What Am I Experiencing?

By Kristina Randle, Ph.D., LCSW

Q: I dont know what this would be considered, but its possibly hereditary: I was adopted as an infant, and my adoptive family took my birth mother and I in before adopting me a year later. My birth mother had a number of different mental health problems that seemed to have possibly ran in the family- because now my little sister and I are experiencing them. My adoptive parents tried to get my mom help while she lived with them by taking her to a crisis unit to be evaluated, and they told my adoptive father that she saw me more as a doll, than as a living person that she must take care of. They never heard her diagnoses, because they werent in the room while she was fully evaluated. All I know is my adoptive father says I act just like her, and have the exact same problems she did. I dont know for sure what exactly ran in our family because of me being adopted I have very limited knowledge- and my birth mother had all her records sealed before committing suicide in 2001. I know for sure that Manic Depression Level 1 and Autism run in our family. I was never screened for Autism because I didnt know that it ran in the family until just recently because I just found my little sister a few weeks back and she told me it was very possible that mom had it, and that she does.

I was evaluated a few different times in highschool and college, each one came back as Bipolar level 1 and ADHD. Ive been on numerous medications for them and nothing has helped but only made the mood changes and problems worse, and I was put through a year of therapy for it. I have what I call “breakdowns”… the room spins, everything blurs and I see glittery things,everything feels very very loud and I feel as if my brain is shutting down. Usually this happens if Im under too much stress or theres too much going on around me. After its over, I feel like my brain is blank… like my head is empty and I just sit and stare. I can see and hear and everything I just cant function or think clearly at all. I usually feel very drained and confused for the days after and my brain feels like mush. I usually have a panic attack before a breakdown.. but sometimes it throws me right into it and I cant stop it.

I also think something else is going on as well… I dont know what to call it or how exactly to describe it. Im scared to talk about it to my family and my friends and a doctor because I dont feel anyone would understand or they will think Im crazy.

Ever since I was little I’ve always seen my reflection in the mirror and photos as being someone else. I know they’re me, because people tell me they are. But I dont FEEL like they are me. I feel like a totally seperate person and sometimes when I look at a photo or a mirror I think if thats her, then who am I?

When I was in 10th grade I gave my life over to christ, and when the “old me” died… I felt half empty. I felt like part of me died… literally. Sometimes I think about the old me as if they were a real person who died..and even after it happened I literally went through a point where I mourned that part of me. There are times when Im very upset and crying, and when I look at my reflection in a mirror I see her. I looked different then, alot thinner and much paler. I was highly medicate and I used to cut myself. when I see the reflection it has all the cuts and everything. Its very scary and confusing. Sometimes when I cry, I can see myself like a movie holding the person in the mirror, and trying to calm them down. sometimes I see the person in the mirror, in my head cutting her arms in the sink. I dont see it as my body, but another one, like a movie… it makes me feel very uneasy and I usually have to be alone after I feel it.

I have had literal full blown conversations with mirrors since I was little, I also talk to myself as if I were another person when Im alone. I feel like Im just a body. I dont feel a connection. and I dont understand it. Its aggitating and very upsetting to me. I feel like I dont know myself.

At times I feel like Im my mother. I feel like Im here to carry out what she couldnt because mentally and emotionally she couldnt handle it. I have felt this way to a point where I even sign my artwork ( Im an artist) with her signature because our first Initals and last name are the same. at times I feel like more than one person is in my body… but Ive never blacked out or gone by a different name. I just feel like, Im the person everyone says I am and Im this other person I feel I am. Its very uncomfortable and confusing. When I look at a mirror I see the reflection more as a twin, or a daughter… I dont know why but I do.

I dont know what to call this problem.. I dont know what it is. All I know is I need help.. and I dont know what to do about it or where to go. I dont want to be highly medicated. I just want to know what it is and how to help fix it. If you can help me at all, it would be greatly appreciated.

A. I cannot diagnose you online but some of the feelings you’ve described are consistent with the experience of depersonalization. “I’ve seen my reflection in the mirror and photos as being someone else. I know they’re me, because people tell me they are. But I don’t FEEL like they are me. I feel like a totally separate person and sometimes when I look at a photo or a mirror… I feel like I’m just a body. I don’t feel a connection.”

A person experiencing depersonalization feels like their body is unreal, constantly changing or that he or she is outside of his or her body, as an external observer. Other common phrases used to describe the experience of depersonalization include “puppet-like” or “acting a part.” Generally a person experiencing depersonalization describes feeling very disconnected to their body and thoughts.

Usually depersonalization is associated with high levels of stress, anxiety and a history of emotional, physical or sexual abuse. For individuals who suffer from chronic episodes of depersonalization, it is possible that he or she may have depersonalization disorder, as identified in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition (DSM-IV-TR), the manual clinicians used to diagnose mental health disorders. It is possible that you may be suffering from this disorder but only a clinician who talked with you at length could accurately determine if you indeed have a depersonalization disorder.

But the depersonalization sensations are only part of what you wrote about in your letter. You also mentioned that you have “breakdowns” in which “the room spins, everything blurs and I see glittery things, everything feels very very loud and I feel as if my brain is shutting down… and [I] later feel very drained and confused for the days after and my brain feels like mush…” These “breakdowns,” as you said are preceded by stress and a panic attack.

These breakdowns may be a number of things including psychosis, epileptic seizures or they may actually be part of the panic attack.

I don’t know which disorder all of these symptoms point toward nor do I know if what you’re suffering from is hereditary or brought on because your mother had unknown mental health disorders. But I would highly recommend that you seek help and support from a mental health professional for these symptoms.

Regarding your concern for being highly medicated, you can be helped without medication if you decide to attend therapy. A therapist can teach you more effective strategies for controlling your symptoms that do not include medication. You may benefit from low doses of medication if you and your doctor feel that it is necessary but at minimum, you should meet with a clinician for an evaluation. I strongly advise you to do so. Thanks for writing and please consider writing back and keeping me posted on how you are doing.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 May 2008

APA Reference
Randle, K. (2008). What Am I Experiencing?. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 21, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2008/05/12/what-am-i-experiencing/