I remember a certain meeting with a girlfriend in a coffee shop. I arrived before her and sat working on a crossword puzzle while I waited. It wasn’t long before she was standing next to me saying, “Hi!” I looked at her, and even though I knew my purpose in the coffee shop that day – to meet her – it took me a moment to understand who she was. It was a jarring moment in her Dissociative Identity Disorder education. “You didn’t recognize me,” she said. She was right. I didn’t immediately recognize her, even though by then we’d spent hundreds of hours together. But it wasn’t amnesia, the form of dissociation one might suspect, that prevented me from recognizing her. It was a different dissociative symptom: derealization.
What Is Derealization?
On Monday I talked about depersonalization, one of the five primary forms of dissociation. Derealization is another of those five core dissociative symptoms, and a common experience for people with Dissociative Identity Disorder. Dr. Marlene Steinberg explains in her book, The Stranger in the Mirror:
The feeling that the world around you is unreal or that events are not really happening is called derealization…. Instead of the déjà vu feeling that new places and people are familiar, you have the opposite feeling: that people or places that you should know very well are unfamiliar. You feel estranged or detached from the environment or have a sense that the environment is foreign to you or is not real.
Derealization And Dissociative Identity Disorder
Derealization isn’t something only people with Dissociative Identity Disorder experience. It can manifest in response to:
- Traumatic events. If you found yourself a bystander to a convenience store robbery at gunpoint, for instance, you might feel like what you’re witnessing isn’t real.
- Extreme stress. Your wife of twenty-five years abruptly packed her things, left the home you’ve shared for most of your marriage, and filed for divorce. Your home might feel foreign to you the first night you spent there alone.
- Drug use. Marijuana users often report changes in visual perception, heightened senses, and the feeling that the world is like a dream.
- Lack of sleep. I’ve experienced exhaustion induced derealization plenty of times myself. My surroundings feel unreal and far away.
For people with DID, derealization is often chronic and not a result of immediate trauma, drug use, or exhaustion. There was nothing unusual going on in the coffee shop that day. I’d had plenty of sleep. The only drugs I’d ingested were prescription drugs that don’t cause dissociative side effects. Nothing traumatic happened. I was simply relaxing with a crossword puzzle, waiting for a familiar face in a safe environment. I wish I understood why I experience derealization so frequently and under such normal conditions. But for now, all I know is (1) what this form of dissociation feels like, and (2) that it, along with the other four dissociative symptoms, is a regular part of my life. Hopefully in time I’ll understand more.
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