My (so-called) recovery story
This is the story of my nervous breakdown and my struggles with dissociation. I hope, that my story can help or support those, who feel alone and scared.
I am not really a fan of the word "recovery", because it reduces dissociation to some sort of sickness, that was never suppose to be there in the first place. What I was experiencing, was clearly supposed to be there - and it was the starting point of the transformation from who I thought I was to who I actually am.
If anything, I recovered from the unhealthy way, that I lived my life - before anxiety, derealisation and depersonalisation came to the rescue. I couldn´t see this at the time though, and I just wanted my (miserable) old life back and escape this dreadful mental state.
In the years leading up to my breakdown, I experienced strange shifts of perception during my sleep and half-asleep states. The dreams (or half-dreams) took place in familiar surroundings, but with a dark, empty feel to them. Something was off, like a change in emotional perspective - like seeing something from a new angle makes it look (and feel) different. The emotions, I would normally get from dreaming about my childhood neighbourhood for example, was gone, and I was now experiencing the same neighbourhood from an emotionally numbed viewpoint.
Dreams usually mix up people, areas and emotions, but these dreams were different. They were emotionless, drab and dark and felt disturbingly disconnected to me - like I accidentally walked into someone else's dream.
A year before the breakdown I had an increasing number of panic attacks, lots of tension in my body and jaw clenching at night. I also experienced an intense, nightly anxiety attack that lasted for almost an hour!
One night after a drinking spree, I felt really strange, when I went to bed. I was of course heavily sedated, but something felt different this time. The next day I slept until late afternoon, and as I went to the bathroom, I suddenly felt like, I did not know, where I was, or who I am. The feeling triggered a huge anxiety attack, and my mind shut down and shut me out of (my own) reality. I was now caught in a dreamlike state, where nothing felt real or familiar - not even my closest relatives!
"A hole would be something.
Nah, it was Nothing.
And it got bigger and bigger!„
Rockbiter in "The Never-ending Story" by Michael Ende
This feeling created the perfect breeding ground for existential obsessions, and my life turned into this all-consuming fear, that reality might not exist, and that I was actually dreaming up my life. Every time I found some kind of proof, the doubt would always undermine it. This created a vicious circle: Can´t prove, that reality exists > added fear > mind closes down further > unreal feeling grows > need to establish proof > can't prove, that reality exists… and so fourth.
I could not win, because I was battling my own consciousness, who would not allow me to access the underlying emotional issues. If my consciousness had told me, that I was a goat, I would probably have believed that too, cause "anything goes" in an obsessive state, since you are unable to prove it wrong.
I couldn't even define, what reality was, and I felt transported into a new level of consciousness, where nothing mattered, because no activity brought any kind of emotion. Even imagining getting sick and dying had no effect, since I didn´t feel alive anyway. There was only emptiness and anxiety. My body and mind was in constant panic, and the only thing I sensed, was changes in the level of anxiety. All of my emotions got sucked into this black hole of fear leaving no capacity for anything else. And to top it off, this spawned an additional fear: What if I am actually cold and emotionless?
I was relentlessly trawling dpselfhelp.com for that magic advice, that would snap me out of this nightmare. The reassurance, that other people had the same experience as me, kept me connected to the real world, and I was convinced that finding the right post, would solve my problem. Needless to say, that never happened. I couldn´t wrap my mind around this experience and figure it out, and any advice about blocking out obsessive thoughts or focusing outwards, didn´t help at all. This was bigger than me and beyond my control.
"Dr. Rosen : You can't reason your way out of this!
Nash : Why not? Why can't I?
Dr. Rosen : Because your mind is where the problem is in the first place!„
Dr. Rosen in "A Beautiful Mind"
The revelation came over time with psychotherapy, a daily doze of Sertralin (Zoloft in the U.S.) slowly increased from 25 to 200 mg. over 3 months, and reading Janine Bakers posts and her book "Unraveled". Janine's expressions hit home in terms of describing the feeling of unreality, that I was experiencing; my subconscious spoke in codes, and the psychotherapy helped me to decode its messages: I don´t exist translated into I don't know, who I am. This actually makes sense - how can you feel, that you exist without "being" someone? The alienating dreams was probably a subconscious expression of this lack of identity.
The personal prism (my identity), through which everything is experienced and gets its emotional colouring, was gone, and I experienced the world as a timeless, empty space, where people acted like their life and actions actually meant something. I felt that I knew something, they didn't - that reality was just an illusion!
So, a basic human feeling turned into an existential fear. Why? Well, my consciousness apparently decided, that the naked truth would be more disturbing to me and created this decoy issue to mask the real problem.
I was suppressing strong feelings, and I needed to purge emotionally to being feeling good again. It was like my soul demanded a reset, before it would allow me to feel better.
The explanation for this problem is complex, but long story short I grew up in a safe environment and was mainly moulded by my mother, who was very protective of me. In my mind this translated into the idea, that the outside world was an unsafe place, that I should avoid. This became my primary strategy and through my whole life, I tried to avoid situations, that I did not feel 100% safe in. Unfortunately this also meant avoiding activities, that would actually challenge me, give me experience, self-confidence and generally make me grow as a person. My main mission was to stay safe and please people around me to avoid conflicts and keep out of danger.
At the same time I was constantly looking for approval to feel justified and good about myself. I needed my surroundings to define me, since I had no confidence or idea, who I was. I was totally dependant on their impression of me, so my strategy was to find out, what people wanted to hear, and then deliver it.
This approach to life was very exhausting, and I felt best, when I was alone (or with my partner) and didn't need to relate to anyone. Of course this was not a durable strategy, and the breakdown forced me to question everything concerning my life; marriage, social life, sexuality, work etc. My emotions couldn't deal with anything less than total truth and honesty anymore, and I felt like someone was holding a gun to my head and telling me to stop acting.
Accepting the anxiety, the existential issues and taking antidepressants helped me deal with the underlying issues with my therapist, without being diverted and overwhelmed by the symptoms. But it came over time, and it was not a switch, that I could just flip to go back into normal mode. The depersonalisation was there for a reason.
My therapist actually taught me a way to physically distinguish between real emotions and fear - since fear is typically a reaction/response to a deeper emotion such as anger, sorrow etc. Real emotions are felt in the stomach and behind the eyes, while anxiety is mainly felt in the chest. This rang true for me and over time, the knot in my chest moved to my stomach, and I felt this intense urge to cry and articulate my emotions. It felt like throwing up emotionally, and all my doubts about life, marriage, sexuality, identity had to be articulated for the hurting to stop.
In order to begin healing, I was forced to transform my life. I told my loved ones, that I needed time and space to care about myself and discover my needs and values. My therapist asked me to make a cardboard cube displaying 6 values (one on each side), that were important to me. I also made list of all the things, that I remembered about myself in terms of music, movies, hobbies, classmates, family members etc. Both things helped me focus on, what I am actually about.
I also started making choices based on my own needs and practicing self-awareness by listening to my gut feeling and reflect, before I speak or act. Action and responsibility was the way to go and learning to say "no" and owning it. Standing your ground might lead to uncomfortable situations, but I had to practice staying in these situations and accepting the lack of comfort. I never tried mindfulness, but this should be a great anxiety killer, and this probably makes sense, since this technique practices the idea of experiencing your emotions without being overwhelmed by them.
You can never really make peace with anxiety, because it is designed to do the opposite.
I still fear the fear, since I now know, what it is capable of doing. But at least this is a fear of fear and not a fear of some existential issue. I also know, that this state of mind only existed, because of an underlying problem. I thank anxiety for helping me get the courage to solve this problem and change my life for the better.