The first time I can remember feeling like I didn’t exist, I was 15. I was sitting on a train and all of a sudden I felt like I’d been dropped into someone else’s body. My memories, experiences, and feelings—the things that make up my intrinsic sense of “me-ness”—projected across my mind like phantasmagoria, but I felt like they belonged to someone else. Like I was experiencing life in the third person.
What doctors call “depersonalization” is somewhat beyond the power of words to convey, but it corresponds loosely to what Timothy Leary might have been talking about when he came up with ‘ego loss’ in the 1960s—minus the psychedelic drugs and the feelings of being gloriously at one with the world. Though it can be triggered by drugs, it often occurs on its own, and it’s a fairly terrifying experience. Earlier this year my doctor prescribed me a cognitive behavioral-therapy manual called Overcoming Depersonalization and Feelings of Unreality. If Leary’s psychedelic rewrite of the Tibetan Book of the Dead teaches you “how to break free from personality into new realms of consciousness,” this book seeks to reverse the effects.
“It’s a disorder that’s not actually that well-studied,” Dr. Nick Medford, a neuropsychiatrist and researcher at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the U.K., tells me. It’s characterized by a pervasive and disturbing sense of unreality in both the experience of self (called “depersonalization”) and one’s surroundings (known as “derealization”); accounts of it are surreal, obscure, shrouded in terms like “unreality” and “dream,” but they’re often conveyed with an almost incongruous lucidity. “It’s like I’m too aware of certain larger aspects of reality,” as a patient says in Feeling Unreal by Daphne Simeon and Jeff Abugel. It’s not a psychotic condition; the sufferers are aware that what they’re perceiving is unusual. “We call it an ‘as if’ disorder. People say they feel as if they’re in a movie, as if they’re a robot,” Medford says.