The Long Road Back

If you’ve been following my journey through the dissociative disorder known as depersonalization, thank you. Writing about it, and knowing it is being read about, has helped me cope a great deal, and that means a lot to me. Maybe my words are helping you understand what I’m going through, or maybe you’re going through depersonalization too and my words are helping you feel less alone. I hope they are helping someone.Right now, my periods of depersonalization are farther and fewer between than they have been. I’ve been here before, and I’m glad I’m back to feeling. Counselling has recently revealed that there are so many deeply engrained mechanisms in play in my head that isolate me from my feelings that I need to be mindful and try to dismantle them.

Where they’ve come from, I’m not sure, and neither is my counselor. We both suspect bullying played a large part in it, but it may have even existed before then too. And bullying brings it back. It’s something I’ll have to keep you up-to-date about.

I see my counselor every other week now. Four sessions ago (nearly 10 weeks ago now I am sharing this), I was a mess. He asked if I noticed my reactions: holding my emotions at arms-length and a logical mind dissecting them like some alien creature on a tray. He was right, and it was how I felt. A great deal of numbness — physically, mentally, emotionally — and all these mechanisms came into play. It wasn’t depersonalization — that has a distinct buzz, or a total lack of feeling, and I was feeling things now — but it was something strong keeping my emotions at bay. Sometimes, we’d break through slightly, but whatever it was fought back. My logical side realized how frustrating it must have been for him as it was totally annoying for me. So I vowed to work on it.

Three sessions ago, there were some breakthroughs. I wasn’t as robotic as I had been in the previous session, and the emotions were closer to me, but the logical mind was still analyzing them. We worked on ways to try to bring those emotions back into sync with the rest of me: breathing, focusing, relaxing. Looking inward at different sensations in my body and describing them, techniques I have undertaken with both James (my previous counselor) and Michael (my current counselor), this has some grounding aspect to it. My counselor commented on how quickly I can sometimes “snap” back into being “whole” again, and it wasn’t depersonalization fully at play now. There was some other behaviour, a learned one, which was there too. I totally agree.

In between three sessions ago and two sessions ago, I worked hard to put these techniques into practice. One of the things I found I had been doing post-depersonalization was, when I was having an emotional moment, my mind tended to start to dissect and analyze it fully, so the moment was not as enjoyable / unenjoyable as it should have been, and the “fading away” of the emotional response seemed sharper. (This was a knee-jerk reaction to regaining my emotions in short, sharp bursts the first time I started to come out of depersonalization, perhaps a way to blunt the sharpness.) I decided this wasn’t a good thing, so when I found myself laughing, I rolled with it. Let it play out as long as it would without looking too closely at it. This seemed to work. I feel more “grounded” lately than I have in a while. It’s like that feeling you get when you sit cross-legged on the ground with your bare feet in the summer: connected to the Earth.

Also in between those two sessions, there was a major anxiety-driven moment, followed by me combatting that anxiety, and a major emotional moment emerging from that. It appears that the extreme anxiety I felt when I got angry — we’re talking hands numbing and a spider’s web of numbness inside me — also could trigger when I got beyond frustrated and wracked with grief and sadness as well.

I won’t go on about it too much here, but we received a detailed response back from NZQA regarding our complaint. It’s honestly gaslighting at its finest. If you don’t remember, the evaluators last year in my part of our review refused to accompany me to my office to see the various spreadsheets and facts and figures on my computer so I could work in my native environment and feel more at ease with the whole scenario. Instead, they demanded I print out one of our Excel databases with the various facts and figures and make me tape the four-sheet-wide-by-four-sheet-long spreadsheet up in front of them while explaining it to them — bear in mind this is a big no-no for a person with depersonalization as it can cause major problems for that person due to the stress and unfamiliarity and a non-related task, which pulls them into depersonalization and affects their cognitive answering skills through dissimilar actions — which really knocked me for a loop. (I was very open and honest to them in the opening meeting about my illness, the triggers, and my willingness to state when I was having problems. They understood this.)

During the meeting between the evaluators and me, I stated several times that:

  • I was uncomfortable and having problems; and
  • Due to this, I asked them both if they understood what I was saying because I felt kinda like I was speaking in Klingon due to the detachment depersonalization can make a person feel; and
  • I asked for a support person in the room with me, on more than one occasion, when it was becoming unbearable.

In response, they kept saying:

  • Everything was fine; and
  • They assured me they understood what I was talking about; and
  • They refused to allow me to have a support person.

I complained about this. I continue to complain about this.

To put it into perspective with a physical disability: it’d be like tipping someone with wasted legs out of their wheelchair down the stairs, then telling them they are okay. “Keep pulling your body along with your arms. You’re doing great.” (“By the way, you fell down the stairs wrong, and we never tipped you out of your wheelchair. You must’ve tripped, even though you can’t use your legs.”)

The detailed response said that I was completely mistaken, I had recalled absolutely positively everything incorrectly, and I was basically lying — this is a recurring theme with NZQA, and I know it’s not me because there have been several times where there have been 5, 20, 50 of us and NZQA presents one view completely contrary to reality (the Targeted Review of Qualifications, NZQA’s course closure response to the 22 February 2011 earthquake, and the 2011 earthquake meeting at Middleton Grange on 2 March 2011 being three of them) — and that I had been adamant that the spreadsheet was printed out and taped up, I never sought to clarify anything, I appeared confused, I never asked for a support person, and I was hell-bent that I alone was the only person in the galaxy who could answer these questions.

Imagine reading that kind of gaslighting non-sense when your emotions finally seem to be in full swing again. Me? Print out a spreadsheet four pages wide and four pages long? You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. That’s the worst idea I’ve ever heard and something you’d expect your 90 year old, technologically-challenged manager to demand. I wouldn’t suggest it as a viable option in million years. Again: you’ve got to be fucking kidding me!

If I appeared “confused”, anyone who knew about my depersonalization and with an ounce of compassion and sense would have thought, “Man, there’s something wrong here. Maybe we need to take a break or get him some help.” It’d be like seeing the signs someone was having a stroke and chugging along with the meeting anyway. Who does that?

(And before anyone says, “But what are the signs someone is going into a dissociative state?” I’ve had perfect strangers see my face suddenly go blank and I appear out of sorts and they ask me if I’m okay. So there’s no excuse for two women — both of who are mothers, nonetheless — to not see that change in another person sitting directly across from them and not recognize something was wrong.)

Back to my reaction to NZQA’s response: I went numb. As in my hands were cold and numb, and I felt like a bunch of spiders were spinning webs made of ice inside of me. The thoughts took over. What if they convince the entire world they are right? Even though I never print out spreadsheets like that. Am I going mad? Did I actually experience the entire event differently than what I believed happened? Are they going to keep on doing this to me until I go bonkers? How do they feel it’s appropriate to question someone’s professional integrity like that?

This is where things went different.

Somewhere deep inside me, I felt this great urge to cry. It felt like a deep well in the pit of my stomach, bored into the core of me. There was a cap on it. That spider group was weaving a big, heavy, icy cap on that pit.

I made the conscious decision to burn away the cap and face the emotions. Instead of stewing at my computer at work and let my thoughts get the better of me, I stood up and went into Noel’s office, closing the door behind me and pulling the chair up to his desk.

And then I cried. A very deep, sobbing cry, as I told him everything.

Bless him, he sat there and listened. And, I could tell, he was pretty angry as well.

You see, as I have said before, and as I said to Noel at the time, depersonalization has mugged me. It has robbed me of nearly everything. I no longer enjoy things I once enjoyed. If I do, it is fleeting or temporary. Most of the time, I feel lost or small or inadequate or shrinking. I’m this husk of who I used to be.

But at work, I felt like I was on steady ground. Over 22 years, I’ve done some amazing things and worked really hard and accomplished some great achievements.

We fought hard to build the school up to what it is. Instead of taking the easy way out, we stuck to our guns with the level of professionalism and standards we expected, even if it meant we lost money by not taking applicants who we knew wouldn’t make it through our courses. We clawed our way back from a series of earthquakes that nearly destroyed the school to create something even better from what little was left over. And the accolades and awards not only we but also our graduates were winning from our peers were proof of that hard work.

And here was a bunch of people who barely knew me, being what I feel is spiteful because I had the audacity to push back and complain (and yes, I still feel I am right), were gaslighting me to take even that away from me. “No, Scott,” their response seemed to say, “even that is wrong. You are wrong. Everything you said about your experiences during the meeting were wrong. Everything you are is wrong.”

That pushed me over the edge emotionally. Anger, frustration, exasperation, sadness, grief: it all exploded into a fireball of emotions.

See, I’ve dealt with gaslighting before. The Man I Once Loved, at times, was very good at it. So now, I can recognize it for what it is at a million parsecs away.

That doesn’t mean it still doesn’t cut you to the core and make you doubt yourself though.

The session before last with the counselor, we spoke about it. When we got close to the emotion, this feeling, which I can only equate to a big, dead, heavy stone, capped that deep well where the crying came from before. I fought with it a lot. It would roll back, then roll over again. And that’s where the counselor said that there was a lot more work to do in that area. I totally agree with him.

After the February and June 2011 earthquakes, I went into counselling with a counselor who worked at my doctor’s office. The local health authority allowed 6 sessions with a counselor for people affected by the quakes. He brought up that he thought I might be suffering from some sort of complicated grief, a sadness that prevails long after the period of grieving should be over. At that time, I wasn’t 100% sure what could be causing it or if, indeed, it existed. And, after a few more sessions, it seemed he wasn’t sure if it was there either. I never really explored it much further.

Speaking with Michael, my current counselor, we came to the conclusion that I do internalize my feelings a lot. Instead of acknowledging them and dealing with them at the time, I not only keep them within a wall to stop the outside world from seeing them — and this builds them more and more within me until they are much stronger versions of themselves than they ever should be — but I also “edit” myself so the outside world only usually sees a Pleasantville version of myself. And this isn’t my true authentic self, the one I have written about previously, and the one I want to get back to.

This protects me in a way, because I am very sensitive emotionally. On some level, there is a fear of letting people see all of me, as if seeing me fully would hurt them. In turn, I am neglecting myself, which is unhealthy. I’m more concerned about how other people feel than how I feel. Again, this isn’t being true to my authentic self.

The long road back. You see, I still don’t know how to get back to me, or if I will ever get back to the me I once was, minus all the walls and “editing”. I spoke about the fact that I am listing in my life, and even the strongest of anchors — in this case, my career or my job — no longer feels steadying. This made me well up — when I said it to Noel, when I said it to my counselor, even writing it now — because it is scary. It is honest. It is the raw truth. And it’s a big unknown.

There is fear there. I am afraid I will never get back to who I was. I am scared that I will be this blank slate forever more, and no one or no thing will ever be able to make me whole again.

There is grief there. I am mourning for who I was and what I have lost. Loss. I keep losing. That’s what it feels like. Even where I thought the ground was bedrock in my life is lost.

Reading several stories from people on the Internet who have been depersonalized — and hey, I guess I have to take this with a grain of salt too; you know, the whole Dr. Google thing — they too have faced these same questions. What do I like? Why do I no longer find enjoyment in the things I used to enjoy? Why can’t I find enjoyment in many things? Will I ever get back to who I was, or even some semblance of it? Where is the passion in my life? Will it ever return? Will inspiration ever strike again? Creativity?

Who will understand how I’m feeling? Or even hold my hand and be my champion while I am weak, to help protect me while I recharge, while I recover? To be honest, there’s an army of people who care around me, but I always feel isolated. If it’s so hard for me to trust anyone usually with the real authentic me because I am afraid I’ll get hurt or become depersonalized again, or even something worse, how can I even trust myself? Or drop those walls?

And the biggest questions are: will I ever get back to the me I was? How? And when?