Growing up I often felt like I was disconnected from myself and the world around me. If I looked at my body too intensely, it didn’t feel like it was mine. It felt like a foreign entity that I was looking after, and I considered it more as a friend than as me. When I fell over and hurt my leg, I would feel sympathy for my leg, as though it wasn’t mine and had a mind of its own.
When I was particularly stressed and anxious, the world would “go weird”. This happened more frequently in the week prior to seeing my dad, and was pretty constant the entire time I was there, to varying degrees. I felt completely disconnected from my surroundings, almost like I was in a dream, except I was awake.
It’s only in the last eight months, that I’ve realised I’ve been experiencing dissociation. If you read my last post, you will have read about my BPD self-diagnosis. It was while researching BPD that I came across derealisation and depersonalisation (types of dissociation), both of which I’ve been experiencing since I was very young.
What is dissociation?
Dissociation is one of the many ways the brain copes with too much stress. It can be the result of trauma, a mental illness, or a side effect of alcohol or drugs. Dissociation is a common symptom of many mental illnesses, such as depression, PTSD, anxiety, borderline personality disorder, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
The experience of dissociation varies from person to person. A common symptom is feeling disconnected from yourself and the world around you. The sensation can last from minutes to months; it varies depending on the person.
Although dissociation can be experienced in a variety of ways, psychiatrists have grouped together particular dissociative experiences and given them the following names.
A person with dissociative amnesia may not be able to remember things that happened in their life or about themselves, resulting in gaps in their memory. This is common in abuse victims, where the victim may have no memory of the traumatic event(s), and has used dissociation as a way to cope by mentally removing themselves from the situation, when they haven’t been physically able to do so.
This is a kind of dissociation where the person may feel their identity shift and change frequently. The person may use a different name(s), speak in different voices, act like different people, or switch between different parts of their personality.
A person who experiences identity confusion may have difficulty defining what kind of person they are. They may feel as though there are distinctly different people inside of them, affecting the way they interact with the world, because there isn’t a distinct sense of ‘self’ or identity.
People with dissociative fugue temporarily lose their sense of personal identity and impulsively travel away from their usual environment. Because they temporarily fail to remember their previous identity, they often create new ones, and take on a new identity in their new environment.
As well as the types of dissociation listed above, there is also derealisation and depersonalisation. Generally speaking, derealisation is feeling like the world around you is unreal, and depersonalisation is feeling as though you yourself aren’t real. Every person’s experience is different, but these are the common symptoms.
My experience of dissociation
- Extreme tiredness
- Sensory overload (this is often when I’m walking by a busy road)
- Overwhelming emotions (e.g. when I’m very low, euphoric, anxious)
- Looking in the mirror for too long
- Staring at parts of my body for too long (often my hands)
- Quick change in sensations (e.g. going from a very dark to bright room; hot to cold)
- Dim lighting
- Thinking back to certain events from my childhood
If I’m exposed to one of these triggers it doesn’t guarantee I’m going to dissociate, it just increases the likelihood. Whenever I do dissociate, it is nearly always due to one of these triggers. When I experience multiple triggers at the same time, it can cause a particularly bad dissociative episode.
*note that dissociation is incredibly difficult to describe, so if you haven’t experienced it before, it may be hard to completely understand.
When I experience derealisation the world looks physically different. Everything is bright, almost to the point of looking white. I’m overloaded with sensory information, and I feel as though my eyes are stretched wide open, like someone is holding my eyelids and not letting me blink. It’s almost like I’m seeing in monochrome, except I’m not because everything’s in colour, but the uniformity of brightness makes everything look the same.
Everything is bigger, brighter, more detailed. It’s as though I can now see 360 degrees; like the image I was seeing before was cropped and filtered to be small and dull. Particular objects seem visually emphasised, like they are in focus and everything else is slightly blurred; and yet I can still see everything clearly. Patterns of similarity stick out from my environment- colours, shades, textures, shapes- all are visually grouped together as though my brain is trying to decode something.
The world looks hyperreal, which may seem contradictory if I’m describing derealisation as the world looking the opposite. But this change in perception, in viewing the world in this bright, white, hyper-real state, the world doesn’t look real at all. It feels more real than a dream, because I know what I’m experiencing is real life, but everything looks and feels like it would if I was dreaming. I’d describe it as experiencing life asleep.
Sometimes objects look like they’re getting bigger or smaller; they can even change colour. I remember being in a biology lesson and the clock on the wall seeming to be getting bigger by the second, except it wasn’t taking up any more space in the room. If I looked at the clock’s surroundings, it didn’t look like it was getting any closer to them, but when I looked back to the clock it looked as though it was continuing to grow. I remember being filled with intense anxiety- was it going to continue getting bigger and eventually swallow me up?
Because of this change in perception, I feel completely disconnected from the world around me. My surroundings are visually clear, and yet they are foggy, because nothing seems real. I watch people and they look like robots, or actors in a film. I might as well be sitting on my sofa and watching the TV, because that’s how disconnected I feel from everything around me; it is like I’m watching life through a TV screen. Life around me is but a series of moving pictures, almost like everything is in 2D.
It’s difficult to say how often I experience derealisation, because the intensity with which I dissociate varies enormously. I experience mild symptoms multiple times a day, with things around me looking strange, unreal and disconnected. I can still function while experiencing this; things just looking a little weird doesn’t stop me from going to school, making conversation, and doing everyday tasks. People would be completely unaware that I was dissociating.
A few times a week I can experience a more severe episode, which can last from thirty minutes to hours long. I can still function, but I’m unable to focus on anything significant. I seem quite zoned-out, quiet, and distant. I might appear low and disconnected from the conversation. When I look at someone, I might not appear to be fully looking at them, and as though I’m in another world. Faces are extremely strange to me when I’m in this state, so it’s often hard to focus on what people are saying when I’m looking at them. I find derealisation exhausting, and it causes a sudden decline in energy; friends and family might notice me yawning a lot, or generally seeming tired and distant.
Every few weeks I tend to experience a severe episode of derealisation. I normally know when it’s about to happen, because I get a peculiar sensation in the nerves running up and down my spine and neck. It gives me the intense and desperate need to raise my shoulders and retract my neck, so the muscles are contracted. I generally feel the need to contract every muscle in my body until I’m scrunched into a ball. If I’m not alone and unable to do this, I clench my fists, jaw, and toes instead. This sensation can last throughout a dissociative episode, but it’s most common in the severe ones.
My worst experience of derealisation was about a week ago. I was feeling very low and so decided to go for a walk. Low mood, accompanied by thinking back to childhood events, as well as the sensory overload of the busy road, caused me to severely dissociate. It made me feel incredibly nauseous and I felt as if I couldn’t walk properly. I had to continuously contract the muscles in my neck to relieve the ‘tingling’ sensation. It made me confused, disorientated, and at one point I considered walking home, because I was worried that if I went further I wouldn’t be able to get back.
Everything around me looked strange and disfigured, and I found myself very confused at my surroundings. My head movements were erratic as I attempted to absorb the sensory information the dissociated world was giving me. Because my eyes felt as though they were stretched wide open and strained, I was repetitively blinking as a way to try to wake myself up. The sensation was exhausting, and by the time I got back home all I could do was lay on my bed. It stayed this way for the rest of the day, but my symptoms began to settle down.
For me, depersonalisation is feeling like I’m unreal; I’m completely disconnected from myself. It feels as though I’m watching myself from afar; a passive observer, not an active participant. It’s like I’m trapped in my body, which seems completely foreign to me. I look at my hands, and they look different to before; I’m convinced they’re not mine. I feel like I’m not in control of my body and what it decides to do; how I want it to behave directly contradicts how it decides to behave. My voice doesn’t sound like mine and it seems to say things I didn’t give it permission to.
Below shows a short extract from a diary entry I wrote a year ago. I didn’t realise at the time I was experiencing dissociation.
Lately I feel like I’m watching my life through a TV screen; like I’m an actor in my own play, restricted to a script I don’t have the power to change.
It feels like I’m on autopilot, observing my actions rather than steering them. My hands move, but it’s like I’m watching someone else’s. I can’t focus on any one thing; everything feels like a blur, and yet it’s visually clear. I feel detached from my emotions and observe them as though they belong to the body I’m inside, and not me. I lack a sense of self, and am unsure of the boundaries between myself and other people. I seem to mould and morph into my surroundings; I feel like I’m being swallowed by my environment.
Sometimes I feel as though I’m rising into the air, and slipping away. A common sensation is feeling like I’m floating on the very top of my head and looking down. My surroundings look further away than they would if I was looking at them through my eyes.
During sixth form, when I was very low, I would depersonalise during A level lessons. I’d feel unreal and would repeatedly “zone out”. When I thought back to the lessons, I could hardly remember anything that happened in them. I could remember being there, except it didn’t feel like me, and so my memories felt fake. It left me very confused; I knew I’d been present, but I hadn’t felt present.
During these episodes I don’t recognise myself when I look in the mirror. I know rationally that the person is me, and I recognise myself in that I remember what I’m supposed to look like, but somehow my face feels foreign. I keep expecting the face looking back at me to do something; to smile, or frown, or yawn, or do something that will show it’s not me. Even when I’m not dissociating, I resist looking in the mirror too intensely, because it can cause me the same feeling. Looking directly into the reflection of my eyes is immediately triggering.
If I do this when I’m alone, I find it quite frightening. I used to joke with my friends that I could scare myself if I moved toward the mirror quickly. This is because a part of me doesn’t believe the person in the mirror is me, and when I was younger it reminded me of a horror film; I was scared of the person in the mirror, because it didn’t feel like me.
I experience mild symptoms of depersonalisation most days, but it doesn’t tend to last for as long as derealisation. The severe episodes of depersonalisation are less often, but when they do occur they are normally accompanied by derealisation, so everything looks and feels unreal and disconnected.
I hope this gives an insight into my experience of dissociation. Everyone dissociates differently, so I cannot speak for everyone who experiences derealisation and depersonalisation; this is just my experience.
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