It used to happen in response to embarrassingly obvious triggers: watching Inception or anything Wachowskian. Listening to Elon Musk speculate that the odds we’re living in “base reality” are much, much, much less than any given person’s odds of being crushed by a meteorite. But it has also flared up from cues way subtler than those, such as when I’ve seen the same distinctive car in two different parts of town in the same day. Or noticed there appeared to be more, or fewer, people out and about than I’d anticipated.
For a while, nearly anything that smacked of the mystical, conspiratorial, or simply coincidental seemed capable of awakening it: the sudden powerful sense that reality was no longer real. Officially called derealization, it’s a form of dissociation that, for me, has been one of the biggest challenges of living with schizophrenia. My symptoms have been mostly dormant for a while now. But the coronavirus pandemic—with the widespread shuttering of businesses and cultural institutions, the paranoiac (and accurate!) sense that everyone is talking about the same thing all the time—is particularly disorienting for me.
It was 2017 when a doctor first confirmed that the auditory chatter, intrusive thoughts, visual hallucinations, and delusions I was experiencing added up to a form of schizophrenia. That same doctor also told me that “dissociation” was the name of the feeling I described as being like déjà vu, if déjà vu lasted much longer than it took an ice cream headache to fade. Always, it was as though once I spotted a minor potential flaw in reality, I was stuck viewing the whole institution as a sham until the intense, visceral skepticism chose to move along. It was evidence-resistant. It ate logic for breakfast. Still, for the most part, with the help of my doctor, I eventually got it under control.
I have thought about my doctor several times over the past week or so. Whether she’s conducting sessions in a hazmat suit. Whether she’s in greater demand than ever before. Because it doesn’t require having a lifelong psychotic disorder to feel like the parameters of reality aren’t quite lining up right now.
I wondered how the psychology industry was faring as the NBA declared indefinite suspension. As Disney closed its kingdoms, something Elsa once swore Arendelle would never do again. As grocery stores were stripped hurricane-bare while the sky outside remained a cloudless blue. As schools were cleaned by biohazard teams at night. Then closed, indefinitely—a word that made its rounds in announcements but never dimmed in impact. It sounded intimidating and dramatic to me, every single time. Next in-house dining at restaurants starting closing, indefinitely. We tend to be no better at wrapping our minds around indefinitely than around the concept of nonexistence or the number of atoms that could fit inside a single bottle of rationed disinfectant.
I imagine that right now my doctor is booked solid, and I hope she is. She can help people make peace with the fact of society being paused and the unknown reigning, indefinitely. As for me, I have the lessons I learned from her tucked away. I still know how to recognize the beginning of a derealization episode, which, yes, I’d certainly hoped I was done with. But at least I knew what to expect when it started up this time, in response to seeing movie productions and libraries and Starbucks close shop. I knew what to expect when the initial impression arose: that all of this was too on-the-nose, too obvious, too cinematic or dreamlike, too coordinated in its strangeness.
I knew to brace for the sense of depersonalization, another egregious type of dissociation that amounts to severe disconnect from your physical body. I knew the uptick in peripheral hallucinations and intrusive thoughts were to be expected, and that these symptoms and more were normal for the abnormal circumstance of falling out of sync with reality. When I was first hit with the impression that these shutdowns equaled nonreality, I felt, for a moment, the silly elation that comes with believing a problem is solvable by virtue of it never having existed in the first place. Then, when the impression of reality wobbling deepened, I felt the temporary terror of it. Light hallucinations strobe-lighted through my head. For seconds at a time, I “saw through things” to a system of thin metal rods that everyone and everything were mounted on. Panic. Panic is typically the next thing I would expect in these cases.
But this time, the panic hasn’t set in. In part this may be because a truly great therapist taught me not to try arguing with an illogical foe, even one in my own head, but to accept my circumstance for exactly what it was. To see the humor in it whenever possible. To adopt baby steps as my basic unit of measurement for progress. To try not to panic (something we’ll all hear solemn authority figures encourage over the coming indefinite period of time), but to let myself freak out a little, understanding that’s the most well-adjusted, normal reaction available to highly abnormal circumstances. All of which is good advice for most of us, given the highly abnormal circumstances sweeping the globe.
Another part of what may be helping this time is that—selfish and counterintuitive as it may be—I don’t feel as isolated as I usually do when reality breaks down. This time, for better or worse, it feels like we’re all stuck in the upside down together.
Joannie Penderwick is a pseudonym the author uses to protect her identity when she writes about her experience with mental illness.