This is a guest post from Olivia Wojtkielewicz.
I thought it was a problem with my eyes initially.
One morning in January of my freshman year of college, I woke up in a fog. I had smoked weed the night before, like I did most nights, but this high felt different.. It was as if something came loose between my brain and my eyes that made everything in my vicinity have a completely different sense about it than it did the day (and my entire life) before. In the following weeks, I searched online obsessively to figure out what was going on.
It was terrifying. Aside from wondering if things would ever go back to normal for me, a huge fear of mine was that I might become so separated from reality that I would do something to make myself seem certifiably insane. I felt a constant pressure to keep myself in check. I panicked frequently and silently when I was public, scared that my experience of living would lead me to an even worse degree of dissociation.
Derealization was a sort of veil separating me from my external world, a change in the way I experienced time, and a sense of a subtle falseness to life altogether. And it was constant.
I don’t know why it happened. I think maybe it had to do with my mind trying to protect me from a situation I didn’t feel like I could get out of with a romantic partner at the time, as I had reflected on this after smoking that night. If I didn’t want to actually deal with it, this was my brain making it (and everything else) not feel real. But that didn’t feel like a complete answer. I’m not sure anything will ever feel like a complete answer.
I couldn’t shake this dissociative state. I soon became the most depressed I’d ever been.
When you suddenly shift into a mental state that severely impacts your life, you crave any answers, but I didn’t know if there were treatments for or in-depth knowledge of what I was experiencing. It’s hard enough to get out of bed in the morning when you’re dealing with life-altering mental illness. In a system that doesn’t provide us with readily-available help for psychological issues that are said to be the most easily understood or manageable, I didn’t see how I could get the answers that I needed to function normally again with this puzzling dissociation.
But I told myself I needed to fix it. I had been to therapy for a few short stints when I was younger, though I never stuck with it because I only cared enough to go when things were unbearable. This was again one of those occasions, and it didn’t go as I had hoped.
Even though I had pinpointed what was going on, I was open to a diagnosis besides derealization, mostly because I was secretly hoping that I had a medical problem that could easily be fixed.
My therapist had very interesting ideas as to what it could be: A hidden B12 deficiency as I was vegan at the time, even though my labs were normal; Lyme disease, which his wife’s specialist had to run a “special test” (and pay big bucks) for to explain her brain fog; Undetectable Epstein-Barr, which his friend’s friend had.
The more bizarre ideas he presented, the more frustrated I became. I began to admit to myself that my issue was purely psychological, and he was crossing a line with regular medical advice instead of doing his job. The last straw for me was when he got oddly spiritual about everything, suddenly advising that I try chakra exploration, as his whole life apparently changed when he went to a retreat that helped him “open his heart chakra.” I respect spirituality, but I thought I would be getting evidence-based solutions here. I’d had enough.
A lot of discourse I’d seen online at the time hailed psychotherapy as this thing that can only make your life better, but I ended up spiraling into an even worse depression in the months after I started going. It had been a cycle of hopelessness, disappointment, and copays I couldn’t afford. I desperately wanted a change but didn't know if one was at all possible.
I left therapy, but happened to be in a class called Abnormal Psychology, where you learn the watered-down basics of the more well-known psychological disorders. About halfway through the quarter, we got to the lecture on dissociation. My professor mentioned depersonalization and derealization in passing. My formal education on the thing ruining my life consisted of one sentence: “people with this feel like they might have just stepped into a painting or a film, where their surroundings are marked with a new degree of foreignness”.
When you’re sitting in a class where it’s assumed that you don’t experience anything that you’re learning about, the spectacle of it all made it funny. Extra-out-of-body. This marked the beginning of the us-vs-them attitude I began to notice frequently in this type of academic environment.
I was once passionate about the pursuit of a psychology degree, but I became disillusioned when I compared my learning environment with my personal experience. As students, we were expected to separate our own lives from our research completely, but some of us are bound to live with the disorders we learned about because the material conditions of the world make mental illness so common. I found it difficult to reconcile this new knowledge I had with the career path I had chosen.
At the core of my sadness surrounding the derealization was one main question: is this what it’s always going to be like?
I don’t think I’ll ever just snap out of this state. It hasn't really gone away in the three plus years since it started. When I began to come out of my depression about it, I realized that although the derealization was always there, it didn't always bother me, especially when I was in a good mood. I used to be obsessed with trying to make it go away completely, but I honestly don't think my quality of life would be any better than it is now if this were to happen. This is just how it is now—I’ve accepted it, and I work with it. I have to. When I’m busy or enjoying myself, I don’t notice it. I didn't reach this point of acceptance through therapy, I reached it with time.
I just graduated, and I think I’d like to go to grad school and practice psychotherapy in the future, although I’m working full time now and trying to figure it all out. That said, I’ve often wondered, how can I recommend therapy as a universal positive, let alone facilitate it, when my experiences have been overwhelmingly negative; when therapists could not help me with the main problem affecting my every waking moment?
I answer this by reflecting on how my issue is not easily treatable in the first place and by the fact that I’ve realized how many people have to shop around for a good therapist. I didn't have a chance to truly explore most of the factors that led to my derealization because of all the other roadblocks I dealt with from the therapist I initially went to. I do see another psychologist now, and we’ve been working to delve far deeper than I ever have before.
I see my own responsibility in my improvement in that I need to be willing to do the work to confront my reactions to the traumatic experiences that have helped propel me into this state, but I am eager to fight for a future where solutions to issues like mine are more accessible.
Many of us are fed this popular narrative that mental illness is an unchangeable truth and that it’s insensitive to ask individuals going through something to do the work for themselves. On the contrary, I can't think of something more harmful for me than sulking in my predicament. Even when I wasn't actively working to combat my derealization, just trying to take steps to move on helped me immensely.
I’ve found that in many situations, general anxiety makes me feel more spaced out, so I’m working on employing practices that make me feel more at ease. Dwelling on feelings of detachment makes them worse for me, and although it’s easier said than done, I find it most helpful to try to distract myself as best I can at times when I feel out of it.
But for now, to respond to the question that I so desperately wanted answered: is this what it’s always going to be like? Sort of, maybe. At this point, yeah.
The way I instinctively go to finish that sentence for myself is, “and that’s okay.” But it’s not. So over time, depressing as it may seem, I’ve found more comfort in, “and that’s just how it is, and you’ll continue to deal with it. Sometimes it will be okay, sometimes it won’t.”
Olivia Wojtkielewicz is a blue-collar worker and aspiring writer from Philadelphia with a B.S. in Psychology and a broken brain.