I had a comment on a 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 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 post about writing:
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?
I’m not sure where to start ( and not sure but sincerely hoping this will be read and commented on as i’ve just checked the dates from way back)
This is the first time i’ve reached out in a very long time other than with close family as i fear rejection massively but also have come to accept it as the norm.
I’ve lived with depression for most of my life ( now 41) and currently going through horrendous depression. been off my antipresssnts for a few months but now going back on as i just cannot cope. I was first put on antidepressants ( prozac) at 17- a bad one for me but was the big buzz antidepressant in the 90s! I had just had a break up with the first love of my life and it think
i’ve just recently realised since it affected me so immensely and horrendously that it triggered something in me that relayed back to when my parents split up and a rejection trigger so
painful it felt like the biggest grief I had experienced at the time. My mum was beside herself with worry and took me to the doctors and walked out with the prescription for prozac along with an afternoon off 6th form every wednesday where a counselor got me to lie down in a darkened room and wafted lavender under my nose….
No, it didn’t work. it was totally unhelpful and counterproductive. Im not sure if I would have gotten through the depression without the prozac or actually that Ive always needed more seratonin/ dopamine levels in my brain. it seemed to work somewhat although i look back on some pictures and look glazed in the eyes/ dead in the eyes. Most of the time I still wasn’t happy and to make matters worse my hair thinned somewhat and got lighter while being on the drug. (my mum thought I was mad when I first told her but later realised it was the truth. ) So, I had another reason to be depressed. not only had I depression, anxiety generally but also, although I had no idea of the name at the time – I just thought I was very different to everyone else- I also had body dysmorphia which for many years I have thought is my main issue- but now without taking antidepressants I actually feel it’s just another issue as I’m experiencing the depression at another level.
What counteracts the depression and has kept me going is the support of my family and God but also an inherent sense of determination. But it’s felt like an almost constant battle with crippling self consciousness, social anxiety, constant self hatred.
During the last few months stopping antidepressants full stop ( at first coping very well really but gradually not ) and now just feeling as if i’m in a pit, feelings of disassociation, numbness, can’t move, frustrated as everything takes me ages to do anything. I have 2 children one of whom seems to have anxiety, possibly depression and seems to have oppositional syndrome. as you can imagine I’m going through my own hell and honestly cannot cope and wouldn’t be able to
cope without my parents, which again lends itself to another fear. fear of losing them.
I have been on the road of seeing since counsellors, a psychiatrist twice ( once when I had perinatal depression with my 1st son – who diagnosed someOCD tendencies – prob the Body dysmorphia) I’ve never found counselling helpful. the only relief I’ve had is when i’ve battled through crippling anxiety and finally succeeded but I am so tired of the battles and leads me to thoughts of other people coping with do
much more and so
much more easily.
Just when I think I know everything there is to
know about how the illness and how it affects me there’s another turn or another feeling, or another level. The numbness i’ve felt lately, the disassociation that’s different from before. it’s different day to day. i think
it may be something to do with melatonin but most evenings i feel better or if not better at least not so heavy.
Sometimes I can see my mirrored life and what I would have been doing had I not these issues and that makes me cry again. Because I know who I wax meant to be and there have been glimpses and periods of her at many times but then she’s taken back again.
and I love my kids but as of be mentioned my one boy has some complex issues and it takes it out on me day after day. there’s hardly ever any time for me. i’m trying to get back to work and do some courses r to build on post grad i’ve already got to get back to work but i know that if if it’s the wrong place again it will be disastrous for my mental health and also my child’s.
I’m not sure what I’m trying to achieve by writing this, maybe just reaching out, or trying to find extra support. all my life i e just tried to battle through and that’s also meant taking a few different antidepressants ( SSRI’s) and mostly through distraction until i’ve pushed myself too far and it’s resulted in i guess what’s only described as a mental breakdown in various ways, mostly through violent crying sometimes almost a whole day. the latest one I could hardly think even to
put a washing load in and then the banging headache and sickness from that; all i could do was lie on the settee all evening..
my life consists of dreading one thing after another and trying to hide what I am.. it takes it toil and I just feel like i’m stuck and there’s no where to go. I don’t want to
end it. I just want my life to be different. very different. When you have kids and those that you live. and you love them so much you don’t want to end it. you just want to end the life you’ve got at the moment. you just want to know how to live differently, be different. be the best you can be under the circumstances.
Don’t know if you’ll see this or not, but I wanted to reply anyway…
Reading all that you had written was so surreal. It was like looking through a mirror and reading my own story. It made me feel. I have been struggling with my numbness and disassociation for awhile now. I thank you very much for posting that comment. Seeing it made me remember that no matter how alone I feel, and think that I am, it is not wholly accurate. That there ARE other people like me. That as defective as I feel sometimes, it may not be as defective as I think. Less “alone” even though I am the only one right here at this location and moment in time. Again, thank you. I hope you are well.
Sometimes I think we reach out just simply to do that…. to attempt some sort of a connection, yet still feel as though we can remain safe in our aloneness. Finding comfort in what we know- that cozy comfy suffocatingly heavy blanket of self-induced estrangement. At the same time, we crave to feel the “different” that you mentioned. So, we toss out connections from underneath our individual depression blankets. Maybe it helps, maybe it just perpetuates our downward spirals. Maybe we do it so that we feel like someone is reading it and thus interested in us; that we matter. Whatever the case, I DO feel that it is beneficial to put our thoughts and feelings “out there” and let the Universe do as it will with it.
So here is me, attempting a connection. Whether I get a reply back or not does not matter to me. What DOES matter to me is that hopefully whoever reads this feels at least a little connection. To not feel as so utterly alone, floating along, trying to not sink beneath the muddy waters. To at least say to themselves, “hey, I feel/think like that too”. That’s it, that is what I want. Not a connection for myself, but rather, for someone else who also suffers within themselves to know that even if alone, we are together in the alone. I want for people to see that there truly ARE other people with hugely similar stories. Simply put, I want people to feel better.
A person needs to feel better first, then and only then can a person become better.
Donna Carolyn Roy says
If you don’t have it, I suggest you get John Folk-Williams’ ebook “A Mind for Recovery.” I just started reading it and am already feeling more hopeful.
I am 64. I have let the one-man boat of depression carry me into deep waters, knowing I cannot swim. Then that death’s head anchor of existentialism, with its chain around my ankle, has slithered overboard and buried itself far below. If I try to move, I fear I will fall overboard and into my own watery grave.
The older I get the more complacent I feel. As if it is too late to get help. I might as well wait till this boat rots and capsizes, then it won’t be my fault. The depression will have taken me. And my map shows “YOU ARE HERE” with a little arrow out at sea. One of those ancient maps with sea monsters and creatures of the unknown terrors drawn in the empty spaces.
But in his book John talks about mapping your own depression, seeing it not as presented by all those online articles written by “experts” that usually give the same old advice – do this: one, two, three, and voila! Success! But how depression affects you personally, in all the facets of your life. Figure out what your particular siren song is out there at sea in the dark in the middle of the night. Mine is the seeming safety of isolation. If I can only stay here in my one-man boat far out at sea, the ocean of loneliness and fear is so huge I take refuge in it, hoping no one will ever find me. No one will come to the rescue.
But being 64 is also like the last chance. If I haven’t waited too late. Even though I brag that I have tried everything possible to make my way back to shore, that I have spent my whole life dog-paddling against the current to no avail, it isn’t true. The truth is I’m sitting in my apartment with the blinds closed and all sorts of distractions going on around me to keep my mind occupied. I’m screaming for help inside and sending up all sorts of flares, but I realize I am the only one who can hear and see them. So it has to be me who decides — it is now or never. 64 is not too old to still have a life.
Can you reach out to me? I have a lot of things going on that are related to this and I’m trying to get help, but everyone’s stories on here aren’t the same as mine. Mine are coming out physically and there’s times I’m in my mind telling myself to breathe but my body just won’t breathe or move or anything and I’m very scared and worried.
What has helped me with this is sitting in a dark place, where everything is quiet, like a sensory deprivation tank. I either sit in the bathroom or a closet with a towel across the bottom of the door to shut out light. I set my phone timer for 20-30 minutes. First I concentrate on relaxing the muscles in my throat, because that is where my tension builds up. Then relax my neck, throat, facial muscles, those in my mouth, then through my chest, back, arms, legs. Concentrate on breathing slowly in and out, checking to make sure the muscles and tendons in throat and neck are still relaxed. I next clear my thought out. I don’t use a mantra. I don’t picture anything or do “positive thinking” or use memes or anything. I just empty my thoughts and keep them away, keep all the words out of my head as much as possible for that amount of time I have scheduled. When the alarm sounds, I turn it off and sit for a moment, reintroducing myself to the world. I always feel so much more relaxed, able to deal with my surroundings – inner and outer. If I do this once or twice a day, everything is a little easier. There is aways a time for journaling, talking to a professional, investigating prescription medications for relaxation, etc., But from a standpoint of using all of these for years, I still find that the sitting without stimulus, emptying my mind, relaxing, breathing deeply — this is what really helps IN THE MOMENT. Hope you can find some relief.
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.
I know I am replying to an old comment. Just want to check if you are doing good.
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 —
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
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.
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.
Tony Giordano says
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.
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.
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.
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!
Hi, Jerry –
Thanks for coming by!
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,
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. 🙂
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.
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.