Is this really real...? Derealization Disorder

“The room was starting to spin and he began to wonder if this was one of those dreams he’d wake up from to find himself alone on the cold garage floor. Because none of it felt real. He himself didn’t feel real. Being here. Doing this. Saying that.”

In Unmasked, the final book of the Hidden Sanctuary series, Jacob meets his brother for the first time in twenty years. The last time he saw him was following the most traumatic episode in both their lives, and one which shaped the person Jacob was to become thereafter.

In the intervening years, Jacob dealt with the trauma by way of drug abuse and also psychogenic amnesia – a period where his brain temporarily blocked all memories of that past event. And while he now remembers everything, these coping mechanisms have altered his perspective over time so that he might even convince himself it never really happened at all. 

The reunion with his brother, then – someone who was there at the time of the event and who testifies to what occurred in their family both prior to the tragic conclusion and afterward – ignites a state of heightened anxiety in Jacob; as if he is reliving that time once again, or having it confirmed to him as real. And such is his difficulty in processing this situation, he experiences the symptoms of a disorder known as derealization.

 “He felt stifled. Couldn’t breathe in that room let alone speak or think. He looked to the three huge windows spanning the entire wall but they were all closed. He could see outside but not feel it. And the whiteness of it all – the sofa, the walls, the bookcase – all too bright, too glaring. He got to his feet, unsteady for a moment, focus jumping too quick from one thing to another.”

Many people experience some symptoms of derealization during their lifetime – that feeling of existing in something of a numbing daze; perhaps after a traumatic experience such as the death of a loved one. But when these feelings are persistent and last over a period of time (sometimes for no apparent reason), it can be a particularly frightening experience, one that leaves the sufferer wondering if they are losing their mind.

The primary sensation of derealization is of feeling disconnected from your surroundings – literally, nothing seems real. This may be an emotional disconnect and/or a physical sensation where the world around you is either ‘distorted, blurry, colorless, two-dimensional or artificial’ or you see it with ‘a heightened awareness and clarity’, a place you exist in but don’t feel grounded (mayoclinic.org).

The onset of the disorder may be linked to a traumatic experience, or may just show itself in individuals who are more susceptible to it (through ‘genetic and environmental factors’, for example). Either way, it’s often periods of increased or prolonged stress that trigger the symptoms. These symptoms may last for hours, days, weeks or months, or may be ongoing. Medical treatment is in the form of talk therapy and counselling, and is recommended when the symptoms are interfering with normal functioning and daily life.

For Jacob, his mind and body have developed to protect him against the stresses and traumas of his upbringing. For the most part, as a member of the Tribe who promote a pressure- and judgement-free existence, he is able to live a normal life free from mental illness. However, when the past does threaten to re-emerge, as in the reunion with his brother, his mind defends him from the brutality of those past hurts by temporarily taking him ‘out’ of the situation and into one that feels less real and damaging.

Source: “Depersonalization-derealization disorder”, Mayo Clinic (Accessed 7 May 2019) https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/depersonalization-derealization-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20352911