I experienced depersonalization and derealization (DP & DR) for the first time in 2005 when I was 13 years old – it was the most frightening, confusing, dismantling and lonely experience of my life.
I remember I was sitting in class, feeling fine. I had just had lunch and was looking forward to the last period of the day ending (maths, ugh) so I could go home. My day had gone fine, I don’t remember feeling stressed or worked up about anything, it was just a completely normal, mundane day – until it wasn’t.
I remember leaning back in my chair to stretch. I did a big yawn and tilted my head back. As I did, the room sort of spun for a second and all of a sudden I felt as though I had entered into a dream. As this happened, I heard a strange noise, sort of like the sound you hear when you jump into a pool and your ears first fill with water- that sort of “zjoop” sound. Everything felt really, really weird like it wasn’t real. I could see I was still in the same classroom, with the same people, but everything suddenly looked sort of ‘different’ and felt off – way, way off.
The room suddenly looked darker, it was like the lights had been dimmed, except they hadn’t been. It was just me. Everything sounded different too, like much louder but sort of muffled at the same time. It was like my senses had all been amplified, but at the same time everything was muffled and fuzzy. It’s so hard to explain. The sounds and movements of the people around me seemed so much louder and more intense, intrusive.
The best way to describe it is that it was like there was a film overall my senses, so I could see, hear, smell and touch everything around me, except there was something between me and everything else. Like clingfilm. Things weren’t as crisp and clear as they had been before. Now everything was fuzzy, foggy, dreamlike – terrifyingly so. I felt unreal and the world around me felt unreal, like a movie or a dream (more like a nightmare). I panicked. Is this real? Am I real? It plunged me into a sort of existential panic, and no one in my peer group understood how I was feeling. I suddenly just felt so cut off and disconnected from everyone and everything. Even my skin felt numb. It was like a bad trip on drugs that wouldn’t end.
I went home that day crippled with fear. I walked the usual streets back to my house that I was so familiar with, but nothing was the same anymore. Everything looked and felt so different. It was like I had gone to another planet. My whole world felt like it had come crashing down. I felt like I was in some sort of parallel reality. It was so confusing and horrible that I was just frozen. I couldn’t believe it. How could I ask for help when what was happening to me and what I was feeling was so bizarre and so hard to explain?
How I coped with Depersonalization and Derealization
I tried to tell my friends, but of course they didn’t know what I was talking about and couldn’t relate. Being the silly teenagers that we were, they sort of laughed it off or would make jokes about it. Not in a nasty way, but just in the sort of callous, ignorant way that you would expect of a 13-year-old. For me, though, it made me feel even more terrified and alone. The fact that no one mirrored back to me how serious this all felt to me, made me feel even more like I was going mad and was trapped in my own mind, and like nothing was real.
In my mind, I would go over and over all the things that could be wrong with me. Was I developing schizophrenia or some other kind of serious mental illness? Was I psychotic? Did I have a brain tumour that was causing me to experience these strange symptoms? The more I worried, the more I withdrew and lived inside my head. I was frozen with fear. I couldn’t talk about it because no one seemed to understand what I was experiencing and no one had any answers for me. I was totally alone. I was afraid of everything and everyone. I couldn’t relate to my friends anymore, and I lost interest in socializing with them because I didn’t feel safe. All my focus was on trying to feel better, to feel the way I ‘used’ to feel, when I felt ‘normal’. I stopped going out and socializing because I felt so weird all the time and being in noisy social places exacerbated my symptoms. I felt desperately alone in a crowd. My home, as a result, became my fortress and the only place where I felt some semblance of control over things.
I would wake up every morning and the first thing I would do would be to check if I still felt ‘weird’. I would pinch my skin to see if it was still numb. It was. As weeks passed and I continued to feel this way without relief, the more sad and ‘flat’ I started to feel, because I realized that I would probably never get to feel the way I used to feel. And to me, that meant that I would never again get to enjoy things the way I used to, like being out with my friends and just feeling carefree. I resigned myself to the fact that this was going to be my life from now on, and consequently, my life started to feel pointless, hopeless, meaningless and empty. I couldn’t picture my future as long as I felt this way. I stopped looking forward to things. Every day my main goal was just to make it through to the end of the day and survive, not to freak out completely or lose my mind.
Each day was so, so difficult. I was living in a state of constant confusion, fear, worry, panic and mental isolation. Walking to school I would sometimes momentarily find myself not recognizing some of the streets I was walking down and I would have to stop and reorientate myself. This usually happened on overcast or rainy days – I would always feel more weird and dreamlike on overcast days for some reason. Even to this day, my symptoms return on muggy, cloudy days. I think this might be to do with air pressure or the way your breathing is affected when it is humid and the air is moist. At night my symptoms would flare up the most. Partly because I was less distracted so I would overthink and worry more, fuelling my panic and consequently exacerbating my symptoms. But also, we are more tired at night and this effects our breathing and brain waves. Also, with all the lights on in the house, this would play with my senses.
I still start to feel strange in places where there is a lot of artificial lighting like supermarkets and shopping malls. Sometimes I would even have small ‘blackouts’. For example, on a few occasions, I found myself in the toilet or bathroom brushing my teeth, but I had no memory of walking in there or making the decision to do that. I would just sort of ‘come to’ in the middle of brushing my teeth. It was frightening and confusing. I lost trust in my mind.
Things that helped my Depersonalization/Derealization Symptoms
I went to the doctor (a pediatric chest physician who had treated me since I was little), who said it sounded like I had a breathing disorder. He explained that when we are in a state of worry or panic our breath tends to be higher up in our chest and short, like hyperventilation. Over time, this can lead to the sort of symptoms I was complaining of. But he didn’t mention anything about depersonalization or derealization. I went to a breathing clinic, where I was given exercises to correct my breathing pattern. It was difficult at first and I knew it wasn’t going to make me feel better quickly, but over time, as I improved my breathing pattern, I did start to feel less panicked and worried. I was a bit calmer and my symptoms became less severe. But I still didn’t feel right.
This was the only help I got because most people were confused by what I was explaining, and I was told there wasn’t really any ‘fix’ for this kind of thing. So I went even more inside myself and just hoped that it would go away. I got used to feeling ‘weird’ all the time and developed coping mechanisms to survive. I made my home my safe place, I cut myself off from the world. I watched a lot of television and became very sedentary, even though by nature I’m a very physically active and athletic person. I started to disconnect from my body and emotions (very bad) because I couldn’t cope with them or make sense of them.
I watched only comedies because these seemed ‘light’ and ‘sunny’ and made me feel less dark. I could escape into the lightheartedness of the shows and movies I watched, even if I didn’t really find them that interesting, because they made me feel like the world was not such a scary and confusing place. They distracted me from the way I felt and made me feel like maybe everything would be ok one day. And this did start to make me feel better. When I was at home and safe, I often didn’t think about whether I felt strange, and if I did have a day where my symptoms were particularly bad, I was kind of ok with it because if I was in a controlled environment (my home) I knew I could deal with it. So for about a year and a half, I felt really, really bad and I worried a lot. I took me this amount of time to gather myself and recover from the shock of everything I had experienced.
But by the time I had reached age 15, my symptoms had mostly gone. They only flared up when I was around my friends who were all drinking and doing drugs. I knew I absolutely could not be around that kind of thing because I didn’t trust my mind and knew that if I dabbled in that stuff it would be a disaster for my mind. I didn’t need to be doing drugs – having DP and DR is like being high or on a bad trip 24/7. My friends seemed kind of ‘hard’ and ‘rough’ to me, and because of my DP and DR, I didn’t feel safe around them. They were a threat to me. So I would see them at school, but I never invited them over to my house or made any effort to connect with them outside of school. Once or twice they unexpectedly showed up at my house and I freaked out but hid it well. My symptoms flared up when they were around.
So, even though I felt 95% better by the time I was 15, I had developed rigid patterns and coping mechanisms that kind of ended up holding me captive. These coping mechanisms, such as isolating myself and developing consistent daily routines, worked really well initially when I needed to restore some balance in my life and to feel safe, but when I started wanting to engage in the world again, I didn’t really know how to or how to break out of these patterns. I was so used to being alone that I didn’t know how to be any other way. I felt kind of embarrassed because I thought I had lost some of my social skills and was a bit of a weirdo. I didn’t want to let my friends back in because I knew the way they were living just wasn’t what I could have around me. But I didn’t know how to find new friends who I would be able to connect to. So I became really bored, frustrated and really angry about everything. Angry that I was stuck, angry that this had happened to me. Why did this have to happen to me? Why am I the only one? I felt it had ruined my life completely and turned me into someone that I wasn’t and didn’t want to be.
How Depersonalization/Derealization Affected My Life Long-Term
I spent the rest of my college years being mostly a loner. When I was 16, I felt safe enough to go to a few parties and drink with my friends, but I never hung out with people in an intimate way. I never hung out with my friends in a casual way around at their houses. I never let them back into my life. I just couldn’t be close with them again. It didn’t feel safe. I couldn’t be honest or open with them about what I had been through, because in the past they hadn’t understood, so why would they now? The one thing that completely defined me and ruled my life was something I just couldn’t explain to them or be honest with them about. And I didn’t feel safe enough around them to try. So I would see them sometimes at parties because this was an impersonal setting where you didn’t connect closely. That was all I could cope with. It had become foreign to me and just a memory to have a proper, close friendship. I was totally on my own.
Once I finished school, I was lost and had absolutely no connections to anyone – no social life. But I wasn’t lonely. I knew that I just needed to find people who were like me. There just weren’t that many around. What bothered me most was that I was directionless and passionless. I had numbed myself to everything and hadn’t developed any interests or passions. Because I had felt so dreamlike and alone for so long, I had lost faith in the future and thought it was pointless to hope for a good life, because I thought I wouldn’t be able to enjoy life feeling the way I felt. I developed negative, entrenched thought patterns. I had spent so many years just trying to survive and feel ok, just to carry out the basic functions of life, that my life was completely dead in every other area. I didn’t know how to move forward. I was like a half-person.
I wanted a career but I knew I couldn’t go down a conventional path because, the way I felt, I couldn’t fit into the world. And I didn’t want to. To be honest, I felt completely repelled by a lot of aspects of life and the way people had to live. It wasn’t something I had to think about, I just felt it. I couldn’t engage in that way. The world seemed harsh a rough to me (and it still does), so I knew I needed to find a way to build a world around me that did work for me, rather than trying to fit myself into a world that was harmful to me.
It has been a long road for me, but I’m starting to find my way now. I want to help other people who are struggling with the things I have struggled with, so that hopefully if you find some support now and some guidance, it won’t take you as long as it has taken me. I think if I had found some answers when I was 13 and 14 and had found someone who had said “Don’t worry, I know how you feel and you aren’t going mad. You will feel better and life will get better”, I wouldn’t have been so terrified and as a result wouldn’t have developed the coping mechanisms that have held me back for so long.
My Thoughts on the Cause of Depersonalization/Derealization
I think the reason I developed depersonalization and derealization was that I was in a state of constant stress and disconnection from myself. At the time I thought I was happy, but looking back, I was putting myself under a lot of pressure and was trying so hard to keep up with everything and everyone. I was disconnected from myself, I was eating poorly and my lifestyle was generally just bad. I was an athletic kid, but I was hanging around people who weren’t, so I started to become like them and I completely lost touch with myself. I was being very harsh on myself and I was hanging around people who, even though I liked them, probably weren’t the best people for me to be around. I’m not saying my friends were the problem. They were just normal kids, but the problem was that I was trying to fit myself into the way they were living, but I just wasn’t like them and it wasn’t good for me to do that anymore. I had been friends with them since I was little, but by the time we got to high school, it became more and more apparent that I didn’t fit with them anymore, and I didn’t want to – I just didn’t realize it initially. Fitting with them meant abandoning myself, and that was where things had started to go wrong. I had fit my whole lifestyle around people and things that were wrong for me, and eventually, my body gave me hell for it.
I had been an anxious and worried person since I was about 8, and when I got to high school I think the pressures and intensity of everything overwhelmed me, and to cope I abandoned myself and was harsh on myself without being aware of it (because I was so disconnected). The DP and DR I developed was my body’s way of saying “No. No, no, no. Stop.” It forced me to reconnect with my body, to feel my emotions, and to realize that the way I was living and the people I was around were not right for me. It forced me to correct my diet and every other area of my life. To soften things. To really get in touch with myself. It was painful and scary and a long process.
But, as a result, I now know who I am and what I need in my life, what and who I can’t have in my life and the sort of world I need to create for myself. I’ve realized that even though I prefer to be alone, it’s not that I’m inherently a loner, it’s just that I find a lot of people and a lot of aspects of life to be too harsh, and when I find someone who ‘feels’ right, then I’m absolutely fine with letting them in. I think it’s ok to be the way I am, and I need to stop fitting myself into a world that isn’t good for me.
I think this is the case for all people who develop DP and DR. It’s your body and your emotions communicating to you that you need to change your life, to reconnect. It is frightening and seems unfair, but if you let it happen and follow your body’s guidance, your symptoms will alleviate much faster and you’ll find yourself in a life that is much better for you. I fought my symptoms for a long time and tried to ignore them, but when I finally surrendered and accepted that this was the way I needed to live, for the time being, things dramatically improved and I was a lot happier. It is a great gift to learn to acknowledge your emotions and to understand what they are saying.
Overall, I think it is stress and anxiety that leads to this disorder. But that stress and anxiety is as a result of disconnection from the self and the constant unpleasant environments we find ourselves in because we ignore ourselves and our emotions, going against them in favour of other things or people. We end up in a state of anxiety because we don’t trust ourselves or life to bring us positive experiences. We are constantly preparing for the next bad thing, which will inevitably come when we don’t follow our internal guidance system (our emotions).
Because we don’t understand our painful emotions or our anxiety, the more we try to disconnect and ignore them, and the more this feeds the cycle of self-abandonment. People who experience DP and DR do this to such a degree that our bodies literally numb themselves to not feel the harshness of the outer world. We enter a ‘dream’ because this is safer than reality. The symptoms are so severe and frightening that we cannot ignore them and simply cannot go on living the way we have been. It is our subconscious’ last-ditch attempt at getting us to reconnect with ourselves and to make the appropriate changes in our lives. Try to acknowledge this fact and follow the direction your body and emotions are telling you to go in. I promise it will be a good one.