Have you ever felt that your thoughts, emotions, and actions mean nothing and might as well be happening to someone else? If so, you may have experienced depersonalization – a dissociative disorder characterized by feelings of detachment from your inner world. Those who experience it will often say that they feel like an automaton or robot, as if nothing they think or do is quite real. Though very common, especially during a trauma like bereavement, most people have never heard of depersonalization and are both shocked and frightened when it happens to them.
The Dissociative Disorders
Depersonalization is one of the so-called ‘dissociative disorders’. It should be stressed, however, that these disorders are not forms of psychosis. In other words, the victim does not lose touch with reality. Crudely put, depersonalization means detachment from the inner world and derealization means detachment from the outer. Both affect perception, memory, and even identity. And both can be triggered by anxiety, depression or trauma (either brief or prolonged). This would make sense, since those in pain and distress naturally withdraw from the cause of their discomfort, as someone’s hand instinctively recoils from fire or the edge of a blade.
Before turning to depersonalization itself, it may help to take a look at its twin disorder, ‘derealization’. The two are so closely related that some argue they are really the same thing and that the disorder ought to be named depersonalization-derealization. Derealization is very common among those suffering with chronic anxiety, depression, or post-traumatic stress. Imagine you are walking through your local park. It is the first warm day of spring; the air is soft, the sky a deep blue. You have just started a new relationship and have arranged to meet for breakfast. But rather than feeling intensely alive, you are numb, and feel as if everything is vague and dreamlike. You know it is a beautiful day, but you don’t seem able to experience that fact. It is as if a pane of glass exists between you and the world. In fact, as you watch the children running about in the sunshine, it feels as though you are watching it all on a TV screen. Nothing is so vivid or intense as it ought to be (this is also common during a bout of depression, when the world can seem, in Hamlet’s words, to be “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable”), and what was familiar now seems alien, bizarre, and even surreal. You even have an indefinable sense that this has all happened before.
The Nature of Depersonalization
In essence, depersonalization means detachment from yourself. Someone suffering from a sense of depersonalization will feel detached or disconnected from their own body. They may even say that they now know what it must be like to be a robot. Emotions and thoughts seem to happen to them rather than being initiated by them; they feel as though they are just going through the motions. Imagine it is Christmas Day and you have bought your little daughter a puppy. Her face lights up when she sees it, and the puppy leaps all over her, rolling on its back, licking her face and wagging its tail. You know that at some level you are pleased and moved by the sight, but you don’t seem to feel it. It’s as though you are one step removed from that lump in your throat and those tears in your eyes. Others say that it feels like they are observing themselves from the outside.
One of the most common causes of depersonalization is chronic, severe anxiety. If the individual is also isolated and depressed, depersonalization is almost inevitable. Another common cause is the withdrawal from drugs, both legal and illegal. Those trying to taper off anti-depressants, especially the new SSRI variety, often complain that they feel detached both from themselves and the world around them. Even physical illness can trigger such feelings; Alzheimer’s, MS, and Lyme disease have all been linked to depersonalization. Finally, some have even suggested that military training can lead to this kind of detachment. It might be added that this is the point — how can you kill if you feel empathy and pity? Indeed, many forms of training can produce this effect. The British historian Arnold Toynbee even remarked that when a man puts on a uniform he becomes a moral coward. When a man joins the army his head is shaved, he is addressed by his rank, and he wears the same clothes as everyone else. He is effectively having his individuality stripped away from him and learning to see himself as a killing machine, detached not only from what he is doing but from any sense of guilt or shame.
First, it is crucial to deal with anxiety, stress, trauma and depression. If you are already in therapy, try combining this with yoga, deep-breathing, and mindfulness meditation. Get out into the countryside, as far away from noise, cars and people as you can (admittedly not easy in an overcrowded world) and walk. As you do, breathe in slowly and deeply and pay attention to the things around you. Feel the sun on your skin, savour the smell of the grass, and listen to the birds. If possible, take a companion with you. But avoid anyone who is gloomy, negative or stressed. Surround yourself with happy, joyful, enthusiastic people.
If nothing else works, you might consider medication. A 2001 Russian study suggested that Naloxone, used to reverse the effects of opioid drugs, could help. Some have also suggested psychedelics as an answer. Experiments conducted in the UK in 2016 demonstrated the effectiveness of Mescaline in treating severe, chronic depression. And it is worth adding that those who have taken psychedelics and written about the experiences often describe an intense heightening of awareness. The British novelist Aldous Huxley, for example, described his experiences with Mescaline and LSD in The Doors of Perception and Heaven and Hell. Huxley wrote of how intensely and vividly alive the world seemed when under the influence of these drugs. In his words, he experienced “the miracle, moment by moment, of naked existence” — the precise opposite of numb dissociation. Of course, such drugs are illegal and can be dangerous if taken without supervision. But some are now campaigning for their controlled use within the psychiatric system.
Depersonalization is common. Indeed, dissociation and numbness may be an inevitable part of the ageing process itself. Perhaps most distressing of all is the surprising, inexplicable nature of the experience. Putting a name to it can in itself bring some comfort.