Warning: Contains discussion of depersonalisation and anxiety

As my anxiety is mostly presenting as periods of depersonalisation right now, I wanted to think about the metaphors I use to describe my experience and the limitations of that.

For me, and a lot of people, anxiety kind of works like this. It’s my brain’s way of telling me it doesn’t want to be in this situation. I’d say it’s 95% work related, although I do get it sometimes before big social occasions. It’s quite a physical illness, in that I can “think away” the mental anxiety but I can’t do that why the sickness it produces in my gut or the dizziness in my head.

So step 1 is “you need to get out” is “ok, we’re gonna make you feel super sick. You should go throw up, maybe you’re having a heart attack! Look out!”. Step 2 is panic attacks. I mostly get two types of panic attacks, one is the “ok we’re gonna run” type. Heart and breathing sped up, muscles start tensing. I wring my hands and pull my hair a lot in this stage, it’s a basically a big shot of energy getting me to move. The other type is a freeze, like “its vision is based on movement, if we stay still bad thoughts can’t catch us”. I can’t move. I want to, and I try to, but I can’t. My mind is racing but the body is unresponsive.

Step 3 is the super fun time of depersonalisation. I’ve written about this before because it’s pretty new to me. It’s the next step up. If I can’t run, then the next best thing is disconnecting from reality altogether. This is where the metaphors come in, because it’s really the only way to describe it.

Metaphors are cultural, we are the products of our environment. They are the kind of thing that we don’t remember being taught, but it’s a shared language we all know. Take something like death; the idea of what speeds you to your final resting place changes as we invent technology. You can’t have ghost trains without trains. We all thought the brain was like a clock, now it’s like a computer. The problem arises when you use a metaphor to communicate an idea but the person you’re speaking to doesn’t speak that shared language, even if the actual language is the same. Until we evolve telepathy though, it’s the only means I have to communicate what’s going on in my head. Mental illness isn’t like a physical one where we can point at an injury or demonstrate a problem.

When this started happening to me, I didn’t know what it was. I thought I’d finally fallen over the edge. It doesn’t feel like anxiety, or the hollowness of depression. I had heard of derealisation and depersonalisation before though, so I googled it. A lot of people talk about “being in a film” or “looking out from underwater”. I didn’t feel like that. I guessed then at that point there must be something much worse going on with me. I have the privilege of being able to see a therapist so I explained it to her. I realised then that it is depersonalisation, and the reason I thought it wasn’t was because of metaphor.

I’m a nerd. Can’t escape it. I play too many videogames and most of the fiction I consume is fantasy and science-fiction. A lot of my depersonalisation metaphors feed on this. Sometimes it feels like I’m wearing a VR headset, and I move my head around as if I’m looking out of a character’s eyes. Sometimes I am totally convinced I’ve accidentally stumbled into a alternative timeline, and I need to focus on getting back to the “real” one. I feel like I’m falling all the time. I feel like I can touch my laptop screen and get pulled in, like Tron or the Matrix.

I guess the lesson is here is a) don’t always rely on Google to tell you what’s wrong with you and b) don’t rely on other people’s experiences. They aren’t going to match, and you can’t diagnose yourself fully. There’s no wrong or right way to feel anxiety, or depression or whatever you might have. We are all so different, we share a lot but not everything.