The Search for Self

Exploring depersonalization disorder

Man and His Mask

The self: Its masks and depersonalization.

Halloween's parade of masks and costumes introduces the season of carnivals: winter pageants, folk fairs, and New Year's balls and masquerades. Miracles of transformation abound: a tiny fair-haired angel becomes a violet witch, a timid six-grader turns into sexy Britney in screaming pink, an orderly accountant morphs into a superhero or vampire. Are these occasions to dress up an opportunity to become something you're not, or a chance to be who you really are?

The tradition of masquerade is as old as mankind itself. Throughout history and across continents, mask accompanies man. The very word "persona" originates in Greek theater, meaning a mask that an actor wears to hide his own identity and to present the one he performs. Almost every culture preserves myths or legends of alter egos, another hidden self, "doppelgangers" or "doubles." How do these phenomena relate to depersonalization?

"Masks," and "doubles" appear to be parts of the broad depersonalization spectrum- a continuum of changed identities. Depersonalization presents elements of "a dialogue with what feels like my mask." The self looks at the self, as if an outside other. "I feel as if all I do is not my real actions but just a masquerade." "I know that my face looks as it looks all the time. But it feels to me like a mask." Masquerade comes as a safe opportunity to play with different sides of one's own identity. Art therapy or psychodrama also derives their healing properties from the tradition of masquerade.

A dual self—the acting and the observing—and the experience of mask in depersonalization are discussed at length in Jeffrey Abugel's book on depersonalization, "Stranger To My Self." The outer mask is vividly depicted by the cover illustration. I asked Jeff about this image and depersonalization.

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Jeff Abugel: The image was painted by a young man named Sean Blake, a gifted artist and close friend. In his twenties he experienced DPD and we discussed it often. He passed away at age 27 due to kidney and liver failure. The painting I chose as the cover image for "Stranger To My Self" depicts clowns putting on their faces—a regular ritual before every performance. The act itself is a metaphor for what depersonalized people must do—maintain their daily facades at school or at work, lest others should see the "no one" that lays beneath the mask.

Dr. Bezzubova: Jeff, you are probably the first to give people with depersonalization a voice, a public voice. Your website www.depersonalization.info, has becomes a virtual home for many with this condition. How come an artist/writer (not a psychologist or psychiatrist) comes forward to introduce depersonalization?

Jeff Abugel: Oscar Wilde said, "Art is not a thing, it is a way." There are many people today who are "artists" in this sense though they may not have the portfolios to prove it to the world. For many creative people, the appropriate media for self-expression may have disappeared from modern life, or not even been invented yet. Success, in the eyes of the world, is largely a matter of talent, timing, and luck.
But being an "artist by nature" in Wilde's sense constitutes being an outsider to some degree. Whether a person has a specific talent for self-expression or not, depersonalization opens to door to a different way of seeing, a different reality. Often, the best vehicle for expressing the depersonalization experience is writing. Depersonalization.info has, for more than a decade, received and posted hundreds of articulate, thought provoking personal stories. Visual representations have come in as well, but are much less frequent.

Dr. Bezzubova: Depersonalization was introduced to the world by an artist, Henri-Frederick Amiel, a young professor of aesthetics and a writer. It was about 130 years ago. Could your writing and your blog be seen as 21st century development of Amiel's Journal Intime?

Jeff Abugel: My goal in writing Feeling Unreal with Dr. Simeon, and "Stranger to My Self" has been singular and steadfast. That is, I wanted to bring Depersonalization out into the mass consciousness as a very real part of life. These books were a head-on assault, meant to look at this state of mind from all possible angles-medical, psychological, philosophical, spiritual and literary. I wanted to pull all the references to DPD together in one place and present the whole picture. Frederic Amiel's lengthy diary takes a look into the daily thoughts and insights of a lifelong depersonalization case study. While he coins the term "depersonalized" within the book, you still have to know what you're looking at. I think that the two books I've written have helped to bring Amiel out of obscurity, and also provoke a fresh look at the existential writers like Sartre and Camus. It has been my life's work so far to bring all the depersonalization-related writing and research together in one place. Unfortunately, most people are only interested in finding a fast cure for the condition, which they might find unbearable. Understanding it from all sides helps make it bearable, even desirable, I believe. Getting this across has been the hardest challenge of all.

Elena Bezzubova, M.D., Ph.D., maintains a private practice as a psychoanalyst in Newport Beach, and teaches at UC-Irvine and the New Center for Psychoanalysis.

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