"It is with a kind of fear that I begin to write the history of my life. I have, as it were, a superstitious hesitation in lifting the veil that clings about my childhood like a golden mist...When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child's experiences in her own fantasy."
- Helen Keller -
I'm always amazed at the similarities depersonalization sufferers share in terms of descriptions of symptoms and onset. I believe we have all accessed a common, normal, perhaps vestigial, neural pathway that exists in all human beings. In those of us with pathological DP/DR (chronic, recurrent, disabling), this normal function has gone awry; it seems to have extended beyond its normal purpose or function.
Depersonalization can be the result of trauma to the brain such as a very stressful real-life event or events, chemically induced trauma, (marijuana or other drugs both recreational and prescribed), general anesthesia, or physical trauma such as a tumor, stroke or head injury. Depersonalization can accompany most, if not all, mental illnesses from anxiety to schizophrenia. It can also experienced in during the aura of a seizure and in migraines.
It is clear some people are predisposed to develop anxiety, depression, and dissociate under stress. Oddly enough, some develop this with no clear cause of onset.
I am fascinated that this is often a common "short-term, temporary experience" in children and adolescents who are still developing a sense of identity. This symptom also occurs in mentally-well individuals who experience severe (and sometimes lesser) trauma from near-fatal accidents or disasters, combat, or prolonged lack of sleep. All are forms of trauma to the brain; these are all "stressors" of one form or another.
I will never forget the story of a professor who survived an incredible auto accident in which she was certain she would die. She was in an old VW mini-van, with several other people, cruising along a mountainous route. The driver somehow lost control of the van and it flew off the road into thin air, fell down "an endless precipice" and made a crash-landing. The van was severely damaged but its passengers received only minor injuries.
My professor recalled that at the moment the van flew off the road "everything started running in slow motion." She felt as if she were "in a dream," experiencing a perceptual shift, like deja vu, that "removed her" from a certainty that she was going to die or perhaps "protected" her from a concept the human brain does not wish to deal with -- death or incapacitating injury.
I am now convinced that both Nature and Nurture are involved in the development of mental illness, though it is still difficult to let go of my mother's party line, "We are all just bags of genetic garbage, and when you die you just die and rot in the ground. Don't worry about it."
I am also convinced every child is born with his or her own distinct "hard-wired" personality and I do not believe in the concept of the "tabula rasa" -- the child as an "empty slate"; this hard-wired personality is critical to a child's reaction to his or her environment.
Return to Top
Things started off so well ...
My father was also a high functioning medical professional, a thoracic surgeon, who I now know had Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. He had virtually no personal possessions (save a dapper wardrobe), hoarded newspapers, grocery bags and other useless trash, and gambled compulsively. He was in a vice-grip of anxiety, though I never would have known this until I got to understand him, and his illness, years later.
I know I inherited anxiety and depression from my parents but on top of that they exacerbated my symptoms with their actions or inaction. I felt very different, odd, and defective from as far back as I can recall.
My arrival, in part, marked the end of their two-year marriage and the beginning of an extremely damaging childhood for me. My mother was verbally and emotionally abusive and my father a passive onlooker who could not help me due to the magnitude of his own problems. I was an only child, bright and overly introspective, with a very active fantasy life. I escaped too often into fantasy, hypnotizing myself without knowing, living in my own private world with imaginary friends. I anthropomorphized stuffed animals and played less with dolls. I loved real animals. It is as though I felt disenfranchised from the world of humans.
Around age four, I started ruminating about my existence. I frequently asked myself, "What is it like to be dead? What is this lump of flesh laying here? Why am I here?" I now realize these were episodes of depersonalization -- episodes at that time I could control. When I wanted to come out of this existential brooding I could "shake it off." It wasn't a good feeling, but it didn't frighten me either. I was just "too much in my head."
Then promptly fell apart ...
My father moved from the master bedroom, to the home office, to the living room sofa, to sleeping at the hospital, to finally acquiring his own apartment. Secrets and lies were a big part of my mother's agenda. It was none of my business what happened with my father, why he left, and I was "never to tell anyone or I would be sent to public school where the stupid children go." Or she constantly threatened, "See if you can stand living with your father for more than a few days. You'll come crawling back to me."
I developed some compulsive rituals to "keep life in order." Since I would wake every morning with the thought "What problems do I have today?", my environment had to be under complete control. I alphabetized my books by author. My toys had to be lined up in a certain order after play. The throw rugs in my bedroom had to be shaken out and straightened before I could go to sleep. Even the rough draft of a homework assignment had to be "perfect" and I would start over and over with new sheets of paper instead of erasing or crossing something out. This was destructive perfectionism which interfered with accomplishing many tasks.
School work was extremely difficult as I could rarely "see the forest for the trees." I would often attempt to memorize minute details, fearful of "missing an important point," but this became increasingly counter-productive and impossible to accomplish. This is interesting in lieu of recent studies of depersonalized adults who perform poorly on certain cognitive tests which indicates a possible neurological deficit in processing new information. When in 4th, 5th and 6th grades I received an award for ranking third in my class. My mother's comment -- "Well, just by the skin of your teeth again. You never apply yourself!"
My level of anxiety and helplessness skyrocketed. And in a sense the "inevitable catastrophes" did occur. My father left, all of my grandparents died within a span of about two years, I couldn't reveal any "secrets" to my aunt who seemed so sweet and understanding, and my mother could explode at any time. Worst of all she constantly threatened to send me away, remove me from the haven of my private school, or ban me from attending music camp.
I often retaliated against my mother's crazy making and lack of compassion with extreme rage and frustration. I escaped to my room or the laundry chute screaming and crying at the top of my lungs, slamming my bedroom door repeatedly until the door frame came off. Though she called me a "sociopath" and of all things and "a fishwife" (for yelling so much) she seemed to thrive on such chaos and revel in it. Her rage beget mine which then increased hers and a vicious cycle ensued.
I became a hypochondriac, awaiting my own doom. I was terrified of getting a brain tumor, appendicitis, or some horrible illness I'd heard my physician-parents discussing at dinner. My mother could see there was something wrong as my school performance continued to decline. I repeatedly told her I didn't feel well much of the time and I slept excessively. Her analysis of the situation was that I was "a slacker and lazy like my father" or worse that I was "acting" -- not "faking", but "acting." She used this expression often to punish me with my own talents.
I spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the television. Being something of a latchkey child I would come home from school and watch a soap opera with my nanny, AnnieBelle. After she left, I would continue to watch hours of television until my mother came home from work, sometimes as late as 9 or 10 p.m. She would come home and feel the TV set. When finding it warm, as it frequently was, this began more lectures on my laziness and being a worthless individual.
With thanks again to my private school and six summers at National Music Camp, I was able to develop a gift for writing research papers and a great love and understanding of the arts, which would serve me well in high school and at university.
Though I tried to keep this from my classmates and teachers, I began to have severe panic attacks (though I know some suspected something was wrong). I was constantly anxious and sometimes terrified for no specific reason. I felt I couldn't breathe, my heart would pound rapidly and I was certain I was having a heart attack (or literally dying). I felt "a rope around my neck or my chest." I "forgot" how to swallow. I had sweaty hands, odd aches and pains, and sore muscles from chronic tension. And I could tell no one - I "had to keep this a secret."
Then I was overcome with dizzy spells. I felt I was off-balance, going to tip over much of the time. I felt lightheaded and faint. These symptoms became worse when I needed to perform, such as stand up and read a book report or act in a school play. Acting and singing were all I ever wanted to do my entire life, but that was tainted by the energy it took to hold myself together and by my mother's comments that it was a worthless pursuit.
The panic episodes and dizzy spells waxed and waned. Sometimes I had periods of relief when the symptoms would go away or lessen and I would briefly forget about them. I still put forth a jolly exterior and continued as best I could as a student, a friend, and a participant in numerous school plays and musical performances.
This was all so painful, and still is. I loved my school. I loved and participated in anything having to do with the Arts. I loved my friends. I so wanted a boyfriend. But my anxiety and depersonalization made all of this a terrible struggle. I literally had the world on a silver platter, and could barely hold myself together to enjoy it.
My mother was out of the country at the time, and I frightened my nanny AnnieBelle to death who summoned my father who likewise hadn't a clue what to do. I recall he took me to the eye doctor who found nothing wrong with me. Both my ophthalmologist and my father assumed I was just "going through some phase" -- doctor-speak for "We have no idea what's going on." I can't blame them completely as I didn't dare speak out on the length of my illness or the hideous relationship I had with my mother -- "Top Secret" of course.
But the depersonalization returned with growing intensity and for longer periods of time. I called it "feeling weird" and again told my mother. She made fun of me -- "I was such a worry wort." She did not want me to talk about it or seek help. It is interesting that I never even discussed this again with my father for years, though he later helped pay future psychiatric bills -- he was that tangential to my life.
I somehow managed to graduate from prep school and later receive a Bachelor's and a Master's degree from a respected university. I fell in love for the first time and maintained a two year relationship with a wonderful young man who will always remain special to me. He had his own crosses to bear and we understood and loved each other as we were both "different"; we kept no secrets from each other. After graduate school I won an internship to work at a major film studio in Hollywood, and worked another year as a production assistant on a popular national television series.
Through my university years and up until approximately the age of twenty-six, I had some sense of hope. I was going to "be someone important" and "show my mother." I couldn't wait to leave her and yet at the same time knew I was in trouble. I knew I was in over my head from as far back as I can recall.
Since 1975, I have had several long-term psychiatrists and have fired a substantial number of other mental health care professionals along the way. I have tried virtually every class psychotropic medication you can name. In retrospect it is horrifying to note that my mother provided me with Tofranil (imipramine) herself during two years in college that I was not seeing a therapist. She would give me huge hospital-supply bottles of pills. I could have easily killed myself with that amount of medication and had contemplated it.
She simultaneously claimed I was either hopelessly disabled, a sociopath, or a "drama queen." When I finally obtained my university degrees in 1983 I "ran away from home" to California but at great cost. Oddly enough, my mother expressed a sense of fear and abandonment when she realized I was actually going to leave her.
While I now occasionally vacillate between the Nature/Nurture issue, I have a number of clearer theories as to why I am depersonalized which I discuss in various sections of this website.
Despite everything that happened in my childhood, it is still very difficult to accept that abuse and neglect alone could have caused any of these dramatic symptoms. And I wish to emphasize, I do not necessarily attribute my mental illness to my parents (specifically my mother) -- only the fact that neither of them provided any normal love and support and hindered my ability to cope with my symptoms. I also feel that my dysfunctional childhood could have unleashed a predisposition to anxiety, dissociation, and depression and subsequently exacerbated these problems.
And so you do the best you can ...
My mother died September 12, 2001. Her death brought on many changes for me, both psychological and symptom-wise.