The first time it happened, I was nine years old. My fourth-grade teacher asked me to go to the administration office to pick up some papers. When I arrived there, a strange and terrifying sensation came over me, like I wasn’t sure what I was doing.
Am I really here? Is this me or someone else I’m watching? Is this real?
I was freaked out, but managed to tell the woman at the desk what my teacher needed. I sat in a daze while she gathered the papers. It felt like the color had drained from my face and my body was numb. I hoped no one noticed that anything was wrong. There was no way I was going to tell anyone, it was too weird. I wouldn’t have been able to describe it, and I assumed no one would understand. I rushed out of the office and felt better outside.
I had no idea what had just happened to me and hoped those feelings wouldn’t come back.
Unfortunately, they did.
I’ve had panic attacks since I was a young girl and was diagnosed with panic disorder in my early 30s. I’m now recovered. I had the common symptoms that most people know about: a rapid and pounding heart, lightheadedness and dizziness. My body would get sweaty and shaky. I’d be short of breath and sometimes it felt like I’d choke. My vision would start to black out, and I was afraid I’d faint. I’d have an urgent need to leave the place where I was panicking. If I didn’t get out quickly, it felt like I might lose control of myself or maybe have a heart attack.
As terrifying as those feelings were, the worst symptoms I’ve ever experienced weren’t the physical ones. The scariest sensations were in my mind, when it felt like my brain was tricking me, teasing me that I didn’t exist.
The medical terms for these thoughts are derealization (feeling withdrawn from one’s surroundings, as if the world isn't real) and depersonalization (an out-of-body experience in which a person feels separated from his own self).
I’d never heard of this syndrome—never knew that these symptoms could be related to panic disorder—until years after I’d recovered. These are the feelings people don’t talk about. I didn’t mention it to anyone, not even to my doctor, because it felt so unbelievably strange. I thought that trying to describe it would make me sound “crazy.”
The best way I can explain how it felt is that I was detached from myself, like I was living in a fog or dream and didn’t know whose body I was in. When I walked, it didn’t feel like my legs were holding me up. My arms didn’t feel like they belonged to me. I felt removed from the world and it was a struggle to bring myself back.
By the time I was a teenager, the disorientation became more frequent. I’d sit on the floor in front of my full-length mirror and brush my hair. I’d stare at my reflection and wonder if this person looking back was really me. It was as if I stepped out of myself and looked at someone I didn’t know.
One morning, when I was in my early 20s, I was late and had to rush to get to my job. I applied my blush and as fast as I could. But as I gazed at myself, the creepy thoughts invaded my head. I was shaky and felt like I was brushing eyeshadow on someone else. My face felt numb, like a plastic mannequin. I called in sick to work that day.
When the strange symptoms overpowered me, I’d tell myself, Stop it. Stop thinking I’m not who I am. Don’t go there.
It was easy to slip to that frightening place, but it was really difficult to bring myself out of it. The trick was not going there at all.
My daughter Talee was 10 when she was diagnosed with panic disorder. The last thing I wanted was for her to endure the same awful panic symptoms I’d suffered from—especially the derealization and depersonalization. But sometimes when she had a panic attack, she’d say she didn’t want to talk because it didn’t sound like her voice. She couldn’t explain it any clearer than that, but I knew exactly what she meant. That broke my heart.
Now Talee is 23. She recently told me that when she was little, she used to wiggle her fingers to make sure she could control them. I never knew she did that. She said she wanted to check if her brain was still working and connected to her body. Thankfully, Talee has recovered from panic disorder and isn’t haunted by those strange thoughts anymore.
I rarely feel like I’m going over to that dreamlike (or nightmare) zone. And if I do, I can stop it by being mindful and engage in activities to distract myself. For example, I’ll talk to someone or focus on an object and notice every detail about it. If I’m driving, I’ll take a few deep breaths, sing to the radio or roll a window down. I hear the traffic, feel the wind blow, and watch people ride bikes and walk dogs. I feel connected to the world around me, which brings me back to the present.
I honestly never thought I’d be open about my derealization and depersonalization. It took me a long time to reveal it. Once I finally did, I realized there are millions of others who experience the same frightening feelings. It was a huge relief to know I wasn’t the only one.
I’m no longer afraid to talk about my symptoms. I hope to encourage others to tell someone and reach out for medical help. There is treatment available and there is hope.
Jenny Marie is a mental health advocate and blogger. Jenny is married and has two daughters. Her blog is called Peace from Panic.
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