Re-personalising the self

Depersonalisation can make you a stranger to yourself.

You twist your muddy boots into the bristles of the doormat, rest your umbrella against the wall, and add your tote bag to the mound of jackets that sit on the couch inside. In front of you, fifty-two pairs of shoes hammer the floorboards to Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” while hands dive in and out of chip bowls. 

Shortly after you’ve entered the front room, two lemon-yellow converse desert the group and make their way towards you.

“Hey! You’re finally here” she says as she wraps you in her soft warm arms, in one of those long embraces that whispers “You’re here with me, you’re safe.” 

“Sorry I’m so late, the traffic was really bad,” you mumble into her ear. “Do you know where the bathroom is?” 

She detaches herself from you and points into the darkness. 

“Yeah, I think it’s the first door on the right, just down the hall there.”

“Ok perfect, I’ll be right back. I love you.” 

“I love you too.” 

And now you’re in the bathroom. 

Mopping up your smudged mascara with a square of toilet paper helps distract you from all the possible ways that you could be perceived by the strangers who flood the rest of the house. There is no ambiguity between these four walls. Alone, you are not reduced to the changeable and indiscernible way in which others grasp you; you are the clear and inescapable way that you identify yourself to be. But your uninterrupted voice is hostile tonight. It is undisputed and deafening inside this echo chamber you have sealed yourself within. Belatedly, you notice that your body has spat out your mind; that it’s slid under the bathroom door and snuck back into the depths of the party. 

Disentangled from your imagination, hollowed of all memories and rinsed of all emotions, your physical form glides towards the glugging noise that pours out of the next room. Here, a short brown-haired woman is hunched over a mahogany benchtop upon which several ignored water glasses and near-empty bottles of wine are splayed. 

“Hey again stranger, do you want some red too?” she asks.

Without a thought, the words “No I’m okay” crawl out of your lips. 

“Alright, nevermind.” She pushes aside her wine and substitutes it for a glass of water, proceeding to silently peer through it and study how the light makes it distort your figure.

You’ve similarly examined the precise ways in which her body contorts in different settings: how her mouth disappears when anxious; how her ears become sponges when she engages in political discussions; and how, when she’s upset, her feet turn into lead inside her lemon yellow shoes… But right now her face escapes you. It feels as if you’re looking at her through someone else’s eyes. Someone has stolen yours and replaced them with their own. 

You don’t have the vocabulary to describe what you’re experiencing to her, and you’re afraid that any attempt to do so will freeze you in this state. So as the line between subjects and objects continues to smudge, you melt into a stool that rests next to her. All you can do is wait for your mind to return to you. You’ve forgotten where you left it. After all, remembering was not your job.

I unlock the bathroom door from the outside, twist the handle, and let your mind reunite with your body in the external world. 

Through writing this piece to you, I have been able to gain some sense of control over and familiarity with an experience which has repeatedly alienated me from my own subjectivity. Over the past ten or so years, depersonalisation has made me a stranger to myself – and by extension, those I love – to varying degrees and lengths of time. I’ve read that some people may only ever experience depersonalisation as a one-time occurrence, while others with the disorder can spend their whole lives suspended in this feeling of unreality and detachment from their own mental processes or body. This prospect, alone, makes it difficult to remember that depersonalisation is actually a natural way in which our bodies can react to stress or trauma. 

Unfortunately, there’s no salve that you can apply to your mind when it peels away everything you know and feel from your body. Just like a painful sunburn, all you can do is be patient with yourself – it takes time to heal.