rethink your circle of people again. You have to do stuff, it won’t just go away. And most importantly, you have to understand what’s going on actually, and you explained it good.I think it’s a wake up call to change your life and start LIVING, for yourself, in peace with yourself, not trying to please others. Because I got the impression that people who are stuck in DP/DR are very emotional, creative, inteligent, and they tend to live life by other people’s rules just to be accepted. And that is wrong if you ask me, and that is what this condition is trying to tell you.

    Reply
    • March 7, 2017 at 8:15 pm
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      Hi Marija. I from Czech Republic, so excuse my czech english..Could I ask you- Did you have feeling that you losing yourself progressively at the beginning of DP/DR or it was a just quick switch into DP/DR? And as a observer of your acting-did you feel odd emptiness? I am still in my body, but every day reduces myself, that I cant enjoy almost anything. Myself is hidden somewhere and this feeling is so strange. Iam somewhere between observer and rest of myself..I ve just received video from YT-Emptiness is also form. I hope I will be able to live and work with that. .

      Reply
      • June 15, 2017 at 11:45 am
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        The feelings of DP or DR are caused from a tired mind all caused from anxiety and upon the dwelling of not only your symptoms but by constantly trying to figure out how to get away from it. If you see it as only a symptom of a very tired mind from anxious thinking and get GOOD SLEEP this will heal itself. I had what you are suffering from but once I saw what the cause was not only did I lose my gear of it, I simply don’t get the feelings any longer. I know the feeling are uncomfortable but that’s as bad as it gets. SIMPLY PUT, TO MUCH ANXIOUS BROODING IS CAUSING A TIRED MIND AND YOUR SYMPTOMS ARE THE RESULT, AND AGAIN REST YOUR MIND WITH GOOD SLEEP AND DO SIMPLE THINGS LIKE WALKING, READING TALKING TO FRIENDS, IN OTHER WORDS DISTRACT YOURSELF FROM YOURSELF, IT WORKED FOR ME MANY YEARS AGO AND I HAVE NEVER SUFFERED FROM THE FEELINGS SINCE.

        Reply
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  • January 3, 2017 at 2:45 pm
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    Thank you for this post. I have been struggling with derealization for the past three months. I am an attorney who, ostensibly, “has it all”– incredible family, wonderful and supportive partner, new apartment, solid job, however, I have checked off almost every symptom that you mentioned above (with the addition of brain fog, micro-muscle twitches and sporadic insomnia). Back in August of this year I had some type of a virus that lingered for 6-8 weeks, with lots of muscle weakness and vertigo and I was in a heightened state of panic worrying about what was wrong with me, when I would feel like myself again and if I would be stuck like this forever. Unfortunately, long after the physical symptoms went away (and after hundreds of dollars spent seeing every doctor known to man), I think my brain just got sort of “stuck” in a hyper-focused gear and once my body no longer was exhibiting weird symptoms, my brain (as most brains prone to anxiety do) looked for something else to focus on, and continued the mantra of “this doesn’t feel right; I don’t feel right; I don’t feel like myself” and eventually morphed into derealization. I initially thought that I was totally zoomed out– that I was looking at the biiiiig picture, that these thoughts were very “meta”. However, I believe it is quite the opposite, and that derealization has you focused on the minutia. Derealization has you thinking: “OK, it’s January, but does that word/concept feel familiar?” or “OK, I know what a car is, but why don’t I feel the same way about the concept of a car?”. First and foremost, these thought checks are the worst measure of your normalcy, why? Because you never did them when you felt “normal” so trying to compare how you feel about January now versus when you felt “normal” will only lead you feeling worse. Before derealization, I never did these little check-ins, so why should I gauge my progress on that scale now?
    I try to tell myself that anxiety brought me into this mess and quashing that anxiety will bring me out, and my rational mind knows that is true, and my rational mind knows that the world around me and the people around me are the same, it is only my perception that has changed, but as the days slip on it gets a bit harder and harder to believe that I will come out of this. Even as I talk about it sometimes it doesn’t feel real; like a double negative- my feelings of derealization don’t feel real.
    However, when I get down on myself, I try to think of fog- you can be driving down the same block that you’ve lived on your entire life, that you know like the back of your hand, but when there is dense fog, nothing looks familiar. While the street is still there, and it is the same as it always has been, your perception vis-a-vis the fog, is different. However, as sure as that fog rolled in and made everything look unfamiliar, it will roll out. It might take a while, it might be almost imperceptible, but one day, the fog will finally clear and that road that was always familiar, that “changed” to look unfamiliar, will once again look familiar. I trust that this will be my case. That one day, the last remnants will dissipate and the world will be, in my eyes, as it once was.
    Thank you for this sounding board. One final thought that keeps me going as well: remember, most people who experienced derealization and got better do not post on message boards, they are back out living their lives. So do not lose heart when googling “derealization gets better” only yields negative results. I am confident that it will get better, and that I will walk out of this storm a stronger version of my ol’ self. Blessings and peace to you all.

    Reply
    • June 23, 2017 at 9:05 am
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      Interesting comment, you hit the nail on the head with a particular comment you said. Get in touch with me.

      Reply
  • January 14, 2017 at 1:49 am
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    Hello ur symtoms really mathes me pleses can
    u tell me how u controll ur disorination and derealization i am suffering from this for 4 years

    Reply
  • February 14, 2017 at 11:55 am
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    Thanks for using the knowledge you gained to help others!

    In hindsight, if you had the choice to revert back to the point in time just before your DP/DR experiences and from there on continue to live “normally”, would you do it? Think red pill / blue pill from the movie The Matrix, if you’re familiar with that reference.

    By the way, your super saver combo of dread analogy had me laughing.

    Peace.

    Reply
    • February 16, 2017 at 6:49 pm
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      I don’t think there was one single incident that triggered my DP. There was a combination of factors. But they all had one thing in common: stress. The way I see it now is that I just couldn’t have escaped it. If DP/DR hadn’t caught up with me back then, it sure would have now. In a weird sort of way, I am glad I experienced such a state. It made me aware of the fact that there’s more to reality, strengthened my spiritual side, and put me on this path to helping others.

      You could say Life itself forced me to swallow the red pill, and never gave me an option of the blue one.

      Reply
    • June 23, 2017 at 9:06 am
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      In a heartbeat I’d go back in time.

      Reply
  • Pingback: Role of Psychedelics in Spiritual Emergency – A Coach Called Life

  • May 11, 2017 at 5:11 am
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    Hello mate my name is Michael and I have been struggling with this on and off for nearly a year now, I had it before but when I seen this post I didn’t know what it was, but I am very encouraged by this and I hope and pray I will overcome it again , the symptom that bothers me most is the constant questioning of the universe why we are here, is there a god .. Which I do believe there is and all the philosophical questions that come with it, I just want to live my life enjoy life and love my family without all these thought… Again thanks for any reply.

    Reply
  • May 17, 2017 at 11:19 am
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    Yeess! Very inspiring story! Thank you. I recommend act therapy for all those suffering with anxiety and dr/dp. Like the op said, acceptance is the key. What i came to read, was that existential questions and dp are related. Been worrying a lot about my thoughts on meaning of life etc. Now that i know dp also affects one’s thoughts, i can start chilling again!

    Reply
  • Pingback: 4 Beliefs That Will Get You Through Anxiety and Depersonalization – A Coach Called Life

  • October 16, 2017 at 1:46 pm
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    Hi,
    I want to thank you for sharing your story. I have been suffering from dpdr for 7 months after an episode in which I smoked weed which caused me to feel disassociated and resulted in panic attacks lasting for a few hours, then causing severe dpdr. Initially I suffered from paranoia (thought the weed was spiked), thought I was losing my mind and felt like I was ‘trapped’ in a fake world. After researching online, I came to understand what I was experiencing and that really helped me to ‘recover’ to the extent were I wasn’t thinking/worrying about how I felt all of the time. I would have moments were I would realise with surpise that I hadn’t felt disassociated all day. I learnt to accept the dpdr, acknowledge that it felt strange and not let it worry me. However, over the past couple of weeks I have days were my mind has been flicking back to the dpdr, worrying that I’m going to go back to that extreme dpdr and that there is no escape from my mind. This is why I have come across your story, in search of people who have ‘recovered’. So I want to thank you, for reminding me that there is no clear cut ‘recovery’, that it is okay to still be healing and that there are other people out there who are experiencing the same feelings. Thank you.

    Reply
  • October 30, 2017 at 6:39 pm
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    Hi,

    I am so glad I have found this, i feel less alone and afraid. Could someone tell me if it sounds like i have DP disorder…

    Around two years ago i smoked some weed with a friend having done so several times before and since that day i believe something was triggered in me.

    I was fine then all of a sudden i had an episode where i wad sure i was dying and/or losing my mind. I had severe chest pains and felt very detached and scared. I felt like everything was flat and that my body was closing in on itself. I eventually vomitted and after hours about 6 hours in this panicked state i went to sleep.
    To my horror i felt the same strange detached feeling and fogginess when i woke up and have done ever since.

    I have been to many doctors and none have understood my symptoms or else dont take me seriously.

    Symptoms:
    Feeling like i am not
    Wondering if i am actually dead or in a
    game
    Overthinking about the meaning of life and reasons for doing even the smallest tasks
    Feeling life is futile
    Looking at my hands and they are distorted or warped or enlarged or shrunken (sometimes lasting minutes sometimes hours)
    Feeling like i am unbalanced and walking funny and leaning to one side
    Feeling like i can feel my heart beating extremely fast even when my heart rate is normal
    Feeling like i dont know who i am anymore and as though my personality was taken away
    Feeling as though body parts arent my own

    Can someone please reply. This is making me very suicidal to the point i have been hospitalised twice within 3 months. No one seems able to help me

    Reply

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