For years I have attempted to recount my experience with depersonalization as a full-time condition.  And every time I’ve tried, I’ve stopped, for the simple reason that I first knew this illness nearly 30 years ago, and to relay everything I’ve experienced, felt and learned in that time would literally take hundreds of pages.  But now, having explored the condition intensely for several years, I feel compelled to say something, as an exercise in concise writing, if nothing else.

Last year, I read “The Stranger in the Mirror,” by  Marlene Steinberg.  MD, thinking that at long last something concrete and comprehensive had been written about depersonalization, as I knew it.  And I’m afraid I must challenge what seems to be a major premise of the book that DP, or dissociative illnesses in general, almost exclusively stem from trauma or child abuse.  I personally have never known any abuse, nor  trauma, unless one considers smoking some hash in a dormitory nearly 30 years ago a traumatic event.

It’s hard to believe that a single joint, or a few, could throw a person into an entirely different state of being, an entirely different world 
permanently, but it seems that today, more and more evidence is proving this to be true.

In college in the 70s, everyone smoked pot and hash all the time.  It was just a way of life, along with drinking, occasional LSD, and of course sex, with the casualness of shaking hands.

I had smoked hash 4 or 5 times, simply to join in with my friends.  All it did was make me extremely hungry, and a little hazy.  It never made me happy or “high.”  Then, very late one night I smoked from a shared bowl, and proceeded to the dorm lounge to eat potato chips and watch TV.  

In about five minutes, I jumped to my feet and the chips went flying.  I felt some strange sensation in my body, moving up from my lower back and into my head. “Brain damage” instantly came into my mind as I experienced a terror I had never known, nor could have ever imagined. The image of being hauled away in a straitjacket screaming flashed into my head because I knew that 
something permanent and horrifying had occurred.  A sense of absolute terror had me running down the hall with friends chasing me as I ran back to the room where I had smoked the hash.

When my fellow smokers opened the door, I saw the window of the room and immediately wanted to throw myself through it.  I don’t know what stopped me.  I asked what was wrong with the hash to make me crazy, but all of the others who had smoked it told me I would be okay.  A few lesser attacks followed, but in time I went to bed and prayed that I would be all right in the morning.

The next day I felt fine ecstatic in fact, over the fact that I was normal again.  I swore I would never smoke again and told my friends the story of what had happened.  They of course, felt the problem was me, not the pot.  Pot, even hash, was harmless, they all knew.  If you couldn’t handle it, it was because of some underlying problem in yourself, not the drug.  This was the accepted thinking of the day.

My friends, in fact, told me hush up about the whole story since it might cause our room to be raided.  So with a renewed love of the fact that I was alive and sane, I swore off drugs and prepared for a long life and career ahead.

For nearly 30 years I have wished that the story ended there. But it didn’t.  Two evenings later, I was painting a picture in the art building (I was a fine art major), when out of nowhere, exactly the same “attack” came on again, completely on its own. I ran back to my room in a panic and simply endured this terror that seemed to peak every 15 minutes or so, subside and then peak again.  I tried different things to quell the fear, the explosions in my head, the sensation that I was succumbing to insanity. I showered, I 
took a bath, I smoked a cigar, and I made myself throw up.  It is impossible to describe; though I’ve sometimes referred to it as an agonizing attack of diarrhea, though in the head, not the stomach. Nothing helped that night, but in time I felt exhausted enough to sleep again.I will not attempt here to relay all that happened in the next ten years or so.  I will stick to the facts of what has been clearly spelled out as being symptomatic of depersonalization and DP alone.

In the days and weeks that followed, the acute panic became less pronounce.  But an overall sense of strangeness persisted through every moment. Familiar objects, people and places seemed foreign and strange. Concentration was impossible. And I perceived the world through a haze.  My perception of myself as a handsome, funny and talented guy disappeared.  The “charm” 
that had once marked my personality, now seemed like a lie, like an illusion.  I could only show the outer world what I truly was. I could not put on a show of any kind in order to impress or please anyone. My friends were still there with all there recognizable and predictable comments, laughter and attitudes, but I wasn’t. I had disappeared somewhere, obsessed with what was wrong 
with me.

Everyone told me I probably had mono, something else that was commonplace at the time.  I convinced myself that this indeed was the case. After all, I was fine the day after smoking the pot, so clearly there hadn’t been any permanent brain damage.

Unable to concentrate, every thought going through my head seemed unduly loud, as if it were typed in huge letters, as on the side of the Goodyear blimp.  I had no ability to relax and let my mind flow freely.  Every waking moment involved a hyper-awareness of my condition and the thoughts running through my head.

I withdrew from college before completing the spring semester, hoping to get well and transfer somewhere else in the fall.  At home, some 500 miles away, as I began searching for encyclopedias and any available drug-related literature, a strange coincidence occurred.  I met up with a former girlfriend who was going through the exact same thing at the same time. I was still in a living hell, but now it seemed I had been spared having to go it alone.

Together, we began to try to determine what was wrong with us, and find a cure.  (By now I realized it wasn’t mono).  We went to a doctor, who prescribed valium along with some common sense advice.  We went to a psychiatric clinic, filled out page after page of forms, and then met with a low-level psychologist who told us that we would probably need months or years of psychotherapy.

At the time, words like panic attack, obsessive-compulsive behavior things we hear about quite often today, were virtually unheard of.  There was nothing to conclude other than we had had a bad trip on pot and pot alone, and we were doomed to be unhinged, miserable and mentally ill for the rest of our lives.

Within a year, my former girlfriend’s anxiety and DP had all but disappeared.  The panic and acute anxiety had quelled for me, but the heavy, cloudy over-consciousness of DP persisted in me for a long time years.  

The acute depersonalization by itself lasted about two years.  Subsequently, about every 5 years, I found myself falling into what could only be described as clinical depression. For this, a variety of the traditional anti-depressants, and time, saved me during each episode.  Perhaps these depressive episodes were already built into my genetic make-up.  I have accepted the fact that the anxiety and depression, two sides of the same coin, may well have erupted in time, even without the pot. But the depersonalization was different, and for the two years I mentioned earlier, the symptoms of pure DP by itself were certainly evident.  I was not 
depressed during this time, nor anxious, except for the anxiety brought about by the non-stop DP experience itself.

My symptoms of the depression and/or other states are not especially relevant there.  But I believe that many of the medications that work for these illnesses will also work for the DP, given enough dosage and time.  The problem seems to lie in what works best for the individual and today there are many options.

I’m glad that the dark ages of endless psychotherapy, and ignorance about brain chemistry, are coming to an end.  Severe, chronic 
depersonalization has changed my life forever, and I truly can’t say whether it has been for the better or the worse. But things I once believed — religious dogma, simplistic life philosophies, and certainty about the reality of our own existence have been changed forever. I will always believe that Ego, self-confidence and certainty of anything are merely delusions that help us survive. Enjoy 
them, but recognize what they are. In the final analysis, I have to agree with the poet Omar Khayyam:

“I sent my soul through the Invisible,
Some letter of that After-life to spell:
And by and by my Soul return’d to me,
And answer’d  ‘I Myself am Heav’n and Hell”
Painting by J. Abugel

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