Depersonalization: A Strange Mental Illness Captured in Films, Music & Celebrity Confessions
For many in the world, depersonalization isn’t really a familiar word. Sometimes, it is used to refer to the act of removing human characteristics or individuality from someone or something. Almost no one you meet on the street would be able to tell you what depersonalization means in the psychiatric sense of the word.
Depersonalization (DP) is a dissociative disorder whereby a person experiences a distortion in how they experience their self. A person going through DP may feel disconnected from themselves and often report that they feel like watching a movie of oneself. It’s a bewildering experience that can leave a person utterly confused and scared. Very little is known about this disorder in psychiatry, and all research is still nascent.
Nonetheless, I’m going to present the case that depersonalization is fairly well-documented in films, music, literature, and in the lives of many celebrities, either directly by its clinical name or, more commonly, as a collection of anomalous experiences of a detached self or an unreality that can only be articulated through art.
It’s understood that almost everyone goes through a depersonalization episode a few times in their lifetime; such episodes last from a few minutes to hours. But an estimated 2% of the world’s population more or less experiences it chronically.
One of the earliest known references to depersonalization comes from the writings of Henri-Frédéric Amiel. He wrote:
“I find myself regarding existence as though from beyond the tomb, from another world; all is strange to me; I am, as it were, outside my own body and individuality; I am depersonalized, detached, cut adrift. Is this madness?… No.”
Amiel was a Swiss philosopher and poet who was an introverted professor of aesthetics at the Academy of Geneva. Though neither he nor his teachings gained a huge following, he still remains the first person to introduce the term.
In the present day, there is no one who tackles the world of liminality better than the Japanese author Haruki Murakami. In a short story titled “Sleep” that he authored for The New Yorker, he writes:
“… my very existence, my life in the world, seemed like a hallucination. A strong wind would make me think my body was about to be blown to the end of the earth, to some land I had never seen or heard of, where my mind and body would separate forever. ‘Hold tight,’ I would tell myself, but there was nothing for me to hold on to.”
Reading these words now takes me back to the time when I’d lie awake on my bed at night, feeling fully detached from myself and the world around me. I would feel as if my body was being lifted and blown away. When I closed my eyes, I had this feeling of being airborne. I’d often open my eyes just to check if I still remained firmly on top of my mattress.
Having been a huge music and film nerd, I often find references to DP in many contemporary songs and movies. For example, in Linkin Park’s “Numb,” the late Chester Bennington penned, “I’ve become so numb, I can’t feel you there, become so tired, so much more aware.”
Many of us who suffer from DP can attest to the fact that the illness can sometimes rob you of your feelings, leaving you feeling numb and flat-lined. Going through DP also makes you feel like you are experiencing everything around you from a very different perspective; it almost feels like you are more aware of reality itself. This symptom is termed as derealization (DR) and almost always goes hand in hand with DP.
In “Crawling,” another of Linkin Park’s hit songs, Chester sings about “confusing what is real” and unable to find his sense of self (“I can’t seem to find myself again”). Losing a grip on the familiar reality and your familiar self is a hallmark symptom of DP/DR.
I remember when the famous 90’s band Hanson — yes, the same band that gave us “MMMbop” — released their single “Weird” in 1997. It was one of my favorite childhood songs, but in those days, I never paid much attention to its lyrics. Only years later, when I was in the throes of DP/DR, did the words “You’re on the verge of going crazy and your heart’s in pain; No one can hear, but you’re screaming so loud; You feel like you’re all alone in a faceless crowd; Isn’t it strange how we all feel a little bit weird sometimes?” made perfect sense to me.
It seemed as if someone had made a song about my own hellish internal experience. I mean, isn’t it true that we all feel a little bit weird sometimes, but can’t understand what is happening to us? Such feelings of depersonalization and derealization may be more common in people than we think.
The 90’s indie darling Neutral Milk Hotel’s most famous song, “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea,” contains the words, “Can’t believe how strange it is to be anything at all.” To me, this essentially captures how it feels to be depersonalized. With depersonalization, you lose the familiarity of yourself and the world around you, and you are left wondering how strange it is for anything to exist at all! Many of my fellow DP sufferers have exhibited astonishment at the mere fact of one’s existence. Reality at once possesses the quality of the familiar and the strange. Everything becomes uncanny when you are depersonalized.
Bo Burnham, one of my favorite standup comedians and the brain and heart behind the recent comedy-drama film Eighth Grade, has been very open about his struggle with anxiety. In a recent podcast interview with the H3 Podcast, he said how during his panic attacks, he experiences “tunnel vision, numbness, and total out of body experience…” I’d venture to say that the out of body experience resembles depersonalization closely. DP is a disassociative phenomenon that often accompanies anxiety and panic attacks as a protective mechanism so that one doesn’t become overwhelmed with the fear. Ethan Klein, the host of the H3 Podcast, revealed in an earlier interview that he has struggled with depersonalization. Rapper Vinnie Paz, one half of Jedi Mind Tricks, disclosed details about his depersonalization experience recently on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
Adam Duritz of Counting Crows fame, in a conversation with Huffington Post, said: “I was losing my freaking mind… it was no fun” when asked about his depersonalization. In an interview with Men’s Health magazine, he remarked: “It was like I was dreaming that things were happening around me and then I was reacting to them.” These are telltale signs of DP. When you talk to someone, you feel like the words are automatically coming out of your mouth. You feel like you are on some sort of auto-pilot and can watch yourself react to different provocations from the environment while remaining detached on the inside.
No article on the prevalence of depersonalization in popular culture is complete without a reference to the film Numb, directed by Harris Goldberg — the only film to my knowledge that explicitly deals with the topic of depersonalization. In it, protagonist Hudson Milbank, played by Matthew Perry, becomes affected by DP after a night of heavy marijuana use. (Traumatic reactions to marijuana use have become one of the leading causes for the onset of depersonalization in teens and young adults.) We then follow Hudson as he becomes frustrated with his disconnection from self and reality, and we find out how he ultimately gains his grounding — by falling in love. (Oh, how so Hollywood!)
To be honest, I do not think the film portrays the struggles of DP accurately. I felt that the character of Hudson was more of a self-centered jerk than an utterly scared and extremely confused depersonalized person. His actions irked me more than they evoked sympathy. But nonetheless, everyone in the DP community appreciates the film for creating an awareness of this confusing condition.
I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a film in the future that tackles this condition in a more authentic way. I’d pay good money to see that film.
With the power of the Internet, more and more people are becoming aware of the existence of feelings of unreality and disconnection from the self. For many, just to know that the weird symptoms and feelings they have been grappling with have clinical names (depersonalization and derealization, respectively) and that there are other people in the world who experience such truly bizarre symptoms is strangely comforting.
Reality still largely remains a puzzle. The nature of the self is still a conundrum. We don’t have all the knowledge about our external world nor have we cracked the enigma of consciousness and the self. It’s a good thing that evolution has conditioned our ego to ignore these aspects and just focus on the job at hand. I mean, would any work get done if we were all struck by constant amazement and terror about ourselves and the world around us? I don’t think so. Sometimes though, these walls of the ego seem to crack, either through stress, a drug-induced break, or spontaneously for no apparent reason. The illusion of a solid reality and a strong sense of identity gives way to a fluid nature of existence and self. When that happens, it can be a downright scary disturbing experience. But, we are not alone in this. Such a state of mind is more common than one thinks. We have got so many songs, films, books, and other people’s experiences in which to find solace.