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My Unrecognizable Life

I look around my bedroom. Beautiful tapestries drape from the walls, including a pink tie-dye one radiant, precious silhouettes of fairies. A welcoming hippie vibe soothes me yet I fail to recognize my surroundings. I know I’ve seen it all before, but it doesn’t feel familiar like a home should.

Something is off in my sense of reality, my world slowly dissolving before my very eyes. I feel estranged from my own life, unfamiliar with my everyday surroundings. My life feels like a movie, my mind temporarily disconnecting from reality. I sit in silence, allowing my hazy mind to wander. All emotion towards loved ones flitters away, stranding me in a glass box, locked without my permission, making me lonely to the core. Though unfamiliar, I am overwhelmingly aware of my environment.

Time is warped. Recent events feel like a distant past—another lifetime, even. I hover over the timeline of my life, attempting to clarify where I’m at in it. I list my current roommates in my mind; they all feel like strangers as I reflect on my last encounters with them. I wrestle with my brain, attempting to recall my last clear memory.

Being engaged two & a half years ago: that’s the last clear memory I can identify. I realize what year it is; my stomach sinks, confusion brewing like a storm within my thoughts. This is my life!? How the hell did I get here?

I mull over my present state, fogginess conquering all clarity. I mentally flip through the past two years of my life. Most of the facts startle me, their bold recklessness impressing even myself. What was I thinking? I laugh at some of my outrageous decisions & the adventures that always accompanied them. Despite their pleasantries, I realize that all of those reckless, adventurous decisions led up to this point of my life—this phase of a mental breakdown filled with immense misery & difficult struggles.

The memories are no longer fun to reflect upon. The revelation of my crazy progression during the past few years combined with accepting my present reality devastates & overwhelms me. I sink to the ground, blankly staring at the wall before me.

I don’t even recognize my own life.

What is Derealization?

Derealization is a terrifying yet extraordinarily intriguing anxiety symptom causing the world to feel unreal. It’s a dreamlike feeling of being disengaged from my surroundings, temporarily disconnected from reality. Derealization is a “disturbing sense of being ‘separate from oneself,’ observing oneself as if from outside, feeling like a robot or automaton” (article published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment, 2005). As blogger Kate Gould put it, “derealization is a change in an individual’s experience of the world around them. Derealization is best explained as a dream-like state, where nothing feels real, as though everything is an illusion. For all I know, I may wake up at any moment; an intangible, swimmy quality lays over everything like a veil, making everything unfamiliar, much like the same feeling that persists in a dream.” Derealization occurs in many emotional illnesses, including bipolar disorder & PTSD, & it peaks with high stress levels.

During my psychotic depression this year (low episode of bipolar disorder), I experienced derealization intensely & persisted for two long months. It led to intense suicidal ideations, as life felt like a nightmare & I believed that killing myself was the only way to achieve the peace my troubled mind has craved for so long. Even now, as the psychotic depression has fully lifted, I still experience derealization sometimes, related to PTSD.

During derealization, I am transported to a reality I do not know nor understand. Sometimes it’s like watching my life from a distant, lacking a sense of control over my own self. Unable to absorb & process new information, nothing becomes familiar to me either. It’s intriguing because it’s so unusual & perplexing, but in all actuality it can be extremely terrifying. At points it feels like I have amnesia completely. I speak my name aloud, staring at my unfamiliar reflection in the mirror; not even my name sounds familiar. It can feel like I’m not really here, in this place & time on planet earth. Everything around me feels unreal, as if I’m waiting in a snow globe or some weird dream but have no idea how to escape & awaken unto my true self. I watch the happiness & success & warmth of others, & I grow angry & frustrated & sorrowful that I lack such abilities. I watch the happenings of the world from an alien’s perspective, every actions seeming odd & meaningless. How can I escape this conscious nightmare? How can I make sense of a lost reality, a loss of clarity about my own life?

Derealization is believed to be one of the body’s natural coping mechanisms, but science has yet to explain the happenings of the brain to cause this intense anxiety symptom. During heightened periods of anxiety, the mind shuts down, blocking out the world in order to cope. Survival is the focus, rather than truly living. Because my mind tunes the world out, everything feels surreal. I’ve experienced derealization during flashbacks (PTSD) & hearing voices (psychotic depression/ bipolar episode).

The best way to battle derealization is through mindfulness, which entails developing awareness of my own presence, basically. There are simple ways to do this, such as performing an action & focusing on it to ground myself in the real world—touching something warm or cold & focusing on the temperature, or pinching myself to feel my realness. A huge part of derealization, however, is simply waiting it out.

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