What are dissociative disorders? Symptoms are more common than you may think

Have you ever been in a moment and felt like the experience wasn't actually happening to you? Have you ever looked back on a past memory and felt like you were imagining a movie and not your actual life? Have you ever glimpsed your reflection and felt disconnected from your own body? Have you ever felt like you were trapped inside "The Truman Show" and nothing around you was real?

I've felt this way throughout my life, but especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. I've never really talked about it before. It's been difficult for me to find the words to describe what it feels like. But I realized I needed to admit to it, just like I did with my anxiety disorder, in case anyone else was going through the same thing I was. I've felt so alone with this, and, if I can help just one person not feel alone like I have, then sharing my story is worth it. 

Doing some research recently, it turns out I'm showing symptoms of depersonalization/derealization disorder, which is a type of dissociative disorder. The Cleveland Clinic describes this disorder as feeling detached from one's own mind/body as if you're an observer of your life, feeling like the world around you is unreal and having a distorted sense of time and space. 

Mild dissociation is actually very typical. Mental Health America reports that many people – up to 74 percent – will experience dissociation at some point in their lives. High stress, anxiety and isolation are known to trigger dissociative episodes, and, with the traumatic events of COVID-19, these feelings are even more common. 

Dissociative disorder, on the other hand, is much more intrusive, and it affects people's daily lives. It's estimated that approximately 7% of American adults will have a dissociative disorder at some point in their lives. 

Here's how MHA describes depersonalization/derealization disorder:

"The world might actually look distorted to you – it can appear foggy, two-dimensional, cartoon-like, or colors may seem muted. Some people say it’s like there’s a glass wall in between them and other people; others describe it as feeling like other people are robots, even though you know they aren’t."

"Depersonalization refers to when you feel detached from yourself. You may feel like you’re watching yourself in a movie or floating above your physical body. For some, it’s like your body is on autopilot and you’re going through the day without any control over what you say, do, or feel."

So, if you do struggle with depersonalization/derealization disorder or another dissociative disorder, is it curable? That's what scares me most – to think that this is what my life will always be.

While there currently aren't any medications specifically for depersonalization disorder, medication for depression or anxiety, such as desipramine (Norpramin®), can help treat it. 

Also, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, there are several forms of therapy which can be helpful in treating dissociative disorders, including: 

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy - Helps you recognize your negative thoughts and learn coping strategies
  • Dialectical behavior therapy - Helps you combat destructive urges, regulate emotions, improve relationships and practice mindful techniques such as mediation
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing - Helps relieve the distress associated with traumatic memories by using visual stimulation exercises to access these negative memories and beliefs and replace them with positive ones
Here are some tips on how you can ground yourself when you are experiencing a dissociative episode:

  • Kickstart your senses by holding an ice cube, running your fingers along a soft blanket, smelling a strong scent, savoring your food, focusing on your breathing, concentrating on your steps while walking, practicing restorative yoga, etc. This will help you feel present in your body.
  • Since dissociation can affect your memory, it's important to start journaling. During or immediately after dissociating, write about how it felt and what led you to feeling that way so you can identify your triggers.
  • Limit or eliminate substance use that can mimic the symptoms of dissociation, such as alcohol and hallucinogens.
  • If you are working from home, make it a priority to go outside everyday.
  • Practice self-kindness. Don't bully yourself when you're experiencing dissociation. That will only make things worse. Instead, tell yourself, "You're strong. You are doing your best. You can make it through this."
I will leave you a quote by author VE Schwab, which she posted on Instagram over the summer, that really resonated with me. I hope it helps you and makes you feel less alone, like it did for me:

"I still don't feel at home in my skin. ... Everything can go right, and you can still feel wrong. ... Some days, I'm afraid that I'll never feel like the person in my mind lines up with the one in the mirror. That the life I'm living has all the right pieces and still doesn't feel like the one I want to live."

"I just want you to know that whatever you're feeling today, it's okay. It's okay if it's messy. It's okay if you can't find the words. It's okay if it's sunny outside but cloudy when you close your eyes. It's okay if you feel lost. It's okay."

See your primary care doctor for a referral or click here to find a therapist specializing in dissociative disorders near you. Click here for a guide to affordable therapy. Visit the Mayo Clinic for information on how you should prepare for your appointment. 

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