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The night has been long and full of adventure.
Your cheeks are flushed from laughing, feeling safe in the company of good friends, good food and soft lighting. The music of the restaurant, gentle notes rolling off of piano keys to the tune of an acoustic cover of a popular song, filters through the comfort room doors. You recognize it, although that’s not what’s bothering you the most right now.
What’s more pressing is that you don’t quite recognize the person looking back at you in the mirror.
The light falls harsh upon their features; carving out their cheeks and the dark circles that they’ve tried to hide behind a few layers of makeup. Their hair – you realize – is styled exactly like yours. Even their lips match yours.
You squint, not understanding. And as you place a hand on your cheek and they imitate you. When you you furrow your brows, they do the same.
Suddenly, the idea of coming back to the table overwhelms you, but you know you can’t just dash out of the building.
Finally, your feet carry you back and your friends’ faces are all smiles. You see the colorful dice you had set down. They’re all waiting for you.
You try not to let your little debacle in the restroom show. But your heavy sigh gives it away and one of your players – the one who’s known you the longest – looks at you, knowingly, and squeezes your hand.
“Are you okay?”
No, I’m not, is a scary thing to say. So you just smile, say “Yes,” and the night carries on.
What’s wrong with me?
For the past four years, it has become more apparent to me that I’ve slowly lost the ability to recognize myself in the mirror. Whenever I think about what I look like, my brain likes to use an outdated version of my appearance from way back in 2010. I have spots in my memory that no longer exist. And sometimes I can’t even remember what happened last week.
I’m in a constant dreamlike state, like there’s a soft-colored filter over everything. What’s wrong with me, you ask? The doctors say:
- the action of divesting someone or something of human characteristics or individuality.
- a state in which one’s thoughts and feelings seem unreal or not to belong to oneself, or in which one loses all sense of identity.
This was a tentative diagnosis from my doctor. Alongside this, I was diagnosed with Bipolar II which supposedly was causing my depression. I first sought help after my episodes became more and more rampant. And when the suicidal ideation became harder and harder to resist.
My doctor, at the time, gave me mood stabilizers. She told me that we would try to get a hold of my depersonalisation once my Bipolar disorder was more in control.
“We can’t be sure what kind of medicine would work best on your depersonalisation; considering that your bipolar disorder largely calls the shots.” I remember her saying that.
She had also explained that she would have wanted to confine me to a psych ward. But after profusely refusing, she made me promise instead that I would take my medicine as prescribed and that I would contact her as soon as anything strange came up.
Fast forward to a few years later and I’m slowly being weaned off of my mood stabilizers.
My manic episodes are now fewer and far in between. They’re still bad. But at least they no longer happen weekly.
Only now, what happens is a spark of confusion in the early mornings when I look at my hands. When I wash my face and run my fingers over my skin, I’m never actually sure if the face I’m washing is mine. When I wear my clothes, when I put my makeup on; all of these things I feel like I’m working on another person – a stranger, if you will.
Interpersonal interactions are a strange ordeal and tabletop gaming becomes even stranger.
Not only is it tricky to connect to myself due to depersonalisation, it’s also just as tricky to interact with others. It goes beyond being shy or awkward.
Imagine owning a sari-sari store where people keep coming up to buy something – but it’s invisible. You know exactly where it’s stored, but it’s invisible, So you dip your hand into that container and you can soft of feel it. And then you give it to them, but they give you this weird look.
Suddenly, you’re not sure if you gave them the right amount of things. Or if you even gave them the right thing at all, because surprise! There are a bunch of other items in this store that are also invisible.
You begin to wonder if these people are just too polite to tell you that you’ve messed up. And if it’s too obvious that you have no idea what you’re doing.
Still, you give them the things you’ve picked up. They give you a few coins in exchange. And then they walk away, leaving you with even more questions.
About a month ago, I was talking to my friend about how amusingly social the hobby – tabletop gaming – is.
We’d both agreed that outside of it, we’d probably be more comfortable on our own; snuggled up next to our drinks of choice, either watching our favorite show or reading a book. This shows in my daily life, too.
I usually go straight home from work on the daily; often declining invites to evening dinners with officemates and peers. The only reason I break this routine is for my weekly game.
At this point, it’s safe to say that I am more often a GM than I am a player.
Being a GM often demands that you are ready to be every single NPC in the current world, at any given time during your game.
One of the reasons why being a GM requires so much preparation stems from pragmatically planning for all the possible scenarios. But at the same time, you also have to be quick about the different masks and hats that you have to wear. If you’re not quick about it, you might break immersion. And I often find that’s when the session begins to derail.
So, then, how would I even survive in an environment that demands I become someone else for awhile?
I’ll let you in on a secret: I’ve found that my disconnection actually allows me to wear the face of another quite easily in that moment.
Suddenly, I can be a King of a land that stretches across an entire continent, because the person that usually occupies this vessel is unavailable right now.
It’s easier to fill a cup that’s empty than it is to fill one that’s already full.
I know that sounds like something straight out of movie tropes, but that’s very truly literal for me. The less connected I am to myself, the easier it is for me to roleplay.
My advice? Have fun with it! Use voices, dramatise; go all out if you have to! You only have so much time before the real owner of this body comes back to claim it.
Still, I didn’t get here without some hard work.
Depersonalisation has become my friend because I needed it to be. But not too long ago, it was pretty bad.
I remember always being moments away from a full breakdown, internally panicking that I couldn’t remember my full name. This, while being in a room surrounded by people who were expecting so much of me. It was like I was wearing some other animal’s meat.
I was terrified of the idea of depersonalisation.
In a world that is so concerned with connections, being close to people, networking, making friends, and being social – I was so scared of not being able to do what many others consider as something that everyone should be able to do.
Even more terrifying was feeling disconnected from myself. If I couldn’t connect to myself, how on earth was I supposed to connect to others?
I remember many mornings where I would wake up from a wild dream and just sit up in bed, counting my fingers and my toes to figure out where I was.
I had read a few threads in some forums before where people count their fingers in their dreams as a reality check. Supposedly, this works great for lucid dreamers, because counting becomes weird in the dream-world. While dreaming, the part of our brain that handles logic becomes dormant. Some people have said that they’re able to count to five or six. After that, however, the order of the numbers matter less and less.
So, there I would be, sitting in my bed with my vision still hazy, counting my fingers and toes: one, two, three.
But then, there are times when it will happen out of nowhere: in the middle of the street, while waiting for the traffic lights to turn; at work, while I wait for my colleagues to submit their part of the job; and most recently, while I’m rolling dice behind the screen.
“Let’s take five,” I’d say, after finally finding a natural time during the session to take a break. And then it’s off to the sink I go.
I’ve gotten better at noticing when the levels of reality begin to dip for me. So now I’m here to tell you what to do when you feel like the filters of the world around you are changing.
Understand the type of disconnect that you’re experiencing.
I often find that it is easiest to devolve into a horrible existential mess when the trigger is immediately followed by panic. Even before grounding happens, it really helps if you can just live in the disconnect for a second. This may save you so much grief.
There are many ways that this can manifest. You may find that you are disconnecting with yourself, the immediate environment, your immediate memories, the people around you, your friends, or even your body. Obviously, that may be hard to take in. So take a moment and allow yourself to identify what exactly you’re disconnecting from. Once you’ve identified it, you can begin to address it.
Of these, I’m more often disconnected to my physical self, the immediate environment, and my friends.
When I find myself disconnecting from my physical self, I like to tell myself: “That’s okay. It just means I’m in a different vessel right now, one that’s a bit more ethereal. Just be careful not to bump into anything or anyone.” (Trust me, spatial awareness gets thrown out the window when you’ve started depersonalising.)If I become disconnected from my immediate environment, I start with what’s around me, from the ground up. I ask myself questions: What’s beneath my shoes and feet? Concrete. What’s in front of me? An open road with a pedestrian lane counting down to when I can move forward. What am I hearing? The rush of traffic around me. What do I smell? Car exhaust, probably.
When I disconnect from friends, I usually like to take a step back and look at all their faces; whether these are digital pictures or if they’re in front of me. I start simple; I start with what I know: their name, their face, their personality, their likes and dislikes.
It is only after I’ve taken these steps that I would even dare to ground myself. You need to remind yourself that world still exists.
Find a way to ground yourself.
Because depersonalisation attacks your attachment to reality, it can very easily attack your perception of what is real and what is not.
I’ve found that the best way to ground yourself is to find a truth that will be consistent. I’ve seen others use an object that they own: a little trinket, a picture, some coins – it can be anything really, as long as you’re confident that not even your hallucinations can change it.
This can be different for everyone.
I mentioned this earlier: for me, it’s counting my fingers.
To add another layer to this grounding, I also choose to ground myself on a fact that I know is and always will be true. Regardless of how far I float away, I know my fingers will always be 10. I can always count on the fact that these digits will remain the same no matter what.
Ideally, grounding methods are something you’d have at the ready because you’re already aware of your triggers. But that’s sometimes hard because you will often have to:
Be ready to have new triggers all the time.
I’ve lived with depersonalisation for awhile now and my triggers are never the same. It’s not just heavy dreams that jolt me awake, it’s not just the stress that comes with daily life. Sometimes, even just stirring coffee can set me off.
Of (somewhat) consistent triggers, I’ve found that anything even mildly hypnotic can set me off. Whether these are flashing images, immersive music, or repetitive patterns; being exposed to these can often leave me sitting while having a staring contest with a piece of embroidered cloth. This can go on for a full five minutes before a friend has to snap me out of it.
Still, not all flashing images and patterns can trigger me either; so the variety can really be confusing.
When things start to warp while in-game, never feel bad about taking five.
I’m still working on this. But I try to never be ashamed of taking a few minutes away from the game. While it’s always best to find a natural time to take a pause, I also try to not feel too bad if I absolutely have to. I’ve learned that my players will usually not mind.
Then, while I’m taking five, I leave my players to interact and allow myself to disengage. I keep away from the fantasy for a moment while I slowly try to come back down to earth. Then I also make sure to hydrate and have some chocolate (or any sort of sweets).
I find it’s best that I avoid anything that can augment the trigger further. Personally, I try to stay away from any reflective surfaces, because seeing a reflection that I can’t recognize just plunges me deeper.
Being a GM already demands so much of my mental faculties. I should never feel bad about needing to take a break.
Accept what you have and use it to your advantage.
The next piece of advice may not be for everyone, but it works for me.
A day or two before the game, I try to willingly disconnect myself and attempt to build the world in as much solid detail as I can. By not being me, it becomes easier to explore all sorts of fantasy settings. I discovered this while I was having a particularly bad week and I urged myself to still be productive. The game was going to happen in about three hours and I hadn’t prepared at all.
Lo and behold, the session that evening was one of my players’ favorite sessions! There was adventure! Intense combat! Riveting roleplay!
That’s when I realized I had struck gold. Not only did I get to conquer my brain for a bit, I also felt good about the disconnect.
Seeing my players’ faces in suspense, in agony, and in anticipation excited me. To have the words that I needed flow out of my mouth fueled me in a way I’d never experienced before.
Suddenly, it wasn’t such a bad thing to have multiple spontaneous existential crises, if I could fuel it into creating an amazing, immersive experience for my players. It was like having a bit of a temporary superpower. Enhanced creativity!
That evening, the chairs were pushed back into their places and we hid away our die sets but not without recalling the session’s highlights; our hearts still racing. They talked about that session for the next few days until we met again. I had never felt more proud.
Now, I’m still taking my time to find out the extent of this “superpower”. And if you choose to do the same, I urge you to not beat yourself up over it, if it doesn’t quite work the first few times. Sometimes, inspiration just doesn’t work like how we intend. Not every session will be a bombastic experience.
To help it along, I often center myself with materials for inspiration: pictures; my favorite clips of certain shows or movies – anything that sparks my imagination will work. Sometimes, I just like to go on Pinterest and go on a deep dive. I look at picture upon picture and allow myself to imagine bits of the world.
While doing this, I tend to find so many things but understand that not everything will work out. That’s okay, too. Not everything that I put in the world will be appreciated by my players exactly as I intended. But it’s never anyone’s fault. I will then try to pocket it for now and move on.
If you’ve already drifted too far off, just let yourself go for awhile.
Like I said earlier, depersonalisation can attack you at anytime without warning. But then what happens when nothing will work in the moment?
A major part of my healing is that I try to see depersonalisation as less of getting lost and more of going on a detour. It sounds a little strange, but I like to imagine myself taking a little trip through the woods on a trail with my “Clone.”
You see, I know this trail well. I’ve been through it many times, but sometimes my Clone will take my hand and take me off the trail. Instead of being afraid, I just try to let my Clone do as she pleases. And as I tread upon this road less travelled, I try to remind myself that the dark trees and the yellow eyes that peek from beyond the bushes aren’t monsters.
This detour is necessary. My Clone is there with me, holding my hand, telling me to stop and smell a few flowers for awhile. This is okay.
But then, I have to remember that I can’t always just be exploring the woods. Like Robert Frost so wonderfully put it before: “The woods are lovely, dark and deep/ but I have promises to keep/ and miles to go before I sleep.”
Remember, you’re always growing.
Again, not everything I’ve said here will work for everyone, which is why it’s great to take notes to come back to later on. These notes will eventually help for self-awareness. Our minds are powerful and will react and adapt in different ways – we only need to figure it what combination of cogs and gears will make it work.
In the same way, learning to adapt to depersonalisation while I’m in-game is an ongoing learning experience. I’m yet to venture into this, but I can imagine it would definitely help to bring in the game group to help out whenever I start to show signs that I’m beginning to lose myself. I could have one or two people to give me a tap on the back when the drifting starts.
Personally, one of my biggest “tells” is that I often forget words and turn into a fumbling mess as I try to describe scenarios for my players. Even the simplest words go away.
I once forgot what one would call the green plants that grow on the ground in abundance. Imagine snapping your fingers for a full 30 seconds before figuring out what the word is for such a simple thing! It was grass. I forgot the word for grass.Somehow, my players have learned to adapt to me, by filling in the blanks for me without letting me struggle for too long.
GMing is a constant learning experience. And if your experience involves experimenting with depersonalisation – which constantly attacks your memory and your sense-making faculties – then the effort comes at twice the exertion.
Take notes often. Highlight key sessions. Write down your players’ moves at the end of every game. Recap at the start of the session and halfway through. Even moreso, allow yourself to be a little Extra™.
If your version of depersonalisation is like mine that makes you want to be theatrical and extra, then let yourself have that. The game should be as much fun for you as it is for everyone else at the table. If your fun involves changing your voice per NPC that the players come across, then so be it. Your players will likely enjoy it.
Also, replace self-deprecating humor into something that is geared more towards self-affirmations. Negative thoughts, even as jokes, still turn into fodder for your brain to chew on. Calling yourself trash affects you just as strongly as someone talking trash about you. So, don’t beat yourself up so much if you messed up. Just let it sit there for awhile and let it go.
Be not afraid.
If I can leave anyone with any lasting advice on how to deal with depersonalisation, and not letting this adversely affect your involvement with the hobby – it would be to not be scared.
I know it’s often exhausting and terrifying to keep fighting with your own brain. But soon, that friction will be manageable, and the first step to making that happen is to befriend depersonalisation.
You are still the captain of your ship, the master of your soul; your mind is yours to command. Seek professional help if you need to, but do not view depersonalisation as an antagonist in your life. Don’t shy away from treatment; get the rest you deserve. Learn to find the necessary self-care that works for you.