It’s Mental Health Monday again, friends! Today we have a post by Molly, who can be found at Bitchy and Witchy. Her blog is equal parts fascinating and hilarious, and I highly suggest checking it out! She posts about things like spirituality, mental health, and feminism, so if any of that is of interest to you, she’s your girl! Molly is at Uninspired today to chat with us about a lesser known disorder called depersonalization.
As someone who loves language, the comparison in the beginning of this post gave me chills, and really helped me get a deeper understanding of what depersonalization and derealization are, even though I’ve never experienced them myself. Read on, I’m excited for you all to learn more!
Depersonalization/Derealization: A Little-Known Mental Illness
Imagine: semantic satiation…
You are a young child, laughing and running around the playground with your friends at recess. As your game of tag winds down, you get tuckered out and collapse into the wood chips, catching your breath. To keep the fun going, your friend suggests repeating a word over and over again. She has discovered that when you do that, it feels funny.
“Carrot, carrot, carrot, carrot, carrot,” you all repeat over and over–until suddenly, it does feel funny to say the word.
You all burst out laughing, wide-eyed and bewildered.
Somehow, the word that represents an orange root vegetable, crunchy and sweet and loud to chew, stops meaning anything at all.
The word becomes two unrelated sounds, floating in the air that you and your friends are breathing. It feels creepy. It feels completely unfamiliar, and yet far too familiar to comprehend. It doesn’t feel real anymore.
This weird repeating words feeling is referred to as semantic satiation.
…but for your entire identity
Now, imagine instead of carrot, the word that has stopped making sense is your own name.
Imagine that somehow, your reflection in the mirror stops feeling like you. You, yourself: completely unfamiliar, and yet far too familiar to comprehend. You don’t feel real.
And instead of laughing among friends at this discomfort, you are struck down alone filled with pure horror and anguish, afraid that you have completely lost your identity–or your mind, or your hold on reality.
This is called depersonalization.
It is the experience of feeling entirely alien to yourself; of feeling like your self–your soul even–has floated away temporarily. And whatever “you” currently are, is suddenly in the driver’s seat of this human body that you’ve forgotten how to comfortably control. With depersonalization, you look in the mirror and feel panic surge through you: Who is that? I mean, it’s me…but why doesn’t it feel like me?
And then there is depersonalization’s equally insidious counterpart: derealization. This makes a person feel like the environment is somehow changed. Like it has lost meaning, it looks foreign, or that the size of things somehow feels wrong. With derealization, the world loses its color and its dimension–often, people express that the world looks like it is in 2D. Like they’re watching TV rather than witnessing reality first hand.
Together, the two make up DPDR.
What causes DPDR?
Depersonalization/derealization is a type of dissociation, which is a way that our brain disconnects from the present moment to protect us from danger or pain. It’s like an innate survival mechanism. DPDR is how our brain copes with trauma and abuse.
But it’s actually a pretty common experience: 50-70% of people have experienced DPDR at some point in their lives (Feziroglu 2010). And everyone has experienced getting lost in a daydream, or “going on autopilot” when you’re driving. This is a mild form of dissociation, too.
For some people, though, this feeling of unreality comes on and stays permanently–and causes immense distress. Sometimes DPDR is so disabling that people quit their jobs, alienate themselves from relationships, and drop out of school. People who suffer express being plagued with existential ruminations, concerned they will never feel real again, and unable to feel fully connected to who they were before the DPDR hit.
For people who experience DPDR permanently, there is often a trauma link. Perhaps they suffered interpersonal emotional abuse in childhood, or as an adult. Or they lived through a natural disaster, war, or simply a long period of stress.
Interestingly, drugs can also onset it. Marijuana use was cited as the reason for developing DPDR in 10-15% of cases (Simeon 2009). As marijuana legalization is slowly becoming normalized throughout the US, this link will hopefully be researched further.
No silver bullet, but there is hope for healing
So far there is no drug that cures DPDR. Some psychiatric medication may prove beneficial, but it usually requires a lot of trial and error (Simeon 2009).
Psychotherapy looks more promising, however. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, and Acceptance & Commitment Therapy are cited as beneficial interventions for DPDR (Neziroglu 2010).
How can I learn more?!
I am endlessly passionate about spreading awareness for this occasionally-disabling condition. It is just as common as better-known anxiety disorders (though those still are heavily stigmatized), yet some people suffer for decades and still don’t have answers.
But there is hope. DPDR sufferers deserve to heal. DPDR sufferers deserve to feel real again.
To learn more about my experience with DPDR and suggestions for healing, you can travel over to my YouTube channel. My chronic DPDR was triggered by two spiritually harrowing experiences with cannabis. Right now, I am healing, and committed to helping others heal too. I also invite you to follow my blog, where I discuss my journey to healing and other various musings.
Neziroglu, Fugen. 2010. Overcoming Depersonalization Disorder. New Harbinger Publications.
Simeon, Daphne. 2009. Feeling Unreal. Oxford University Press.