Me, Myself and Depersonalization

by Emily Decker

My mental health issues, including depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder, date back to when I was four and crying to my mom that life seemed pointless.  But a year and a half ago, a new one blindsided me.  I was on the road to graduating with a master’s degree in social work from the University of Southern California, I was in the midst of a prestigious internship, and my long-term boyfriend was moving in.  Though I was very anxious, I was somehow managing to keep it all together.  Until I couldn’t.  I had no idea what was happening to me.  I was suddenly not myself.

During the eight months after that relationship quickly collapsed and I withdrew from my internship, I pieced my life back together and graduated.  A month later, I was panicking for hours a day and desperately punching my couch, trapped in a sense of unreality.   I have been misdiagnosed with everything from bipolar disorder to panic disorder to psychosis until my treatment providers finally agreed that it was the rare condition called depersonalization disorder (DPD).  This disorder is thought to be partly a dissociative disorder and partly an obsessive-compulsive disorder.  Although the symptoms I will describe may sound psychotic, they are not, as the sufferer has complete clarity that the misperceptions are inaccurate.

In the past year and a half, my disorder has fluctuated.  I now experience depersonalization or derealization 24 hours a day.  If you’ve ever had a panic attack in which things briefly look unreal or parts of you feel unreal, you have had a glimpse of what someone with DPD experiences all the time.  Both precise and sadly degrading, the term “depersonalization” means to take away one’s sense of self, of being a person.  I often feel as though I am not alive, or that I am a shadow of my former self, some sort of numb robot, living in everyone else’s world.  At times, I feel like I’m disappearing.  Or I feel separate from who I am, unsure of my reflection, and wondering which part of me is speaking, as though everything is disconnected.  In my worst hours, I feel trapped in an invisible bubble, completely numb, unable to reach those I love who are standing right in front of me, unable to access the emotions I once had for them, for myself, for everything.

“Derealization” denotes a distinct change in the appearance of reality.  For me, the world visually appears, just, wrong.  It can seem harshly bright, with the figures of people standing out from the background too starkly; or it can seem faded together two-dimensionally.  Often I feel like I am dreaming or like life itself is not real.  My sense of time is distorted.  I am hard-pressed to remember what I did in the past few days, and I often don’t feel like it actually happened. Because this is not a psychotic disorder, I retain awareness that all of these perceptions are terribly, horribly wrong.  I live in a frightening Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray is on mild hallucinogens he never meant to take.

There are few medicinal treatments for DPD, as few clinical trials have been run and those that have been have had conflicting results. I have tried a medication from almost every class of psychotropic drugs, I’ve undergone three forms of neurofeedback, and I’ve done intensive therapy for the issue. While most interventions have somewhat alleviated the intensity of the symptoms, the DPD rages on.  A few of the drugs I was given early on severely exacerbated the syndrome.  Because I didn’t know what was happening to me, and because professionals could not seem to get a grasp on it, this was very confusing for everyone involved.  I’ve had extensive medical testing done, to no avail.  It’s hard to explain to someone that your brain feels broken when you sound coherent, but it absolutely feels like your brain is broken.  I hope you never truly understand what I mean.

I am still baffled by the lack of attention this disorder has received from the research community and the public.  The lead singer of the Counting Crows came forward with his story about it, which garnered a blip of attention.  DPD can be caused from anything from prolonged stress to trauma to one bad high on marijuana (yes, just one), and the potential symptoms are even more complex and plentiful than the potential causes.  For the sake of all those struggling with this awful disorder, I wish that science begins to lend a helping hand.

Fortunately, I have hope.  I have come to a point that I am getting used to the daily changes in my symptoms: morning DPD, afternoon DPD, and evening DPD.  Coming from the initial total numbness I couldn’t escape no matter how hard I tried, I now have more true emotions, from tearing up at a friend’s pain to laughing at a movie.  And my startle reflex has returned!  It’s quite exciting anytime something loud makes me jump. I’m even starting to have nights when I get hints of my old self.  My hope doesn’t just come from progress; it also comes from faith in a power greater than myself, which I’ve developed in my several years in a 12-step program.  I also have a very full support network of my extraordinarily supportive family and great friends.  And my hope comes from music.  I believe that to deal with DPD, just as with any extreme difficulties, one has to find meaning.  I’ve sung through many tears, written new songs, and am finally learning to play the guitar.  I won’t let DPD win.

Ironically, I was five years sober when I started feeling like I was on drugs.  One day at a time, I’m still living.  It might not be your reality, and it’s definitely not the reality I want, but it is my reality.  And my life deserves to be lived.


My Shooter My Friend

The Santa Monica College shooter, John Zawahri, shot at Spencer Goodman three times and missed. Spencer had only been working as a student services clerk for less than a week when the senseless attack found him in the middle of it. A year after the shooting and frustrated by inadequate funds for the right PTSD therapy, Spencer writes a candid, sometimes angry, and ultimately forgiving letter to his former assailant.  – David Brundige

June 10th, 2014

Dear John Zawahri,

I’m sorry. I don’t know what experiences or lack thereof you’ve been through in your life to make you feel so isolated and alone. The world is a bitter, cruel place; the only way one is able to navigate their way through the maze of thorns intact is together. I, too, feel disconnected from others, reality, and even myself…and often. But you managed to convince yourself that you are the victim – that the world painted a target colored in the woes of misery on your back.

You did what you feel like you needed to do in order to be heard. Congratulations. You were heard. I heard you. Those five innocent, unlucky bystanders heard as well, even though they were also complete strangers to you. I cannot even imagine the message you sent to your mother that will ring loudly in her ears for the rest of her grieving life. Was it your intent to leave her the sole survivor of her family, powerless to stop you from executing everyone else in your family?

I want to forgive you. I should. I need to. But I don’t know how. You succeeded in your mission. You managed to bottle up all your pain and rage that you experienced throughout your life and channel it into your actions on that sunny day of June 7th, 2013. You have passed all those feelings of fear and horror onto me as well, amplifying my own that were already residing inside me, lurching around behind the scenes, yet omnipresent like the microwave background radiation of our universe.

You took me away from me. I’m a shadow of the person I once was before I came in contact with you. I now think similarly to how you must have thought: all rays of hope and sunshine being snuffed out with overwhelming feelings of terror, trauma, grief, fear, shame, blame, anger, sadness, mistrust, disillusionment, and frailty. You managed to steal the ounce of dignity I managed to preserve for myself.

Gone. Sometimes I remember. Every day is hard work for me, clinging onto my previous identity, a critical yet cheerful, optimistic man. Sometimes if I hold on for long enough, old Spencer reenters me for a moment and I manage to forget. But the memories you’ve instilled in my brain play on a loop, forcing me to watch and experience the horror show you created over and over again. And that’s just during the day.

That’s the good part. It’s the nightmares that end up confirming and amplifying those fears. I was you in a few of my dreams, and I felt myself taking pleasure in shooting human beings in their backs as they ran away from me, fleeing for their lives. I watched them spread like roaches when the lights turn on – a perfect visual representation of my insides – scattered to the wind, running without a rudder, no concern for those who are also attempting to escape from your indiscriminate bullets. Everyone for themselves.

Then I awake. Some mornings when I wake up after these demonic nightmares, I’m either screaming, crying, laughing, having wet myself, or convinced that I’m still awake, unable to break back into reality. Panic. I can’t breathe. I stand up and take a few steps around the room, not knowing what to do. I’m dying and I’m powerless to do anything about it. My dog is crying and barking at me. I can’t focus and I still can’t manage to take a full gasp of air. I’m hyperventilating. My thoughts are running ramped with images from my dreams, coupled with my actual memory of you chasing me down the hallway, firing shots as I bob and weave as if there were a swarm of deadly bees behind me.

In the last year, I have suffered from two anxiety attacks and one full-blown panic attack that could have hospitalized me. Never before have I ever suffered from any ailment like this before. Shame. The most loyal dog I’ve ever had is scared of me – and scared for me – shivering in the corner of the room. I eventually settle down, focusing on each breath in, then out, in, then out, afraid I’m going to throw up or simply pass out.

You have it easy. You may be dead, sure. But it’s everyone else who was there that day who has to live the events over and over. Perhaps if you had lived on and carried the memories of your actions, you might have one day seen the senseless, misguided cowardice. Maybe after 30, 40, 50 years, you’d wake up one morning and think about the day that put yourself in prison for the rest of your life. Maybe you would think about all those dozens running away from you. Maybe you would think about Margarita Gomez, Marcela Franco, Carlos Navarro Franco, Debra Fine, your brother Christopher or your father Samir.

Do you feel empathetic towards them? Do you finally see how you disgraced them as well as yourself? That’s how I found Spencer Franklin Goodman again. Me. It all came from rediscovering and understanding everyone’s struggles, no matter how disconnected they are from my own life, including you, John. I’m so sorry that you felt the only way for you to communicate your feelings was with terroristic violence instead of using your thoughts and words.

There’s only one good fight worth fighting, and it’s in the opposite direction of guns and fists. It’s simply not fair that shooting up a public college was your means of expression. Obviously, everyone other than you got the short end of the stick that day – you sought to that – which was kinda the point, wasn’t it? Control. I see now, a dark shadowy figure dressed in all black, the barrel of your assault rifle magnified to the size of a tank cannon. I’m still scared for my life. However, slowly but surely, sadness overpowers the other emotions stirring inside me.

By the end of the day, there you were, lying face-up on the sidewalk of Pearl Avenue with a bullet in your brain. With permission from the police, I stood over your body and hovered there for longer than I should have. I was disoriented from the shock and trauma you already caused but I mostly felt sorry for you. A few minutes beforehand, you were a cold-blooded killer. Now you’re just a statistic, another honorable mention in the discussion of the ongoing campus shootings plaguing our country. Our first meeting, I saw you as a wrathful, dark-figured titan wielding a mighty weapon. Now you’re just a dead boy on the side of the road wearing cheap black clothes from the Army Surplus. Was that truly the end result you prepared for and sought after?

It’s been one year and three days since I encountered you. I’ve been running from you ever since. But…over the past few months, I’m teaching myself to stand up to you with compassion and love. I’m far from forgiveness in the truest sense of the word. It might take me a whole lifetime, but I’m confident I’ll get there eventually. You’re a part of me now. You’re next to me, ready to pounce at random triggers, jolting my mind back to images from that afternoon of June 7th. We look at each other and I fill my eyes with love and understanding, making it impossible for you to misinterpret my intentions. I never know when or where during my day I have to fight this battle, but I’m ready, each time rediscovering pieces of myself that you stole, and so much more, refilling those vast spaces within me that you occupy. I’ll never be completely whole again, I’m aware of that. It all takes its toll. But I’m trying. And that’s all that matters. Maybe all of this could have been avoided if you only did the same.

Your Friend and Enemy,

Spencer Franklin Goodman




Single, Isolated, or Depressed?

by Prudence Vindin

One does feel the pressure to be a warrior of kinds as a single person, simply to survive. Isolation is one of the leading factors in depression and ‘single’ is a synonym for ‘isolation.’ Being in a relationship, one is offered: stability, support and a sense of belonging. Sans relationship, where does one find these things?

As a single person, one can often find it a battle to feel stability, support, or a sense of self. According to depression statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about 9% of adult Americans have feelings of hopelessness, despondency, and/or guilt that generate a diagnosis of depression – all feelings that are generated from isolation. In fact, major depression is the leading cause of disability for Americans between the ages of 15 and 44, according to the CDC.  It makes sense; however, the link between being single and being depressed is not widely accepted and understood.

The average age for a person to be diagnosed with depression is 32. Right about the time all of your friends are linking their credit cards, getting married, having babies and buying homes, and you are the only single person left in the Northern Hemisphere, right?!  Before the societal pressure of marriage comes to a peak around age 32 there is the more volatile age to be single- that of the early twenties, just when your ‘real-self’ is being formed. And worryingly those diagnosed between the ages of 18 and 24, when there’s a 10.9 percent rate of depression, are at the greatest risk for self-harm.

According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), the largest scientific organization dedicated to mental health issues, women are 70 percent more likely than men to experience depression during the course of their lifetimes. As a single woman, it feels like there is more of a pressure to ‘pair up’ before you hit your late 30′s. This stems from biological timing and the societally accepted notion that men can be a father into their late 40′s early 50′s, in some cases. And ladies, NIMH research has also shown that this is in part due to hormones, you’re not just being dramatic.

But hold on. Despite women suffering from depression more frequently than men, married men are less likely to be depressed than unmarried men, whereas married women are more likely to be depressed than unmarried women. If that was confusing, this is how depression works, according to a study by Chris Iliades, MD:

Married men are less depressed than single dudes.

Married women are MORE depressed than single ladies.

So what are single ladies like me so worried about anyway? Maybe we should enjoy the moment.

While the link between being single and having depression is valid, it’s not the whole story. Certain age periods intensify the pressure and societal expectations can implement stressors. Ways to combat these stressors and triggers include garnering a sense of community and a strong sense of self. The right therapist can help you find your own unique sense of self, but the real discovery always comes from within.



Anxiety is an emotion we all feel. However, if you feel it on extreme levels – panic attacks, irrational dread, nausea – you could be dealing with anxiety not as an emotion, but rather as a disorder. There are several types of anxiety disorders including social anxiety disorder, panic disorder, phobias, and generalized panic disorder.

Anxiety sufferers are not alone. In fact, 40 million adults and 1 in 8 children in the United States also suffer from anxiety disorder. Every thought, experience and emotion we feel manifests through a series of electrical connections in our brains. Many times, these electrical connections become permanent fixtures, and under extremely stressful situations these structures are subject to change. Though researchers are still far from fully understanding the exact cause of anxiety disorder, this biochemical change in connection to extreme emotional and physical stress is believed to be the leading factor.

People who suffer from anxiety disorders are three-to-six times more likely to seek psychiatric and medical help than any other mental disorder, and over one-third of all anxiety patients in the United States improve after seeking medical attention and therapy. Through treatments including talk therapy and psychological analysis, anxiety disorder symptoms can vastly improve over time.


Summer Depression?

by Jane Macarthur

It has surprised me that, even in my late thirties, and even though I don’t have kids, much of my year is still shaped by the academic calendar. I work as a secretary in a bank, am retraining to be a psychotherapist, and I sing in a choir. While the bank operates year-round, most of the senior corporate bigwigs take long summer holidays with their families. In my office, August is a dead month: there are barely any meetings to organise, flights to book or intranet articles to write. The phones hardly ring. It is eerily quiet, and the much-craved novelty of having vastly increased time to look at social media wore off – as usual – after only a few minutes. My psychotherapy training course wrapped up at the beginning of July and starts again in late September. And after weeks of rehearsal culminated in an intense weekend’s singing at the end of June – a chamber choir concert one Saturday night and a massive performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony on the Sunday – I now have no further Monday choir practices until the autumn.

In the space of a week, I went from a pulsating diary (full workdays followed by evenings of choir, college lectures, personal therapy and socialising) to intense, deafening quietness. In the midst of the maelstrom, I had been ravenous for this space. Now I am desperate for it to end.

I do not berate myself for not being a monk on a mountainside; choir, work, college – these are necessary and worthwhile ways to spend my time. I believe that it is ok to live in an apartment in a big city, ok to earn a salary, ok to spend some of that salary on superficial things like restaurant meals, ok to be out most evenings. It is all ok – as long as I can be without these things and still feel at peace. If I need them to be happy, then I am addicted, and that’s not good.

This past month, I’ve felt the symptoms of cold turkey. No choir, no college, far too much time to ruminate during my nine-to-five, many friends away on vacation or tied up in knots looking after their young children on their school holidays… Oh how quickly I felt the snake of depression slither back under my door. Recently I have woken up teeming with anxiety at 4am. I lie alone desperate to self-soothe, but the brutal and familiar devastation always emerges: my life just hasn’t turned out the way I wanted. I try to distract myself with grateful thoughts but it is too early and too dark, and all the ways I have failed to reach my potential loom too large. By the time my alarm goes off at 7, I am exhausted and the struggle to get out of bed and face another mediocre, silent day is sometimes too much for me. I didn’t make it to work today.

An inability to be still is endemic in our privileged society. Blaise Pascal observed that “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” Four centuries after he wrote that, millions of us complain about our too-busy lives but do almost anything to avoid things slowing down. What’s changed for me in recent years is the ability to observe what I’m doing: these days, I can see that my own obsessive busy-ness is a palpable sign that I am not happy with who I am.

It’s now early August. I am halfway through this surprisingly difficult summer hiatus, and this week I turned a year older, which has given me yet more cause to take stock. It has not been hard to find the lessons that this experience has offered. The rest of the year, my many occupations distract me from my existential struggles, but the fights continue, even when I’m not watching the battlefield. Instead of rushing to distract myself, I know that this summer – this excruciating, violent, boring summer – is a valuable gift. I must use this time to be mindful, to look at my ongoing self-loathing and unconquerable dissatisfaction with gentleness and acceptance. This is a rare opportunity to try not to rail against reality, and instead to find some peace with what is. I have four weeks left. Wish me luck.