Death / Love / Society & Culture

Living With Depersonalization Disorder: On Identity, Loss, and the Worth of Vulnerability

Someone came up to me on the street the other day while I was walking my dog and said, “Excuse me, ma’am. Your dog’s gonna die some day.” She must’ve been my age, just sitting at a bus stop in the middle of a warm afternoon on a somewhat busy street.

I said, “Thanks, bitch,” which is my usual response to irritating people on the street (not good, ‘cause it’s incendiary), but what I wish I’d done (which is no less incendiary) is look her dead in the eye and said, “What makes you think I don’t think about that every single time I look at him.”

Emil the Bearenstein Bear

Emil the Bearenstein Bear

It’s true, I very often do. I love him. How he wakes me up every morning by putting his little face in my face, flops down beside me for tummy rubs before going to the bathroom door and scratching it for walkies (yes, that’s how he warns me, and it’s amazing). His lifespan is so much shorter than mine; I can fill the image of my body up with many little images of him all coiled up and sleeping, a morbid math.

I knew a guy once who truly adored dogs. One day, he told me that he really wanted one of his own. He even asked if it was ok to get the same breed I have, which was sweet, because before he knew The Bear he never had a nice thing to say about small dogs.

It was also sad, because, in his case, it was another reminder of how he’s obsessed with the idea that the things that people own, the people they know, the mythology they fabricate about themselves, are the things that cause people to see them as unique and therefore valuable – what gives them their worth = social currency – so it’s socially forbidden for anyone else to have them. Instead of embracing our shared interests and aesthetics, he subtly, constantly and consistently let me know that I, in fact, never had those likes, and that they were his exclusively, or his and people he knew who weren’t part of his immediate circle so they didn’t pose the danger of making him seem “less than”. Instead, they became people-shaped accessories reinforcing his uniqueness and social worth, just as I became no more than a piece of furniture.

But though he wanted his own dog, he told me he didn’t think he could ever have one, because the thought of it dying was a reality he legitimately didn’t believe he could face. It was very sad to watch him say this, and to see the expression that spread over his whole body. He knew he wouldn’t be able to keep himself from falling in love with the dog, an emotion he’s never had the courage or ability to experience with a person outside his family because, in part, of this extreme fear of losing that kind of love.

Loss. The loss of yourself, of a person, of a closeness. Each one feels, in my body, like a death. Truly, because for the majority of my life it never occurred to me to put a boundary on feeling. I’m not sure why. Certainly, I valued the act of feeling over all else – this is key. Even after the first few times friends and lovers really hurt me.

I also spent a lot of my young adulthood being deceitful to my high-school sweetheart, which kept me in a place of power, not vulnerability. And maybe I didn’t need to protect myself in this way, because, even though, yeah, I have felt a lot of alienation in my life, I still also felt loved by my parents, a big part of me felt I knew who I ultimately was, what I was worth, even if I was worried other people didn’t always see it.

Eventually, though, I made the incredibly bad choice to start spending time with a couple people who, out of selfishness and fear, used aggressive forms of deception to undermine these beliefs. I was in so deep I didn’t know how to get back out, and my natural reaction to the vulnerability of “feeling” had to change. I had to stop feeling, to shut down, and, honestly, I don’t know if it’ll come back.

Everything dies. We lose everything and everybody – permanently. I was raised atheist, and while I wouldn’t say I’ve grown up to be one, I do still believe that. But death and loss come in many forms aside from the physical, and it’s these that we live our lives with, what we’re routinely confronted by. We all do or do not make it through these deaths in different ways.

When I think about my own death (physical or metaphorical), I mostly quickly disassociate from the idea, which sounds like a good reaction, and is usually mild and fine and ordinary, but in actuality my reaction to loss, death, and helplessness was out of control and terrifying for many many years.

After describing the experience to not one but two psychiatrists (10 years apart), they both immediately and plainly asked me if I’d ever done any psychedelic drugs. When I said no they asked me, “are you sure?” (hallucinogenics often trigger the feelings I was having) That’s the kind of brain I walk around with everyday, and always have. It doesn’t need drugs, it can do drug-like acrobatics alllll by itself.

The second one finally diagnosed me with having depersonalization disorder (which is either a dissociative or anxiety disorder). These days, you’d never know it if I didn’t tell you, and I wouldn’t say I wander around solely thinking of myself as someone who has a “disorder”.

What it means, is that I could be anywhere and for no discernible reason…pop out of reality, which would be great if I’d popped somewhere safe, but I found this sudden disconnection from identity, physicality, and self to be terrifying, which brought on an incredible amount of spiraling anxiety.

Here’s where it gets really fun. Not knowing when or where this feeling would come over me or how long it would last, created its own spiraling anxiety which began to actually trigger the depersonalization, and would later in my life naturally turn into chronic anxiety and panic attacks about being out of control, which of course caused some health issues that then worsened the panic. Sounds like fun, right?! Fuckyeah! Balls. Anyway, I’m amazing when other people are in emotional or physical crisis, but it’s different when it comes to myself. It’s something I’ve been mitigating to one degree or another since I was at least 13.

It felt like there was this little scrap of matter free-falling somewhere, sometimes inside my body, but it’s hard to hold onto the concept of “body” when you’re in this headspace. Not knowing where you’re physically located, paired with that hollowing sensation just as the free-fall begins, but suspended out over an indeterminate amount of time.

Besides the free-falling, it sometimes also had another physical sensation that I’ve never been able to describe better than saying it felt like the hollow space inside of a small object but without the awareness of the object itself, maybe yellow or pink, maybe a candy, or plastic, maybe a toy, though it was much more complicated. It was located in my throat like having a piece of plastic stuck there holding my throat open, or it was in the space between all of my skin and what’s underneath like it’s making the skin disconnect and hold itself apart.

So, the thing you’d have to refer to as “me” was the matter, and my body was a thing I no longer knew, or owned, or was connected to, but if it died I died, and there was a very strong fear of that. My hands seemed to move of their own accord, like a stranger, but one I was trapped with, and sometimes I didn’t know what that person was going to do. Those hands didn’t have to do something horrible like hurt someone, to be terrifying.

That never happened, nor was it the nature of the feeling. It’s laughable to think I could’ve been dangerous; I would literally curl up into a ball and cry-scream because I believed I was moments from either dying or actually going crazy. The first time it happened, I was alone in my parent’s living-room, pacing back and forth as fast as I could, and madly chanting to whoever might be listening, “Please don’t let me go crazy, I’m too young to go crazy, please don’t let me go crazy.”

The mere fact that I knew that these hands were connected to me, but that I simultaneously couldn’t be sure that they were or sure that I was the one controlling them, was confusing in a terrifying way, because it took a belief I’d never second-guessed (like having a body, and, eventually, like having worth or identity) and disintegrated it. The fear of physical harm and the fear of emotional harm are not so different.

To top it all off, I would then find it impossible to believe that anything was real, especially myself, and it took me years to figure out how to reliably pop myself back into reality, and then more years to figure it out again once the first resolution delightfully stopped working. The second resolution? My mom said to me once, “Well, Alyssa, even if you are feeling this way, you’re not going anywhere, that’s for sure.” With a reassuring and somewhat jovial tone of voice, it totally works.

You know roughly how much time a drug is gonna last, and you know you’re having certain experiences because of the drug. There’s an known end-point. But if you don’t know if it’s gonna stop, how to stop it, or why it’s happening, shit gets scary.

To feel like everything you “see” is a hologram that will flicker out at any moment leaving…you don’t know what, to feel that you don’t exist, to feel that you have no control over the body that is the only chance you have of engaging with the physical world, the objects or people that might be able to make this feeling stop. It’s paralyzing. Being out of control to this extent, it’s not fun. You can’t just throw-up and feel fine again.

This was the result of my anxieties about loss, death, and helplessness for many years. I was vulnerable to the fear that I was going to be physically hurt. And, eventually, these attacks became the result of the anxiety caused by being vulnerable to those way aforementioned people I was close to, letting them convince me I wasn’t who I’d always thought I was. It was an emotional death, a loss so encompassing I no longer knew…anything.

When I met those people, I was still someone who deeply felt and experienced life, the people in it, and myself, which was the part of my life that felt the most natural and honest to me, what reminded me who I was. But it’s important to know that even when you have a handle on who you are and what makes you happy, if you have a disorder, or if you’re a woman, or if you’re a person of any kind at all, there’s a thing called gaslighting, and I’m not just talking about the hyper-prevalent, “Calm down, you’re overreacting,” line.

If you run into someone who swears to you that they’re on your team, that they’re not a liar, while deliberately and systematically lying to you about everything that’s happening in your life in such a way that is calculated (consciously and/or by habit) to render you unable to tell what’s true about everything from what they say to who you are for the sole purpose of protecting their own interests, you might very well wind up incapable of being able to differentiate between paranoia and what your gut is telling you. I may have been raised atheist, but the fact that God condemns these people to the final circle of hell, makes me think that Christianity has at least a few things right.

Dante speaks to the traitors in the ice, Canto 32

Dante speaks to the traitors in the ice, Canto 32

It takes great courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable – to feel something without boundaries when you don’t know how it’ll turn out, to set your own vulnerabilities aside to try to help someone with theirs, to be open-minded about the fallibility of your own beliefs or ways of thinking, but it also makes you vulnerable to the deceit of others and to your own faulty decision-making. If you’re gonna do it, it’s your responsibility to be extremely careful who you put your trust in, because the damage could be irreparable.

Alyssa Morhardt-Goldstein received her MFA in poetry from The New School, and her BS in classical vocal performance and literature from Mannes Conservatory. She was selected by Matthea Harvey as The New School’s 2012 Chapbook Contest winner in poetry, and is the founding editor of SOUND, a daily literary magazine on contemporary musico-poetics. @Elkawildling


Want to join the discussion? Luna Luna encourages well-reasoned, thoughtful, useful, civil, constructive, respectful and intellectual dialogue. That said, we're not into name-calling or bullying or character attacks. Violating comments will be deleted. Please read the post thoroughly and try not to make assumptions about the writer's perspective. Let's start talking!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s