Made Out Of Air: Depersonalization & The Boundary-less Body

I often wonder if I will be in this state forever. Where I used to feel the outer edges of my skin, the tips of my toes, the shell of my torso, I feel flat, floating in a non-existent space. Psychiatrists call it depersonalization. I call it hell.

Normally when you look at a chair, you know that chair is separate from you: an object, inanimate. You can feel your heart beating in your chest and you know: I am alive, I am real. But when you live with depersonalization, the line between that chair — an object — and you — a person — is sometimes blurred beyond distinction. Where does my shaky leg end and the wooden leg of the chair begin? I can feel my foot on its ledge, and experience all the tactile sensations of sitting in the chair, but it is not me on that chair. I am always floating just above my body, allowing me to escape the gravity that keeps the chair bolted to the ground.

When I was 20 years old, I lay in bed for five months. During that time, I slept upwards of 16–20 hours a day, only getting up to use the bathroom. To this day, my dad asks me why. Angrily, with the look of a father who almost lost his daughter to suicide two months ago, he probes me. Aren’t you curious, even intellectually? Get angry! Be angry at me! Blame someone! He yells. I cry, and counteractively blame myself.

I thought I had chronic fatigue syndrome, which was later diagnosed as late-stage Lyme, a nasty beast that trapped me in a down spiral of pain and exhaustion. What began years ago as an apparent physical illness metamorphosed into a psychosomatic nightmare. There were days during those five months when I would wake up paralyzed, like a truck hit me in my sleep. Friends and family members bathed and spoon fed me, and wheeled me around in my wheelchair. People wrote me letters and donated to my campaign. I became consciously and unconsciously addicted to the Lyme light.

The unfortunate truth is, once people start taking care of you, it can be years before you learn how to take care of yourself again. Fear took hold and has yet to let go. The questions remain: What am I like when I am not sick? How can I exist in this shame-riddled post-trauma world? Where do we draw the lines between mental and physical illness?

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Two years later and there are still no emotional borders in my home. The walls that I had so diligently begun to rebuild after the five-month incident have crumbled and fallen. I made it to about fifty percent recovered from depersonalization before the depression and anxiety got the best of me and I wound up in a psych hospital for the first time. Over and over, I tell myself to get back up and start again. My parents and loved ones say the same. My delicate identity, the rebirth of a woman post crisis, my three-month trip out west, my spirituality — all these things have since gone missing, lost in some shrunken hippocampal region.

You would think that surviving a suicide attempt and the (second) hellish in-patient experience that followed would force me to re-evaluate my situation, maybe see things from a new perspective. But no. The symptoms didn’t let up and neither did my suffering. Actually, things seemed to get progressively worse until a few weeks ago, when a godsend came in the form of a little blue pill called Adderall. Don’t get me wrong, I am fully cognizant that this so-called remedy for brain fog is only a band-aid, and a dangerous one at that. I am well aware of the risks: the habit-forming, tolerance-building, toxicity, etc., and I am the first person to speak out against big Pharma and the U.S.’s bizarre love affair with prescription drugs. But right now this medication is saving my life. And for the first time in a long time, living actually matters to me.

But because I still feel like I don’t exist, it can be tempting and almost automatic to place others’ needs, thoughts and emotions before my own. Of course, this isn’t always a bad thing, but when the pattern becomes habituated, it leads to a lessening of the already wispy, air-like “Self.” Other people seem to be more full, more “real” than me, so at this stage, it is easier to stay a shell and to dissipate rather than fight for whole-ness or reclaim my inner and outer boundaries. It has become clear that in order to address this boundary-less-ness, and to repossess a voice and reflection that I have not been able recognize for years, I must first navigate my way through the fog.

For the time being, I have come up with a set of “rules” to fight back against this fog: to put in place the outer limits of my existence. I try to practice these rules on a daily basis, and I’m finding that — for me anyway — they actually work. I am always curious how other people fight their respective “fogs” but have not yet run these rules by anyone with depersonalization or other dissociative disorders.

1. When you catch yourself in the bathroom mirror, learn to recognize the person staring back at you, even when you think you can’t. Tell yourself over and over again that those hands are your hands, those feet your feet, those arms your arms, etc. Get to know the new yet old, familiar yet unfamiliar, distant yet close you.

2. It’s okay if your thoughts haven’t sounded like yours in a while. Maybe they even have a life of their own. Learn to go from a passive to active observer, engaging more with your thought patterns until eventually they, too, become familiar. There may be more there. It’s a process. It takes time. I am nowhere near where I want to be, but at least now I have a direction.

3. Remember that even though you can’t feel it, you have only ever been you. But it’s okay for that person to change. You will constantly adjust and then readjust the way you look at yourself, especially if you are depersonalized. Most people do this all the time without thinking twice — you will just have to work a little (OK, a lot) harder to make it feel real, to secure a sense of constancy between the shifts in perspective.

4. Congratulate yourself on everything you accomplish. Everything.

Through these attempts to “re-personalize,” I have come to a realization. The fact that I could notice something was unfamiliar about my own thoughts meant that, somewhere, I had a self — or a series of selves — that was still in tact. Now, I am letting that consciousness grow, atom-by-atom, synapse-by-synapse. I am rebuilding a world around me that is full of the things I love, even if I can’t connect to them just yet. Every morning I drag myself out of bed for a half hour of yoga, just to feel the soft carpet beneath my feet. Maybe one day I will be able to experience it not from the outside looking in, but from the inside out. I can already feel the expansiveness of my once air-like body condensing and returning to the ground, like droplets of rain on a cloudy afternoon.