How I overcame depersonalisation

Sean* opens up about his experience of depersonalisation, the difficulty he had getting a diagnosis, and how he believes people can overcome it.

True Stories

Sean depersonalisation

Sean lost his sense of self, and felt detached from his body

Depersonalisation is a psychological disorder which results in sufferers feeling detached from themselves. Often people describe it feeling like the world around them is a film set. Here, Sean* opens up about his experience, the difficulty he had getting a diagnosis, and how he believes people can overcome it.

Drugs had a part to play

I’ve spoken to people with depersonalisation who have never taken drugs in their life so I know this isn’t always the cause, but I’m certain cannabis played a part in the onset of my depersonalisation. I started smoking weed at the age of thirteen which Iooking back, is so young! Then one night in my early twenties, I had a really bad trip after smoking a joint. It was like nothing I’d experienced before, it was fucking terrifying. I remember I went on a run to try and ‘shake it off’ but the feeling wouldn’t budge. I eventually went to sleep but when I woke up, the feeling was still there.

It felt like a switch had gone off

The best way I can describe it is as if a switch had gone off in my mind. Visually things were different and I didn’t feel present in my body. It felt like the things around me, as well as my body, were dependent on my mind to exist – it felt so real and this is what made it so scary. I totally lost my sense of self. Some days it felt like I had discovered the true reality of the world and everyone else around me was under some delusion. I know this sounds insane – like some crazy sci fi film – but I think other people with depersonalisation will understand what I mean.  

My GP thought I was bonkers

I put off going to the doctors for a while. I was afraid they would think I was totally insane. The reality wasn’t all that different – I tried to explain my experience  but at the time I’d never heard of depersonalisation, so couldn’t explain precisely what was wrong with me. My GP was totally flummoxed, and had no suggestions for me. I left feeling even more desperate than before.

So I turned to the internet….

I Googled things like “I feel like my life is a film” and “I feel detached from my body.” Within very little time I came across hundreds of forums describing exactly the thing I had been experiencing. It was such a massive relief. I was referred to another doctor, who had at least heard of the condition, but the prognosis he gave me wasn’t great. He said I had a type of visual tinnitus, and that it was unlikely to go away. I’d just have to get used to it – the thought of it never going away was unbearable. I never considered suicide but I can understand why some people with depersonalisation end their lives. It’s a desperate place to be.  

Telling my girlfriend really helped

After about three years of struggling with depersonalisation on my own, I eventually plucked up the courage to tell my girlfriend. It was hard for her to understand, but telling her was a huge weight off my shoulders. It meant I didn’t have to hide how I was feeling any longer. I’m still quite private about what I went through but through opening up to a few other people, I found that a close friend of mine was also dealing with similar symptoms. Again this was a massive support, we have really helped each other over the last few years.

Meditation was the turning point for me

I have always been interested in Buddhist philosophy and have meditated for many years. During the time I had depersonalisation I struggled to meditate. I felt frustrated with myself because my new perception of the world was interfering with my practice, I no longer felt the sense of grounding meditation used to give me. The turning point was when I went on a 4 day meditation retreat. I found the intense meditation during those four days really reconnected me to myself. That was the first time in about five years that I really felt like my true self and it was so liberating.

Your brain must be retrained

One way to describe my recovery is to liken it to the recovery of a physical injury. If you can’t walk as the result of a car crash for example, a physiotherapist will help you to walk again by retraining your muscles (and retraining your brain which sends messages to your legs). Similarly, for someone with depersonalisation, your brain must be retrained to exist how it used to exist before the trauma. In my opinion, meditation is the mental equivalent of a physiotherapist.

I now live a much healthier life

The temptation when you have depersonalisation is to drink and take drugs to mask the way you feel but in my experience this only made things worse. I no longer smoke weed, I drink less than I used to and I exercise more. But at the core of everything, is meditation which I practice daily.

To anyone else struggling with this condition please take comfort in the fact that what you are experiencing is a mental confusion which can be undone. My advice is:

  • Talk to someone you trust about it. They might not understand it but they should be able to support you through it.
  • Join online forums and share your experience.
  • If you go to your GP, take some information on depersonalisation with you. A lot of doctors have still never heard of it.
  • Try meditation. It might not work for everyone but it did for me.  
  • Try living a healthier life, exercising more and giving up drugs if you take them.

Next Steps

  • Mind offers advice and support to people with mental health problems. Their helpline runs nine to six from Monday to Friday. 0300 123 3393
  • Rethink Mental Illness offers advice and support on mental health. Visit their website or call The Rethink Mental Illness Advice Service on 0300 5000 927, 9:30am - 4pm, Monday to Friday.
  • If you're under 25 and would like free confidential telephone counselling from The Mix to help you figure things out complete this form and we'll call you to arrange your first session.
  • Chat about this subject on our Discussion Boards.
  • Need help but confused where to go locally? Download our StepFinder iPhone app to find local support services quickly.

By Olivia Capadose

Updated on 30-Oct-2018