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When Dissociation Feels Like a Waking Nightmare

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My dissociation almost ruined my life.

That’s a conclusion I drew one sunny afternoon while walking home and realizing I could not account for the last 30 minutes of my life. My body had still been operating in all of the meaningful ways, but my thoughts were detached. I saw myself as an outside observer, but some combination of extant thinking or surrounding action brought me back down.

Suddenly, I was this person again, but my hands were strangely foreign with sensations I did not recognize, my breathing felt deliberate and dangerous, like it could stop if I thought too hard, and my head felt like it would explode — entirely too small to contain me. I panicked, spun around a few times, noticed people watching from their porches, and then hurried home on legs that were barely mine anymore. Maybe it’s that trusty old social anxiety that helps override the derealization and push me toward a modicum of composure to avoid embarrassment in public situations. I’m not sure, but I know if I’m going to experience a dissociative episode, I’d rather it not be behind closed doors.

The first time I dissociated was a year after the World Trade Center fell. I was barely a teenager and my brother, especially vicious with his teasing at that time, convinced me nothing in this life really mattered. He said that even Linkin Park understood it, pointing to a line from their song “In The End.”

“I tried so hard and got so far, but in the end it doesn’t even matter.”

He painted a picture of pointlessness, futility, and death for me that I fleshed out in my paranoid and anxious mind. I realized every moment of my life before that point was contained in my thoughts and that, someday, decades later, it would be the same with a much older version of me. Just before the end, all of these experiences would be memories, fleeting and intangible, and then I’d be dead. Total and complete cessation of sensation and awareness. Just a blank and black void. It terrified me.

I leapt from the couch and ran around the apartment holding the sides of my head and panicking. I went into the bedroom where my mother and sisters shared a king-size bed to see and remember them. I stared at their sleeping bodies, but it did not really help me to calm down. I came back into the living room, screaming and on the verge of tears, and I think my brother noticed how badly it had affected me and tried to calm me down. I don’t remember how he did it, but it was temporary, because I was tortured by those thoughts of time, death, and perspective for years.

I started having vivid nightmares of seeing nuclear bombs set off from outside the window of our home. It had gotten so bad one evening that I woke up from a particularly horrible nightmare and rushed my little sister out of the house to a payphone around the corner. I called my mother’s cellphone from there and left a brief message about how we were getting out of town before the bomb hit and that she should could find us at Deb’s house. We walked a few blocks, but I soon came to my senses and led us back home. I tried to explain to them my dream felt prophetic because I was having such vivid déjà vu, but they just wanted to put the hot pockets in the oven and shut up.

The next time I dissociated in a meaningful and life-altering way was some years later, in my early 20s, when I rented the unfinished basement apartment of a friend’s house. We were hanging out, drinking, blabbering, and jesting and one of our other friends came by with some weed-infused brownies that he called especially potent. I did not really have much experience with edibles, but decided to eat one anyway. What ensued an hour or so later was nothing short of a waking nightmare.

My body became so foreign to me that looking in the mirror induced vertigo. I grabbed and tugged on my hair, amazed that it was attached to this strange animal with its limbs, extremities, soft flesh, and blood. I felt like an overly complex amoeba, absorbing energy through this orifice in my head (though I could barely associate what a head was in relation to myself), lumbering through the physical world with a species complex, considering myself and my contemporaries better than the other creatures around us. I forgot my name. I forgot the names of my family members and the people I worked with. I used my fingers, which were not my own anymore, to keep track of who and what I was. I must have repeated my siblings’ names 100 times, but still forgot them completely when I stopped for a moment or paced around the room.

It got especially bad about two hours into it and no matter how hard I tried to retain my thoughts and experiences, every few seconds I became a new version of myself. I could scarcely remember more than 10 seconds at a time, but I was keenly aware of the lapse. It drove me to blistering panic and I remember saying over and over, “I’m in a carousel! It’s never going to stop! It’s a carousel of doom!” I was actually afraid I would keep repeating the same moment in time indefinitely, because that’s what it felt like.

I looked at the clock at 10:15, waited an immeasurable amount of time where I went on epic, spiraling adventures through terrifying landscapes of consciousness, then checked back to see it was 10:12. It didn’t make sense. Nothing did. I wasn’t me anymore. I was watching myself and wondering about my unconscious body functions like breathing, digestion, and my beating heart. I was sure they could stop if I thought about them for too long. I remained in a state of derealization and depersonalization for hours, but I was high for two days. When I finally came down, I wrote a three-page paper on my experiences that I printed out, folded up, and put into my journal to be transcribed at a later date. I never transcribed it and lost it a few years later.

That aggressive dissociative experience fueled by mind-altering substances left a searing impression on me that never really lifted. I started dissociating at random after that: on the street, in my bedroom at night, and at work. On the street, I would hide my panic and trembling limbs by walking faster or fiddling with the straps of my bag. At work, I would get up from my desk and go into the bathroom to stare in the mirror and remind myself I was me and I was real. At home, alone, I would have to pace around the room, call my mother, or bolt outside to the porch for a cigarette. It was terribly debilitating and never stopped — only lessened in volume. The last time I dissociated was just a few weeks ago while at my desk. I leaped to my feet, grabbed the sides of my head, cursed, and tensed the muscles of my body to remind myself I was in it — that it was mine. The panic is flashing and fleeting now because I’ve come to understand it, but back then, it was destructive.

When I dissociate, I don’t know who or what I am. Sometimes, I came back from dissociative episodes and just stared quietly at myself in the mirror for minutes on end, wondering where I had been and what it meant to be a person. I often felt disembodied, like a spirit or specter, now trapped in flesh and blood. Once, it was so unreal that I looked up the Wikipedia page for human beings to try and gather a better understanding of myself.

Other times, I come back and there are brief moments of sheer panic where I am keenly aware of missing time and strangely foreign sensations all over my body — kind of like when all the blood leaves your arm while you’re asleep and it barely feels like it’s attached to you anymore. My entire body feels like that sometimes and I grab, scratch, prod, and tense all over to keep it under control. It feels to me the way I imagine it would feel to be dead — to be a spirit roaming the Earth, not quite aware of what’s going on, losing massive amounts of time, and being generally disconnected from every and anything else. It’s kind of scary, but also feels strangely enlightening (when it’s over, of course, it’s hell while it’s going on).

Getty image by BenAkiba

Originally published: February 23, 2022
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