This…thing used to happen to me. I started noticing in junior high, but it might have been there all my life. It would start as a moment of intense deja vu. As the deja vu faded, a dreamy feeling would overtake me. Then, for a few minutes, I’d feel totally detached from the things I identified as my “self.” The entire episode would be over in under ten minutes, and it wasn’t exactly unpleasant. More just…strange. I tried to explain the symptoms to my parents, but they weren’t sure they understood. “I think that sort of sounds familiar,” my mom said. “Maybe I had it when I was a kid. I can’t remember.”
Later, I noticed a similar phenomenon: a feeling of unreality, of dreaming, of separation from real life and all its trappings. That feeling could last all day. After 9/11, I had it on and off for months. And, though it may sound kind of fun on paper, this feeling was awful. I knew it related to anxiety, but I didn’t understand it and couldn’t think clearly while experiencing it.
During these episodes, it felt like anything could happen, and not in a good way. Aliens might invade. Dinosaurs might wake from beneath the earth and eat us. During these episodes, nothing could surprise, but everything could terrify. I suspected that I might be developing schizophrenia.
When I first heard the terms “depersonalization” and “derealization,” I nearly cried. I wasn’t developing psychosis, I was experiencing a relatively common symptom associated with anxiety disorders.
Depersonalization is the feeling of being attached from one’s self. Sufferers sometimes feel like robots, going through motions without thought or feeling. Some feel like they’re watching themselves from a distance. For me, depersonalization was simpler–just the complete feeling of detachment.
Derealization is almost impossible to explain, I think. Wikipedia says “[d]erealization… is an alteration in the perception or experience of the external world so that it seems unreal,” but nothing in that description indicates how truly terrible this experience can be. Derealization is the feeling of dreaming while you’re awake. Derealization is unshakable deja vu or jamais vu. Derealization is uncrossable distance between you and the things and people you care about. In my opinion, derealization is hell on Earth. Nothing I’ve experienced, except for the apex of a true panic attack, is as awful or crippling.
It’s very common to experience depersonalization and/or derealization during periods of intense stress. I certainly experienced some degree of both during panic attacks. In a horrifying situation, the feeling of unreality can be a comfort. “Spontaneous” derealization, however, offers no benefit. And, though we know episodes of derealization are related to mental illnesses such as Panic Disorder, doctors don’t know exactly what’s happening in the brain during an episode. People who suffer from epilepsy also sometimes experience derealization, and derealization does not cause hallucinations or delusions. I know that I can trigger derealization by sleeping too many hours or being alone for too long.
The best–maybe the only–way to fight an episode of derealization is to practice mindfulness. Sufferers are encouraged to pay close attention to their surroundings. When I have an episode, I go outside and just observe. I touch trees and walls. I count hats or coats or people who seem happy. I don’t think about life’s big questions or my place in the world, because I know that I need to be present in order to regain my feeling of reality.
If your child may be suffering from depersonalization or depersonalization, explain that it’s related to anxiety and not psychosis (“going insane”). Give your child an age-appropriate vocabulary to describe his experience. Encourage him to stay in the moment by making a game of observation: how many things in this room are purple? Go outside with your child and make him touch the real world.