by Christina Neuwirth
While I have lived with moments of depersonalisation since I was a small child, I had never spoken about it until I was 16. When I opened up to a friend, an eerie thing happened — he was experiencing the same symptoms, and first told me the name for this feeling. I suddenly felt less alone in this weird, unreal world I sometimes inhabited. The same thing happened again when I spoke with a friend about it last year, at 26: I started describing what I was feeling, and she told me that she was feeling it too.
As part of the preparation for this essay I searched the University of Edinburgh library system for mentions of depersonalisation. I got five books out, but none of them have a satisfying explanation of the condition. One does talk about how it is often a symptom of PTSD. An attempt at describing what it feels like to me came into sharper focus when I flipped through another book, in which the author writes, at the beginning of a chapter about multiple personalities, ‘We change over time, yet we know, we feel, we are always the same person. (…) Ultimately, the feeling of oneness, of being a single unique person, cannot be separated from our sense that we have a name, just as our awareness of the thing called redness cannot be separated from the single word “red.”’ (I. Rosenfield, The Strange, Familiar, and Forgotten — An Anatomy of Consciousness, Picador (1992), p.120)
I don’t feel that. I don’t feel that I have multiple personalities, but I also don’t uniquely recognise my past versions as part of who I am. Does everyone feel like that? I often have to remind myself who I was, and who I am now.
It’s a lonely thing for me, because I’ve kept quiet about even experiencing it for so long. My sister only found out when I told her I was writing this essay. My Dad still doesn’t know. The more I seek to describe my symptoms and find words for them, the more it pulls me under. Talking about what’s happening to me makes it start to happen. When it happens I can go deeper into it if I surrender. At first I’ll become strange to myself. Then those around me become strange, then my surroundings.
Then I fold like a book and my life becomes a story rather than a reality. I start to feel dread about the idea that maybe I’ll wake up out of my life. Maybe this chapter will end and then my actual life will resume.
I go deeper: it’s a zoomed out feeling. It’s tempting to tell myself my life story, how I got to wherever I am, but sometimes when I look at the timeline of choices and years it takes me to the edge of my existence, the edge of my being, and folds me up further (where Rosenfield talks about names, I instinctively remembered trying not to look at my own reflection for fear I wouldn’t recognise myself). If I remind myself when I was born the impossibility of thinking beyond that becomes paralysing. My consciousness now, my thinking, panicking mind, bumps up against the idea that there was a time when it didn’t exist. A time before thought.
When I go deeper the zooming out is more intense. Like I can see the landmass I am on, the planet, the stars — like in a film, I feel I am exiting my physical form and becoming just a thought.
I have never spoken to a counsellor about it although I went to one regularly at different times of my life after my mother passed away. It felt like grief was a real, legitimate thing that I was feeling for a reason, while the depersonalisation was something more hazy, and sounded more made-up to me.
It is a relief to be able to talk about this world I am inhabiting, but it is also challenging because I trigger myself when I talk about it. The connections I have made with the people I know are feeling this too are invaluable: they make me feel less alone. So I wrote this essay here. To let you know that, if you feel this too, you aren’t alone.