Mirror Mirror on the Wall
Who is the fairest of them all? …. Well this is awkward because at one point I didn’t even know. 🤷🏼♀️
Something I haven’t really talked about before is a trauma response I experienced called depersonalization. I want to be clear that this is not a disorder for me, but a response to the PTSD.
I remember my first therapy session I was asked and pressed to talk about what happened. Previous to that session when people asked me what was going on my response was “I can’t really talk about it because I don’t have the words yet to express it.” My brain hadn't created a memory cabinet yet and it was like the files were scattered everywhere, the experience was everywhere and it was like it was in a foreign language. But, in that first session that response wasn’t allowed. My therapist pressed and rephrased the question to make me come up with words. After the third or forth rephrase of the question, it was like my brain shut down. A blank stare came across my face, pure panic and I was frozen. Jumping into action, my therapist asked if I knew where I was - without thinking about it I said no and a panic attacked started. As she walked me through an exercise to ground me and bring me back to reality, my brain kept circling around at the thought of what the fuck just happened. I was asked if that’s ever happened before and I answered no, once again without hesitation.
There was something nagging about that experience that wouldn’t go away. I kept criticizing my reaction, telling myself I knew I was in my room so why did I say no? That experience flicked a switch and woke my brain up to pay attention over the next few weeks and log strange occurrences throughout my day. Things that would happened often included:
A blank mind: I would be in the middle of something, for example folding clothes, and my mind would just go blank. I’d find myself sitting in my closet, a piece of clothing in hand and stare off into the distance.
Loss of time: lucky for me it wasn’t large amounts of time, but the blank mind would last anywhere from a few seconds to the longest “session” being upwards of an hour.
Memory loss: it’s a way for the brain to protect itself from traumatic experiences (I have a few of those tucked away from the past where someone will say, “remember when this happened?” And I genuinely don’t) but also to protect it from itself. There were times during my therapy program when I wouldn’t remember what I did during the day. There were even a few memories that decided to resurface during those weeks in the program and the experience/reaction was less than pleasant, so in a way I am glad those memories get tucked away into a black hole in the mind.
The one response that scared/s me the most:
Irrational fear of mirrors: I had these episodes where I couldn’t look in a mirror because I didn’t recognize the person staring back. It’s hard to describe but sometimes I would go into a panic when I made eye contact with myself and sometimes I would lose time staring at the reflection because it was a stranger. I didn’t recognize who that was and I saw another face. It was like a show down and glaring at that person trying to figure out who they were and why they were in my face. Feelings of hostility toward that person in the mirror would grow and I would get angry at them. When I was washing my hands, I avoided looking in the mirror or when I traveled down my hall (that has three mirrors) I would look the other way.
This response was heighted during the beginning of the program and has since lessened. It's only happened once in the last few months after the program ended and luckily I was able to use the tools I learned to "bring me back".
When I discussed all of this with my therapist and the length of time over the years some of these symptoms occurred she gave me homework to look up depersonalization. These occurrence, plus some others can make up the trauma response of depersonalization. The clinical definition in the DSM-5 is:
The presence of persistent or recurrent experiences of depersonalization, derealization or both: Depersonalization: Experiences of unreality, detachment, or being an outside observer with respect to one's thoughts, feelings, sensations, body, or actions (e.g., perceptual alterations, distorted sense of time, unreal or absent self, emotional and/or physical numbness).
You can read more about this here.
I found a great YouTube video by Shaun O’Connor, author of The Depersonalization Manual. I checked off several “boxes” on his list and discussed it further with my therapist.
It was like everything I was talking with my therapist about wasn't my story, it belonged to someone else. In our sessions in the first few weeks of the program she would ask how I felt or what reactions I had when I read the story everyday. My response went one of two ways: a physical reaction - I would throw up or panic and sob uncontrollably or I would say 'I feel really sorry for the girl in that story. It sounds like what happened to her was terrible'. She would then spend the next few minutes reminding me that it was my experience and that happened to me. By the fourth week I started to accept that it mine and I would talk about what we actually needed to focus on for that week. The remainder of the eight weeks of the program was own as my experience and I haven't really looked back since.
I'm happy to report that the majority of these symptoms/reactions have gone away. The only reason I lose track of time now is due to poor planning or dancing along to a tune and not realizing the time. I no longer sit in numbness of emotions for the majority day or feel like this life isn't mine. These symptoms are under control with effort and understanding of why they happened and how can I work through them. Some are going to need time but I recognize that as a part of the continuous healing process. But for now when I look in a mirror I give myself a little wink because I know it's me.