Born dead: Learning how to live after depersonalization

 

Neo: Why do my eyes hurt?

Morpheus: You’ve never used them before.

From my earliest memories until starting HRT at age 23, I suffered severe depersonalization, a chronic and distressing syndrome of perceived detachment from your self, your emotions, and the world. For me this was an ever-present sensation of standing outside of reality: the rest of the world would go on moving, even my own feelings and interior life, but I was always placed apart from it all by some unbridgeable gap. Expressions of even the most basic emotions felt either forced or so beyond my control that they weren’t really a part of me. Others always seemed so spontaneous in their feelings as if simply existing was a breeze for them; for me, just smiling and laughing took extraordinary effort, like acting out a script every single time. I was doing it – but that didn’t mean it was me. This feeling suffused everything I did in life.

It was impossible to develop any genuine investment in the world or find meaning or purpose in my existence – whenever I tried to convince myself that something, anything truly mattered, it held no real emotional resonance whatsoever. Nothing can feel authentic when the deepest part of you is always separated from the experience of life.

Starting testosterone blockers and estrogen was the greatest blessing of my life: it completely banished these feelings of roboticism, self-separation, and unreality within a week. It gave me what I knew I had been missing, what I had so desperately wanted but never imagined I could have. Simple spontaneity and genuine emotions no longer receded from my grasp – at last, I could just be normal like everyone else. Feelings and their expressions finally came unbidden without deliberate thought, the world was fleshed out with depth and life and meaning, and my inner and outer selves became one. It made me a real person for the first time in my life.

In the five years since then, I’ve known true joy and celebrated my life in ways that were unfathomable to me before. I’m endlessly grateful that there was something that could actually fix me, and that I managed to find it.

But that doesn’t undo the impact of the 23 years of living death I endured before I finally discovered how to escape from this.

Yes, a whole realm of experience that had been closed off to me was now wide open before me; yes, it was like finally regaining one of my senses that I knew had been missing; yes, it granted me the raw abilities of feeling that I’d never been able to access no matter how hard I tried. It ended the suffering of being denied such a huge and necessary part of existence. And no matter what a relief this was, there were still so many aspects of emotional experience that, for decades, I’d had virtually no opportunity to practice. There’s a literacy of emotion, a proficiency in this toolbox of wonders I’d been handed, that I had simply never developed.

To this day I still struggle to grasp intuitively how so many people find the emotional aspects of arguments to carry such undue weight, or why they’re often swayed by personal stories or individual narratives more than the bare reasoned points that are most relevant to whether an argument is sound. Feelings had always been such an afterthought in my life that it was completely natural to set them aside – after all, it’s not like they’re real – in favor of coldly proceeding through some established logical process of evaluation. Some part of me seemingly never had the chance to develop in a way that integrated emotional aspects as a crucial part of persuasive argument, as they are for many other people. “Because it’s correct” or “Because it’s false” are themselves sufficiently convincing for me – it still takes a deliberate effort for me to understand why this isn’t always enough for others.

In the depths of depersonalization, I was also deprived of exercising meaningful control over my emotions, inasmuch as I really had any true emotions. As a child I would frequently cry uncontrollably while watching my body weep from inside – no amount of trying to choke it back could make the process stop until it had seemingly run its course. After puberty, I could barely force out a single tear even when I felt I was “supposed” to cry. These sensations just worsened my perceived alienation from my own feelings and the sense that they weren’t real.

So once I started HRT and did begin to experience real emotions, it was immediately obvious that I’d never had the chance to practice working out the “muscles” of emotional control. I may have gained the ability, but that didn’t mean I knew how to use it well. There were multiple times when Heather had to explain to me that holding back tears was important because people could perceive crying as manipulative. When I had been depersonalized, none of this mattered to me – everyone trying to interpret my facial expressions just came off as an utterly frustrating attempt to read meaningless tea leaves, with no comprehension on their part of how completely dead I was inside. At the same time, even as I’d gained the ability to feel, I still had to learn how to pay attention and notice what I was feeling, why I might be feeling this way, and whether this might be worth sharing and talking out with others. There are times when I still feel so new at this, and simply being able to ask Heather “Is this normal? Is this something people feel for this reason?” has been invaluable to me.

Dissociative symptoms such as depersonalization can also be a coping mechanism, even an unconscious one – this wasn’t something I chose to do, it was just something that happened to me. As a child, it allowed me to endure situations of genuine fear and danger that might otherwise have been too overwhelming to process directly. Being forever placed within that separate and untouchable inner core – what Jan Morris described as “some silent chamber of my own”, “that remote and eerie capsule” – made it as though the terror and emotional pain were simply happening to someone else, somewhere else. Depersonalization protected me even as it killed off the parts of me that made anything matter in this world, as if to shield me from some catastrophic personal collapse that was bound to happen if I truly experienced the reality of what was happening to me.

No longer being depersonalized meant no longer having access to that refuge. When I feel emotions now, all of my self experiences this – they penetrate completely, like neutrinos streaming unimpeded through the earth. There’s no detached observer who can watch unaffected, no tiny person sitting at a control panel inside my skull and disinterestedly monitoring what my mind is doing. There have been times when, feeling shamed or humiliated and without access to that protective inner core, I reacted by covering myself in as many layers of clothing as possible, as if to withdraw and protect myself in the only way I could. Experiencing the true impact of real emotions and their physical effects has pushed me to figure out how to process this and work through it, rather than hiding away and reflexively attempting to cast out these feelings as if they could still be separated out from myself.

Healing from depersonalization even under the best conditions has been an ongoing process for me. It’s meant relearning so much that I missed out on or couldn’t understand the first time around, and the aftereffects of having to play catch-up with emotional literacy are very real. Those of us fortunate enough to have emerged from depersonalization know how precious it is to have reached the real world and our real selves at last. It’s just as important to know that there’s no shame in having to learn how to navigate the world that’s now opened up to you. 

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About Zinnia Jones

My work focuses on insights to be found across transgender healthcare, public health, psychiatry, and history of medicine, integrating these many perspectives and guided by the lived experiences of trans people. I live in Orlando with my family, and work mainly in technical writing.
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One Response to Born dead: Learning how to live after depersonalization

  1. Trenchcoat Gnomes says:

    Never thought about some of those aspects before, but in retrospect some make sense.

    > Dissociative symptoms such as depersonalization can also be a coping mechanism, even an unconscious one – this wasn’t something I chose to do, it was just something that happened to me.

    This is the general understanding of dissociative symptoms, though if memory serves derealization and depersonalization can additionally have other causes but this is still one of the primary ones. I think I need to go reread some stuff. There is a lot of interesting stuff in the dissociation literature, though there is a lot of poorly done research as well (just like with gender identity research).

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