This is my story of struggling with depersonalization and derealization, leading to an existential crisis. My particular case was drug-induced, but I believe it can happen after any kind of highly stressful event. In the next few days/weeks/months I’ll post a second article about how I overcame this. (Second article now up here) If you’d like to contact me, use the link in the top right corner or leave a comment.
What triggered it?
A little more than a month ago I smoked too much cannabis¹. I’m a very occasional smoker, so when I do it I usually have no tolerance whatsoever. I loaded a bong, proceeded to take a huge rip and instantly felt sick. Within a minute I was pretty much immobilized on my bed, unable to form a coherent thought, my body shaking and my muscles twitching uncontrollably. The thing that followed is what I believe was my first ever full-blown panic attack. At the root of it was my deep-seated hypochondriacal fear of turning psychotic, which had been aggravated only few days before that on my 1P-LSD trip (that trip report was not very well written), where I decided that I wouldn’t be doing any more psychedelics in the near future but still thought of weed as pretty benign.
My short-term and long-term memory was severely impaired, to the point where I wasn’t sure who I was or what I was, and although I had some sense of those things, it felt as if all my life and all my memories to this point were part of a distant dream that’s fading away ever so rapidly. In the darkness of my room I started seeing little circles of green light all across my field of vision, very similar to how light from distant sources appears through unfocused lens. My thoughts were racing and I was becoming more and more paranoid that I can’t control them. I remembered that schizophrenics have intrusive disturbing thoughts that manifest themselves as audio hallucinations (hearing voices basically), so I started panicking over whether I’m hearing voices or are my thoughts just completely random and fucked (which I guess means I was having some type of meta-cognitive process going on i.e. thinking about my thinking). To make sure I wasn’t actually hearing voices I started making noises so I could compare audio stimulation to thinking. Having to do this made me panic even more that I’ve completely lost it. I just wanted to shut down my brain, so the whole thing would end, but that seemed impossible with my body in a fight or flight state. Somehow I managed to fall asleep maybe an hour into this.
How it began?
The next day I woke up feeling really strange. Something didn’t feel right. How could I be in this highly agitated state just the night before and then just wake up to the mundane ‘normal’ reality? From the cosmic perspective life seemed like a big joke. Existence was utterly nonsensical and incomprehensible. Looking in the mirror was surreal and made me feel even more disconnected. I couldn’t integrate my experience into the framework of everyday life, so I started questioning everything and became skeptical of any ontology.
- What am I?
- What is reality?
- Why does anything exist instead of not exist?
- What is consciousness?
- What is meaning?
- What is to understand? Why do I ‘understand’ language?
- Why are we slicing reality the way we do? Could it be cut in another way by another perfectly valid but incompatible framework of concepts? Is there any true meaning to any question and any answer, since meaning is a human concept?
- Am I anything more than a meat machine, governed by my biochemistry and ultimately by the deterministic nature of the universe?
- Am I a brain in a vat?
- Why should I care about anything?
- and so on…
There’s nothing wrong with thinking about these things, but the problem was I couldn’t let go, I couldn’t think about anything else. Nothing else really mattered, even if I was doubtful that the questions could ever be answered in a way comprehensible via the conceptual framework of us humans or whether there were answers at all, since having questions and looking for answers is trying to make sense of things and find some meaning, but then again that’s a human concept and is not ‘objectively’ real. I’ve thought about many of these things before and probably so have many of you, but they had never really provoked any obsession or anxiety before and I was always able to go about my daily life as usual. Along with that I was wondering if I was experiencing the first symptoms of some underlying psychotic disorder that I might have unlocked, although as far as I was concerned I had no hallucinations or delusions.
The same day I went to work feeling like a complete zombie. I could fake normalcy but I felt as if I was going to lose it at any given moment. Talking to people and doing my job felt automatic as though I was an observer of ‘my’ thoughts and actions without being the real source / agent of those thoughts / actions (if that makes any sense). I was watching people and despairing over how could they be so oblivious about the true nature of reality and the fact that I would seem like a madman and probably lose my job, or in the best case just be ridiculed, if I break down and hysterically start rambling about all that.
The next day I tried to read a book and do some math but after a few minutes I felt that I’m doing it just to run away from the grand realization about the utter meaningless of everything and trying to lie to myself that everything was as it was before. Needless to say these thoughts shot my anxiety through the roof and I started pacing around the house like a lunatic, unable to do anything else until I calmed down a bit. I was monitoring myself all the time – does reality still seem like a dream, do I feel like observing myself from an outside perspective, do I enjoy things that I used to enjoy, do I still think about this, do I still monitor myself (some inception shit going on here). Why am I afraid of this? What do I live for?
To be continued…
Before I end this part, I’d like to put several paragraphs from Absurd Reasoning by Camus that really capture what I feel in a much more eloquent way than I could ever hope to do myself:
“Heidegger considers the human condition coldly and announces that that existence is humiliated. The only reality is “anxiety” in the whole chain of beings. To the man lost in the world and its diversions this anxiety is a brief, fleeting fear. But if that fear becomes conscious of itself, it becomes anguish, the perpetual climate of the lucid man “in whom existence is concentrated.” This professor of philosophy writes without trembling and in the most abstract language in the world that “the finite and limited character of human existence is more primordial than man himself.”His interest in Kant extends only to recognizing the restricted character of his “pure Reason.” This is to coincide at the end of his analyses that “the world can no longer offer anything to the man filled with anguish.” This anxiety seems to him so much more important than all the categories in the world that he thinks and talks only of it. He enumerates its aspects: boredom when the ordinary man strives to quash it in him and benumb it; terror when the mind contemplates death.He too does not separate consciousness from the absurd. The consciousness of death is the call of anxiety and “existence then delivers itself its own summons through the intermediary of consciousness.” It is the very voice of anguish and it adjures existence “to return from its loss in the anonymous They.” For him, too, one must not sleep, but must keep alert until the consummation. He stands in this absurd world and points out its ephemeral character. He seeks his way amid these ruins.”Jaspers despairs of any ontology because he claims that we have lost “naïveté.” He knows that we can achieve nothing that will transcend the fatal game of appearances. He knows that the end of the mind is failure. He tarries over the spiritual adventures revealed by history and pitilessly discloses the flaw in each system, the illusion that saved everything, the preaching that hid nothing. In this ravaged world in which the impossibility of knowledge is established, in which everlasting nothingness seems the only reality and irremediable despair seems the only attitude, he tries to recover the Ariadne’s thread that leads to divine secrets.”
¹ It was some strong sativa strain but I don’t remember the exact name.
Featured image: Meat Machine by Frank Walls 2012