Merry Friday you beautiful BEANS. In my last blog post I briefly mentioned derealisation. Today I’m gunna outline my experience of it. Because I am me, I was tempted to drink 1000+ coffees, smother myself in research and construct a 12 page essay containing nothing but facts and science (facts are my kink), but I really want this post to be personal and vulnerable. It’s taken lots of stopping, starting, tutting and frowning to bosh it out and I think that’s partly because derealisation scares me. If you know me, then you know that I don’t get scared often, and if you’ve experienced derealisation then you probably understand why it frightens me.
What is derealisation?
“Derealisation is a mental state where you feel detached from your surroundings. People and objects around you may seem unreal. Even so, you’re aware that this altered state isn’t normal. More than half of all people may have this disconnection from reality once in their lifetime.” – WebMD definition
What does derealisation feel like?
Trying to describe the experience of derealisation is hard because it’s so abstract. It’s incredibly surreal and it makes me feel sort of ethereal and floaty. The world seems bleak, grey, empty and hopeless. Sometimes objects can suddenly appear different – almost as though all of the inanimate objects in the world had souls, but now their souls have left and the world is just made of concrete and lines (it’s sooo difficult to try to convey this feeling). It makes me feel completely detached from the human experience – like everyone else is grounded on earth and I’m floating on a string watching them.
The scariest part is the fact that I lose the ability to feel any emotions. I don’t feel human connections or bonds between myself and all of the people I adore. My personality seems to disappear and I lose my humour (which feels very fucking unfair cus my humour game isn’t even that strong in the first place). When the derealisation hits hard, I’m unable to put on an act or pretend I’m feeling normal. Derealisation makes me feel completely empty.
Why do I find it frightening?
This loss of emotion feels completely alien and frightening because, as an empath, I’m accustomed to feeling an abundance of empathy and emotion. I’m naturally a very nurturing person, but I become completely detached from my innate drive to care. It’s scary because I usually feel so much love and gratitude for the people around me, so for that to abruptly disappear is very unsettling. And of course the OCD-guilt feeds on the derealisation – OCD is a broken fucking record at this point am I right? I feel extreme guilt afterwards because I worry that I’ve let people down by not being capable of humaning properly and by not being able to provide them with the warmth/humour/social reaction they might be looking for in that moment.
As well as being psychologically difficult, derealisation often sends my body into fight or flight, which is BLOODY exhausting. Once the derealisation subsides, I feel incredibly tearful and fatigued. I’m not sure if this is perhaps because I’m scared, or if my tear ducts are making up for the lapse in emotion. It’s like all of the things I would have been feeling during that period all come flooding in at once. As well as this malaise, a period of derealisation also causes after-effects such as depression and insomnia, which is a FANTASTIC combination because they work synergistically and effortlessly to fuck up my mental health, without fail.
When did the derealisation start?
The first time I heard this word, it came from the mouth of my eternally magnificent therapist in January last year. I had been experiencing an odd state of mind which didn’t feel anything like the OCD/depression/GAD symptoms I was familiar with. I managed to convey (very clumsily and befuddled) to my therapist how it felt and she was able to put a name to it straight away.
Our exposure therapy was coming to an end, but she could tell I needed help for this new thing that had taken hold of my life, so she referred me back to triage. Once Miss Rona entered the chat (who the fuck invited her?), I got a letter from the NHS mental health team saying that they were having to discharge me early because the NHS was stretched to full capacity. I completely understood this but maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan were the next few months terrifying.
Once I actually had a name for this symptom along with concrete facts about it, I of course began to question when it had started. If I had to pinpoint a moment in time when it became a problem, I’d say it was some time towards the end of 2019. There wasn’t a particular trigger and I think it had a slow, creeping onset. By last january, it was obviously enough of a discomfort for me to mention it to my therapist, but once I wasn’t able to get help from the mental health team, I put it to the back of my mind and tried to distance myself from being in my head too much. For a couple of months I completely forgot about the term ‘derealisation’.
Then the first lockdown happened (we are collectively pulling a stank face whilst remembering the first lockdown, I just know it) and my mental health spiralled downwards. Luckily – as I mentioned in my last post – the OCD wasn’t riding my dick as constantly, but the derealisation worsened dramatically and became an everyday occurrence. It was making me utterly hopeless and depressed and if I’m being really real, it was probably one of the most challenging times I’ve ever had in terms of trying to exist in my own head. I would end up frozen and numb for hours at a time, feeling as though I had just been paused and the rest of the world had carried on turning.
How it affects my relationships
Once derealisation became commonplace, I found myself withdrawing completely from everyone in my life. I spent most of my time alone in my room and I became severely depressed. I lost the ability to perform the “seriously I’m so great woooo fuck yeah everything is sooo GOOD” act, so I couldn’t even pretend that I was okay for my friends’ sake. Once the facade slipped, I managed to convey how I was feeling to my family, friends, and the man I was dating. I was a little nervous about telling the people I love the most that sometimes my love just seemed to disappear entirely. I’m not sure why it felt scary, but it did. Perhaps I was worried that they wouldn’t understand, or that I might hurt somebody feelings. Or perhaps I didn’t want to cause them any worry or stress. Of course, everyone was insanely supportive and helpful and nobody freaked out or thought I’d lost the plot. (FOOLISH MORTALS)
Reflecting on last summer, I have no idea how the whole dating thing worked as well as it did considering the intermittent derealisation. I remember on our third or fourth date, we went for a walk through the countryside, and I told him pretty early on that I had been feeling surreal and floaty. He was incredibly empathetic and understanding and he didn’t expect any more from me than I was able to give. His calm kindness grounded me. We spent hours laying in the warm grass, watching all of that fluffy stuff from trees floating through the vast sky up ahead like snow, and soon enough I felt like myself again. (The photo at the top of this post was my actual view that day!)
I have the world’s most loving boyfriend, the most understanding and patient friends, and the most caring, amazing family with whom I can always be completely honest about how I’m feeling without judgment, and for that I’m constantly humbled and grateful. I feel able to communicate with people about my mental health, which helps a lot because if they’re even half way to understanding the frame of mind I’m in, it helps me and it helps them too.
Why does the derealisation happen?
I have no concrete answer for this question if I’m honest, but I’ve been searching different avenues because I’m determined to identify the root. I’ve wondered whether it happens in order to protect me from something? I thought it could perhaps be a reaction to past trauma and the resulting emotions – namely trauma inflicted on me by a couple of unsavoury people from my past. So I’ve been engaging with a counsellor to process certain events and deal with emotions that I had stifled in a subconscious act of self-preservation. The derealisation has notably returned during the time in which I’ve been doing the counselling, which suggests that trauma could have indeed played its part?
I’ve also wondered if it could be to protect me from OCD. It seems telling that the derealisation became present during exposure therapy and then worsened during the first months of the pandemic. There also seems to be a correlation between OCD being less prevalent, and derealisation making itself known. This is surely too much of a coincidence?
One last potential cause that I’ve explored is valium. I’ve been prescribed valium a considerable number of times over the last few years, and I’ve read in forums about people finding that some prescription drugs can worsen or even cause derealisation. This may just be colloquial heresy, but I’ve stopped taking valium now (unless I’m going to the dentist or taking a flight, cus ya girl’s only human) in the hope that this might help me to stay rooted firmly on earth…the dream!
Whatever the cause, I’m doing everything I can and I’m completely determined to find out what is is, because I know this is the key to stopping it from happening, or at least lessening the severity or frequency.
What grounds me?
Until I manage to find a way to stop it from happening altogether, I try my best to ground myself when it does. I’ve identified simple ways to bring myself back to the real world very quickly, so that I don’t have to sit on pause for hours at a time. 60% of the time, it works every time.
My first port-of-call is to seek out human interaction. I go to a member of my family and I tell them that I feel like I’m about to derealise. They’ll make me a hot chocolate or get me food (this seems to help as well…cus food) and then we engage fully in conversation until the feeling subsides.
Animals also ground me a massive amount. My doggos always seem to pull me back from outer space and I really don’t know what I’d do without them. Just being in their company helps, but having a cuddle and listening to them breathe can pull me out of the darkest holes.
If being with people or animals doesn’t seem to do the trick, going out into the world usually will. Being surrounded by trees and mud and birdsong grounds me a lot – I think nature has incredible healing powers. I’ve tried living in cities and I’ve learned that my brain needs the countryside.
When I’m physically well enough, exercise is my saving grace. I can be in full derealisation mode, but if I’m able to get myself ready for a jog, I come back completely grounded and present. Yoga and stretching also help to bring me back into my body because they’re incredibly mindful.
The last thing that seems to ground me which is outrageously niche and weird (and I’m not sure I’d recommend it to everyone) is murder documentaries. If you know me, then you know I’ve always eaten that shit up, but strangely, a well-made serial-killer documentary soothes my mental health because it’ll pull me right back to planet earth REAL quick. The only reason I can imagine as to why this helps is that a murder documentary is filled with solid facts (mmm, facts) and physical things like blood and weapons. Although these things aren’t warm or comforting, they’re real and they’re tangible.
I’m only just getting back into blogging and so it feels a little unfamiliar and strange to be sharing such a vulnerable experience with people on the internet. I find blogging very cathartic because I have to be consistently introspective and so I learn about my brain, but there’s still a part of me that feels shy. I hope this post has maybe managed to enlighten somebody who has experienced derealisation, or perhaps someone whose spouse or family member derealises sometimes. But if nothing else, it’s at least forced me to compartmentalise my thoughts and I’m preeetty convinced that I’ll soon be beating derealisation with a large stick covered in dogshit whilst yelling “DOES THIS FEEL REAL? DOES IT?”