Understanding and Dismantling Depersonalization

In counseling on Thursday, we dove right in to depersonalization and my symptoms when I have a major episode versus a minor episode versus everyday life.

Last session, I spoke with him about that pulling back sensation I get when I am having a major depersonalization episode. This has not happened as often as it used to happen, although I did have an episode last week where physical symptoms were present and, while not as strong as they usually are, it was noticeable.

Last Thursday, I felt a bit blue with a tinge of anxiety. The day before seemed a shit-show of a day, and it ended with me feeling quite upset. But last Thursday, I was bobbing between feeling something and a little bit of distance.

Michael (my counselor) asked me how those “distant” moments felt. As gross as it sounds, on days where the depersonalization is showing very minor symptoms, I sometimes feel like I’m wearing a mask made of my own skull and the flesh on it. Other days, I feel slightly like I am slightly in front of it, like my eyeballs are sticking out and I’m somehow beyond or outside my own body by an inch or less.

It’s always behind or in front of my body. When I first started having the physical derealization symptoms (which I don’t have often), sometimes I would feel like I was slightly beside myself (always to the right, weirdly enough), but for many years, I feel either in front of, or behind, my body. When it is somewhat stressful situation-wise and I am depersonalized, especially at work, I feel myself creeping further forward from myself. It is a very odd sensation.

Last Thursday, though, I was having only a few moments of being behind my skull and skin, but most of the time, I felt very present and emotionally engaged.

The problem I find with counseling is that when I start talking and engaging in concepts or drift back to memories, it takes me out of the moment emotionally and I become robotic again. It is something I really need to work on.

We switched more to what happens inside me when I become depersonalized. That was a bit easier to explain. A lot of the time, I feel like I am retreating back inside myself. Making myself small so I’m less of a target for anything I perceive as a threat. And, throughout my depersonalization, and now I am more in the post-depersonalization phase (partial remission as my counselor likes to call it), that threat klaxon sounds more often than not.

The realization of this, I explained, came to me a few weeks ago at the supermarket. For the longest time, when someone is standing back to look at the selection on a shelf, and I want to go past them, I found myself trying to shrink myself down, and saying, “Sorry, excuse me”. This is a physical manifestation of what I do internally: make myself a smaller target, apologize for being me, shrink as much as I can so I don’t inconvenience anyone else.

It happens to varying degrees. Sometimes the depersonalization is so strong that I push my feelings into a tight ball inside me to deal with later. This is especially true around sadness and grief. (Anger used to be a problem but I seem to be dealing with that a bit better lately too.)

Another part of the depersonalization related to retreating inside of myself is that by not showing any emotion, or being a blank mask, others can imprint their own thoughts and emotions on me. I might not agree with those thoughts and emotions, they may not be even close to what I am actually feeling at the moment, but it again makes me less of a target because I am pleasing to that person and they connect to me somehow. This is partially remnants from being bullied and chipping away those “odd” parts to become less gay and more accepted. It takes time and effort to chip those pieces away.

So these mechanisms are still at play. I explained to Michael that it happens with sadness and grief — I need to do this in private, and this may have come about by the fact that others sometimes have not been very supportive or kind during times where I am upset or have had a major depressive episode, and it becomes easier to deal with my internal pain by myself than have to deal with that internal pain in addition to external pain and shame from others to complicate the situation further — and it also happens when I feel overwhelmed.

(On a side note, that was another issue we discussed briefly: when people dismiss or try to minimalize or micromanage my feelings. With lacking the confidence of emotional engagement to begin with having depersonalization, having someone dismiss or minimalize my emotions makes these mechanisms worse. That’s a subject for another session and another blog, methinks.)

One of the major issues that causes a depersonalization episode or three is when I’m expected to complete several complex tasks at once. It seems that some people can’t understand this is very difficult for me to do now, especially when they knew me pre-depersonalization and multi-tasking was not a difficult thing for me to undertake.

So too there are elements of feeling not being listened to and feeling not being respected. The lack of understanding — I don’t show physical symptoms all the time, I’m not missing a leg or an arm or something physical like that — that I am not the same person I was before the depersonalization and I cannot operate the same way I did before the depersonalization can be very frustrating. Pre-depersonalization, I could have several things on the boil at once. I could type and talk and listen to music, be interrupted by something else, then come back to what I was doing without missing a beat.

That person is gone.

I can’t do everything any more. I don’t have that concentration or the energy to devote to all that. It’s like what I imagine a brain injury must be like for someone. They aren’t quite the same person they were before.

I am trying to be more vocal about this. The issue is sometimes I say something, and it is completely ignored, or it becomes about them and not about me. It’s extremely tiring to have this condition as is without having to try to swing the conversation back around to me and my needs / wants, so sometimes I don’t bother. And that leads to depersonalization. And depersonalization is a really shitty place to live my life.

At the end of the session, I told Michael that I had read a bunch of blogs related to depersonalization on WordPress, and I saw my journey reflected there in those posts. But, I added, I felt that some of what was written was me three or four years ago, towards the start of my counselling journey, trying to dismantle this beast. And, I said, I felt like I was nearing the end of my journey with depersonalization too, but last Thursday’s session made me realize there is still a lot of work to do to dismantle all those systems in place and to help make sure that I have the tools to stop me having another period of depersonalization like what I have been through.

He agreed.

I do feel like I am getting somewhere, especially in 2020. I made the resolution that I was coming into 2020, and the decade of the 2020s, that I was going to kick depersonalization’s ass and get better, and so far, I’m emboldened by the success I have had.

But I’m realizing there’s still a lot more work to do.

I hope I can tackle it all and come out the other end a better, more authentic person.