According to DSM-5 (the psych standard operating procedure manual), derealization (DR) falls under the dissociative disorders category. While I’ve spent the last eight years trying to sort it out in my mind, it seems a bit absurd to call it derealization, when in fact it made me come to life in a different way. My kryptonite became my superpower.
For me, DR is first recognized as a visual distortion, but the sensations are not tied to sight alone. It is a full-body experience. All senses are on high alert. I feel as if I am floating just slightly above my body. The detachment is that of a dream, but with a clarity you wouldn’t expect even in a lucid state. Everything is crisp and clear. My eyes pick up every vein of each leaf hanging on the branches of a tree. The feathers on the wings of the birds as they fly past. Every color more vibrant. The layers of sound, where my ears separate out each tone. Sensory receptors on my skin notice every shift in the atmosphere, the position of the sun, the movement of the clouds, the direction of the wind.
As you are reading this, you might think that it sounds extraordinary, and it can be. But if you don’t know what is happening to you, it can be horrifying.
The first episode of DR came after a series of panic attacks. I was diagnosed with generalized panic disorder (GAD) and agoraphobia. Psychologically, DR is a way for your brain to protect you. It quite literally shuts you off from the world by pulling you back and disconnecting you from that which your mind is perceiving as dangerous. However, there are many instances where people report DR that is unrelated to an anxiety disorder or PTSD-type situation. Sometimes it’s reported as an effect of using a hallucinogenic substance. And I’ve even seen articles where it has been tied into spiritual awakening.
So, what gives? Could this really just be a classic case of a brain glitch? Or is there something more to it?
When I was first diagnosed, I was incapacitated. In my mind, leaving my house was comparable to jumping out of a plane without a parachute. Activities as simple as driving down the highway or going to the mall were monumental tasks. The fluorescent lights in the stores would sear through me, so I wore sunglasses everywhere I went. The sounds were so loud I felt like I needed earplugs. When someone or something would pass by me, I felt like I was under attack, my body flinching to avoid contact.
For some, an episode of DR lasts only a few minutes. For me, I was experiencing it every waking moment. Months turned into years. Most of my fears were tied to health-related anxiety. I was constantly under the impression that I was actively dying, despite being robustly healthy.
During the span of a few years, I had likely seen every specialist in the healthcare system. All raved about how “normal” I was. That was interesting to hear, considering I felt enormously abnormal. Any and every symptom was a surefire sign that I was about to face my last moments on this Earth. But alas, here I am to tell you this story.
DR was terrifying for me. My brain feared it so much, that whenever it perceived the sensation, it immediately tried to redirect the thought. You might think: “Nice work brain, that sure was a close call. You almost fell down that DR hole again.” Unfortunately, good ol’ science comes back for the win. This is not how our minds work.
By redirecting an anxious thought, you are basically confirming to the brain that it is warranted in continuing to fear that thought. In this case, avoidance was validating that DR was in fact terrifying and that it would lead to my demise. This is where I needed to do some brain workouts—bump up my mental muscles. Using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, I was directed to force myself to face my DR.
I have an old family friend who gave me some life-changing advice. She suggested that maybe it would be more useful to see DR as a gift, a superpower, rather than a handicap. Derealization, disconnection. This is no longer what this sensation is to me. Instead, it is something miraculous. I used to fear what was going on because I felt like I was keeping myself apart from the world, safe behind the screen. Now, the line is dissolved.
I am finally free. You can be too.
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