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  • tessmartinelli

Mother, is this Madness?

I lounged in the backyard patio with Mom. Bees buzzed around my thighs, lazing on me briefly to rest from the sun’s heat and to slurp up some of my sunscreen’s nectar. I focused my eyes onto them, unamused, but too afflicted by a sunshine lobotomy to consider moving. I returned to my book, The Alchemist, one I had been trying to get through since freshman year of high school. Perhaps a descent into fictional philosophy would cure my existentialism, I thought. I read left to right, left to right, left to right, but the words disappeared as soon as they left my eye’s focus. I began again. Same, nothing. Each word sat in my brain, holding no meaning, no emotion, just weight. 

Defeated, I looked up to Mom, who was snacking on pistachios and reading the new People magazine. At least she wasn’t pretending to be a scholar. I wondered what she was thinking. I bet she was judging Reese Witherspoon’s cornbread recipe or she was taking notes on J-Lo’s bikini body workout routine with laser focus. Or, she was there, replaying the headlines in her mind, unable to feel anything. Like daughter like mother. Was she in her body or was she in the clouds? Fuck. The book, right. I blinked my eyes back into focus as Mom swatted away a bee. Frustradedly, I tossed my book to the side and shot up, stepping over to Mom. Left, right, left, right. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I settled into the chair next to her, readjusting awkwardly as I untangled the words caught in my throat. 

“Mom? I have a super random question for you. Do you ever feel like you’re not really in your body, like you’re experiencing things but kind of as a viewer?” 

She replied casually, her eyes still lingering on Reese’s baking instructions.

“Well sometimes I don’t feel like I’m living in the moment. Like my mind is on something that im worried about”.

“Yeah, but it’s not like not living in the moment. Does it ever feel like you’re watching yourself from afar, like you’re not inside of your body?"

Mom tilted her head and pressed her lips together, her kind heart searching for any way to relate to her daughter. After returning from thought, her contemplation melted into motherly concern. I turned my head away as my throat tightened. 

“That’s okay. Nevermind.” 

I reopened my book and stared into the worn pages as they mocked me. I knew I should’ve never said anything. I wished more than anything that I hadn’t said a word. Because, as the words spilled of my mouth, they materialized within the air, becoming real. At least, inside my head, they were still my delusions. At least, in my delusions, I could pretend Mom would understand.

Mom didn’t know it at the time, but it took me nearly a year to ask her, or anyone else for that matter, about that feeling. Something about it felt so odd, abjecting, and agonizing in a way I could never seem to put into words. I used countless metaphors and odd phrases to try and describe the feeling:

-A brain on a stick

-A spirit leaving my body

-A robot in my mind controlling my body with levers (think Inside Out, but the Alfred Hitchcock addition). Okay, this one still needs a little work.

They weren’t perfect, but how else was I to explain a feeling that no one ever taught me was real.

A description of this unidentified affliction was first used by Henry Frederic Amiel on July 8, 1880 in The Journal Intime; 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… Is this madness?" Amiel, a philosopher and poet, was shrugged off as a wacky creative, the type whose mental disarray was a necessary ingredient to his art. No one dared question his creative process.

 In 1898, psychologist Ludovic Dugas introduced the illness in a clinical setting. And, in a grand attempt to bring logic to an otherwise spiritual sounding condition, he claimed that there was a disconnect between sensory input and the associated muscular sensations. But, Dugas, failed to answer the question which Amiel presented. Is this madness?

I remember the day my life turned to madness. I was sitting in my freshman year of high school English class, drawing scribbles on my paper and tapping my foot against the linoleum. 

Then, my face go hot and my eyes dizzied. I looked down at the arms that attached themselves to my being but I could’ve sworn they weren’t mine. The pencil I was holding pressed against the finger pads, but the sensation no longer made it up to the brain. I wiggled the fingers and panicked as they moved correctly. The bell rang and briefly snapped me out of my stupor.

 Without even thinking about saying bye to anyone, I lifted the body up to stand and awkwardly exited the room. Left, right, left, right, I had to tell myself. I felt sickeningly aware of the way the bones clanked together as the skin constricted into a taut humanoid shape. My spirit felt like it was floating just centimeters above the body, close enough to know everything that’s going on, but too far to feel anything. The sound of breathing suffocated the ears as my internal narration screamed. 

I opened the passenger door to Mom’s car to which I was promptly greeted with a “how was class?” I looked at her and staggered back. I knew she was Mom but I felt nothing towards her. I looked ahead and said “good”, mimicking the way a human should. I so badly wanted to say more. I wanted to scream. But, speaking felt like a disgusting reminder of how I felt. What would I say, anyway.

Months passed and time slowed. Every glance at a reflection or touch of the skin reminded me that I was trapped inside of myself. I burned holes through my bathroom mirror with bloodshot eyes, desperately trying to recognize the body which claimed me. The sunken eyes that stared back at me whispered an unheard surrender. I was entirely estranged from my person.

I didn’t know what to do other than try to erase my identity completely. I canceled plans with friends, went home right after school, and imprisoned myself to my bed, convincing myself that that the less I moved, spoke, or even thought, the safer I would be. I became comfortable not living in order to survive. I chalked it all up to depression. Or, insanity. Both of which felt too shameful to admit to anyone.

One night, I lay in bed, tucked under my unwashed sheets, scouring the internet for anything that could make me feel less isolated. I opened purple tab after tab after purple tab, hoping I would find something new. Then, I stumbled upon a gem: an uncolonized Reddit thread. I hungrily clicked the link. At the bottom of the text, a person described their recent diagnosis of depersonalization. I immediately looked up the word.

Depersonalization: The persistent feeling of observing oneself from outside one’s body or having a sense that one’s surroundings aren't real.

The heart raced and I pushed the head back above my covers, staring into the dark of my room. A warm tear rolled down the face. Depersonalization. That’s it! I wanted to say it out loud over and over and over. Depersonalization. I wanted to hear every syllable of the word enunciated slowly like syrup. 

D e p

       e r s o n 

              a l i z a t i o n

I couldn’t believe this was real. Depersonalization. 

The next week was spent reading every piece of fiction, non-fiction, journal article, and medical document that mentioned the word. I found that it was officially recognized by DSM-II in 1968. The text described the mental pathology as “a feeling of unreality and of estrangement from the self, body, or surroundings.”  Only 2% of the population ever meet the clinical criteria for it. The etiology, or cause, is unclear; however, it is typically a response to trauma or excessive stress. There is currently no official treatment for the disorder. But, I was desperate for a solution. My ego had me believe that I could be the one to find the cure.

I eagerly scheduled a phone appointment with my psychiatrist, Dr. Schwab. He was a loopy, mouth-breathing old man whose body had taken the shape of his chewed up leather recliner. He had been prescribing me antidepressants for the last few years. They hadn’t really helped, but I was still hoping for a miracle.

My phone buzzed and I picked up on the first ring. After exchanging pleasantries, I told him that I realized I might be experiencing depersonalization.

Unfazed and unbothered by the implied gravitas of my revelation, he let out a hmph. 

“And what is that exactly?”

A pause. 

I began to stutter over my words. My script for this phone call didn’t exactly include a description of my affliction to my psychiatrist. Losing confidence in my Reddit confidant, my words spiraled as I again lost any ability to verbalize what I had been experiencing. I consulted the Google definition to put an end to my sputtering.  

Schwab took a dignified deep breath, proclaiming that he had never heard of it before. He feigned a word of sympathy before thanking me for bringing it to his attention.

His hot breath seeped through the phone and stung my eyes as they welled. I bit my tongue.

 “You’re welcome, Dr. Schwab”. 

He chuckled, so as to break the tension. 

“Would you like to add on any more medicati–?”

I bit off the end of his words. Any hope that I had for finding a solution or even a bit of solace was erased in that moment. I squeezed the hands so hard they turned white. I squeezed the hands harder, digging the nails through the top layer of skin. I didn’t feel a thing.

“Thanks anyway, Dr. Schwab, I’ll talk to you next time”. 

Back to square one. I was isolated in my own world all over again. Fuck you, Dr. Schwab. Anger was something that depersonalization never seemed to strip away. On March 15th, 2022, I wrote in my diary: “Numbness is the worst pain. Be thankful if you can cry, scream and laugh and feel it truly. What a beautiful thing”. 

A week later, my boyfriend at the time took me along to see one of his favorite artists, Dodie, perform live. In the car ride over, he played their music, a whimsical and whispery British bedroom pop artist. Committed to the role of supportive girlfriend, I plastered on a giddy smile and assured him that I was so excited to hear them live. 

We arrived to the venue, and pushed through the crowd of ragingly pubescent teens to our third row seats. Dodie floated onto the stage, charioted by a sea of fog below them. They seemed to float. One foot on the ground and one foot in the sky. I was mesmerized. After finishing a song, Dodie daintily stepped forward into the microphone and took a grounding breath. She seemed to find confidence in her own uncertainty as she attempted to describe her next song which was dedicated to her struggle with an affliction. One that she had come to know as depersonalization.

My eyes widened. There’s that word again. Depersonalization. I gulped and a wave of heat rushed into my body. Depersonalization. My eyes ached with tears and my smile ripped my cheeks back. Depersonalization. I looked over at my boyfriend in disbelief and he grabbed my hand, smiling sweetly back at me. As the first chords swelled, all of the stress I built up in my body flushed and I felt joy. I felt so much joy. My god, I could have died in that moment. I crushed my boyfriends hand and bobbed up and down in my seat before gathering myself to listen to the song. The words still echo in my mind, but what was more powerful than the lyrics was the sound evoked through the chords and the haunting strings. The melody translated the feeling that I am not sure can ever be expressed through words.

As the final chord dwindled off, I roared with applause all the way from my gut. That was the first time that I didn’t feel so alone and so crazy. The words perfectly captured the desperation and exhaustion that coexist when you’re experiencing depersonalization. The desperation to return. The defeat and acceptance of numbness. It didn’t make the feeling go away, but knowing that it’s real made me feel okay. Knowing that I wasn’t alone fueled me to fight. Knowing that I wasn’t insane made it easier to give myself compassion in moments of chaos.

Understanding depersonalization makes it just a little bit easier to accept it and care for it. Sometimes, there are even moments when my feelings slip their way past my brain and I am me again. But, they aren’t the moments you think. 

Not while cliff jumping, when my stomach drops and the water smacks my skin cherry red. Not while performing onstage, when I am enveloped in another character, desperately grasping onto my lines. Not even when I’m hiding away in my room for days, hoping that numbness can protect me.

I grasped so hard to the idea that I needed to do something extreme or completely erase my identity in order to feel myself again. But, it is the little moments, the unexpected glimmers of humanness, that pull me back into my skin. The moments of being seen by a friend who truly understands, the nerves and excitement of a first kiss, brushing hands with a new lover, catching eyes with a stranger and somehow knowing their pain, smelling a scent from childhood, telling your friend you love them for the first time, or like that moment at the concert, hearing a song that resonates so deep it hurts your heart. Those moments are when I catch myself feeling something so deeply beyond myself that somehow couldn’t feel more personal. 

So, to answer Ludovic, yes, this is madness. Being able to feel is madness. Emotions are uncontrollable, loud, strange, and unwavering. Depersonalization, or living just out of reach of those emotions is not the madness, it is gaining the awareness that we have been mad all along. But, I think I like madness. Feeling enraged by the sound of Mom’s breathing, crying over that heartbreak that never seems to fade, loving so hard that you ache. That is maddening and crushing and real; but, I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I call Mom. She picks up, happy to hear my voice.

“Hey Mom. Do you remember that conversation when we were both outside reading and I asked if you ever feel outside of your body”?

“Vaguely. I remember I was just trying to understand. I feel like I couldn’t relate to it”.

“Okay. One more question. When you’re reading a magazine, what are you thinking about?”

It’s one of the few times I don’t really think about myself. I’m thinking about what I’m reading about. It helps me get out of my mind. I think that’s why I watch TV. I don’t wanna think about, i don’t wanna obsess about my own stuff I’m dealing with. I can let go of things.”

Even though neither of us thought it at the time, Mom could relate to me. She was never so far removed. She was never reading celebrity gossip just because she loved the drama. We aren’t so different. We all do things to protect ourselves from our own minds and escape the madness. Mom watches TV, reads magazines like a hawk, hoping for a moment of reprieve from life’s chaos. My brain disconnects from my body to protect it from the thoughts that consume it. 

 I never finished The Alchemist, but I have gotten into tabloids. I think Mom was really onto something with that one. And sometimes, when I’m reading them, I even catch myself laughing along at the absurdity. God, how beautiful is it to catch yourself in a feeling.



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