“Of all things, it would seem, make friends with depersonalization. Enemies within consciousness never work, and only escalate the problem. Befriend it, consider it part of life to work with it. We can’t expel it or cancel it. When we try, the pressure makes a volcano out of it. This is true of so many things, it must be true of DDD too.” ~David Hench
Do you ever feel like you’re not feeling anything, although you know that you have feelings? That you’re operating on autopilot, more like a robot than a living person? That your self is hiding somewhere, and you are not yourself anymore?
Your thoughts seem to come from your head, but somehow you don’t own them. It’s like driving on a countryside road after pouring rain—you see the world through a dirty windshield, and everything looks unclear.
Your body doesn’t feel like your own, either. You might be observing yourself from outside, as if you were in a cinema watching a movie about your life. It’s a dreamlike world, and you feel disconnected from it and yourself—anxious, lost, overwhelmed, and trapped.
And all you want is to feel like yourself.
How do I know?
A Figure in a Pop-Up Book
As a kid, I loved my pop-up books. You opened one, and a magical world appeared in front of you. Look, here’s a princess in her puffy pink dress. She looks admiringly at her prince, who smiles back at her while holding a horse by the reins. Behind them, there’s a castle. Guards in helmets with plumes hold lances in their hands, ready to stop you and ask your name. Flags on towers flutter in the wind.
It seems three-dimensional, except it’s not. Everything in this book is flat and unreal. That’s how I’ve been feeling for a huge part of my life—like a figure in a pop-up book.
My first memory of dissociation comes from a very young age. I was still sleeping in my cradle.
Mom left me alone in a bathtub; she was a restless soul, and patience wasn’t her strength. While reaching out for a toy, my bum slid, and I glided under the water, eyes wide open and body frozen.
I lay there breathless, scared, and helpless, and that’s how Mom found me—at the bottom of a bathtub, looking at her through the water. What she couldn’t see was me looking down at us from above.
Mom pulled me up, but she was cross. Couldn’t I just sit there quietly for a while without causing her any trouble?!
And so the story went.
Both my parents worked and studied at night. They had me at a very young age, and they both had ambitions to become civil engineers. But as in connected vessels, if water is removed from one, the level in the other one also changes. They had to make time for their studies, and I paid the price.
I lived in kindergarten from Monday morning till Friday afternoon and saw my parents only on weekends. In summer, my kindergarten moved to the countryside, and I barely saw my parents for three months. No wonder I developed crippling separation anxiety. And there was no one to help me ease the pain.
I wanted badly to become older and go to school so that I could live at home every day. Once I reached school age, it did help at some level, although my brain was already trained in a certain way.
I worried all the time and was scared of speaking in front of the class, doing something wrong, or being criticized. I felt insecure around people. What if they discovered how uncool or “stupid” I was? I could freeze in front of a teacher or a classmate; my mind drifted away, and dissociation became my coping mechanism. I had panic attacks and out-of-body experiences that I kept to myself.
My memories became a set of seemingly unconnected dots: an image here and a sound there, a smell or a tactile sensation, and lots of nothingness in between.
I grew up anxious and uncertain, constantly doubting myself and allowing others to make decisions on my behalf. But most of all, I feared change and the unknown, and summers still were the worst—three-month-long school breaks in summer camps far away from home. I felt unreal for days upon leaving and returning home.
In the beginning, it didn’t take long to get the feeling of reality back, but in time, returning to normality took longer and longer.
Derealization became a permanent part of my life. I was missing out on the fun of being young and carefree.
I learned about depersonalization–derealization disorder (DDD) while studying psychology and recognized its symptoms in myself, but it didn’t improve my condition. However, therapy has.
When I started therapy, it was the first time in my life another person was attentive to me. He didn’t just listen to my thoughts and feelings but also validated them. He opened my eyes to what was happening to me, although the words “abuse” and “psychopath” sent a shiver of disbelief through my body. It couldn’t be my mom, so I defended her!
My therapist was understanding and patient, and one sunny day in spring, magic happened. I was standing outside his office, and the barrier between me and the world was gone. All the filters fell; my senses, once again, became alive and tuned. Clear sounds and colors hit me unexpectedly. I had a feeling of belonging to this world, and I was ecstatic.
For a few years, I was symptom-free, nearly forgetting about DDD. I was healed!
But my mom, lost in grief after my dad’s death, proved me wrong. Exhausted after caring for him, lonely, and angry, she used me as a lightning rod for her overwhelming negativity. A few angry, hurtful words, and I sank into an emotional fog so deep that, twenty years later, I’m still there.
After fighting my brain, feeling angry and scared, I had no choice but to learn to coexist with DDD without obsessing.
Now I want to share with you how I did it.
The Way Out of the Fog
For most people, DDD is a temporary condition that will go away without treatment. But being anxious, worried, and obsessed with “getting rid of it” may only make it stay longer. Still, you can do things to ease the pain and prevent DDD from coming back in the future.
1. Be present.
When you space out, your self-awareness diminishes. Therefore, it’s essential to stay present by consciously focusing on what you do. And for that, mindfulness or grounding becomes handy.
If you find it difficult to focus on the activity at hand, practice deep breathing and tune into your senses using the 5-4-3-2-1 technique. Name five things you see around you, four things you can touch around you, three things you can hear, two things you can smell, and one thing you can taste.
2. Minimize anxiety.
Anxiety is a normal part of being alive and it can even be beneficial at times. Feeling anxious when challenged by the unknown helps you stay aroused and mobilized so you can solve problems. When this feeling becomes so intense that you can’t think and your productivity declines, you need to calm yourself to minimize episodes of derealization.
There are many anti-anxiety techniques to choose from like controlled breathing, physical activity, or preparing yourself for each challenge so you feel equipped to handle what’s coming. You can find additional tips to manage anxiety here.
3. Accept DDD as a part of your current life.
I know you don’t want to. It’s a painful condition, and your instinct tells you to get rid of it now. I get it. But fighting means constantly focusing on the issue, and obsession makes it all worse. You feel more anxious, and your DDD gets stronger. The cycle repeats itself.
What is the alternative?
4. Live a normal life.
This condition is not life-threatening, just different and unpleasant. So, I’m asking you to live your life as if you didn’t have DDD. Get up in the morning and go through your usual routine. Make spending quality time with friends and family an important part of your day.
More often than not, your DDD symptoms will disappear by themselves if you work on the steps I outlined above. And the faster you make peace with your symptoms, the faster they may go away.
5. Work with a psychotherapist.
If your anxiety and DDD symptoms persist for more than a few months, you may want to try therapy.
An experienced therapist will help you figure out the cause of your symptoms. If you uncover trauma in your past, they will help you process the experience. You can also work with anxiety and depression that might be underlying issues in DDD.
Your therapist will teach you stress-management and coping strategies for dealing with dissociation. The opportunity to practice them in a safe environment will be a huge bonus.
6. Consider medication.
So far, there is no proof that medication is effective on DDD symptoms. There are no medications specifically approved to treat DDD. However, meds can be used to treat depression and anxiety if they are present, and that can help you heal from DDD.
I tried medication, but it didn’t help my symptoms. I felt constantly tired and sleepy, unable to function normally in my everyday life. What was the point in taking them, then? So, I quit.
Nevertheless, some people report that their symptoms decreased on a particular medication protocol, so you may want to explore this possibility for yourself. You will need to visit a psychiatrist for that.
7. Try neurofeedback.
Neurofeedback is a technique to directly train certain brain functions and teach the brain to function more efficiently. How does it work?
You sit in front of a screen with electrodes attached to your scalp and either watch a show or play a game. The person in charge of the treatment observes your brainwave activity from moment to moment. This information is also processed by a computer and shown back to you—an image on your screen can become smaller or bigger, brighter or darker, depending on your brain’s changing activity. The system rewards the brain for choosing more appropriate functional patterns by supporting desirable frequencies and diminishing undesirable ones.
You can say that neurofeedback is training in self-regulation, and it helps to bring your central nervous system in balance, though it’s a slow learning process that takes months to accomplish. It’s usually provided by psychologists, therapists, counselors, or occupational therapists, like here in Germany.
I started neurofeedback last year. Tomorrow will be my fifty-fifth session, and my symptoms haven’t changed so far, so I can’t offer a glowing personal recommendation. But from what I’ve read, it’s been helpful to many. As with all mental health treatments, what works for some might not work for others.
There is ongoing research about depersonalization and derealization, and one day new treatments for DDD will ease or eliminate the condition altogether. Until then, try what you’ve just learned, but don’t put your life on hold. Treat depersonalization–derealization as an old, overprotective friend who’s trying to help. They may be stubborn and even annoying, but they don’t mean you any harm.
And trust that if you put in the work, you will eventually feel more grounded in your own body and better able to experience and enjoy all the good things life has to offer.