“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.
- Opening image – https://www.flickr.com/photos/omardearmas/2857174054