I can remember the second everything changed.
The mundane details that otherwise would have been lost to time are stuck in my memory like pins in a map.
Seventeen years old. My parent’s basement. MTV reality television. Junk food.
A Tuesday night for a high school slacker.
The minutia of a young American life.
I bolted upright from a slump on the couch. My whole body seemed to clench as tight as knuckles on a steering wheel before an accident.
My chest went fast and cold.
Everything looked different.
I recognized my surrounding, but it felt like I was seeing it for the first time. I became acutely aware of my hands, and they seemed an entity detached from my self. A strange aberration permeated my vision. Everything suddenly seemed almost imperceptibly askew and was punctuated slightly by a muted halo of light.
I became aware of each individual thought as it arose, and those thoughts seemed to collate with brevity, as if being catalogued in eternity.
I noticed the machinery of my mind as it moved at an accelerated speed.
The shock of raw reality seemed to touch down all at once, and I realized something that had always been true, but just then demanded to be known:
I was trapped in my mind.
I felt fear as if a great pressure was pushing me inside myself.
It was like I had been jolted awake from a dream that looked exactly like my life.
I started to pace back and forth between rooms, charging my anxiety with movement.
I ran up to my bathroom and got in the shower, the one thing that usually calmed me down. I stood in hot water and fear for as long as I could and then, barely dressed, tried to outrun my inner panic.
I raced downstairs and found the only other person in the house.
He sat silent and still in his favorite armchair, deep into a television program after a day of work. His gentle familiar face looked distorted and unreal to me. I spoke a mile a minute, spewing agitation and trying to express something I still, 15 years later, have trouble articulating.
He looked sad. And confused.
He tried to calm me down, but it was like shushing the wind.
I talked to him for a moment, before fear demanded movement.
I ran back up to the shower and once again hoped that warm steam and tactile comfort would calm me down.
Everything remained bleached reality.
My dad knocked on the bathroom door, concerned.
I threw on my clothes without toweling off and opened the door.
I met his calm demeanor with agitated nonsense.
I don’t remember the rest of the night.
I don’t think I slept a moment.
The next several months were prescriptions writ under florescent lights and awkward conversations with therapists that didn’t understand. Their professionalism couldn’t override the expression of confusion in their faces.
These things had standardized treatments.
An electric fog that sat stagnant between the world and me.
A creeping sense of unreality.
A pathological cognizance of thoughts and function.
A wavering belief that I may already be dead…
These things weren’t really in the manual.
I went to school. I saw my friends. I ate dinner with my family every weekday night at 6:30. I watched TV. I played drums. I read books.
I felt uncomfortable every second of every day.
I thought I was going crazy.
People don’t like that word, especially mental health care professionals.
Nobody could explain what was happening. I felt crazy and feared going crazy.
It was the snake that ate itself.
I went days at a time without sleep.
The one respite I found would ultimately serve to inflame everything.
I had been drinking occasionally since the age 14, but this was when the vultures truly started to sink their talons in.
All my free time was spent in the pursuit of drunken oblivion.
I wouldn’t get tipsy, or buzzed; I would drink until my body shut down.
Until I was faced down, literally on the floor or in the dirt.
I blacked out almost every time I drank. It’s a miracle I didn’t die from alcohol poisoning or the dangerous mixture of pharmaceutical medication and ethanol.
I drank at parties. I drank with my friends. I drank by myself.
I had a problem before high school ended.
I’d set the dysfunctional schema that would be my reckoning for the next decade and beyond.
Booze ran roughshod over my life.
Everything, every damn thing, took a backseat to getting drunk.
I shirked responsibilities.
I gave up trying in school.
Life kept moving.
I graduated, stagnated, moved away to college.
The whole time wearing my maladaptive coping mechanism like a pair of
Turning myself into a victim helped to justify all my bad living.
“Other people don’t think like this.”
Or more so,
“Other people don’t experience like this.”
My insides writhed with jealousy at people who were normal.
I hated dealing with it - the fear it stirred.
Dull knives ran constant across my Achilles’ heel.
I felt damned.
Sometimes, in moments where self-pity pushes aside reason...
I still do.
I treated people like shit.
That’s the worst part.
If I could take back anything, it would be that.
I became bitter and bent and I let it turn me into an emotional bully.
I was a child in the frame of a growing man.
I missed spots when shaving, because I could barely stand to look at myself in the mirror.
And as the weight added to the other end of the crazy bullshit teeter-totter, I countered with the only thing I had.
The only game in my town. The only tool in my belt.
I moved back to my hometown and floundered for a few years.
I continued my tradition of unaccountability and irresponsibility.
Now, whiskey and gin were my medicine, but it was not without consequence.
When the devil came to collect, it was in the form of a deepening.
Hangovers meant rebound anxiety that was a few standard deviations more severe.
It meant the anchors of depression where cast in deeper waters.
And in those waters, there be monsters.
Things were slipping.
I was in my mid-twenties, and the sole remarkable accumulation of my existence was the complex architecture of a labyrinth built from mental illness and substance abuse.
My family and a few friends were the only things that stood between me and a permanent act of damnation.
The strangeness lurked and climbed.
The feeling of my hands seeming like they belonged to someone else seemed to be ever-present.
Halos of light refractions scattered in my vision.
People looked strange- like they were fake or cartoonish.
Once again I began to have the haunting thought that I was already dead and in hell.
I felt like I was in a matrix of unsolvable ontological math.
The anxiety it generated would get so severe that I would occasionally vomit.
Panic attacks, like the one I had in my basement when I was seventeen, started punctuating fear throughout my days.
I lost my job.
I moved out of the apartment I shared with my friends, and retreated back into my parent’s home.
I once again visited with confused therapists, and acquired so many different prescriptions that I could have started my own pharmacy.
I traded the booze back in for meds, and started a quest for the perfect pill.
But how do you find the panacea to something you can’t even articulate?
I would try anyway.
Benzos and hynotics would hold my hand until I found the cure.
I’ve heard despair defined as an emotional state that arrives when you find yourself in a dreadful situation with no way out.
That despair visited me in my parent’s house.
My mother took turns being angry and sympathetic.
She was confused and scared too.
My dad, a practical man with no way to understand what was happening, would suggest work or a girlfriend as a means to get back on track.
Not bad advice, but I was miles away from it.
Being around other people would amplify the noise in my mind and it would echo outwards. I didn’t leave the house for months.
I would stare out the window and become anxious as the sky changed color.
I looked forward to one thing:
My sleeping pills.
When it got to be 9 PM, I would pop them like clockwork and fold into my pocket universe.
My only goal, everyday, was to get to those pills. I would wake up out of my medicated slumber with despondency because everything felt the same, and start my wait until 9 PM again. That was my life.
I can only shake my head as I write that.
Shake my head and try not to break my teeth on themselves.
The calendar turned a half a year and I didn’t feel any different.
Certainly not any better.
The cold energy of anxiety and turbid detachment consumed me.
I poured over the Internet, trying to find something that could help me.
One day I came across a charlatan’s cure. He sold a method that guaranteed health, and I bought it, and sank my hope into it, then felt that hope fade as I realized it was just the black gold of a serpent.
But as fate has it, I found a jewel in that coarse sand.
He introduced new vocabulary to my shrinking world:
These words have subsequently worked themselves into more common parlance, but back then almost nobody used them.
Even most professionals had never heard of them.
Reading over the descriptions of these “disorders” was like finding a map after being lost in the wilderness for years.
I wasn’t where I needed to be, but I finally knew where I was.
I read, researched, and analyzed every bit of information I could find on these subjects. I spent hours on the Internet. I read every book I could find that even had mentions of them. I went into online forums and obsessed over comments.
I called damn near every psychologist and mental hospital in West Michigan, but nobody was confident they could help me deal with it.
Finally, somebody mentioned a prominent clinic in Texas that dealt with more unique cases.
In the end I spent two and a half months inpatient at a mental hospital in Houston.
I could write a whole entry on my time there, but for now I’ll just say that that facility, particularly two individuals I met with there, helped me learn to function again.
When I came back from Texas, I was better equipped to deal with life.
The symptoms still existed, but I had the correct medicine and mental strategies to help mitigate the effects.
I got a job. I moved back out. I met girls. I went out into the world.
Then I picked the bottle back up.
The booze, and all my bullshit, was right where I left them.
I slowly stopped implementing any type of mental coping mechanism, and relied on intoxication to give me comfort. I took meds when I woke up, and meds so I could sleep. I dodged any type of challenge, or responsibility. One of the few positive habits I maintained was reading, because in pages I found escape.
But that could only hold me over for so long
Every night, I fought the monsters in my head, and like the man said,
“He who fights with monsters might take care lest he thereby become a monster.”
Years ticked by and I started to move more slowly as my late-twenties came.
I cared less and less about my actions.
I buried my shame deep and refused to face the embarrassment I caused.
I stopped waiting for it to be dark.
I found reasons everywhere until I didn’t even think about reasons anymore.
More nights were spent at the bar by myself.
I was turning myself into a character from a Bukowski story, while trying to fool myself that I was out of a Hemingway novel.
It wasn’t that I couldn’t find meaning; I was just certain that no meaning existed.
Thinking life is meaningless is as bad for your soul as cigarettes are for your lungs. It’s a daily injection of toxin, which will slowly corrode you.
Through all of this, my attention was still fixed on my cognitive process.
I felt alienated through my subjective experience.
I became obsessed with why.
Why do I feel like this?
I was a step detached from everything and always paying attention to my mental commentary on the phenomena in the world or to my own reaction to said phenomena-- as opposed to just reacting instinctively.
Have I lost you yet?
I know this has been strange.
An odd, negative, single perspective, egocentric recounting of chunks of my life.
I felt compelled to write it.
And hesitant to share it.
The story doesn’t end there.
However, in order to be able to tell you where I am, I needed to recount this all first.
Not that that’s particularly important to you, but if you made it this far, you may be wondering.
It’s hard to make this concrete. It’s abstract in nature, and even more so, it’s obscure.
I don’t know if I was able to trudge you through this swamp of doom and chaos and come to the other side with any clarity.
Maybe I got bogged down with self and shame.
I often do.
I’ll try to summarize the whole damn thing in a single memory from my mid-twenties.
My father and I sat across from each other in a booth at a diner.
It was the first time I had been out of the house in weeks. Maybe months.
He sipped his coffee and tried his hand at small talk.
“So…how you doing?” he asked.
“It’s hard to explain, pops.” I said.
We sat there for a minute. He drank his coffee and I stared out the window into a bleak Michigan winter day.
“It’s…You… I just…”
I stumbled for the words.
“When I look at you, at anyone, I don’t think about a whole person. I think about all the parts that make you. I think about skin being pulled tight across bone. I think about all the biological processes that happen to make you: the blood pushing through your veins, the oxygen in your lungs, the chemicals flowing in your brain.
Even more, I know that I know you, but you look different.
I can’t really explain that.
There is a perpetual light in my eyes, like the flash of a camera just went off and I still haven’t readjusted to it.
I have no idea if I’m awake or in a dream.
I feel like I’m just not really here.”
My father took a sip of his coffee.
“You always feel like this?” He asked me.
Further reading on the subject of Depersonalization/Derealization can be found in Daphne Simeon and Jeffrey Abugel’s Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self.
Here is an excerpt from the book that may help to elucidate the subject further.
The authors documented the experience of a depersonalized patient:
“In his diary he broke down his specific symptoms and concluded that they were sometimes predictable, even cyclical. This is how he described his symptoms:
‘Free floating anxiety that comes and goes, and a constant fear of The Panic…
Circular, pointless rumination about everything from existence itself, to something someone said, to the reasons for my illness.
Detachment of my inner voice from my body. Almost constantly, the thoughts running through my head are loud and visible and completely detached from my head. They seem up high in my head, somewhere else. The act of thinking seems strange and foreign.
The Aloneness. An acute awareness of being alone in my thoughts, a prisoner in my own head. With this is a shattering realizing that no one, ever, has shared my thoughts with me. I have heard them alone since I was born and will hear them alone until I die.
Fear of not controlling my actions. I drive and wonder what prevents me from intentionally crashing. I play with my children and wonder what keeps me from slaughtering them. How is it that I still know right from wrong and would kill myself before harming another?
Over self-consciousness. In crowds, at the mall, at parties, virtually anywhere, I am flustered by noise and crowds and feel that I stick out like an ogre to be mocked in some way. My legs and arms move awkwardly and feel foreign sometimes. Aside from outright panic, this can be most unsettling of all.
The exaggerated self-consciousness mentioned above initially felt like I was seeing through myself all the time, as if someone was watching my every move and making fun. In time, for whatever reason, this feeling came on even when I was alone, and ultimately manifested itself in the form of an actual voice in my head… This little voice would make comments, usually derisive ones. If I was talking to someone else it would interrupt my thoughts and mock the words coming out of my mouth, or mock something about the person I was talking to.’”
The PDF for the book can be found here: https://emptymindchronicles.files.wordpress.com/2015/11/feeling-unreal-by-daphne-simeon.pdf