Understanding Depersonalization

I look down at my hand, but it’s not my hand. Someone speaks to me, I answer. But it is not me answering. Everything is a dream, I am not me, and the world around me passes slowly. This experience, called depersonalization, possessed me for three days, during the early period of my psychotic break. It is a feeling indescribable, to watch your body speak, move, all from the outside. In this article, I will be talking about the state I was in during this time.

What is Depersonalization?

Depersonalization is the feeling that you are not yourself. That your experience is not real, and that you have no identity. It has often been described as an out of body experience. Many say it feels like a dream. It is a dissociative symptom, a class of symptoms which include depersonalization and derealization (which I will cover in a later article).

Who Gets It?

Depersonalization has a prevalence rate of around one to two percent in the population¹.  While healthy people can experience depersonalization, it is often found comorbidly with other disorders or states, such as anxiety or psychosis. Trauma is also a big factor when it comes to depersonalization, and depersonalization is especially likely to occur at the time of the traumatic event. Derealization may also occur as an after effect of substance abuse, or during a seizure.

Anxiety and depression, while possibly the source of depersonalization, may  also be caused by depersonalization itself. The feeling of depersonalization is not a good one, and many who experience it feel as if they are “losing their mind”. This sentiment can lead to anxiety and depression within those affected.

While depersonalization may be transient, or associated with some type of mental illness, sometimes it is persistent and interferes everyday life. Some episodes may last months, even years. In some cases, these more severe episodes cannot be pinned on other physical or mental disorders. People fitting this criteria are given a diagnosis of depersonalization disorder.


Treatment for depersonalization includes psychotherapy (talk therapy), CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) which focuses on identifying and changing thought patterns, and medication.

There is no specific medication for depersonalization. For people with an underlying disorder, treating the disorder may alleviate symptoms like it did for me. For others, antipsychotics may help address strange thought patterns and perceptions that sometimes accompany depersonalization.


Sacrifice and Societal Struggles

gary varvel college
Source: Gary Varvel @ http://www.indystar.com/opinion/varvel/

Having talked about stress in my previous article, I would like to continue on with the topic, this time with a focus on the stress involved in achieving one’s dreams. Whether you want to be an actor, engineer, scientist or teacher in today’s society, achieving success in any profession can be very daunting and rather difficult – seeming almost impossible at times. Often to achieve what we want to do in life, we have to get an education at a post-secondary institute, such as a university or college. That itself can be rather stressful. Questions arise such as, “is this truly what I want to do?” or, “what if I end up not enjoying it?” or even, “can I afford to risk this type of investment?” All of these questions can be very stressful when it comes to chasing one’s dreams.

In the current state of society, it’s almost always required to have a degree in a related field to even apply for a career of one’s choice, but, even with a degree in the field one wants to work in, a degree isn’t always a guarantee that one can get the career they want. For a year of study in an art related program in Canada, the costs range from $2,500 on the low-end of the spectrum, up to $12,000 on the high-end, with $6,000 being roughly the median. Unless one is well off, or has financial backing from other means, such as scholarships, bursaries, family, etc., this means that for a total of 4 years of study, on average, in Canada, we’re looking at a cost of around $24,000, not including room and board. In the United States, costs are even higher, with the average being $15,000 per year of study at a public institution, going up to $15,000-$30,000 at private institutions. Students often have to take upon a part-time or full-time position outside of their chosen field in order to afford the cost of living during this time, all while needing to study for exams and finish the homework associated with each course of study. For individuals who are predisposed to experiencing mental illness, such as anxiety or depression, it seems like quite the impossible challenge at times to get a chance to achieve what one wants to do in life. It’s a type of risky investment that is very taxing to mental health – one that yields a “conform to the system or fail” type mentality.

Speaking as an anxious individual, it makes even attempting to further educate oneself through post-secondary seem like a fruitless endeavor – you get in a thought pattern where the ends don’t justify the means, especially with most recent societal developments; an undergraduate degree often isn’t enough to get to where you want to be in life anymore. More and more businesses are requiring that aspiring employees have a master degree or higher in a related field, which means more of a financial burden, more potential time wasted and more self-doubt among individuals who are mentally ill. Even if one does succeed, there is a chance that one may not obtain their dream career without sacrificing more of their own time and money. The whole scope of the situation is very taxing to mental well-being. It may exacerbate underlying conditions, causing an individual to experience a variety of unpleasant symptoms related to stress, or even bring forth mental illness that one wasn’t aware of, such as an anxiety disorder, depression, or addictions (such as drug dependence).

After speaking with an actor from the province of Manitoba about this subject, she has agreed to share with us her pursuit in achieving her dream of becoming a successful, full-time working actor, one that she has held onto dearly since she was a child. Her story that will follow sheds light on how difficult it can be to achieve what you want to in life, as well as how mentally taxing the pursuit of your dreams can be.

Not many people can say they’ve known since the age of four what they wanted to be when they grew up. It was then that I, somehow, knew I wanted to be an actor, and I have spent my entire life vigorously pursuing it as a career. I am proud to say that, from 2010 up until now, I’ve been working professionally as an actor, booking pretty consistent work in television, theatre and musical theatre.

However, like most actors in our society, there are periods between gigs where I am doing nothing but auditioning, occasionally picking up a shift at my survival job, hoping I book at least something. It’s during these periods where the money I’ve made from previous gigs trickles from my bank account—nay, pours—and I am left hoping and praying to the Universe that something comes of the projects I’ve recently auditioned for.

An actor may not book a role for reasons completely out of their control; they look too young, they look too old, they’re too sexy, they’re not sexy enough, their nose is too big, their voice is too high, they look too much like the director’s ex-wife…it rarely has anything to do with the actor’s talent. To add to the stress, an actor never really knows when their next audition(s) will be, so they must keep their schedule flexible enough to not only accommodate last-minute auditions, but to make sure they have enough time to prepare for them as well.

I spend approximately $8,000 a year on my career and work somewhere between 20 and 70+ hours a week. I am always working, even when I’m “not working”. Acting is more than a full-time job. If I am performing in and producing a project, I work 70-100+ hours a week. I recently performed in/produced a show that toured in 3 different cities. It took me a solid 5 months to organize, prepare, and rehearse; in the end, it didn’t sell very well, and my production company partner/castmate and I lost thousands of dollars on a show not many people came to see.

I’ve, so far, barely scratched the surface of the trails and tribulations of being a professional actor. I could continue for days, talking about headshots, demo reels, finding an agent, getting into ACTRA or CAEA (Canadian actor’s unions), or SAG (actor’s union in the US), and so forth, but hopefully this gives you an idea on the amount of stress that accompanies pursuing a career in the performing arts. The craft itself is incredibly demanding mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually, but the industry, on the other hand, is a whole other rival.

And it’s a tough battle.

A really, really tough battle.

So tough, in fact, that I developed depersonalization disorder.

Now, performing arts and panic attacks yield a perfect recipe for a juicy dramatic tale on stage or screen, but in real life, it’s the perfect recipe for disaster.

Making money, having direction and being successful is a constant stress for an actor. The pressure relentlessly weighs heavily over their heads. So heavily, that three years ago, on a closing night of a nine-month long tour, I experienced my very first panic attack, which soon turned into a solid case of depersonalization disorder.

One of the most terrifying things I have endured since was having panic attacks, with heavy depersonalization, on stage during performances. Luckily, I’ve been able to pull through each time it has happened; I was able to continue on with the show, and no one on or off stage knew what I was experiencing. But silently, in the confines of my mind, I was deteriorating. Not only was it beyond exhausting to fight through that each time the lights came up, I dreaded having to go on stage in the first place. The fact that the stage became a place of fear, as opposed to a place of comfort and pleasure, destroyed me. I am now in the process of putting the pieces back together, taking every step possible to slay the wily beast once and for all.

In the aforementioned time between gigs is when my panic, depersonalization, anxiety and depression often becomes exacerbated. The stress of my unknown financial future inhibits my craft if I am not careful; desperation can subconsciously ooze out during auditions, unintentionally self-sabotaging my chances of booking a role. Many actors, unknowingly, do this, as well as unintentionally psych themselves out, resulting in sub par auditions and lost opportunities.

Recently, my mental health has been compromised a lot more than usual, as my supportive parents have been more concerned about my financial future than ever before. They’re often bringing up the fact that I’m 26 (“almost 30”, as my parents put it), and I do not have a solid plan B that would “guarantee” me income.

First, I’ve never had a plan B. There has only been plan A, because I am going to do whatever it takes to bring plan A to fruition. Second, no plan in our society “guarantees” income. Just ask the Starbucks barista with the master’s degree. Third, everything else I have even remotely considered as a “plan B” (a secondary career I would go to school for/pursue while still attempting to pursue acting) is artistic.

And society isn’t built for artists.

Artists, especially actors, generally push against the “conform to the system or fail” precept, straying off the pre-paved path and creating their own way. That’s because, regardless of if an actor or artist has a degree, diploma or certificate in their respective creative field, finding employment after graduation is even more difficult than it already is in our society. Jobs are scarce, and wildly competitive. It’s who you know. And for actors, it’s also who you are and what you offer. This means that a vast majority of actors/artists have to create their own employment opportunities—i.e. spend their own hard-earned money trying to further their career. Never mind paying off their student loans.

After finishing high school, I was pressured into going to University, because “once you take a year off, you’ll never go back”. I hated it. I didn’t agree with the system; to get your degree, it was mandatory to take a bunch of courses outside of your chosen field. It was also mandatory to purchase books and textbooks that we would barely—or never—use. I felt like just a number. Not only that, but I studied acting once a week for 3 hours. That was it. It wasn’t enough. I wanted something full-time, focused completely on that I was there to learn. So, I dropped out of University and attended a post-secondary acting conservatory. The tuition was $15,000 plus books for the one-year program. The only reason I was able to pay it off in one go was because I was in a near-death car accident two years before hand and received a hefty cheque from the provincial insurance company. Otherwise, I’d probably still be paying it off. Since graduating, I’ve taken classes and workshops whenever I can, all completely ranging in price. Bottom line: being an actor, or an artist for that matter, is far from cheap.

At my survival job, I work with one of the most talented, hard-working, humble musicians I have ever known. He books his own daily gigs, travels the world to play his music and puts thousands and thousands of dollars into his career. He sacrifices everything for the sheer love of his art. Another group of friends from my survival job are in a band, and it’s the same thing with them, too. My survival job is filled with artists; a painter who specializes in murals, and she’ll only get a job only a few times a year. There’s also a photographer, who spends the money he makes taking photos on equipment and studio space, a painter, who had to turn to a career in massage therapy because he wasn’t able to support himself solely off of his art (his work is so incredible that I purchased a piece, which now hangs proudly on my bedroom wall), and an incredible actress who just spent $12,000 out of her own pocket producing a show that barely sold. These are just the artists at my workplace. I haven’t even begun to mention every other artist I know.

We’re all struggling just as much as the other.

This dose of reality does nothing for my mental health but exacerbate my symptoms. Anyone suffering from mental health issues will probably say the same thing. As an artist, I push through the “conform to the system or fail” mentality each and every day, and it’s exhausting. It’s disheartening. And it’s tough. But it’s also incredibly invigorating, because it gives me even more drive to overcome the impossible.

If society were better built for success, there would be a lot less suffering. I know I am not the only one suffocating under the conditions.

So, what can we do?

She raises an interesting question at the end – what can we do? Is it right that we have to take upon such great sacrifices in order to achieve our dreams? Could we lessen the burden by making education more affordable? These types of issues are becoming more prevalent in society as time passes, especially in the United States, where costs of education are at an all time high. There needs to be change, and that change starts on an individual level. Vote for who you believe will better your country. With elections coming up in 2016 in the United States, and in October of 2015 for Canadians, it is more important than ever to vote if you want to see change in your country. Your vote does matterTake the time to read about the candidates for the elections. See who your views align with. Make change in your country. We need it now more than ever.

On Human Decency

Photo by Steven Depolo. Creative License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode Link: https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevendepolo/4630736058

The other day I was browsing through mental health blogs and reading posts when I saw something that made me stop in my tracks. It was this article.  The article is about a woman’s fight to stop the sale of a rather offensive “mental patient” costume.

At first I didn’t know what to think. Thoughts came and went, I wondered who in the hell would buy a costume of a “mental patient”, a costume so offensive and cruel. What exactly is funny or cute about mental illness? Then it hit me, hard. People actually bought these costumes, this is many people’s view of mentally ill people.

As someone with prodromal schizophrenia, I am acutely aware of the enormous stigma that surrounds mental illness, especially more severe illnesses. Still, the fact that someone would make such an offensive costume, and that people would buy it, shocked me.

After the initial surprise, I began to think back over the course of my own illness. I thought of the hours I spent in a trance, unable to move or think. I thought of the voices, screaming at me and frightening me. I thought of the first time I was able to talk to them, and how much it scared me. I thought of the struggle I went through in University, unable to add two numbers or read a book. I thought of the immense pain I went through during that time, the near constant thoughts of suicide, the painful wait for my medications to kick in. I thought of how close I was to being in a mental hospital. Or dead.

Is this what the costumes are making fun of? Is the suffering of millions amusing? Surely, if they knew the suffering that comes with mental illness, this costume would be history. But they don’t know, to them mental illness is either a joke or a headline, and so the costume stays.

I titled this post On Human Decency, and I did so for a reason. Human decency is something every marginalized group strives for, to be treated as equal, to be seen as human. Not to be mocked, not to be a joke, not to be feared, that is not human decency, that is cruelty. Within this very century, beatings, restraints, and other cruel methods were commonplace in mental hospitals. While we are past that now, we have a new form of cruelty to deal with, and that comes from stigma.

Stigma, the great divider which keeps those with mental illness separated from society. A glass wall, nay, a one-way mirror. For we see society, yet society does not see us, not as who we truly are. No, society does not see us, society sees  a costume.

Stigma can be defeated, but doing so will require a movement beyond the scope of what has been done before. But for now, we must stick with small steps. Getting the stores currently carrying this outrageous costume to drop it is one of them.

I encourage you all to do what you can, call, leave reviews, email, even snail mail, do anything you can to get these horrendous costumes off shelves. All the info you need to help this cause can be found hereIf you’re a blogger, feel free to reblog this post or write your own.  Make sure to tell your friends. Stopping the sale of this costume won’t end stigma, but it’s one small step towards an unimaginable goal.

Stress: A Situation of Symptoms

First and foremost, I must apologize for my recent disappearance. I’ve been experiencing some unpleasant symptoms related to stress, but, having said and experienced the aforementioned, I would like to take the time today to elaborate about the physical, mental, cognitive and behavioral symptoms of stress in addition to the causes.

With having talked about stress in a previous article, we can understand that certain stress can be labeled as good stress (eustressors) or bad stress (distressors). Both types of stress stem from an external stimulus of sorts. The type of stimulus that is triggering the stress response is key to identifying whether or not a stress is good or bad. If one is being stressed by a job to do well, that type of stress can potentially motivate an individual. Stress of this nature may be considered as eustressors. When a stress is negative in nature, such as the stress of job loss, debt, personal conflict with an individual, we may classify that stress as distress.

Stress, depending on the nature of it, may present itself with a series of physical, mental or cognitive symptoms. Typically stress is temporary, but it is occasionally left to stew in our subconscious. Sometimes, no matter how hard we try to suppress it, it lingers, waiting until another stressful event happens to “attack” in full force. The symptoms of stress vary per individual, but are generally put into four categories: physical, mental, cognitive and behavioral.

Physical Symptoms

  • Headaches
  • Muscle tension or general pain through the body
  • Chest pain ranging from a dull ache to a sharp pain
  • Changes to an individual’s sex drive
  • Upset stomach, including diarrhea, nausea and constipation
  • Sleeping issues (such as insomnia)
  • Frequent colds or infections

Mental Symptoms

  • Anxiety, depression
  • Radical changes in mood
  • Feeling like you’re losing control of life
  • Low self-esteem
  • Recluse-like behavior

Cognitive Symptoms

  • Excessive worrying
  • Intrusive/racing thoughts
  • Forgetfulness
  • Disorganisation
  • Extreme pessimism
  • Inability to focus

Behavioral Symptoms

  • Appetite changes – either excessive eating or not eating at all
  • Extreme procrastination or avoiding general responsibilities
  • Increased use of drugs
  • Demonstrating more nervous behaviors, such as fidgeting, biting nails, pacing around, etc.

All of these symptoms may seem very intense for something that most people brush off easily in day-to-day life, but there is a lot of medical evidence backing the symptoms of stress. With the advent of the internet and ease of access to resources for all, it’s very easy to become anxious when trying to figure out what is wrong. I know this from personal experience – I’ve tried to scour the myriad of resources available to figure out the cause(s) of my symptoms. I would drive myself to the brink of insanity trying to figure out what fits.

There are many causes of stress, but they are generally put into two categories: personal issues and social issues. Some personal issues that could lead to stress are: one’s health, emotional problems, major life changes (such as the birth of a new child, moving to a different city, or death in the family) and relationship problems (issues with friends, family or lovers).

Social issues that may lead to stress are: Environmental issues (such as crime in one’s city, state of one’s country, a noisy neighborhood), social situation (living in poverty, being unable to make ends meet, loneliness, being discriminated against), unemployment, or one’s job (such as being unhappy with work, or finding that work is too demanding).

In closing, stress can be very taxing to the well-being of individuals. It is important to be able to identify and manage stress before it is allowed to linger in the subconscious for too long and become something unmanageable. There are many ways to combat stress, such as exercising, living within one’s means, adjust one’s standards in relation to the stressor, express emotions instead of keeping them inside, strengthen relationships with friends and family… the list goes on and on. Managing, and if possible, removing stress is key to a healthy body and mind. Prolonged stress does nothing for an individual; it causes a variety of unpleasant symptoms, as previously mentioned. If you find yourself struggling with stress, please take a look here for tips on how to manage stress in relation to your life.

For more information (and publications used for referenced information), see the links below: