Melissa: Hi! Thank you for agreeing to be part of this project!! Do you mind sharing the name you picked for your interview? I’m choosing to, across the board, change names of all participants.
Liam: I picked Liam
Melissa: How long have we known each other?
Liam: A long time!
Melissa: Have you had an experience or experiences which lead you to wonder if there were other people “out there” like you?
Liam: I have spent more than half my life having on and off episodes of depression and depersonalization. Major depressive disorder affects over 16 million adults each year in the U.S. and many of us know what it’s like by experiencing it themselves or because it affected someone they know. However, far fewer people know what depersonalization is. I’ve experienced 3 depersonalization episodes in my life, although it took a while to figure out what it was that I was experiencing which definitely made me wonder if there was anyone else out there experiencing the same thing I was.
It took me a long time to put into worlds how to describe to other people what depersonalization feels like, especially since it can change in how it presents itself over time. For me, it also changes in its severity depending on whether I find a medication that is helping me. At its worst, it feels like you’re in a dream or that nothing around you is real, almost as if you’re living in a simulation. Not only is this completely terrifying, but no one around you can possibly imagine the nightmare you’re experiencing in your own mind. I have never done any heavy drugs, but I would imagine it would feel like an LSD trip gone wrong, and instead of it lasting a few hours, it can last your whole life.
Melissa: Can you give us a brief overview of your experience or situation? Did you feel isolated at all? Or did you have a sense someone else might have a similar experience?
Liam: The first time that I experienced depersonalization was in high school when I smoked marijuana for the first time. Everyone convinced me that it was this amazing thing I had to try and that it had no side effects other than maybe make you want to eat everything in your kitchen and giggle uncontrollably. Sounded pretty good to me. That was, until I started to feel high and everything around me felt like it was slipping away and felt dream-like, but not in a good way. Internally, I was freaking out, but I decided to try and sleep it off. Except when I woke up the next day, I didn’t feel like my normal self again. My perception of everything around me was all messed up. I felt like I was still high. After 3 days, I really started to panic. I was afraid to tell my parents that I smoked pot and telling friends at school was not helpful either. I remember telling one friend that I had smoked the previous week and it felt like the high never went away. He looked at me completely serious and said “You’re so lucky”. I told another friend that I still felt “weird” and maybe the pot I smoked was laced with something more intense. He just told me that I sounded crazy and I was just being paranoid. Then why did I feel so weird? It had to have been the pot – I felt fine before I smoked it. But other people smoked it with me – why are they perfectly normal? That was my junior year of high school and I honestly don’t remember how I made it through the rest of the year. I do remember stupidly thinking that if pot got me this way in the first place, then maybe pot could reverse it. So, I got high again. That obviously didn’t work. I think I just spent the rest of the school year being miserable and not knowing what to do.
When you have depersonalization, you think about it every second of every day. That’s not an exaggeration. And you can’t control it either. You can’t simply “stop thinking about it”. But by some miracle, it eventually did go away. Until it hit again my junior year of college. But this time it came with depression too. I wasn’t diagnosed with depersonalization until I told my doctor that I was fairly certain that’s what I had after I was on the internet one night researching my symptoms and came across other people describing what I was going through. Surprisingly, many of them talked about how they got that way from smoking pot or getting depressed too. It was somewhat of a relief to find that there are other people similar to me.
Unfortunately, depersonalization is a very complicated thing and there is no medication that works for everyone. Luckily, through the help of some good psychiatrists and some research of my own, I was able to find something that helped my symptoms subside.
Melissa: What do you think has been most helpful in terms of advocating for yourself and treatment?
Liam: Don’t settle. If you tell your family, friends, or doctor that you’re feeling “70% better” and they say that you’ll be fine, you can live with that, don’t settle for that. I also believe because depersonalization is somewhat uncommon, a lot of doctors aren’t as familiar with it, at least based on my experiences. I think for myself it was helpful to do my own research on the disorder and bring that information to the table when speaking with doctors.
Melissa: What do you think has been least helpful in terms of getting support?
Liam: People have always told me that I had “inner demons” that I needed to confront and that’s why my depression lasted as long as it did. I listened to them and tried to figure out if there was some trauma or something in my life that I was not addressing. I ended up seeing about 6 different therapists and did an outpatient program for people who have debilitating mental health issues which is interrupting their ability to function normally in life. Unfortunately, none of that helped, but I was able to a very helpful psychiatrist who helped get my life back on track. I have a tremendous respect for social workers and therapists and I believe their work is invaluable for some people. But for me personally, seeing therapist after therapist because people said there was something wrong with me that I didn’t recognize was not helpful. I believe that some people can get depression without any life factors being a cause, and science has suggested that genetics can possibly play a part in that.
Melissa: What have you learned from your experience?
Liam: I learned not to take my health for granted. I am so grateful to have found something that worked for me to allow me to feel like myself again and I hope no one has to experience what I went through.
Melissa: What do you want to share with people who have had similar experiences to you?
Liam: I want people to know that there are other people experiencing the same thing as them and there is hope. Depersonalization, just like depression is a very complicated disorder and there isn’t one solution or one pill that will work for everyone. What worked for me will not work for everyone.
A resource that I found helpful which I am not affiliated with is http://www.dpselfhelp.com. There are hundreds of people on there talking about their experiences: how they feel, what has helped them cope with the disorder, etc.
Melissa: Any closing thoughts?
Liam: I think that no matter how bad things get, no matter how awful you feel and you feel like you can’t go on any longer, you need to reach out to someone you can trust. I also think you need to find that one thing that will keep you going, whether it be a loved one or your children, etc. Just know that you aren’t going to feel this way forever and you are more valuable to a lot more people than you think you are.
National Alliance on Mental Illness: Dissociative Disorders