“You’re staring straight ahead. Somehow your awareness peels away from you, in slow motion. It’s like you’ve cracked in two, and one half is facing the wrong way. Are you in your physical body, which you know must still be there? Before you know it, you’re up on the ceiling somewhere, watching yourself down below.”
In a gripping account in The Guardian, Hannah Ewens describes her experience of Depersonalisation Disorder. Ewens explains the disorder as “one of the body’s stress responses. You can’t deal with a situation, so it almost ejects you…”
Wrong end of a telescope
Not all experiences of depersonalisation are quite as dramatic.
Mine was gentler but permanent. In my mid-teens I felt like I was slipping away from life until I could only see it through the wrong end of a telescope, remote and inaccessible. My family felt like strangers, people with whom — due to some cosmic accident — I shared the train carriage of existence. My school grades plummeted from the straight-A’s of my early high school years. I emerged into the working world lost and confused. Life always seemed to be happening somewhere else. The opposite sex was an attractive but alien life form whose mere proximity induced weak knees, acute flustering and heart palpitations. I spent a lot of time alone, with no name or understanding of my condition. It was my ‘normal’.
Although I only recently discovered it, the term ‘depersonalisation’ has been in use for over a century. While many people have occasional experiences of depersonalisation, as a severe condition it is thought to affect 1-2% of the population.
The World Health Organisation’s ICD-10, the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, describes Depersonalisation Syndrome as follows: “Among the varied phenomena of the syndrome, patients complain most frequently of loss of emotions and feelings of estrangement or detachment from their thinking, their body, or the real world.”
Depersonalisation has a high correlation with low self-esteem, self-harm, anxiety and panic attacks — exactly the same emotional territory as the other shame-based issues explored elsewhere in this blog.
That’s because, as Ewens notes, it’s an attempt to escape an emotionally overwhelming situation. And, like all those issues, it is linked to shame in general and body shame in particular. Ewens’ account is quite explicit on this point. While experiencing depersonalization, she describes her body as “alien to me. Hairy, covered in sweat and fat…” Ewens also associates depersonalisation to times of heightened anxiety and panic attacks.
Like all shame-based issues, a fundamental shame of the emotions, the body and sexuality — and a consequent anxiety at presenting those aspects of the self to society — underlies this condition.