When a person thinks of Dissociative Disorders, Dissociative Identity Disorder in particular, they generally classify these disorders as a condition where a person experiences one or more identities or parts. In addition, if one knows a little more about the disorder, he or she might know that people with Dissociative Disorder also tend to have memory loss and other cognitive issues, and that Dissociation frequently occurs. What people don’t always know about, though, is about Depersonalization and Derealization and how much these two symptoms can affect a person who has a Dissociative Disorder.
Derealization and Depersonalization can be part of a Dissociative Disorder such as Dissociative Disorder Not Otherwise Specified (DDNOS) or Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). They also can be a condition in themselves, and these symptoms can cause considerable distress to the person who experiences them.
Depersonalization, as defined by Wikipedia, is:
Depersonalization can consist of a detachment within the self, regarding one’s mind or body, or being a detached observer of oneself. Subjects feel they have changed and that the world has become vague, dreamlike, less real, lacking in significance or being outside reality while looking in.
Derealization, as defined by Wikipedia, is:
Derealization (sometimes abbreviated as DR) is an alteration in the perception or experience of the external world so that it seems unreal. Other symptoms include feeling as though one’s environment is lacking in spontaneity, emotional coloring, and depth
These article goes on to talk about how distressing these conditions/symptoms can be. I definitely agree wholeheartedly that Depersonalization and Derealization can be downright terrifying, as I experience these symptoms myself on a daily basis. I first started to really notice these symptoms in 2005. I began to have a gray haze over my eyes and felt like the world was surreal. This resulted in the world looking fuzzy and gray all of the time and in addition made the world feel somewhat magical. I didn’t really question,though, if anything was wrong because at that point I enjoyed those symptoms. They made life easier to cope with. But over time this symptom increased to the point of where I started to feel uncomfortable.
Eventually, though, as this symptom worsened, the world started to appear pretty scary, and I began to feel so detached from myself that I grew terrified. The grayness did lift but this made me more aware of the symptoms and left me feeling terrified.
Starting in about 2015, I really began to notice that I didn’t feel like myself at all. I felt so detached from myself that I even wondered if I was alive. It was a strange feeling. And, at some point I noticed that I had what I called a “watcher” part, who seemed to be constantly keeping tabs on me and observing me from the outside in. The whole thing felt so uncomfortable that I felt like I was crawling in my skin.
The world also did not seem real at all. For example, I knew that my cats were there, but I couldn’t feel like they were there. It looked like I was looking at the world through a television screen. I could see everything and everyone, but nothing looked real, and I didn’t feel connection to anything or anyone. It seems, though, that I had these symptoms for many years, but for some reason they didn’t bother until this time. I wonder if that was because I began to feel the emotions that were involved with these perceptions.
I have a few theories as to why and how I developed these conditions. First of all, they began to increase after the sexual assault/attempted murder that I experienced in June of 2005. I know that before this trauma, I still had symptoms of Derealization/Depersonalization in that the world seemed somewhat dark to me. But after this assault it became gray and took on a different tone as my symptoms increased. This, I believe, is due to the fact that I did not feel safe after this assault, and that these symptoms were actually brought on by the assault. When I went through trauma throughout my life, it was so severe that it didn’t feel real, and I couldn’t relate that this trauma was happening to me. I also tended to feel like I was looking down on myself during traumatic events. Eventually these feelings and ways of experiencing trauma began habitual due to repeated trauma and were present in my every day life.
I remember, too, that when I began step work in AA and really started to become involved in the program, that these symptoms also increased noticeably. I attributing them to a “spiritual experience” at the time. However, I know today that these symptoms are definitely not due to a spiritual experience. They worsen and increase when I feel unsafe, am in an unsafe situation or around unsafe people, and due to repeated trauma in my life.
Over time these symptoms increased. I was in unsafe situations or around unsafe people for most of my sobriety and experienced a lot of trauma throughout the first decade or so of my sobriety. These situations or people included AA itself, domestic violence, abusive sponsors and other abusive people in AA, and my abusive family. Plus, a sponsor and an ex boyfriend forced me into human trafficking during my time in AA. As all of this happened my symptoms grew worse, but still felt magical for a long time just so that I could survive. I think that if this magical Derealization feeling had not been there, I likely would not have been able to live with what was happening to me and my cats.
Once I finally got out of human trafficking and away from my abusers, the gray fog that skewed my perception of reality began to lift, as did the magical feelings. Now it was time for me to actually deal with life and the trauma that I’d been through, however, the dissipation of these particular symptoms that I had relied on so much meant that I had to go through an adjustment period. And, every time the world got a little more real (meaning my symptoms decreased), I had to readjust to my new world all over again. It was and is a difficult process to go through.
One of the hardest parts of this process was and is that I have a hard time connecting to the world around me, including people and animals. This really started to bother me as my cats grow older. It was especially heartbreaking for me when Marmalade passed away last June because I really hadn’t fully connected to him for years. Even so, I did the best that I could to help him connect to me and still do so with the cats, even if I’m not feeling too connected to the world myself. I don’t want them to suffer in any way because of my symptoms, and this includes making sure that their emotional needs are met even if mine aren’t.
It’s important, then, for me to look back and my life and remind myself of everything I’ve done despite having these symptoms. I earned a Master’s Degree in 2007, then earned a certificate in Chemical Dependency Counseling in 2013, and in between was a friend to many and a great cat mom all while dealing with DID and the symptoms that come with it. I also excelled at a few jobs that I had. In 2013, I began dieting and lost the 50 pounds that I gained due to anti-psychotics and other psychiatric medication. In addition, in the last few years I have been working through a lifetime of trauma while recovering lost memories and skills and taking care of sick cats.
There are other people everywhere who have these symptoms and others associated with Dissociative Disorders and still live full and functional lives. Some people with Dissociative Disorders work full time, and some don’t. Even for those who don’t work, though, we are generally very creative people and do a lot of interesting things with our lives, despite all of our symptoms. I see people with Dissociative Disorders as incredibly resilient. And, even if a person is very disabled by these symptoms, I feel like even making it through the day with severe dissociative symptoms is a huge feat.
When I think of what that I and others with Dissociative Disorders cope with every day, it’s pretty amazing to me. But, I feel like people with Dissociative Disorders often do not give themselves credit when it is due. It is a miracle that we even survive considering everything that we’ve gone through and continue to struggle with due to severe trauma. Still, we continue to move forward and do the best that we can to deal with our symptoms.
So if you yourself are Dissociative, know that you are an extremely strong and resilient person, even if you simply are living to survive. And if you know someone who is Dissociative and/or has a Dissociative Disorder, try to remember that even though he or she might have days where they are absolutely falling apart, that people with Dissociative Disorder deal with symptoms that most people cannot even comprehend. So, instead of looking down on us or feeling fear because some of us have multiple identities, try to think about what it would be like for you if your world suddenly felt unreal or you couldn’t connect to yourself as a person and to others. Also, realize that those of us with multiple identities work hard to understand our systems (self) and to find ways to help each identity feel heard and safe. It is quite the feat to heal from trauma, or even live life today for a person with one self or identity, let alone for a person with multiple identities. The fact that we are even alive today is a miracle in and of itself.
In conclusion, the life of a person with a Dissociative Disorder can be difficult for a person without one to understand. But, our symptoms and our world is a natural result of surviving severe childhood trauma. We are all strong survivors whether we know it or not, and I hope that those of you who do not have dissociative disorders can come to see us that way.
Thanks for reading! Feel free to comment below.