From the start of my life until 1997, I would describe myself as having, for want of a better word, a ‘normal’ state of mind. I experienced ups and downs, had likes and dislikes, and felt entitled to my hopes and expectations. I was happy enough in my day to day life and was looking forward to the future.
The thing which I used to love about life was its intensity. Intensely good times were obviously better than intensely bad ones, but for better or worse I was always able to feel things. I felt terrible when a boy I fancied at college didn’t feel the same way about me, for example, and I remember crying on my bed for hours when I lost my virginity to someone who didn’t deserve it. I felt entitled to feel bad and was able to vent my feelings by listening to music, writing a poem or just talking to someone. These ‘bad’ experiences never dented the core of who I was and the intensity with which I felt them made me feel very, very alive.
In August 1997, when I was 20, something profoundly awful happened to me, which I have never been able to successfully describe or explain to anyone else. It was so catastrophic as to completely undermine everything that had preceded it. Metaphorically speaking, it was something akin to the bottom falling out of the world. Anything that I had thought to be the case prior to that moment was nullified. I had been spending my days in the college Library, reading books for my final year dissertation. I don’t know which particular book I was reading when it happened, but I distinctly remember feeling an overwhelming wave of devastation come over me. It was kind of like a cold wind – as if something threatening and deathly had brushed past me. Everything else in the library remained the same, but I felt utterly changed. The change was total and a phrase, seemingly from nowhere, planted itself in my head: “That’s all there is”. The “that”, in this case, was life. To this day I don’t know what the catalyst for this was. Maybe it was something particular that was written on the page, or a picture I saw, but it felt like the flick of a switch. From that day, I lost the ability to live in the moment; something which I had always taken for granted and had believed to be an innate part of being human. For twenty years I had believed in the reality of the present moment, but this, it seems, was a privilege and not a right. To the naked eye, nothing had changed: I continued to sit at my desk. Emotionally, I felt like I had flat-lined.
I remember leaving the library in a state of shock. If someone had slipped me a note on my way out informing me that this feeling would not lift for a further three years, I may have been tempted to throw in the towel there and then. As it was, I tried to behave as if everything was normal. When I look back on this time, I can’t help but kick myself for not having demanded help, but I couldn’t help but think how laughably illogical my unhappiness looked on paper. I remember one particular evening when a friend took me to a pub to cheer me up. The scene was set: beautiful weather, good company and a bottle of wine. We talked a lot, particularly about the extent to which the world was my oyster, but I felt unremittingly dreadful and nothing could lift my mood
Other defining characteristics of this state are many. Most frighteningly, everything feels like fiction; not only my life and my immediate surroundings, but history and the world as well. I find it unbearable to hear the radio or to read novels as I feel like I don’t understand them. The news seems like a radio play and novels don’t engage me as I assume that all the characters feel like I do (in which case, why does anything that happens to them matter? How are they able and, more importantly, why are they bothering to travel, fall in love, marry or murder?) I cannot relate to stories because, without exception, they assume that the reader has a basic understanding or empathy with the human condition.
I am also consumed with very ugly feelings of jealousy. Everyone is a potential target for this. The very young (who have their whole lives ahead of them), the very old (as their past is preserved and not at the mercy of any kind of existential breakdown), the dead (particularly those who wrote autobiographies regaling me with how colorful their lives were), the yet-to-be-born (their lives are completely blank canvases) my contemporaries (who, whilst caring for me are still, first and foremost, interested in number one), my elders (who have had their youth and have been informed by the experiences of it) and animals (who are the undisputed masters of living in the moment). It saddens me to confess that I have a particularly vivid memory of being jealous of a fly. It follows that I would trade places with anyone if it meant that I could feel. Chop off my leg and force me to gain fifteen stone and I would think it a small price to pay for being able to experience things again.
I also have a sense of everything being inconsequential. If I were to write a diary when I am in this state, every page would be filled with doodles. My diary prior to summer 1997 was not only full, but carefully crafted. The past was real and good and worth committing to paper. I remember writing on March 5th 1996: “Today I am 19. I hope this year will be epic”. It is no exaggeration to say that I do not recognize the girl who wrote that, something which I find almost intolerably sad.
It is an enormous regret of mine that I didn’t realize that feeling this way was not something which I had to take lying down. I finished my degree, moved to London and spent two whole years at drama school before the switch flicked back at the start of 2001. While I can remember what happened in those years on a factual level, I have no emotional response to those events. I remember feeling constantly frightened and sad and, worst of all, utterly convinced that things would never change. Looking back, I wouldn’t stand by any of my actions or feel responsible for the choices I made during that time, although I always tried to do what I thought Sarah would have done. In this respect, I tried to stay true to what I knew to be right, academically. Even though I was in an altered state, I still tried to think of others, tried to be a good friend and worked as hard as I could. I have always thought of this as a kind of simulacrum – I was certainly faking it to a fairly impressive level. Indeed people who knew me before, during and after this period saw no perceptible difference in my behavior, something which I find remarkable.
Extraordinary though it sounds, I didn’t experience pleasure at all during that time. I did grow very used to the feeling of emptiness though, so the initial sense of devastation lost its edge a little. Feeling so hollow meant that there was nothing to be gained from introspection. My emotional landscape was so barren that I became entirely outward-looking. I had a morbid and obsessive fascination with other people and their lives. Standing on a crowded train platform, I would feel consumed with jealousy and entirely alone. I couldn’t hate the people standing around me – they had, after all, done nothing wrong – but I felt horribly bitter. It was as if my ego had died or, at the very least, gone into a long hibernation, leaving me vulnerable to being blown by the lightest of breezes. Happy occasions and good news did not raise my spirits in any significant way because my core felt numb. At the other end of the spectrum, danger did not particularly frighten me and recklessness didn’t appall me. I did not have inhibitions in the same way as I used to and was far more sexually voracious than Sarah would ever have been.
At the start of 2001, I went for an STD test. I had had unprotected sex a number of times and was becoming increasingly worried about the consequences. In retrospect, this sudden concern for my health was a good sign, and probably largely due to the fact that I had just finished my first professional acting job, which was a painfully good experience (painful in the sense that I couldn’t experience it). When faced with the fact that I may have done myself some lasting damage, something in me started to stir. In the week before I received the results I became extremely anxious, and convinced that I had a terrible, fatal disease. Maybe this was the wake-up call I needed. I suddenly felt robbed of my future and the sheer injustice of it all really galled me. When the results came back negative, I found myself to be back ‘in’ my life. To me, it felt like I had fallen from the sky and plummeted back to earth. My ego awoke from its long sleep and the world was three-dimensional once more.
My most recent bout of DP crept up on me while I wasn’t looking. It certainly wasn’t akin to the flicking of a switch as it had been the first time. All the other features are back in force though – and seem oddly familiar now that we are reacquainted. On paper things are better than they ever have been. I have just had something of a career break, I have lost a stone in weight (which I have been meaning to do for ages) and I think I have fallen in love. I shouldn’t be suicidal, but I am, as I feel that I am viewing my life through thick glass. I feel no pride in my body and feel no pleasure when my boyfriend compliments me on it. I like fashionable clothes, but dressing myself feels like dressing a doll. The doll feels nothing, but other people think she looks nice. It seems academic whether I look ok as I merely inhabit my body; it’s something I have borrowed for a while but which doesn’t ultimately belong to me. While my recovery from this condition is logically possible, the ageing process is a certainty, a thought which frightens me witless
For those three years, and for the last six months (since my condition has returned), life has perplexed, troubled and often horrified me. I see other people “getting on with it” wherever I look so am very limited in what I can do to avoid crossing their paths and thereby feel vaguely OK. Crosswords, sketching, eating and sleeping are just about tolerable, which seems to me to be a very sorry state of affairs. I feel like I am wasting my life and, most importantly, I’m convinced that on some subconscious level, I am doing it to myself. A voice in my head is constantly telling me that I’m lucky to be alive, but what is the use an amazing gift if you don’t know how to operate it?
Days are slipping through my fingers at an astonishing speed and they are all essentially the same. Whatever the day holds on a literal level, does not alter this monotony. I have always thought that Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a brilliant allegory of this type of condition. No matter what Gregor does, or what the people around him say or do, he is still a dung beetle. No amount of effort on the part of others can change this and life goes on around him. It is a terrifying predicament.
These last few weeks have been spent in a kind of cocoon. I feel completely trapped. Ironically, it is my love of life that makes it so unbearable to contemplate living with the knowledge that things could have been very different. I don’t want to be a spectator. The belief that I have unintentionally squandered the years in which I was supposed to develop into a young woman makes me inconsolably sad. I feel like I don’t know who I am, particularly sexually, and I am trapped in a way of thinking that tells me I can’t have a future if I don’t have a past. Maybe it’s arrogance that makes this so intolerable. I have never doubted my talents, my intelligence or my inherent worth as a person, but feel like I have been denied access to these things. I still feel like a prize-winning potato, but one which has never been unearthed and has now begun to rot beneath the soil. I cannot live like this, but have to remind myself that, despite its dream-like quality, this is real to the people who love me. I can’t live purely for the benefit of others, but I can’t willfully ruin anyone else’s life by taking away my own.