Don Draper’s Depersonalisation Disorder

I suppose I have to ask. Is there anyone out there reading this who doesn’t know who Don Draper is? Even if you’ve not seen the TV show you’ll probably still recognise Don’s face.

Donald F. Draper

When you think about Don, what traits come to mind?

Do you think “brilliance?” That wouldn’t be surprising as Don certainly does have a brilliant creative mind. He may have even dreamed up the greatest television commercial ever made.

What about “confidence?” Don certainly has that. He’s a confident presenter of ideas and a tremendous role model for creative thinking in a pitch. But I imagine that there are plenty of you who don’t think that Don’s much of a role model at all.

Maybe you think that he’s not a good model for business. I’d disagree with you about that. It’s true, he’s rude to clients and he walks out of meetings, but he’s not in business to make friends. He’s not even in business to do business. Don cares about doing good work. In fact in the early seasons, his work is how he defines himself.

Maybe you think that Don’s a poor role model as a father to his children. I’d agree with you on that. Don finds it difficult to relate to other people, particularly those who need something from him emotionally, and that includes his kids. He has an awkward relationship with his children when they’re young and it’s only in later seasons that he begins a real father/son relationship with Bobby. (He takes Bobby to see Planet Of The Apes, like all good fathers should do.) His relationship to Sally is more complex and he only begins to relate to her as she grows up.

I imagine that some of you think that it’s Don’s treatment of women, particularly how he treats his wives and the women he has romantic entanglements with that makes him a poor role model.

I defy anyone to defend Don’s behaviour to the fullest extent, but I will argue with anyone who says that Don’s behaviour makes him a bad person. I’m certain that Don makes bad choices, but I have a theory that his choices aren’t driven by callousness or selfishness but are, in part at least, because Don suffers from a mental illness. My theory is that, like me, Don suffers from ‘depersonalisation disorder,’ caused by the trauma he suffered earlier in life and that affected his behaviour and shaped him as the person that we know.

Depersonalisation disorder

Depersonalisation isn’t a topic that we often hear about in relation to mental illness. In fact, The Guardian called it “the condition you’ve never heard of that affects millions.” They said, “even doctors have to Google it.”

So what is depersonalisation and what does it mean for people it affects?

  • Feeling disconnected from one’s body, thoughts or emotions
  • Feeling as though you’re in a dream or are watching yourself
  • Feeling like an outside observer of your own body or thoughts
  • Feeling a loss of control over your thoughts or actions

For some people, these effects can be mild, but in others they’re extremely severe. Some people don’t recognise their own reflection, while others have out-of-body experiences.

Most people who suffer from depersonalisation feel a general sense of detachment from the world and especially the people, around them. They feel their lives are happening without them themselves playing much of a part in it. It’s this aspect that first indicated to me that Don suffers from depersonalisation when he described in season two, episode twelve, “The Mountain King:”

“I’ve been watching my life. It’s right there. I keep scratching at it, trying to get into it. I can’t.”

For some people, depersonalisation can have other symptoms. Sufferers are often depressed and, as in my experience, treatment for depression isn’t successful without treating the underlying depersonalisation. Sufferers often have low self-esteem, anxiety and other behavioural issues. Depersonalisation can also have physical symptoms, including chest pains brought on by anxiety and stress.

People with depersonalisation can experience mood swings, suicidal thoughts or thoughts about self-harm. They often have eating or sleep disorders.

Causes of depersonalisation

It’s thought that depersonalisation’s caused by traumatic events in someone’s life. These might be abuse of some sort, possibly the death of a loved one, especially at an early age or a different traumatic experience.

Don’s early life trauma, the death of his father, almost certainly caused his depersonalisation added to by his traumatic experiences in the Korean War when he stopped being Dick Whitman and took on the identity of the real, dead, Don Draper.

Don’s certainly not alone in how he feels as depersonalisation affects 1% of the population. This might not seem like a significant number, but for people who suffer from it, it can have tremendous effects.

Feelings of depersonalisation

I’ll wind back a little way and talk about one of the major effects of depersonalisation disorder, feeling that your own behaviour, emotions, feelings or life experiences don’t belong to you.

While some people actually feel detached from their physical reality, others feel detached from their actions and emotions. This might be caused by the effects of that earlier trauma. It’s very common for people to erect emotional barriers to protect themselves from being exposed to experiencing further trauma. These barriers can turn into the fog that many depersonalisation sufferers describe. This means that people who suffer from depersonalisation feel less and their feelings still remain somehow detached.

In order to feel something, anything, through the barrier that Don feels separates him from his life, his behaviour throughout the seasons becomes more and more extreme. Don needs strong emotions because they’re the only ones that get through to him. In the first seasons of Madmen, the excitement of Don’s romantic conquests seem enough for him. In later seasons he pays prostitutes to physically abuse him.

These feelings help alleviate Don’s depersonalisation and people with depersonalisation often feel their symptoms are alleviated by comforting interpersonal interactions, intense physical or emotional stimulation and relaxation.

I’m sure we’ve all experienced the thrill of feelings in a new relationship. These are often the strongest feelings and Don has romantic encounters, not because he’s unhappy with his wives — he loves them both — or because he particularly enjoys sex, but because he needs the strength of feelings that come with a new relationship. In fact it’s psychologist Dr. Faye Miller, with whom Don’s been having one of his few adult — adult relationships, who says:

“And I hope she (meaning Don’s new fiancee) knows you only like the beginnings of things.”

While we watched every week, despairing that Don makes the same mistakes over and over again, Don himself is doomed to repeat the same patterns of behaviour. Behaviour that’s not only destructive for him, but for the people around him.

On some level, Don knows what he’s doing is harmful, but like many people who suffer from depersonalisation, Don’s able to keep different areas of his life (home, work, affairs, marriage) separate. To Don, none of those areas feels completely real so he doesn’t have trouble switching realities. He easily moves from one reality to another almost as if he’s a different person, while in fact, none of those people is actually Don.

Why Don Draper?

I’ve talked about Don and my theory about his experiences with depersonalisation disorder, but I have a more personal connection to depersonalisation. I’ve said enough about Don’s story, so let me tell you about mine.

Before I was a teenager, my estranged father did what he’d threatened to do many times. He drank Paroqaut, a weedkiller, and died three days later. Dad had experienced his own traumas. When he was a child, he was playing with his younger sister of about four or five, when she drowned in a canal. His father was a violent drunk who scarred him with scalding water. Dad was, I’m told, obsessive over his looks and obsessed that his quiff covered his scars.

I never dealt with my feelings over Dad’s death. It wasn’t something that we talked about in our new family. I suppressed feelings of loss, but worse than that, feelings of guilt. Instead of dealing with how I felt, I isolated myself. I took myself away, physically and emotionally. I shortened my first name, became Andy. I changed my last name as before, I was Andrew Doyle.

I functioned well enough as a young person, but when I grew up, went to work, got married to the same wonderful person I’m still with today after 27 years, I took several turns for the worst. There were frequent periods of depression with largely misdiagnosed occasional drug treatments. Worse than that, I had long periods — not months nor years but decades — when, despite appearing that I was coping, I felt helplessly out of control. I can only describe it as desperately clinging onto the edges of life as it spun faster and faster.

Feelings of numbness during traumatic events

I now know that like many people with dissociative disorders, I was never fully connected emotionally to people close to me. It’s not that I didn’t care, it’s that I couldn’t. I didn’t feel the depth of feelings that I know now that people should have. I never felt happy. I didn’t feel sad. The depersonalisation took the edge off my feelings.

That article in the Guardian reads:

“People with DPD often do not appear at all unwell or different to even their closest acquaintances; despite experiencing a total lack of empathy, friends and family do not notice any marked change. The person with DPD is often able to sleepwalk through daily life, and even to maintain close relationships, but is robbed of the emotional peaks and troughs of normal human existence. It only enhances sensations of detachment.”

Patterns of behaviour

For years I repeated patterns of destructive behaviour, I think in an attempt to feel something. Just like watching Don and screaming at him for making the same mistakes over and over again, on one level I knew what I was doing, I knew that it was wrong. On another, I let destructive situations develop because somehow it was as if they were happening to someone else. In therapy sessions, I described my experiences though film and television references. Just like I’m doing now. Isn’t that ironic?

Coping with depersonalisation

Coping with depersonalisation often means getting help, from people you care about and from professionals. Seeing a a mental health specialist for therapy, as I did, can help to unblock emotions. People with dissociative disorders can benefit from psychotherapy or counselling, examining the trauma that they suffered and through cognitive behavioural therapy, focusing on breaking the vicious cycles.

Therapy helped me to break through and after several months and a summer holiday of emotional outbursts I came to a deeper realisation about my feelings, and guilt, over Dad’s suicide. It helped me to experience a deeper emotional involvement with family and to make me aware of, and avoid repeating destructive behaviour. As a result I’m more able to cope with home and business life today than ever before.

Overcoming depersonalisation

As so often seems to be the case, my experience of overcoming depersonalisation was mirrored by Don’s in the finale of Madmen. I hope that I don’t spoil the finale for anyone who hasn’t seen it, but Don’s life changing moment doesn’t come in a pitch with a fabulous client, or in bed with a beautiful younger woman, but in a therapy session at a Californian hilltop retreat.

In the final episode, not coincidentally called ‘Person to Person,‘ Don sits in on a therapy session and hears a stranger called Leonard describe his own, classic, experience of depersonalisation.

Leonard describes himself living inside a refrigerator and he connects with his family only when they open the door. Leonard describes how his family’s lives happen without him, outside the refrigerator. In his monologue, Leonard says:

“I go home and I watch my wife and my kids — they don’t look up when I sit down. It’s like no one cares that I’m gone. They should love me, maybe they do, but, I don’t even know what it is.

You spend your whole life thinking you’re not getting it, people aren’t giving it to you. Then you realise they’re trying, and you don’t even know what IT is.

I had a dream I was on a shelf in the refrigerator. Someone closes the door and the light goes off, and I know everybody’s out there eating And then they open the door, and you see them smiling. They’re happy to see you. But maybe they don’t look right at you, and maybe they don’t pick you. Then the door closes again. The light goes off.”

When I watched that scene in the final episode I knew exactly how Leonard felt, and so does Don. For the first time in his adult life, Don feels a true, emotional connection to another person. Even though they’re strangers, Don identifies with Leonard and has real empathy with him. When Leonard breaks down telling his story, Don, in tears, crosses the room and gives Leonard a hug. It’s not just that Don understands how Leonard feels, it’s that he finally understands how he himself feels.

In the first episode of Madmen, Don describes happiness as the smell of a new car. He says:

“Do you know what happiness is? Happiness is the smell of a new car. It’s freedom from fear. It’s a billboard on the side of the road that screams reassurance that whatever you are doing is okay. You are okay.”

Seven series later, despite all outward appearances, despite his success, the work, the money, the women, we know that Don has been far from OK. The final season is about Don coming to terms with his past, his choices and the mistakes that he’s made throughout his life. It’s also about how he comes to terms with himself, begins to value himself as a person and relate to the people who love him better.

Don’s a better person for dealing with his depersonalisation disorder. And so am I.

A digital designer, speaker, and writer who really, really loves gorillas.

A digital designer, speaker, and writer who really, really loves gorillas.