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What Is Dissociation? Part 1: Depersonalization

What’s it like to live with Dissociative Identity Disorder ? Articulating the answer is challenging for me. Partly because I don’t know what it’s like to live without DID; partly because describing it requires a base-line level of awareness that dissociation by nature impedes. And partly because the question is so large, sort of like asking what it’s like to be female. Breaking dissociation down into the five primary ways it manifests makes illuminating the experience of living with Dissociative Identity Disorder easier. Depersonalization – the feeling that you’re separate from your body – is the first.

Photo by michaelmelrose
Photo by michaelmelrose

Defining Depersonalization

From the Dissociation FAQs at the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation online:

Depersonalization is the sense of being detached from, or “not in” one’s body. This is what is often referred to as an “out-of-body” experience. However, some people report rather profound alienation from their bodies, a sense that they do not recognize themselves in the mirror, recognize their face, or simply feel not “connected” to their bodies in ways which are challenging to articulate.

I used to take meditation classes. One of the exercises was to imagine yourself outside your body. The idea was to learn to recognize when we lose touch with ourselves and the present moment so we can re-engage. To achieve that, the instructor encouraged us to shift conscious awareness to other parts of the room and look back on our bodies sitting in the chairs. It sounds like depersonalization. But as someone with Dissociative Identity Disorder, I’ve been experiencing depersonalization for as long as I can remember. Those exercises in meditation class never produced it or any other form of dissociation. I felt detached, yes. Even so, I can drift up to the ceiling and look down on my body all I want. As long as I recognize that body as mine, it doesn’t feel like depersonalization.

What Does Depersonalization Feel Like?

Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis
Photo by Klearchos Kapoutsis
  • I frequently become suddenly aware that I’m speaking but have no idea what I’m talking about or why I’m talking about it.
  • Parts of my body often don’t look like mine. I’m capable of realizing that my hand, for instance, is attached to me and therefore mine. But during these moments, my hand looks like it belongs to someone else.
  • Sometimes I don’t recognize my reflection. In television and movie depictions this always looks very dramatic. The person looking into the mirror is obviously not the person in the reflection. In real life the experience is not the same. I see the same body, the same face I see every day. Still, it doesn’t look like me at all.

What distinguishes the detachment I felt in meditation class from true depersonalization is the sense that my body is foreign, belonging to someone else. When dissociation manifests as depersonalization, the effect is that you feel not just detached from your body, but like it’s not your body at all.

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7 thoughts on “What Is Dissociation? Part 1: Depersonalization”

  1. Hi everyone, I’ve never experienced things like this before but today when I’ve looked in the mirror I see my face and I know it’s mine but it’s like I’m looking at it in a funhouse mirror like there’s something’s not right about it, is this depersonlisation or just a weird feeling I’m having?

  2. Hey everyone.
    Sometimes when I look at pictures that are suppose to be me, I never think they are me. Like, it feels like I’m looking a completely different person. Is that a normal symptom of depersonalization? Maybe I’m just seeing a bad angle of me, haha.

  3. I understand about feeling your memories. For a long time my dr and I plunged into my memories. It took several mo. seeing him every week. Finally I didn’t need to. It’s not that I in anyway own my memories. I find now that if I think or talk about my past I feel very bad. Then anxiety stays with me for days. I believe I’m done with looking back. Sometimes I can’t look forward only try to deal with the day, the hour, the minute. I do have good days.

  4. I don’t know what I’d do if not for the depersonalization aspect of DID. I have some horrid memories. Am still getting details of some memories but have no emotional or physical connection to them. I see the images of my art therapy and have the narrative. I did abreact some in therapy awhile ago. I just know it was so beyond what others would view as trauma. Living a Freddie Kruger (?) nightmare. I don’t want to feel THAT terrified and THAT horrified and THAT scared. So it is a blessing in healing.

    My therapist keeps telling me I am not completely healed until I feel that I own the memories. I don’t know if that’s true. I’m substantially healed without having that painful connection. Thanks for your explanation. It obviously got my mind reeling.

    1. Hi Grace,

      To be honest, I’ve never given much thought to how depersonalization specifically helps me, though I do often contemplate how DID as a whole serves me. So your comment is thought-provoking. It makes perfect sense that depersonalization would aid healing by creating some necessary distance between overwhelming pain and aspects of self that need to continue functioning. Thanks for sharing that! I feel like I have a bit of a new appreciation for depersonalization, something I’ve always regarded as rather annoying.

      “My therapist keeps telling me I am not completely healed until I feel that I own the memories. I don’t know if that’s true.”

      I understand your ambivalence about that. I think if I believed I need to own it all in order to fully heal I’d never fully heal.

  5. for more on the experience of depersonalization, check out Mathew Perry in the autobiographical movie “Numb”, yes, it’s on netflix

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