The Search for Self

Exploring depersonalization disorder

Phenomenology of Myself

133 years ago the poet and philosopher Henri Amiel described Depersonalization

133 years ago—on July 8th 1880—a fifty eight year old man was reflecting on his life, contemplating the past and longing for understanding of himself. “ Since the age of sixteen onwards I have been able to look at things with the eyes of a blind man recently operated upon—that is to say, I have been able to suppress in myself the results of long education of sight, and to abolish distances; and now I find myself regarding existence as though from beyond the tomb, from another world; all is strange to me; I am as it were, outside my own body and individuality, I am depersonalized, detached, cut adrift.”

This was the birth of the notion of depersonalization. The author, Henri Frederic Amiel, was a Swiss poet and philosopher, Professor of Aesthetics and French Literature and then Professor of Moral Philosophy at the Academy of Geneva. The son of a French émigré he lost both his parents at twelve and grew up separately from his two sisters. Sensitive, delicate and dreamy, he avoided the noise and distraction of social pressure but enjoyed close friendships and meaningful relationships with his teachers, students and colleagues. He died at 59 from long and exhausting heart and lung diseases.

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His diary—The Journal Intime—was found after his death. Two volumes chronicled Amiel’s inner life - intense thorough introspection, exploring his every thought, feeling and action.  He was driven by the urge to “stop the momentum” and the aspiration to grasp the essence of the feeling of “I”.  Listening to himself and looking inside of himself he found the way to express the experience of never-reached-reality-of-self:  “I can find no words for what I feel. My consciousness is withdrawn into itself; I hear my heart beating and my life passing. It seems to me that I have become a statue on the bank of the river of time, that I am the spectator of some mystery.”

Today—133 years later—many people with depersonalization read these words with amazement, recognition and relief that their feelings of unreal self are not “craziness”, these feelings are known and are a part of other people’s life.”

The Journal Intime became famous and popular. Emphasizing the principal role of introspection in individual life, Amiel’s diary for the first time articulated the reality of feeling unreal and gave words to the beyond-words experience of estrangement. The philosopher Dugas saw The Journal Intime as adescription of a fundamental psychic phenomenon that he—following Amiel’s formulation—named depersonalization.

Since then depersonalization’s reputation of being obscure, peculiar and inexplicable has remained intact. Following the mainstream of science, anatomical, electrophysiological, genetic, psychoanalytic, biochemical, adaptational and other approaches have contributed to the search for certainty and clarity about depersonalization. Unfortunately, almost the same dynamics characterized the treatment of depersonalization. Even though few do enjoy full recovery, even without treatment, the great majority of people with depersonalization continue to carry signs - sometimes extremely painful and burdensome - of this disorder throughout many years of life. My clinical experience of treating people with depersonalization suggests that work on understanding oneself helps to go through life with depersonalization. And here Amiel’s diary offers  a measure of support.

The term of ‘depersonalization’ is applied to quite a wide spectrum of conditions developed in people with different personality traits, in different circumstances and presenting with different signs. The diagnosis of depersonalization might also be applied to quite a wide range of clinically heterogeneous conditions. Depersonalization as it was originally described by Amiel seems to be a form of hypertrophy of reflection. A person with this type of depersonalization is usually preoccupied with “big” philosophical questions about himself, world, reality and the purpose of life.  Amiel’s treatise shows how such reflection gives rise to both painful feeling of unreality that forms the core of depersonalization, and also an enlightening search for authenticity that makes life more meaningful.  

In a clinical sense, Amiel’s book offers a touching portrait of one of the classical types of person with depersonalization: a dreamer with an intense inner life, rich fantasy and overpowering imagination. Prone to anxiety, overwhelmed by doubts, vulnerable and frequently somatically compromised (headaches, migraines, asthma, allergy, respiratory infections, gastrointestinal irritability, etc) such a person often finds comfort in art or nature, and in some cases can be involved in conscious-exploration via mind-altering substances or extreme activities. Acutely sensitive, sharply observant, preoccupied by introspection, somewhat timid, but also romantic and heroic, such a person is driven by dreams and ideals rather than reason and comfort. Amiel’s form of depersonalization tends to be associated with introspection, anxiety, obsessions, phobias, dysthymia and traits of introversion.

Amiel gave voice to depersonalization. Today, having all varieties of encyclopedias, manuals, treatises, books, internet sites and pharmaceutical booklets on depersonalization, we still learn about the pains and hopes of depersonalization from his words:  “I am a spectator, so to speak, of the molecular whirlwind which men call individual life; I am conscious of an incessant metamorphosis, an irresistible movement of existence, which is going on within me – and this phenomenology of myself serves as a window opened upon the mystery of the world.”

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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