What depersonalization feels like

I was riding on the metro in Washington D.C. the first time it happened. It was 2015, and a friend and I were on our way to The Nutcracker at the Warner Theater.

We didn’t talk, but that wasn’t unusual. What she didn’t know was that I was going crazy.

I would have told her, but every tiny movement—even the attempt to speak—was like trying to fly one of those radio-controlled helicopters. The controller (my mind) couldn’t control the rotor (my body).

So I sat there in silence.

I had most of what I found out later were the “standard” symptoms of personalization. It felt like my consciousness was somewhere outside my body, disconnected from it and unable to control it without great effort. It felt kind of like being in a dream, but not exactly. My body was a separate entity from my mind—and my mind was liable to float off into space any minute.

And I had a sudden, immobilizing fear of death.

I was going insane.

Words cannot describe the actual experience. It was the most terrifying few hours of my life. On Monday I was visiting every site on the internet that might explain what happened to me. On Tuesday I was on the phone looking for a psychiatrist.

Through research, I was able to put a name to what had happened to me—depersonalization. Through medication I was able to stop it. What took time was figuring out what caused it.

Depersonalization is a “dissociative disorder,” a group of conditions that cause disruptions in memory, consciousness, identity, and perception. The primary symptom of depersonalization is a distorted perception of the body, just like I had experienced.

But what had caused it?

I had severe anxiety—that much had already been diagnosed. Sometimes it felt as if my heart was beating so hard it would break through my ribcage, but invariably the doctor said my heart was healthy as a horse.

One therapist kept asking me if I’d been physically abused, because, she said, depersonalization is the way the mind protects itself from  something too traumatic to deal with.

I hadn’t been abused, that much I was sure of, but little by little I put the pieces together. Soon after the depersonalization episodes I realized I didn’t just have anxiety, I had complex post-traumatic stress disorder. I was always on alert—always vigilant—ready to jump out of the way of my particular predator at any moment. And it just became too much for my brain to handle. My mind pulled away, trying to separate my thoughts and feelings from my body in an effort to protect itself.

I experienced a few more episodes in the weeks afterward, but nothing like the terror on the metro, and I haven’t had an episode in two years. But the experience is burned into my sense memory, and the fear of it ever happening again is what motivates every act of self-preservation.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to live with frequent depersonalization. I was ready to move heaven and earth to never experience it again, yet there are people who fight this fight every single day.

And like all mental illness, it is invisible. I could easily be that woman on the subway staring blankly into space, or the disheveled person in the parking lot raising her arm up and down just to make sure her mind still controls her body.

I was once.

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