I was recently discussing dissociation with a Twitter friend. I have not written as much about my anxiety symptoms as I have about my depression or hypomania, but they have always been a large part of the mix. Below are five vignettes from the past 20 years. They are episodes which particularly stand out for me as representing how dissociation has affected my life. Many of them were extremely disturbing at the time, not least because I had no context in which to place them, and so I felt (more so than ever!) that I was completely losing my grip on sanity. In some instances, it was many years before I read enough to realise what I had experienced. Although most of these experiences were not diagnosed at the time, I now recognise them as:
- Depersonalisation: “an uncomfortable and, for some, a frightening feeling in which people feel unreal and detached from their surroundings” (Royal College of Psychiatrists) and have the experience that they – or their bodies, emotions or behaviours – are not real.
- Derealisation: the flip side of depersonalisation, “a frightening feeling in which people feel that things around them are unreal (Royal College of Psychiatrists).” Here the sufferer is convinced of their own reality, but it is the external world which feels wrong.
- Physical sensations related to dissociation, including tunnel vision, sensitivity to light and sound, and dizziness.
- Possible Conversion Disorder: a dissociative condition in which motor or sensory function (the ability to move around or see/hear) is affected in a way which would normally suggest a general medical condition, and is beyond the sufferer’s control, but which does not appear to have any discernable medical cause.
Take your brain to another dimension
I am 18. My boyfriend and go for a walk across the fields, to see just how close my village lies to the RAF base where he lived as a small child. By road it feels like a long way, but the maps shows that as the crow flies, it’s really only a few miles. We set out in the sunshine to see how long it takes to walk from one to the other, to feel just how close we really were, before each of us knew the other existed. Out in a cornfield flanked with a row of poplars, something happens to me. The sky becomes too big and I suddenly feel exposed and threatened. Somehow everything seems subtly wrong and strange, as if this is not my world, not my dimension. The trees look odd, the rows of wheat seem unpleasantly different. It is impossible to explain, which in itself is scary, but I manage communicate something of my sense of panic to my boyfriend and we turn back for home. Home, I tell myself, will be familiar, and because it is familiar, home will be OK. Only it isn’t OK, because even back in my own bedroom I am convinced that although it looks exactly like my bedroom, it is not my bedroom. It is a dream version of my bedroom, or an altered version of my bedroom in which unseen malevolent forces have moved things or changed things, so subtly that only my unconscious can tell that anything is wrong. The fear grows and grows within me – not just fear of the wrongness, but fear that I am losing my mind, or will soon begin to, because I cannot withstand the level of terror which the wrongness engenders in me. After a nap, I still feel anxious, but the terror has dissipated, and the wrongness has gone. My room is just my room. I am back in my own dimension.
The monkey’s paw
I am 21 years old, a full time student. I have a lot of time on my hands, and for much of it I am at home by myself. Sometimes I stand and look in the mirror, and think that I just don’t recognise myself. I know what I see must be me – there’s no-one else here, after all, and when I lift my arm or tilt my head the reflection in the mirror does the same. But the person in the glass doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me; she doesn’t look like anyone I know. I have a similar problem with my hands. I look down at them and have no sense of them belonging to me. Moving my fingers feels like I am controlling a robotic, alien hand with an implant in my brain. The longer I stare at my hand, the more convinced I become that it is not mine. In fact, I start to think, I’m not sure this hand is even human. Look at the joints and knuckles; they look like belong to a chimp’s hand, or a gorilla’s. It’s unsettling. I have go about my business trying not to look at or think about my hands.
The golden cord and the grey ghost
I am an at-home mum of two. My son is a tantrum-prone toddler. My new baby daughter has colic. It is winter, and I am in my deepest depression for years, age 25 years old. I haven’t seen a doctor since my 6-week postnatal check, but I decide it’s time. We only moved a few months ago, so I have yet to meet my own GP. I phone for an appointment and take the first one offered, which leads to me seeing a nice woman who seems like she genuinely wants to help. Quietly, I tell her that I feel that I am not really here. That I know my body is here, but I don’t feel like my actual self is, because it’s floating somewhere above us. “Oh,” says the doctor matter-of-factly, “that’s called depersonalisation. Some people feel like they are connected to their body by a kind of cord.” I am astonished. Other people feel this? Other people’s bodies walk through space, while their true selves follow behind them on a golden cord, like a helium balloon on a string? The female GP makes me an appointment to see my own doctor, Dr M. Over the next few months I see Dr M regularly, usually weekly, and try a variety of anti-depressants. The floating, out-of-body sensation doesn’t trouble me so much anymore, but it has been replaced by sense that I am fading away. I don’t quite feel invisible, but I am certainly transparent; people who know me can see me, but out in the street I have a definite sense that I go utterly unnoticed. I push my buggy between my house and the doctor’s surgery, and no-one looks at me or makes eye contact. I try little experiments, like walking too close to people to see if they will respond, but it feels like they brush against me with no reaction or acknowledgement that I am even there. I feel like a dead woman walking, a shade with no substance, a grey ghost more suited to a castle gallery than a suburban pavement.
Can’t see, won’t see
I am 27 and a student midwife. I have just been discharged from hospital, where I had admitted from A&E because I took an overdose of whatever was in the medicine cupboard (antipsychotics, antidepressants, benzos, analgesics of various kinds). I have somehow avoided admission to the psychiatric unit, but had to agree to spend a few days on the general medical ward attached to a continuous infusion to prevent any organ damage. All my insides seem to be functioning properly, so I have been allowed to go home with my husband. Back in my own environment I should feel better, more normal, but something comes over me. I cannot stand. I attempt to get to my feet and feel overwhelmingly dizzy and floppy. To get from the sofa to the bathroom, I must crawl across the living room and then the kitchen floor. I cannot see properly, because my eyes are reluctant to open, and when they can be persuaded to do so, they light feels incredibly bright and they refuse to focus, so I shut them again. Understandably perturbed, my husband calls the doctor, and a GP on the out-of-hours rota comes to check me over. When he arrives, I am lying on a blanket on the rug. He asks me questions, and I mumble the answer into the blanket. He complains that he cannot hear me, and it takes all the strength I have to lift my head and torso and try to make myself audible. He shines a light into my eyes, takes my pulse and blood pressure, and pronounces that he can find nothing wrong with me. It could be, he says, groping around for an explanation (and clearly reluctant to undermine his professional credibility by saying, “I don’t know”), that I am reacting some sort of impurity in the IV solution. Not for one moment does it enter this doctor’s head that my problem is a psychological one.
Power down, enter standby mode
It’s December 2011. I am sitting with my psychologist , about to start our CBT session. I found last weeks’ session stressful and difficult, and I am not in the mood for therapy today, either. While the psychologist talks about our agenda for today, I am acutely aware of the muscles around my eyes wanting to close them, wanting to shut out the room and the whole damn experience. I almost didn’t come here today; I allowed myself to stay on the double decker as it trundled right by the hospital, forcing myself to get off a few stops later and hurry back. Out in the street, I felt that I couldn’t see properly. Looking at pavements or shop windows close to me was fine, but when I tried to look ahead along the street, it was if my eyes refused to take it all in. I have felt this many times when stressed at work, an almost irresistible need to only look at what it is in my small area, or else just close my eyes and go to sleep; I’ve always supposed that it’s a mechanism to filter out distressing stimuli. Occasionally when this has happened at work it has been so overwhelming I have had to go home, and I know that my face is broadcasting that there is some sort of problem because my manager has taken one look at me and said, “Oh yes. Get yourself home.” It can be a struggle to do that safely due to the sense of immense exhaustion which sweeps across me. When I finally arrive, it’s all I can do to drag myself into bed, where I instantly fall into a heavy sleep. I can’t go to sleep in the psychologist’s office, so I carry on, looking at her through little eyes.