Depersonalized, Derealized, Dissociative and Disappearing

I had a comment on a recent post at Health Central that described an experience the writer called dissociative.

During a therapy session she had become so remote that she couldn’t focus on the discussion or even remember in mid-sentence what she’d been saying. She wasn’t fully present and couldn’t bring herself to come back into the therapist’s office.

Dissociation isn’t a condition I’ve thought or known much about, and I rarely, if ever, use the word. So I spent a while looking it up – not that I care that much about psychiatric jargon – but I do like to understand what people mean when they use these terms. “Dissociation” and “dissociative disorder” seem to cover a lot of ground, and I guess I’m in the dissociative ballpark when I write about “disappearing.”

That’s what I call the feeling of being absent. Sometimes it’s like watching a group of people from a distance, even though I’m part of whatever is going on. I feel so detached that I might as well be seeing the action in a movie. Or I’m at home but emotionally gone, hardly in touch with my wife or kids. I’m there, but I’m not there. Here’s how I put it in a 2007 post about a business meeting:

I’m supposed to be running this meeting … I’m watching from a distance as these people argue with each other around the big table, talking the same words I’ve heard before, heading into the same traps of crossed purposes. But I’m watching only, aware in each moment of what to do to keep the meeting going toward a useful conclusion, but I am not doing it. … All that I see is happening to them out there, as if on a screen. I become an onlooker.

Apparently, the psychiatric jargon for my disappearing act is depersonalization – just one of the many possible symptoms of dissociative disorder. And there’s another one of these symptoms I’ve also lived with: derealization – or the sense that the world I’m in is unreal.

That’s happened to me in the most familiar surroundings – a college dorm room, a neighborhood street, a car, an office building, an open field. Everything looks familiar, but it’s not. It feels unstable, as if it could all dissolve away or be pulled apart like a stage set or change shape when I’m not looking. What I’m seeing or touching no longer seems trustworthy – I can’t count on it.

At least the “dereal” experiences are brief and infrequent, but the “depersonal” ones can go on for days or weeks at a time.

It may be important for psychiatrists to pull these apart and give them different names, but in my experience the two states of mind fit together. Either I’m estranged from the world, or the world turns strange.

The separateness, the split, is what counts, and it’s been a big part of the depression mix. When I add in the periods of not feeling much about anything and of isolating myself physically, it’s clear how destructive “disappearing” can be to my family as well as my work life.

But that’s not all. I started disappearing very early in my life. It was a shield from the most intense and painful experiences I had when growing up. I suppose that fits more closely with the idea of dissociation.

As a teenager and even into college, my emotional life – apart from the safe feelings of daily living – survived somewhere but had lost its home inside me. My world was safely rational, and I was usually observing myself from a distance when violence of any kind broke out. I could be in the midst of a family fight yet completely absent, despite the raging intensity that was burning everyone else. It was like looking through a window at people fighting with each other. But the barrier was a lot stronger than window glass, it was more like invisible steel.

Dad and my brother stood face to face, but I could hardly see them as my eyes fixed on the 16 gauge shotgun in my brother’s hands. It was aiming right at my father’s chest, the end of the barrel no more than a foot away. … I could almost hear a switch flipping off. I felt and heard nothing but just floated there in my own distance. Anything could have happened.

When I got to college, I could joke with friends about a broken family life as if it had been a tragicomic play full of odd characters and bizarre scenes. I had no sense of a deep emotional connection to that past. It took a couple of weeks in a sustained panic and my first visit to a psychiatrist’s office before I started to unwrap all those hidden feelings and the pain I had deferred.

Thanks to the mercy of a nightmare a few years later, I could finally feel the presence of my family in every breath and heartbeat. But after splitting myself in two for nearly 25 years, I’m still working at reconnecting with all that happened, trying to get free of its hidden control. Here’s one shadow that followed me for years, a complete shutdown whenever an intense and creative energy tried to break out. As I put it in another 2007 post:

I try to write, I get pretty far into something that feels good, feels like it’s coming from an amazing source of – what? a kind of power, a creativity that swirls things into life, a well of discovery – and then… I stop. What’s wrong? My mind is blanking out, I can’t seem to concentrate, I’m distracted, or I start to get sleepy, actually dive into unconsciousness for a while. What’s happening? What was that I was trying to write? Trying to imagine – no, it’s gone! Why can’t I do this? Why does this happen over and over again?

The emotional splitting and its worst effects gradually diminished as I recovered generally from depression, but I have to stay alert. At the first sign of drifting away from the people I’m with, I have to cut in, refocus and bring myself back. It takes so long to break the emotional habits I’ve lived with for decades. It would be great to be done with it all forever.

To use the jargon, have you been depersonalized, derealized, dissociated from yourself as part of depression? Or have you just disappeared from your life?

16 Responses to “Depersonalized, Derealized, Dissociative and Disappearing”

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  1. Masdevalia says:

    I feel lost. I know that it is a career related issue. I am married and have three sons, two of whom live at home. My brother also lives with me and counts on me to help him with his needs. He is a recovering IV drug abuser and alcoholic. In have been depressed my whole life. In 2008 I was laid off from my position as a nurse clinician after reporting an unsafe patient situation. Of course they made it impossible for me to prove I was laid off due to whistle blowing, but I know that I was. In my 20+ years as a nurse I had never been fired or laid off from a job and I took it very personally. The situation haunts me to this day. Three weeks after I was laid off I attempted suicide. I drove to an isolated area took a sedative, drank a bottle of Dom Perignon, opened my windows on a -9 degree night next to one of the great lakes and simply went to sleep. Three days later I woke up in a critical care unit. I have not been able to get another job since, and I have never been unable to get a job (I am a highly skilled nurse). To this day I curse the deputy sheriff who found me and reported me to the Board of Nursing. There are not many days that go by that I don’t still want to go for it, but if I fail again, it will make life even more unbearable! My husband and family members are constantly telling me that I am needed and that they do not want to lose me, but I feel lost in life now and worse yet, I spend most of my days alone. This on top of my feeling lost makes me feels as if I am disappearing little by little every day! I am happy to have found this forum and hope that the members here will help me by sharing their wisdom and tactics at day to day survival.

  2. Sally says:

    My boyfriend of nearly 10 years has decided to leave me. He was diagnosed with clinical depression before we ever met and because we live 2 hours apart only saw each other in the weekends. He never took medication for the condition. For the most part he was fine and only saw slight signs of depression usually in the mornings. He could never have a few beers, it had to be ten.( some weekends). When he smoked( only in the weekends) it was incessant one after another amounting to 2 packets in a day. Six months ago he stopped the smoking…but still craved them.

    He usually had a carbohydrate addiction in the evening.

    After drinking the next day he would be paralysed getting worse as the day got longer. He is a incredibly kind person, tender hearted and attentive. He went through a tough divorce and raised his children alone. He is self employed and is having financial difficulties.His children recently have all left but still on the payroll.
    Occasionally I would notice him in a total frozen state that would change his whole appearance…almost like he was wearing a wax mask and staring intensely to no where. I would ask him if he was o.k and he would instantly snap out of it. He sleeps about 4 hours a night only and rightly so is always tired. He drives on business and can drive 12 hours with that little sleep.

    When we first met he said he was “emotionally unavailable” but we fell in love intensly and it has been a great 10 years. Recently he seems slow, disengaged and gets lost in familier places. He is extremely sensitive to any thing that he thinks is critisism, he is always making big plans that I know will never come to fruition( I never tell him that), and dreams of buying things he cannot afford.

    He has taken up Motorcycle racing and has been concerned about aging. He wants me to commit to the relationship but because of some obvious red flags i have hesitated. Money management has not been sound and his home is in chaos. At work he complains about being unmotivated. Any problems at work is always some one elses fault.

    Two days before we broke up he was loving and caring and engaging.
    The day before we broke up he was quiet and distant, and had the “mask face” appearance. I asked him what was wrong and he appeared panicky and anxious and he said he did not know what was happening to him. I asked him to seek help as I was not sure I could continue in the relationship without it… I asked him on numerous occasions before to seek help.

    The next day was a phone call to say that he was sorry but we had to part because he wanted a commitment because he did not want me to leave years down the road.The following day is please let us work this out. The next day is tirades of e mails writing what he did to show his love for me itimised in detail over the 10 years, mixed in with you never loved me, you never thank me and dont forget to put oil in the car!
    He was critical about me never instigating sex, and that I never told him I loved him etc. None of it true.To prove a point he wanted me to write down the ways that I showed him physically that I loved him…Something I was not going to do.

    His tone was controlling, abrasive, insulting and angry. Totally not the man I knew. Is this clinical depression talking or, a mid life crisis or is he is just not into me?

    I am Flabbergasted, and feeling empty.

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, Sally –

      I can’t say exactly what is going on with your boyfriend – depression could well be part of it. Clearly, though, he is not acting like the person you’ve known for so long and seems deeply unhappy and confused. When depression or bipolar are not fully acknowledged, people usually look for a cause outside themselves and can find many. Their partners often get the brunt of it, and I’m sorry you have to go through this. He’s in a crisis of some kind. It’s unlikely that he’s “just not into me” since he’s obsessing about you and the whole history of your relationship. The feelings run deep but are painful, anguished, perhaps panicky at times, depressed at others. He really should see a psychotherapist or psychiatrist to help him sort through this cascade of feelings, though from what you say it doesn’t seem that he will do that, at least for a while. I think you’re right to set limits to how far he can draw you into his confusion and blaming. It must be so painful to see this happening and be unable to get through to him, but that’s all too common an experience. Are there friends or family of his who could guide him to get help?

      My best to you —

      John

  3. debbie says:

    John,

    Looking back to my first realisation that anything was wrong with my partner, we were on a day out in our favourite place and I thought we were blissfully happy when, out of the blue he said to me “I feel lost”. I asked him what he meant and he said he didnt know. A couple of months later he left me. I was in total shock, as I remain so, and have watched him change into a very ill man who I no longer recognise and cannot get close to.

    John, do you think the “lost” statement is significant as it haunts me to this day.

    Thank you so much

    Debbie

    • John Folk-Williams says:

      Hi, debbie –

      You know, I’ve been wanting to write about the feeling of being lost for some time. It’s one of the most powerful experiences I’ve ever known and yes, definitely a time of crisis. We need to find the meaning in what’s happening to us, and sometimes the meaning you decide on is just another side of the problem rather than an answer. I’m sorry things have turned out badly, but that earlier statement must have been a critical moment for him.

      John

  4. Donna-1 says:

    I don’t even like to think about my dissociative periods anymore. For so many years, I lived in a “world apart” from anything real…like emotion ane responsibility. I couldn’t figure out how I got disconnected in the first place, or how I could become reconnected. Now, I can see how it happened in early childhood because of father-related trauma. When I didn’t have any understanding of how to deal with him and his problems, I simply cut myelf off from reality and lived not in a fantasy world, but in a blank and empty world. Often devoid of meaning. Often a world of empty promises and unfulfilled expectations. Until I learned not to listen or even hope anymore. It was not until I came to an adult understanding of what was going on (at the ripe old age of 45) that I found pity for him. And when that happened, the voices and people in my head seemed to fade away. And I started to reconnect.

  5. My main diagnosis is depression but I’ve experienced dissociation, depersonalization and derealization quite a bit. For many people these conditions go hand in hand. It helped me a lot to learn their origin. These conditions can result from severe emotional trauma in childhood which causes you to essentially go into hiding emotionally as a defense. For me this happened during my father’s frequent alcoholic rages.

    Understanding this relieved me of crippling guilt and shame and allowed me to heal. I had to learn most of this on my own by reading extensively about mood disorders. (I can suggest some good books for anyone interested.) I then decided to write a book of my own to share the valuable knowledge I was acquiring. There’a great deal of vital information about sources of mood disorders but most of it isn’t well-known. Even therapists seem to be behind the latest findings, and so many sufferers aren’t being treated properly or effectively. It’s a sad state of affairs.

    • John says:

      Hi, Tony –

      That’s a great recovery story, and I look forward to reading your book. I’ll do a post on it here as well. Many of us with depression haven’t gotten as far as you did through understanding what the disorders are and where they come from in their own lives – even with the help of good therapists.

      Therapists, psychiatrists, physicians – so many are often lagging behind, as you say, and the MDs these days start with medications before you can even get to a therapist or find out what the problem really is.

      Every story of healing helps a lot.

      Thanks for coming by.

      John

  6. Adam Glenn says:

    This is my first time visiting your site, but after reading a few of your posts I know it won’t be the last. Congratulations on the PsychCentral top 10 nomination. I definitely feel this de-realization, de-personalization in my own depression. It sometimes feels like the only way to make it through a day. The hard part is getting out of that feeling once I’m in it and getting back into being a part of reality.

  7. jerry says:

    hi john,

    I like this site. Personally, i love to read articles related to dissociation. This topic to me is some kind of a very interesting and unique topic. Thanks!

  8. wonderingsoul says:

    Hi John,

    How are you?

    I’ve not caught many of your posts lately, mainly because a) you were blogging elsewhere and b) although I have tried to add you to my blogroll, it refuses to update and show your new posts and only refers back to an old one… I’m not sure how to get around that…

    I read your post on dissociation with interest.
    I have this issue, though I hadn’t previously understood what it was or that it had a name.

    I’ve written a little about it on my blog under the tags ‘The Mind Thing’ and ‘Dissociation’.

    My experiences vary from visual disturbances, to strong feelings of things being totally unreal.
    I often don’t remember whole chunks of sessions / time, particularly when I am in a state of panic or extreme upset.

    Hope you are well John,

    Always a fan of yours,

    WS

    x

    • John says:

      Hi, WS –

      It’s great to hear from you again. I followed up on dissociation at your blog. As usual, I’m amazed and moved by your writing, but also seared by the inner pain you describe all too well. I never know what to say in response, but know that I’m always a fan of yours too.

      I’m well and hope you’re getting some sunlight. 🙂

      John

  9. Margaret says:

    When I read your last essay my first thought was DISSOCIATION, yet you used the word panic to describe the experience.

    I experience de-realization + de-personalization fairly often. Early on in therapy I frequently underwent dissociation when discussing highly emotional topics. This was a protective mechanism to cope with overwhelming emotions. For several hours after the appointment I felt confused, disoriented, and generally “out of it.” It was as though I traveled somewhere and needed time to return to reality.

    As for disappearance from life, yes, that has happened for months at a time when suffering through a relapse. During these periods I focus on day to day survival, trying to postpone suicide as I know it is not a good choice.

    • John says:

      Hi, Margaret –

      That’s a grim understatement in your last line. Hopefully, if you can still consider choices in those times of relapse and disappearance, suicide probably isn’t one of them. People I know who have been driven toward suicide don’t think about why’s or should’s but only the how’s – the tools, as Ann Sexton put it. Too horrible to think about. Taking things day by day is a great survival strategy.

      About the panic post, I used that word because the experience was so different from other emotional states I get into. I was panicked because I thought that terrible noise would never stop, and I knew I couldn’t live with it. Maybe it was a form of dissociation, but panic was what I was feeling.

      Thanks for commenting. I always look forward to getting your thoughts and reactions.

      John

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