Is This Real Life?
The Rise of DPDR Disorder in a Global Pandemic
Have you found yourself questioning reality lately, wondering if you hit your head and don’t remember?
Well, you aren’t the only one feeling disoriented. Recently, a friend of mine posted a simple tweet asking, “is this even real life?” The tweet had insane engagement with thousands of responses which led me to search twitter for that question more. The results were endless of people around the world asking if any of this year is even real. I instantly remembered the old viral video “David After Dentist”, the inebriated young boy asking his father “is this real life? Is this going to last forever?” I’ve always felt a kinship to little David. Have they been putting sedatives in our water? Perhaps, you’ve even had moments questioning your sanity for having these thoughts. You don’t feel comfortable discussing it with friends because they might confirm that you’ve become totally unhinged and drop you off at the nearest hospital. You wouldn’t dare express these concerns out loud.
That’s fine. I’ll address them for you, and I have spectacular news! You aren’t “going crazy”, in fact what you’re feeling is intrinsically normal. I don’t generally care for the phrase “going crazy”, as it’s often used to hurt others or invalidate their feelings. As someone familiar with mental health struggles, my intent is never meant to make light of them. My usage is only to relay the intense feelings of detachment and confusion that come with DPDR when you truly don’t feel like yourself anymore.
So, what is Depersonalization/Derealization (DPDR)? Why do I feel like I’m trapped in some alternate universe? Depersonalization is a detachment from oneself. Derealization is a detachment from the things or people around you. Everything may feel unreal and those thoughts can be intrusive and terrifying when drawn out. DPDR is actually a very natural defense mechanism that activates when our bodies get signals that we are in danger. Its intent is to calm your mind, making you hyper aware of your surroundings so you can rationally find your way out of danger. Almost everyone experiences DP at some point in their lives. It’s only meant to engage when you’re at risk and then dissolve when the threat is no longer present. Although, on occasion the symptoms can last for days, months or even years.
You might be puzzled if you relate to this but haven’t encountered a particularly dangerous situation, recently. DPDR can be triggered by many things such as trauma, intense stress, depression, anxiety, isolation or even an intense drug trip.
A global pandemic garnished with political tension and a sprinkle of insurrection is essentially a DPDR perfect storm. Coincidentally, the news and social media have been linked to provoking symptoms of PTSD. We’ve spent the last year with our eyes glued to our TV’s and phones just waiting for the next shoe to drop. These triggers are only made worse by isolation. Isolation is unnatural to us, as we are tribal by nature. It’s inherent that we would feel distressed in quarantine for lengthy periods of time.
Let’s dive into the wide array of symptoms attributed with DPDR. As mentioned, intense fear of “going crazy” or losing control of your thoughts might be the most common. You may also feel robotic, detached from your body or emotions as if you’re observing yourself from the outside, sudden memory loss, existential thoughts, unusual fears, and sensitive vision are some that are most reported. Just one of those is enough to make a person feel concerned.
I’ve struggled with DP periodically for the last six years. Six years???! Yes, but take a deep breath. Most of that time I was not actively taking care of it. If anything, I was prompting it with some of my personal choices. Once I started treating my body better things started to improve. You’re reading this so you’re already steps ahead of where I was for years. Go YOU!
I can pinpoint the exact day my DPDR troubles began. St. Patrick’s Day six years ago, I stopped by the supermarket to pick up some green dye for cheap Texas beer. The second I stepped inside I was instantly hit with tunnel vision, heart palpitations and intense confusion. Bam, I’m waking up in a hospital bed. The nurses said I’d had a seizure in the parking lot outside the store and slammed my head on the cement. It was the first seizure I ever had followed by a series of several more over the next few months. The following year was a difficult recovery process. I was seriously unwell, my gut health was in the toilet, my mental health was garbage, and my memory was completely shot.
Once I managed to get my physical health in order, I still felt like a mere shell of my former self. I was disconnected from everything, I no longer had trust for my body, and I was constantly fighting off panic attacks. Just mustering the courage to enter a grocery store again was a fiasco, then it became difficult to go anywhere without windows. Soon after, I couldn’t walk to the mailbox without hyperventilating and giving myself a pep talk all day just to make it happen. Things were bad. I couldn’t work outside my home, I basically killed all my friendships with my inability to socialize, my life was in shambles and I had no idea what was wrong with me. I thought the life I once had was over. I spoke with doctors that diagnosed me with severe anxiety and depression. They weren’t wrong but I’ve suffered from mental health issues for as long as I could remember. This was something different. I had multiple tests done that all came back inconclusive.
After that, I lost hope. I surmised I damaged something neurologically and this was life now. Terrified of my own body, I started drinking heavily to ease the anxiety. I tried out some medications, but alcohol worked the best. I drank liquor every day to get by even when I didn’t want it. I knew it wasn’t healthy, but it offered a me a taste of my former life. If I had to get groceries, I filled up a bottle with vodka and walked to the store. Alcohol allowed me to make friends again and go on embarrassing dates.
Obviously, this wasn’t a tenable “remedy” but that’s a story for another time. In short, a time came when I had to make the choice to quit drinking. That’s when all my symptoms exploded tenfold. Thankfully after I sobered up, I finally discovered that my FEAR of seizures had developed into Depersonalization. I was just so relieved to get validation that it wasn’t all made up in my head. This was a real thing! I wasn’t alone. It was time to get to work and into recovery.
I’ve spent the last year immersing myself in the world of recovery for both sobriety and treating DPDR. Now, I can finally say that my DP is in remission. Every so often I’ll have a bad day, but I can usually bounce back in a couple hours. There’s no more crying in a Nordstrom dressing room or reaching for the bottle to self-medicate. What I want you to know my DP friend is that YOU ARE SAFE. It’s only thoughts, as scary as they can be, they can’t physically hurt you. You are still in control and your body is only trying to protect you from stress. Take a moment, breathe, and try to EMBRACE it. This sounds corny but thank your body for the hard work it’s doing, then take steps to show it you are not in danger. You are at ease, there is still peace inside you.
There are many ways you could treat this disorder but the most effective is going to be excavating the roots. Your body is reacting to something. What is it? It’s time to address that unresolved trauma, daily life stressors, and anxiety. If you have the means, talking with a therapist can be beneficial for working through some of the unprocessed trauma trapped in the body. Journal about it. It’s time to let it go and move forward. Practice meditation and mindfulness. I can’t stress this one enough. I’ve always had a hard time meditating because I’m usually overanalyzing about a dozen things at any given time. If you’re the same way, then you need this the most. It took me a long time to adjust to it and I still struggle but it really helps. Finding the peace within you is invaluable and it’s always more sustainable than achieving it through temporary external resources.
Now let’s talk about those, too. I’ve found great results working with natural supplements, herbs, and amino acids. I am not a medical professional so please consult a physician before adding anything to your regime. A few things I’d suggest for relaxation and calming your nerves are Kava Kava (my favorite plant hero with a rich history worth investigating), L-theanine, Magnesium (I prefer CALM), and ashwagandha. When I first began leaving my house again, these were my little security blankets while I worked on healing my trauma. There is also no shame in seeking medical attention if you need something more to get balanced back out. Life can be a real beast and western medicine can be a lifesaver.
Pro Tip: Try doing something that scares you as often as you can. This can be as tiny as walking to the end of your block. Confide in a friend that can be an emotionally supportive phone call for those adventures. It’s hard to leave the house with DP but the more you do the more confidence you gain. All those little steps make a giant difference.
It may take you some time to get back to feeling like your old self, but it will happen. Just remember you’re safe. It can be overwhelming but there is nothing wrong with you. Join an online support group when you need to talk with someone who understands your struggles. However, don’t dwell on it. I know, I know. Research if you must but then let it go. The more you wallow in the anxiety, the more it consumes you. The anticipation of an episode is often greater than the thoughts themselves. Breathe. You are a magical being with a marvelous body that is always looking out for your best interests. It’s has your back. Now, go get some sunshine. Go shine.