Ok I’ll let you know from the get go that this is gonna be a bit of a struggle for us both. It’s not going to make for easy reading, but my good friend Chandler has challenged me to write something as it might prove be therapeutic – in a get it all out there kind of way. I’m a little apprehensive about letting the world in to my very personal struggle with a very little known mental disorder called Depersonalisation – depersona-what you might say? And yep, don’t worry if you’ve never heard of it, as it turns out there’s plenty of medical folk who don’t know what it is either.
So we need to go back, way back to my late teens, maybe 17 or 18. I was living with my Mum and her second husband in the rather fabulous (not) town of Baguley in Manchester. I used to do this strange thing of looking at myself in a mirror. After maybe a few moments I would enter into an alternate state which, to be honest, would scare the shit out of me. As soon as I got myself into those states I would then have to go and put some music on or play the guitar to get myself together again, to get back into me. During these alternate states I would disappear. I would no longer be a self – yes I know this sounds batshit crazy but it’s the only way I can articulate it. There might be a handful of people reading this who will have some inkling what I’m talking about. But then again, there’s only probably a handful of people reading this (#fuckyousocialmedianoonereadsanymore). At the time I had no idea wtf was going on or what I was doing – no reference points other than maybe something to do with da green stuff that I was smoking in those teenage kicks years. (Just as an aside I never did the mirror thing whilst stoned.)
Ok lets park that there.
Fast forward to 1990 and my Madchester years were in full swing. We’d dropped the THC for MDMA (ok so that was me trying to find a clever way to say us hipsters had stopped smoking pot and moved on [one] to Ecstasy). E blew our minds and then some. It opened our hearts and love was everywhere. I was living the dream working in the cooler-than-cool clothing shops in God’s Own Land during the week, then shuffling my feet around the Hacienda nightclub dance floor at weekends with the help of ecstasy.
It’s hard to say why anyone takes drugs but more often than not there’s some kind of b(l)ack story. I have my own which I won’t go into any kind of detail here , other than that I had a strange childhood that wasn’t short of incident. Taking drugs is escapism. I was escaping and the high was a great place to escape to – what can be better than being in love with EVERYTHING.
But as the saying goes, every day has a night. And the start of my many, many nights was just around the corner.
I had moved up to Glasgow – this was about mid 1990. My best mate was living there and had told me about the crazy nightlife up north of the border. In 1990 Glasgow was awarded the European City of Culture. I had no idea what the criteria was to win this prestigious award but reckoned it had something to do with the quality of the ecstasy there. Part of being the European City of Culture meant that nightclubs were open until 5am – which was unheard of. In Manchester (and everywhere else in the country) the clubs closed at 2am and unless you went on the wild goose chase of trying to find a rave in a field, we had to go home and boogie. So the promise of good quality E combined with clubs until 5am was all it took. Adios Manchester. There is of course a b(l)ack story here. I was escaping from something that I only share with my therapists and priests.
What followed was a good few months of living for the E weekend as me mate Dave and me got off our ‘eds every Saturday night – sometimes on a Friday too and even a rare Sunday. We were, as the saying goes, madfrit. When the music’s over, turn off the light. Unfortunately for me, the music was never over as I relived the dream every weekend. Me mate Dave (who will always be referred to as me mate Dave!) had stopped going out. He wasn’t quite as madfrit as I was. He had told me on a number of occasions that I should calm down and give it a miss on some weekends. And I didn’t. The dream quickly cascaded into a nightmare. It was another Saturday night. They always followed the same path. Play a few tunes at home then wander into town. We lived literally 500 yards away from top Glasgow discotechque Sub Club. We would then wait for my man (the drug dealer) nervously for a few hours. Every weekend without fail there would be some cock and bull story why the drugs didn’t turn up on time. This was the land before mobile phones. Eventually later than the allotted time – it was always later than the allotted time – our man turned up and we were ready for take off. Houston we have a problem. Half way through this one particular night it was fairly obvious that the good quality E we were regularly served up wasn’t quite as good quality as normal. And unfortunately there wasn’t any E trading standards we could complain too. I considered writing my MP but still had a bit of me wits about me. So instead I’d talk to our man himself:
Me to Drug Dealer ‘E r mate this E is a bit shit tonight’
Drug Dealer to me ‘Feck off ya wee dickhead’
Me to Drug Dealer ‘Yes sir!”
The drug ecstasy is made up of a compound called MDMA. Pure MDMA is literally rocket fuel and guarantees a very good night. Unfortunately our aforementioned man wasn’t too interested in giving you the best night out but only in making as much money as possible. Thus the pure MDMA was cut with all sorts of weird and wonderful things like paracetamol, uppers downers – whatever, as long as it was cheap and white.
I’d gone home early with a bee in my bonnet about my high being more biz than buzz ( remember when we used that word biz as in, it’s a bit biz that, meaning: a bit shit). I was playing Blue Lines, the classic Massive Attack album, when all of a sudden I began to experience a buzz. But this buzz was my heart going like the clappers. It wasn’t very pleasant. I started to lose my shit a bit, not realising that I was in the midst of a drug induced panic attack. Me mate Dave handed me a couple of sleeping tablets to knock me out and the next thing I knew it was Sunday morning. Waking up I had tried to recollect the night before but it was all a little hazy. All I knew was I wasn’t feeling my normal self. Well, it’s quite normal not to feel normal after a night on the party meds. But this not normal definitely wasn’t the normal not feeling normal – confused? So was I.
What followed over the coming weeks and months is the stuff of nightmares. Whenever I sit down to write I’m never 100 % sure what to write, just a vague idea. What I always try to do though is to add a little dash of humour – a little sugar to make the medicine go down. The next paragraph or two ain’t got none of that.
Depersonalisation (DP) as a syndrome is an evolutionary tactic that the brain employs in moments of terror or panic. Say, for example, you were about to get knocked down by a car. Your brain would switch to depersonalise mode so it felt like it was someone else that was getting hit. Apparently, it’s quite common for students going into an important exam to feel depersonalised, as though they were not in their own bodies, and it was someone else taking the exam. The DP symptoms are quite fleeting lasting only maybe 5-10 seconds, Depersonalisation Disorder (DPD) is when the person gets land locked in the symptoms and can’t get out. Sometimes ever.
The morning after as described above was only a little unusual at first. Then it went to being somewhat strange. Finally leading into what would possibly be the worst several months of my life. And the first of 4 or 5 episodes in my life-long DPD struggles.
To give you some insight into DPD I often quote this piece on the net. I’ve found it to be the most insightful overview of the symptoms and how to explain them.
Depersonalization an insidious mental condition that can begin on its own ,it is the third most common psychiatric symptom, and it can also be a chronic disorder affecting more people than schizophrenia and bi-polar disorders combined. When it hits for the first time, you’re convinced that you’re going insane, and wait in a cold sweat to see when and if you finally do go over the edge.
The individual’s perceptions of the self and the self’s place in the world somehow shifts into a mindset that is altered from the norm, becoming hellish for most.
Depersonalization Disorder is a chronic illness that can take a dreadful and long-lasting course.
‘A chronic illness that can take a dreadful and long-lasting course’
‘Becoming hellish for most’
There’s always a chance that writing something like this can turn into a ‘pity party.’ I don’t want that. As mentioned in the opening I am writing as my mate suggested it could be cathartic – which to be honest is not really fucking happening. It really is difficult to find the right words to describe just how horrible DPD is – dreadful and hellish don’t even begin to cover it. When you say to someone, well it’s like I’m not real and my thoughts turn in on themselves, and it feels strange actually being a person that talks eats etc, the usual response is ‘oh that sounds a little weird.” It’s not a little weird, it really is hell on earth. Scratch that, whatever’s beneath hell, it’s that on earth. I cannot really in any way, shape, or form describe how bad it is. Have you ever had a panic attack? Or maybe even a bad LSD trip or similar – well you’re getting nearer the symptoms here – except the panic attack goes on for weeks, months, years in some cases.
During that first DPD in Glasgow in 1993 I went from doctor to doctor trying to find answers, getting fed different medications – none of which I would take. I was too paranoid the meds would make things worse. I gave up tea, coffee, and alcohol. Needless to say I stopped the E too. It got so bad that I was afraid to eat sweets, scared that the additives in them would make the symptoms even worse. The French philosopher Jean-Paul Satre described it as ‘The Filth’ – which for a bite-size descriptive is not half bad.
The move back to Manchester came quickly as I looked for comfort and support from my family. They arranged for me to see a local doctor who had no idea what I was talking about – neither did any of the psychologists. After seeing maybe 3 or 4 different doctors I was finally admitted into the psychiatric department at Stepping Hill Hospital in Stockport for ‘observation.’ It was here that a certain Dr. Dumar diagnosed me with DPD. And the cure? ‘Well Mr. Ryan there isn’t a specific cure. We’ve got medication for the anxiety and depression that DPD causes but at the moment there is nothing else that can help directly with it.’ A combination of street drugs with a healthy dose of childhood trauma seemed to be the cocktail that kicked things off.
Over the next 6-12 months and being settled back in Manchester, the DPD symptoms eased up and I was able to continue with some kind of normality. The DP symptoms were there but were lurking in the background. I tried various things including reflexology, which helped a little but it was mainly a time thing that made the symptoms ease up. I got super fit. I ran a lot. Exercise was good for the mind as well as the body. And it was exercise, albeit with an Asian twist, which would play a big part in my rehabilitation in my next DPD episode in my late twenties when a friend suggested Yoga.
I am now 53. My last experience of DPD was in my late thirties. I thought I was done with it for good. Boy was I wrong. In the last 10 years I have got married, had 2 more children, moved from Manchester to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to London, London to Manchester, Manchester back to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Deal (Kent), and finally Deal to Ramsgate. 6 months ago with the toll of all this moving around, and lots of other things, I separated from my wife. I managed the stress for a while – perhaps I stuffed some of it in a sack. But unfortunately everything caught up with me and the DPD returned. And when the going gets tough as the saying goes, the tough redoubles their efforts. More Yoga, some running, cold water swimming, eating healthy – all these things help but there’s no magic bullet. As my late father used to say, All you can do son is white knuckle ride it out. I’ve spent half my adult life on a DPD white knuckle ride and I want to say I’ve kicked it’s ass. But that’s not the truth. To be honest, at the moment it feels as if it’s kicked mine over and over again. And then again for good measure.
I wanted to end the blog on the above paragraph, but I think there must be some kind of resolution to it, and a nod to the blogs title: “The drugs don’t work but the Ashtanga does.” All things must pass, sang George Harrison. Eckhart Tolle said, ‘Sometimes there doesn’t seem like a way out, but there’s always a way through.’ I know at some point the DP symptoms will pass. I’ve no idea when that some point will be. But in the meantime, I’ll be using (as I’ve used many times before) Ashtanga Yoga to help me find the way through.
Say a little prayer for me.