The Depersonalization Merry-Go-Round

If you’re just joining my blog, welcome. You can read about my journey with depersonalization by clicking on the link to the depersonalization tag.

Yesterday, I decided to branch out a little and read through some other entries on other WordPress blogs about depersonalization. Some of the entries reminded me of my own journey with depersonalization, and the merry-go-round effect I get from day-to-day, week-to-week, month-to-month, and so on.

Sometimes I feel this flatness is a “new normal”. Other times, I wonder if I will ever feel “normal” again. Other days, I’m perfectly fine, back feeling emotions at various depths throughout the day before I get pretty tired and retreat back to the flatness.

After five years of living with depersonalization, it feels like a merry-go-round; you keep going round and round, seeing the same things over and over again, sometimes enjoying the ride, and sometimes wondering when you can get off of it.

Reading some of these other entries, I realize how far I’ve come in treatment. To go from completely depersonalized most of the time — feeling no emotions, merely a shell of who I once was — to feeling depersonalized once in a while has been one giant struggle and, quite frankly, a lot of work. I’m not going to lie; sometimes, facing the fact that I have more work to do makes me flat too. It seems overwhelming, and when I find things overwhelming, it can eventually turn to a depersonalization episode. So, I try to break things down into manageable chunks. Sometimes I’m successful, sometimes I’m not.

A few weeks ago, it had been a very difficult day, and I hadn’t slept very well the night before. We were having dinner, and I think Noel was talking while we were watching YouTube on TV, and for whatever reason, it became too much. For the first time in a long time, I had the strong physical sensations of a depersonalization episode. The only way I can describe it — or maybe the better way to say it is the way I visualize it — is a midget sitting on my shoulders, his hands inside my skull, tugging back hard on my brain. That’s the physical sensation I get inside my head when a depersonalization episode is strong.

I had to put my fork and knife down and started to rub my head. I may have even made some sort of noise like a cry, because Noel asked if I was okay. No, I wasn’t okay. But I reminded myself that this would pass.

The way out of it mainly was to focus on eating. What were the sensations I was getting while eating? What was my body doing? How did the food make me feel physically? What did swallowing feel like? One trick my counselor taught me was to focus on physical sensations. While I didn’t feel “normal” right after that episode, it did help bring me out of it as much as I could muster.

On other days, I feel more human. For example, at The Place Where I Work, we had a student whose mother kept barging through the school whenever she felt like it and whose step-father would occasionally come in and confront female members of the team, making them feel unsafe and uncomfortable. The pre-depersonalization me would have got pins-and-needles to the point where I’d have little to no feeling in my hands, I would start shaking, my thoughts would start scattering, and I would nearly be physically sick. Michael (my counselor) told me that I somehow intertwined anxiety with anger, so my anxiety was intermingling with the emotion of anger. Once I had that sorted out in my head, I found that I could sweep aside the anxiety for the most part and focus on using anger as a powerful tool.

In this case, I saw how upset my female colleagues were by this man cornering them and threatening them (which we did not know about until we were told about it), and I knew I would not stand by and let this behavior continue, especially as it was his step-daughter refusing to comply with school rules, or to study, or do anything to help herself to pass that was the problem with the whole situation.

Armed with my anger as a tool, I sat down at my desk and crafted a strongly-worded email to the parents; don’t come into the school proper unaccompanied, stop showing up out of the blue to discuss what you feel are serious issues, and never, ever threaten anyone at the school or make them feel uncomfortable. First warning. If it happened again, one or both of them would be trespassed.

No reply back.

The student had some learning difficulties, so theory was not exactly her strong suit. To compound that, I believe from memory, she has a lower-than-average IQ (developmental issues). Her teacher and one of our directors, as well as our student officer, tried to tell her that she needed to study in order to pass, and even more so with all the difficulties she faced. Her parents were told she definitely needed an outside tutor to help her as we are not remedial or specialist teachers; they were told this by her teacher, the student officer, our principal, and one of our directors. I also put it in my email to them as final theory examinations were coming up.

They didn’t comply.

Pre-depersonalization me would worry about this. But something I have learned (by myself, I might add) through my journey with depersonalization is that I am not responsible for other people’s emotions. I am not responsible for their actions. I am not responsible for their decisions. I can only be responsible for how I act and react, how I feel, and what I decide to do. Why burn up my precious emotional energy worrying about the consequences of these parents not taking our advice to get their daughter a specialist tutor?

I need to interject that the daughter was passing her course, practically and theory-wise, at this point in time. The theory barely, but she was passing.

The final theory examination came up, and the daughter failed by a significant margin. Both the teacher and one of our directors told her she had a chance to resit it in a few months, and they would help her by reviewing her theory exam paper with her to see where her strengths and her weaknesses were.

Lo-and-behold, the step-father re-emerges, in an email this time, from his work email address, threatening the director with physical violence for some made-up allegation about his daughter. (Allegedly, the director had said something to another student about his daughter; he didn’t.) Oh, and he was going to go to the media because we were a really bad, no good, awful school, and he had allllll these people who could back that up. (Yeah, right.)

Again, I didn’t become anxious, but boy-oh-boy, did I become angry. So I took to the keyboard again, right away, and replied back. Strike two on the threats towards team members. Sugar-coated it all by saying we want our students to achieve and succeed, and also, all she had to do to pass was: resit her final theory exam; sit her final practical exam in six months; and complete her portfolio work in those six months. All manageable, all achievable, all something that could easily been completed. And, at the end, I replied to the threat of going to the media with our owners have been running the school for three-and-a-half decades and have had thousands upon thousands of successful graduates who worked hard to get their qualifications, and the results were plain to see with our owners getting a lifetime achievement award in 2013 and then inducted into the hall of fame a few years later, and our graduates taking out the top prize at the industry awards two years running, one of which had 3 finalists, 2 of which were our graduates. (When we make up 5% of the education funding in New Zealand in our industry, and at one awards show, around 40% of the winners are our graduates, that’s pretty good.)

Guess what? No reply back.

During the first week of portfolio check-ups for this student and her fellow classmates, all the classmates made appointments and showed up. This student did not show up. The director had written her twice — once to go over her exam paper with her, once to make an appointment about her portfolio work — and he got no reply.

I wrote twice in the week the deadline was approaching. The first email was outlining everything already stated, and I sent a carbon-copy to her parents (as this student is under 18). I again stated that Friday that week was the deadline, and there were no extensions. She needed to make an appointment with him to come in and discuss her portfolio work. Again, I also outlined that she only had a few more hurdles to jump before she qualified, and since these hurdles were mostly practical in nature, she should have no problem completing them.

No reply.

I wrote another email (as the teacher told me that this student had expressed to her at some point that she didn’t think she wanted to complete the course) to inform her what she needed to do to withdraw if that was her intention. I included the form. Again, I let her know of the deadline. Friday.

No reply.

Thursday that week was a public holiday in New Zealand, so the school was closed, but our director came in anyway to accommodate students who were not able to make it in during the normal week. This student did not show up.

Friday morning, I find an email in my work inbox that I have been carbon-copied into. I took the day off, so I was hoping not to have to work, but I saw the email(s) in my inbox on my phone, and that gnawed at me, so I broke down and checked them on my computer. This is one of the other struggles I have had with depersonalization; let the anxiety build instead of confronting the issue, or confront the issue, even if it is during my down time, and go from there. To be honest, there is no simple or easy solution to this matter.

It’s an email from the step-father to some sort of high level psychologist or psychiatrist at the district health board. From what I understood — and I can’t remember the entirety of her case, so I can’t be 100% sure — the student was seeing a specialist to deal with developmental and mental health issues. I am pretty sure (from memory) this was to do with her learning difficulties and developmental issues.

In the email, the step-father went on about basically how mean we were, how confrontational we were, how he was going to go to all these different agencies to get us shut down, and so on, and so forth.

Again, pre-depersonalization me would have started to get all those overwhelming signs of anxiety. During depersonalization at its worse, my thoughts would fly off a million different directions and I would go foggy mentally. But I used the tools my counselor gave me, and it honed my focus.

I have found — especially throughout and post-depersonalization — that it is sometimes difficult for me to read complex documents. There is an element of not being able to focus sometimes. So I did some research and found that bullet points and numbered lists help immensely.

Since the step-father had a significant brain injury a few years ago — and I believe this is at the core of why he responds with violence and threats at any given time — I put my response into a numbered list with each separate idea in a separate number.

I repeated everything I had said in the last few emails. My anger helped focus me and pinpoint the words in the best order to make our points very clear.

The email also stated the really important point that his daughter needed to turn in her portfolio work that day, withdraw formally from the course that day, or we would assume she had abandoned the course.

I also called his bluff and carbon-copied the psychologist into the email. To be honest, I’m pretty sure the psychologist understood the bluster the step-father erupted with at any given time so took the step-father’s email with a grain of salt. But I felt that if the step-father was sharing my correspondence with the psychologist, that gave me permission to do the same so he could hear and see our side of the story.

And, instead of fussing over the contents too much — it was my day off, after all — I pressed send. No anxiety, no fear, only anger and pressing that button released that energy. I could go on with my day and not give this man, his daughter, and his wife any more thought.

Pre-depersonalization, and even during depersonalization sometimes, I would have worried about it all day. But I didn’t. Setting the anxiety aside, as it is separate from anger, and using the anger’s power and energy there and then to deal with the issue, gave me permission to have the feeling, use it as a tool, and release it when I was done.

Our student officer wrote me a brief note and told me it was a very to-the-point email, and it was great. It got everything across again.

Guess what?

No reply.

I am an intelligent person. In my 24 years at the school, I have seen a lot of different students, a few of who thought they could pull the wool over my eyes. (News flash: kid from Chicago is a lot more street-smart than that.) And I can read situations usually pretty well when I trust my gut instinct and my emotions. (Again, an issue I have had throughout depersonalization.)

The step-father blustered every time his daughter didn’t do something. She didn’t study and did poorly in class? He comes in and threatens people. She didn’t pass her final theory exam because she didn’t study when she really, really, really needed to study at like 190%? He emails he’s going to beat up a director and go to the media to shame the school. She didn’t complete her portfolio work (we assume) so had nothing to show when she would come in for her first appointment to review it? He passive-aggressively emails a psychologist and carbon-copies us into it.

It’s his modus operandi, and it is psychological projection. Don’t be mad at the daughter; be mad at everyone else.

I wasn’t going to give into it.

Here’s where I am at on the depersonalization merry-go-round. I am stronger. I am not fully recovered, but I am starting to regain my footing. I can control what I can control, and I am not responsible for how other people act. I have the right, and I need to give myself permission, to feel, to trust my inner instincts, to listen to, and accept, my emotions and emotional responses. I will not be taken advantage of, and I will not stand for injustice. But I also will not tolerate bullshit. I am a good person, I am kind, I am loving, I am helpful, I am compassionate and caring, but I will not allow others to exploit those qualities in me.

I feel like I am coming out of this experience a better, more well-rounded person. The depersonalization merry-go-round is slowing down, and it’s almost time to disembark. I think I’m almost ready.