Does anyone else feel like life almost isn’t actually happening? Like you’re a part in a movie, playing out a role, following a script & switching to different “characters” based on your mood?
To answer your question briefly, yes. In fact, many of us face these feelings at some point in our lives. The feeling that you can’t possibly be living out the current situation in ‘real life’ is actually more common than you might think. Oftentimes, this happens when the reality we’re faced with disagrees with the reality we hope for. If you’re a fan of reading subtitles for the entire duration of a movie, Guillermo del Torro wrote and directed a brilliant portrayal of this very premise with his 2006 film Pan’s Labyrinth. Without giving up any spoilers, the basic premise is that a young Spanish girl named Ofelia finds herself escaping to an eerie fantasy land to play out the part of a legendary lost princess.
Even though these feelings of derealization and depersonalization are often brought on in response to trauma (this happens to as high as an estimated 66% of the population), as many as 5% of the population experience this on a day to day basis. I experienced this quite a bit as a child. My life lacked the similarities to the lives of my friends. We didn’t have much money, my parents were often absent, and I lived in what seemed to be constant discord with my siblings. This obviously had to be the setting of an archetypal movie in which I played the underdog protagonist. In some ways, this helped. It helped me adopt a kind of ‘what would the hero do’ approach to difficult situations. Sure, the hero in my movie absolutely wrecked the set and left the plot largely unresolved, but it was helpful to me to think that maybe this was all an elaborate setup for my movie’s defining moment. The hero needed to learn.
As it turns out, however, my movie has no script, no writers, producers or directors. There are no gaffers or set builders scurrying about to construct an elaborate dreamscape. There is only me and this ‘stock’ world. This realization has turned out to actually be quite beneficial to me. I now realize that the havoc I wreak is not easily repaired by a set-builder. I am responsible for the repairs in my life, and I am far from a master craftsman. The rebuild takes time and effort, and many times things never go back to how they were. I have begun to learn the importance of taking pause.
If you’ve never read the book The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, go out and buy a copy and thank me later. If you have, in fact, read it as a kid, go back and read it again–it totally holds up. The protagonist of the book meets a character called the Dodecahedron who has 12 different faces he uses to convey different emotions. The difference between you and the Dodechedron is that you’re not limited to 12 faces. You’re allowed to express however you’re feeling with or without the aid of characters, or prefabricated faces. I don’t buy into the notion that we can change our mood on a dime, but I DO wholeheartedly feel that we can do a thing or two about it. If you dislike the characters you find yourself playing, remember that you are the author of this story every bit as much as you are the Dodechedron. This is your story, and you exist to write it, not to add commentary and deliver lines from a script that somebody else wrote.
If you’re not currently seeing a therapist, I’d recommend booking an appointment. I firmly believe that everybody needs to talk it out with a pro every month or so. Tell them that you’re experiencing bouts of depersonalization, derealization and dissociation . . . The Three D’s. Remember that you developed these skills to cope, but sometimes our coping mechanisms continue beyond their usefulness. When that happens, it’s time to modify the script.