Depersonalization-derealization disorder

Depersonalization-derealization disorder: A feeling of detachment from one’s body, thoughts or emotions. Individuals who suffer from DPDR may feel like they are dreaming or watching themselves in a movie. Or, they may feel as if they are outside observers of their own thoughts or bodies. Their feelings are often described as a loss of control over their ideas or behaviors. People with DPDR may be unable to accept their own reflections, as if they do not belong to them, or they may have out-of-body experiences.

While depersonalization is a feeling of detachment from the self, by contrast, the feeling of derealization is a detachment from reality and one’s surroundings. People who feel alienated from reality describe themselves as seeing the world around them as foggy, as if in a dream, and as if their surroundings are phantoms.

I slowly closed my laptop screen and lay on the bed in the darkness of my room. 3 am. Looks like I finally found what I was looking for. 

“How did you feel the very first time your feet touched the street?” “How did you feel the first time you saw your house after six years?” “How was the first night in your bed?” “What feelings did you experience when you entered the basketball court for the first time after all these years?” ” What is the first food you want to try?” “What are you eager to try after finally being released?”

A torrent of questions hit me the moment I set foot outside. Everyone was fascinated and curious. Everyone wanted to know about the flood of feelings and emotions that were exploding inside me. They were all happy, no doubt enthusiastic about what was happening to me and imagining the desires and excitement coursing through my mind. I didn’t feel bad about any of this. Not at all. I did not feel suffocated by all the questions. I felt neither smothered nor hurt. I did not experience any of those feelings. I did not experience them because I simply did not feel at all.

Ever since I took my first step outside of the police station where I was imprisoned for six years and four months, I have been in a strange haze that I cannot come to understand. I feel nothing. I do not have a real desire for anything. I do not feel the yearning I have repeatedly imagined for many activities. I do not feel distress, fear, sadness, pain, joy, comfort, gratitude. Nothing. I walk the streets filled with a strange sensation as if I am not aware of anything around me. As if I could wake up in prison at any moment.

I do not comprehend my surroundings, or that what is happening now is happening to me. I literally feel like I’m dreaming or watching myself in a movie. I did not feel anything when I walked out onto the street for the very first time as a free man. I did not have goosebumps when I saw my house on the horizon. The first night in my bed was strange and disturbing. I did not think about food and was not eager to see anything specific. I did not feel anything when I entered the basketball court that I have loved since childhood. I only felt like a lover who was separated from his beloved for ages, dreaming of the moment of reunion and its sweetness, only to be shocked when it finally arrived by the coldness and lack of feeling for what I thought I treasured in my heart. 

A disturbing feeling that I had experienced throughout my childhood went through my mind — that feeling when I used to go to the dentist to extract one of my teeth, and the process of anesthetizing my mouth and tearing out the tooth. I always experienced a strange feeling at that moment. One where I was waiting for the expected pain that never came, and the disgusting yet painless twisting of the tooth in my gums. A feeling that can only be described as wrong and disturbing. I always imagined if I had my leg sawn off while anesthetized. How would that feel? Or rather, not feel?

This is the closest description of what I feel now. All of these inputs require multiple feelings — outputs of either pain or joy. I wait for them and anticipate the shock, yet they never come. I am filled with this constant disgusting, disturbing feeling of anticipating what never comes, while fully knowing that it should.

In prison, there is a continuous and systematic destruction of feelings. The jailers do not do it directly. Quite the opposite, you do it to yourself throughout your imprisonment.

In prison, the prisoner searches desperately for any source of safety. You always find groups forming and strong friendships constantly taking shape, ones that would never have come to be in other conditions. Most of these intertwined human relationships emerge primarily out of an instinct for survival. The prisoner knows that without any form of support, they are bound to go crazy. Often,  one tries to fit in with the closest group or person, and then they all lean on each other. There is nothing wrong with this, and it certainly helps many survive for a significant amount of time. But the novice prisoner, whose experience fails him, makes a fatal mistake: attachment.

The prisoner latches on to a person or group that becomes his source of safety, and relies on them completely to provide him with security, forgetting the first rule that you learn in prison: that it is built on separation. When a prisoner is first separated from his sources of safety and security, as always happens unexpectedly — whether by their sudden transfer from the cell or even to a different prison,  or with some of them being released to the outside world again — the prisoner finds himself completely on his own, terrified without having someone to lean on or provide support. The pain of separation is known only to those who have experienced it firsthand. An excruciating pain that is endlessly compounded by prison conditions.

At first, the matter worsens when the prisoner decides to replace his sources of security with new ones. He acts like an addict searching for a drug without which he cannot survive, and when he runs out, he replaces it with another, because the suffering of withdrawal is unbearable. After several years of excruciating pain and forced withdrawal, he learns a severely cruel lesson: never get attached under any circumstance to any person or thing. And then begins his journey as an experienced prisoner in the art of survival, the most important lesson of which is that attachment, after initially being a source of security, turns into his biggest source of vulnerability and potential harm. He then develops a defense mechanism against anything that poses a threat to this sense of security. He tends to keep himself isolated and sticks to loneliness, pushing away anyone who tries to get close to him. He feels threatened and suspicious of any relationship beyond the superficial ones required for mere coexistence. His condition then evolves to completely eliminate any expectations after the successive painful disappointments he faces as long as he is in prison, and the constant risk of any stability turning into nightmarish panic.

He knows the moments he feels happiness are nothing more than warnings of potential pain. And that the temptation to hope will inevitably end in fatal agony. Thus, he begins the journey of getting rid of all feeling as a potential threat and source of weakness. He constantly readies himself for the possibility of loss — the loss of people, loved ones, warmth, nearness, stability, and any temporary taste of life, until he actually succeeds in making joy and misery equal. He lives with people as long as they are there, and alone when he has to. He eats when food and drink are in plenty, and nonchalantly fasts when they cease to be. He sleeps when there is space to do so, and stays up all night when there is no inch to spare for his body. He laughs at moments of laughter, then says goodbye to the laughing faces when they depart, and forces himself to wipe the memory of them from his mind the moment the steel door is shut.

Then, suddenly, he is out.

He unexpectedly finds himself in the midst of life. All those around him expect him to experience an explosive array of joyous and melancholic feelings. They say they understand, that of course he is shocked and overwhelmed by his rushing emotions, not knowing that he is drowning in emptiness, feeling the sawing of his bones and the numbing confusion of pain that never arrives. His feeling of dysfunction doubles as everyone looks at him in anticipation, awaiting his reactions. He often even fakes feeling things to satisfy the happy looks of expectation in their eyes and to avoid their disappointment at his absence of joy.

It is these instances that provide the most fertile ground for the emergence of the depersonalization-derealization disorder. He observes his life from afar. He reacts in ways that are expected rather than actually felt. He finds no response in his mind to any external stimuli, so he feels detached from his body and self. He always feels like he’s in a dream or seeing the world through someone else’s eyes. He halts in the middle of the street sometimes, uncomprehending that he is the protagonist of this scene. That these legs are his legs, and these steps are his steps, and that he is now returning home — the very scene which he had played repeatedly for years and years in the theater of his imagination, imagining each time a new, wilder, more beautiful and passionate sensation. He stopped feeling when he was inside, because naturally, all the colorful sensations outside will make up for all those he lost. So the lack of feeling now must be evidence that he’s still making it all up. That he’s still inside.

At a certain point in prison, the prisoner is shaken enough that he starts to doubt that he has ever been outside. He can’t recall sensations or emotions. His memories are no longer, they become more like dreams. His whole past turns into a series of distant hazy images that lack any kind of vividness. 

That’s why following his sudden release, he is completely detached.

Because dreams don’t just turn into reality, do they?

Abdelrahman ElGendy 

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