Hi, everyone. I'm assuming if you're here it's because you (or someone close) is suffering from derealization and depersonalization. I'm 41 and have dealt with it my whole life. But I’d like to share my experiences with you all and give a bit of encouragement and advice. Also, by writing it here I’ll be able to share it with my future self when I inevitably wind up back here at some point in the near future, trying to make sense of it all again.
Anyway, what brings me in is that I just went through another horrendous battle with DPDR that started on March 1st. I'm a teacher up in Boston and six weeks ago I was walking to the train station after a stressful day and a million cups of coffee when out of the blue I just felt like someone hit me in the back of the skull with a baseball bat - mentally, not physically. I had no idea what was happening and a massive panic attack began to develop. Basically afraid of being alive. Afraid of existing, really...
Now, as I said, I'm kind of an old dude now; clock just started ticking on decade number five, actually. These panic attacks have been happening to me ever since the 80s so it’s honestly kind of a “been there, done that” sensation at this point. Petrifying, but familiar. But don't forget, my new friends, DPDR makes everything equally terrifying, so in a way we've all got this super-power. When you're scared of everything, by comparison actual scary things are no big deal, right?
All right, here's the story of me and "Dave". We're the same person, but it probably makes sense to this particular audience when I refer to Dave and me separately. That's the problem with depersonalization - connecting with the self. Feel free to skip our/my story and go straight to the advice at the end, though, if you're in a hurry.
Although I have memories of derealization all the way to childhood, the first time it became dangerous was when I was 18. I actually wound up dropping out of college (for a month) because I was convinced I was schizophrenic or something. I was single, lonely, shy, and not challenged with the courses I was taking and just had lots of time to sit and dwell. I probably should have found constructive ways to use that time, but instead I psyched myself out over and over again and wound up more and more isolated. I remember staring at a bowl of soup in the dining hall when the first of many deep panic attacks hit me. Nobody knew it - nobody would have noticed anything different about me. I wasn't screaming or crying, just silently terrified and alone. I put the food back and walked back to the dorm.
A few more days of intense suffering and hiding and the logical part of my brain told me that suicide would at least make the pain stop. I got stuck on an existential obsession and it spiraled out of control. I had been trying to keep in touch with people and I do remember writing a very dark series of "instant messages" - it was the 90s, remember - to my cousin who was trying to help straighten me out. (Thanks, Erin!) It was like a terrible, inescapable high. I couldn't really figure anything out at all anymore, but somehow my body went into survival mode and carried me 80 miles away right back to my mother's house. I'm not sure what I was doing at that time, but my auto-drive biological human form was trying to rescue me. (Thanks, Dave!) I didn't even cognitively grasp the concept of what this entity referred to as a "mother" was or why I was headed there, but when I arrived at the doorstep she realized what was happening and got me some help. (Thanks, Mom!)
For the next few weeks I tried desperately to explain what was happening while person after person had absolutely no idea what I was talking about. Eventually they just said, "Meh. You're depressed and anxious," and said eventually I’d get over it. Minute by minute I fought through the torturous days. My mother gave me an origami book to keep me occupied, and it actively did. By the way, if anybody needs a slightly-below-average origami giraffe, I'm your guy. I barely left my bed for three days until I finally had a good moment. Seizing the opportunity I showered and shaved. I immediately felt bad again and refused to shave for a long time afterwards. (I did, however, shower ‘cuz otherwise that’s just gross…)
Whatever...about a month later I was high on a bunch of medication that at least kept me from flipping out. Still had depersonalization and derealization all the time, but it didn't bother me too much anymore and Dave - I mean, I - was still a skilled enough student to return to college and finish the term. Actually got a couple of A’s. Go figure…
Like I said earlier, though, I was afraid of everything, and therefore afraid of nothing. When I went back to college I was a zombie, but I still did stuff. I would actually have long bouts of clarity where the derealization and/or depersonalization would fade away and I could be proud of my accomplishments. I think participating in these activities contributed to bringing me back to reality, especially the origami. But considering I was essentially fearless I started doing a bunch of things I had used to avoid. Roller-coasters? No sweat. Public speaking? No problems anymore. Chorus, Acting, Model Congress? Child's play. Airplanes? Ha! Bring it on. Joke’s on you, I’m already terrified!
So things went pretty well for a while, actually. I settled in to a new life and graduated with a degree in mathematics. Of course there aren’t a lot of jobs available to be a professional mathematician, so I went the route of becoming a Public School teacher. Now, by that point I hadn’t even internalized that I had “recovered” from the first battle, so when a massive DPDR panic attack happened to me at 25 years old as I was staring at myself in the bathroom mirror, I gave up hope. Out of courtesy to my mother I called her to let her and my father know that I was done with this existence and to thank them for all those lovely ginger snaps, animal crackers, and cups of apple juice I had enjoyed when I was a little kid. Dave kept me company while my mother came to get me...
Somehow she once again saved my life and brought me back to see the doctors. I stayed at my parents’ house on and off for a few months after that and started folding colorful pieces of paper until they looked like barnyard animals while letting some very, very heavy drugs take effect. I had a psychiatrist and a psychologist work with me each week. Shout-out to Dr Smrz who was the first to mention that I obviously had depersonalization and derealization. Honestly, once I realized this was a real thing I improved dramatically and immediately.
That was about 16 years ago. Again, fearless, I started zombie-living again. I volunteered as a teacher to bring some students to an international peace camp in Calgary as the representatives of America. I was actually their legal guardian for three weeks. Well, Dave was, at least. He's pretty responsible. Again, it would have been just as scary to order a cheeseburger at the drive-thru, so I might as well have traveled across the continent to meet people from around the world.
Long story short (too late…?) I fell in love with the leader of the Turkish delegation and moved to Istanbul within a year. ‘Cuz, seriously what am I afraid of? If she said "no" I wouldn't have lost anything. Well, guess what? We’re married, have two awesome daughters, and now live in Boston. In fact, things were going so well back in 2012 that I actually stopped taking medication.
…Until last week. DPDR is sneaky like that. It’s been a rough few years surviving COVID, and I think I essentially postponed feeling emotions during the worst of those days until now. Ironically I've built up a reputation for being a very peaceful, calm guy who seems to never get stressed at all. Over the last five years or so I’ve had Lyme disease, a couple of broken bones, and two hernia surgeries and none of that even made me uncomfortable. Just smiled and shrugged it off. I keep coming back to it: the existential crises I've experienced through derealization and depersonalization are so terrifying that everything else seems cute and cuddly.
I once read a story about a guy who had open-heart surgery without anesthesia and how by comparison nothing really hurts him anymore. I feel like that’s a great metaphor for my stress and anxiety. And probably yours too. Scale of one to ten, DPDR is an infinity. So when we have regular fears we can and should just laugh it off. Literally. We’re freaking superhumans.
My advice is this: treat the fear. In my case the fear caused DPDR and DPDR causes more fear. When I’m stuck in the loop I get obsessed about existence and fear everything at a level that is incapacitating. Take out the fear? DPDR becomes annoying, perhaps, but not a problem anymore.
You might need a special cocktail of drugs and therapy to make it all work, but try to remember that it’s not permanent and that you HAVE had moments of reality that were real! You exist, but that’s not the part that’s scary. The fear is scary. And the spiral starts with that. You can trust your body to keep everything on the down-low the same way I trust Dave. You can still go to work - your body knows what to do. Left foot, right foot. Smile and nod. You can even kinda watch yourself talking to your coworkers or customers or students, and you don’t even have to mentally be with it. But once you contain that fear your body no longer has any reason to disassociate. And then you’ll be able to come back.
Welcome back in advance.