“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” Winston Churchill
One Summer’s evening in 2005, I suffered a massive panic attack.
It completely blindsided me. I had never experienced anything like it before, and with no frame of reference for this onslaught of panicked, abstract thoughts I assumed that I must have been losing my mind.
It was terrifying, but after about ten-fifteen minutes the anxiety began to ease up. My head felt woozy, exhausted. I put myself to bed and tried to sleep it off.
But I couldn’t sleep it off.
The next day, I woke up feeling like I had stepped into some kind of alternate reality.
Everything looked and felt different….it was as if I was watching reality through a pane of glass. I wondered if maybe I was still asleep and dreaming. I questioned if I was really here, if the world was real. I was able to speak to people but felt intensely that I was actually outside myself, somehow watching myself having these conversations.
I was utterly confused and very frightened. At one point on that first day I lay down on my bed and said aloud:
“What have I done to myself?”
I couldn’t figure out what this horrible feeling was or why it was persisting. Days, weeks went by with no relief. My mind raced with bizarre existential thoughts: Maybe I’d been secretly dosed with some long-lasting hallucinogenic? Maybe I was dead and this was purgatory? This type of wild, agitated thinking consumed me.
It wasn’t until many weeks later that I learned, through frantic and persistent online research, that I had developed ‘Depersonalization disorder’ (DPD) a condition in which you “persistently… have the feeling that you’re observing yourself from outside your body or you have a sense that things around you aren’t real, or both. Feelings of depersonalization and derealization can be very disturbing and may feel like you’re living in a dream.” (Mayo Clinic)
My initial relief at finding this diagnosis was soon offset by learning that there didn’t seem to be a cure for it. Forums were populated by people who’d had the condition for years, decades even.
My heart sank. The panic that I’d been feeling spiraled out of control into outright terror — I couldn’t live with this feeling for a decade.
The worst part of all of this was the profound sense of helplessness. It was a feeling of impotence, of thinking, “I’m in a situation where nobody can help me. Not my parents, not doctors, not surgeons, nobody. This is my new life.”
That’s a dark, painful place to be. But it’s where I had to learn to live.
There was one point after a few months of chronic DP that I sat down and cried my eyes out. I knew that it wouldn’t help. But I needed to grieve. I was saying goodbye to the life that I’d had. The life that I’d loved and now lost forever. All my potential, all my joy, gone.
But that breakdown, those tears — it only ever happened once. Why?
Because I somehow knew that there was no relief on the other side of that sadness. It wouldn’t make me feel better. It wouldn’t do anything. Once I was all cried out, I’d just get back to my routine of anxious thinking and feeling depersonalized. Tears were as pointless as frustration, anger, self-pity. It was all futile. It would achieve nothing. Nobody could help me and I couldn’t help myself. I lived in the total absence of hope. In despair.
It was all a new experience for me. And yet, you don’t really need to know what to do with despair, because there’s nothing you can do with it.
And so, I stopped living my life. I moved home. I stopped working. I spent days in bed. I lost a dangerous amount of weight. I stopped reading and writing.
This went on for months. And as terrible as it was, in a strange way I got used to it. It became a part of my life, almost in the same way that you get used to a new roommate or a different job. It was just always there, consistent and interminable.
And eventually, I got bored with it.
I accepted the fact that I probably would never recover. And with that, I decided that I may as well do something. Anything. I would have to bring the despair with me, that part seemed non-negotiable. But even so – I got out of bed. I started working again. I gained a little weight back. In the tiniest possible ways, I began to get a routine going.
What I didn’t realise then was that that acceptance of despair had gently skewed my view of the condition towards the positive. I realised, cold comfort though it was, that at least the depersonalization wasn’t going to get any worse. I also considered that it wasn’t going to develop into anything else and that physically it couldn’t kill me.
I certainly wasn’t jumping for joy with these realizations but they were at least something that I could think about without being consumed by existential fear.
Those small realizations gave me something that I hadn’t had in a long time — a sense of control. Traction with which I could start to rebuild my life. With that I began to tentatively, slowly reinstate some positive habits — Getting up at a reasonable hour, attempting to be social, getting small bits of creative work done here and there.
And slowly but surely, I began to get my life back. The small positive habits grew and took root, expanding and encouraging others. I worked more. I joined a gym. I noticed that I’d have times where the depersonalization was significantly diminished. ‘If it can be diminished’, I cautiously thought, ‘it might be possible to stop it altogether’.
It took many, many months of intense discipline and self-diversion, but I was correct. It was possible to stop it. Not in some vague, ambiguous way but to actively overwrite the horrendous thought-habits that had consumed my life and stop it.
I had lost almost two years to depersonalization, but it was time to resume my career as a filmmaker, along with everything else in my life that I’d put on hold.
Depersonalization is a brutal, crippling disorder and it all but devastated my life. And yet it wasn’t until I felt and accepted total despair that I was able to think clearly, to let go of the frustration and self-pity that was driving the worst of the condition. It was only in going through the darkest place possible that I learned to find my path towards recovery.
For anyone suffering from DP, depression or any anxiety-related disorder — there’s always a way out. Even when it seems as if all hope has been extinguished. Even when you think nobody can help you and you can’t help yourself.
So if you’re going through hell…. Keep going.
Shaun O Connor is a filmmaker and writer from Co. Kerry, Ireland. He is the author of The Depersonalization Manual which details his recovery from chronic depersonalization and provides a complete guide to recovery for sufferers of the condition that has sold over 7,000 copies worldwide. You can find more about Shaun’s experience with depersonalization here. Shaun is also a multi award-winning television and film director whose work has screened around the world, including at the Dublin, Helsinki and Boston Film Festivals.
Image courtesy of Martin Sattler.