Boundaries are Real and so are You: Waking up from Depersonalization Derealization Disorder

Art by Alex Gross

In this article I am sharing the experience of being stuck out of my body in a state of near-consistent numbness for nearly a decade. This was a result of several traumatic childhood experiences followed by a period of drug and substance abuse. Emotional, physical and psychological stress caused me to dissociate and leave my body to escape the pain. This state of dissociation became permanent until I embarked on a long journey of spiritual healing to become embodied using numerous exercises I learned through ayahuasca and my teacher Silvia Polivoy at the Spirit Vine ayahuasca retreat center in Brazil.

I entered the world of drugs at the age of 16 as a way to numb the pain and stress and to stay in a state where everything was apparently peaceful. A drug overdose put me into the state of permanent dissociation from reality, something that in psychology is termed as depersonalization-derealization or DPDR for short. I only heard this term a year back, almost 12 years after I entered in this state. My life was a nightmare, only I had no idea that it was. I eventually became so disconnected from my emotions and body that I couldn’t even tell that everything was out of order. 

I had simultaneously a hyper-addictive personality disorder, which means I could get addicted to practically anything — food, television, gambling, drugs, any type of substance, even people, there was nothing that could fill the void, and yet an unconscious level I never stopped trying. As I managed to keep up a great act of normalcy on the surface, nobody ever intervened deep enough to realize that my life was headed for disaster.

The Persistent Experience of Disconnection

I could not feel pain in my body or at times I didn’t even feel my body at all, not even the temperature of the surroundings. Inhaling some very toxic substances had also destroyed my sense of smell. I eventually forgot the feeling of physical boundaries and the experience of weight in the physical body, otherwise known as the experience of gravity. Being a floating piece of consciousness is comparatively weightless. Not having physical boundaries slowly led to an inability to form associations with reality, and my sense of “real” started diminishing. My sense of time and space had become very distorted and it resulted in me having very abnormal perceptions of what is real and possible.

At the same time, my body kept trying to bring me back through self-inflicting extreme pain till I was pulled back to realize how numb I had become. I had developed tendencies to press parts of my body against hard surfaces until they hurt very bad, or enter in water at extreme temperatures just to feel my skin react, or at extreme times even bite my arm to see if I can feel anything. I realized that I am suffering from DPDR when I heard my friend talk about the same kind of behavior.

When trying everything material to satisfy myself had failed, I entered into a state of apathy, I could not tell if I was happy or sad. I moved like a robot and even my voice sounded like a drone. I felt like the tin man from the wizard of oz looking for a heart. With help from a number of addictions I had become so accustomed to feeling emotionally numb, that each time there was a possibility of feeling pain, I jumped to consume something to make sure that pain didn’t come to the surface. Sometimes this even got pushed to suicidal limits when the adrenaline junkie in me was at it’s peak. This pattern finally broke when I learned how to mindfully confront the pain during my first ayahuasca retreat.

Right after my first retreat I stopped most of the substance addictions and mindfully worked to reconnect with myself at some level. The pain was excruciating at first but it forced me to take care of myself and start practicing a healthy lifestyle. I started volunteering at Spirit Vine center so I was drinking ayahuasca few times every month and doing all the workshops guided by Silvia with the purpose to find out the causes of blockages and destructive patterns of behavior for understanding, cleansing and transmutation.

During the first 2 years I had the most extravagant journeys in other dimensions, my mind had truly been opened to an unbelievable extent, but I had still managed to keep the lid on my emotions very tight. I was still a compulsive eater and binge-watched television shows to avoid any emotional pain. I had managed to process and resolve several issues during this time as well, but most of the work was done only at the psychological and physical level, I had an intense fear of facing my emotions, though I would have never admitted this at the time.

I realized I was ready to stop exploring other dimensions during the ayhauasca journeys, rather I wanted to become more present in this earthly world and deal with whatever problems I had here. I shifted the focus of my work with ayahuasca to become fully incarnate in this reality. For some time I re-entered the state of limbo, where I was neither in my body nor in another world — I was stuck in between everything and unable to feel anything. I knew I was dissociated but I didn’t know the name of my problem till a returning participant shared that he had finally found the diagnosis for a condition he had been dealing with for 15 years — he suffered from DPDR. Although he had described his condition on the previous two retreats he had attended, I never associated myself with this, but this time when he started explaining the symptoms, and later when I went a did a deeper reading on the subject, I realized that I was suffering from a extreme case of this disorder.

The Process of Embodiment

I was elated to finally see that there may be something I can do to end this torture! It took me a few months to reflect and see the extent of the problem within myself, but when I did I committed completely to grounding myself and healing my psychological, physical and emotional state and bringing myself into balance. 

I set my intention in every ayahuasca ceremony to reconnect with my physical and emotional centers and to re-tune my psychological center to bring me out of the state of constant anxiety. Over the course of the year I went through what most would characterize as hell, and at the same time I couldn’t have been happier — only because I could finally feel something! Even if it was excruciating physical pain, or emotional sadness, anger, guilt, or the biggest one personally — shame, the ability to have something dynamic as an emotion had become so alien to me, that I slowly started accepting anything that arose within me. 

The key was acceptance. After the initial phases of pain passed, it became much easier to deal with whatever came up, even if it was at times more painful and disturbing than before, only because I was more prepared to deal with what came up. Each time I confronted something unresolved within me, I used the techniques Silvia had taught me to recover my power and I could feel the effects after every single session. I felt more and more comfortable being present in myself, even if it was just a few fleeting moments in the day.

The effects of all the work I had been doing on myself finally came together in the last retreat in March 2018, when in the middle of the ceremony I felt a connection with my heart, something that had been missing for a very long time, and this made me feel like crying. My immediate response was to repress this emotion and to escape and do something else to distract myself, but the moment I realized this reaction, I came back to myself and broke into tears, the release I felt was something I will never be able to explain. 

It was a massive stepping stone to overcome the shame of crying during the ceremony with other people but right after this I started feeling a deep emptiness in my chest. I rationalized that the deep cleansing of the darkness throughout my life would obviously leave a void. As soon as I surrendered to this emptiness, the next moment I felt something entered me. What entered me, I can call it my soul, my essence, my spirit, but any label I put to it nullifies the enormity of it. It is what animates life contrary to the state of permanent apathy that had become so normal in my life. Waves of emotions flooded my entire being, I couldn’t hold the tears and I just burst into this state of ecstatic bliss. Reality suddenly made sense and I understood things at the level of emotions, something that I cannot possibly rationalize. I felt like I was seeing things from the eyes of a child, full of curiosity and wonder and awe. 

Four years of work with ayahuasca had finally culminated in the most spectacular way and I was infinitely grateful to both ayahuasca and Silvia for helping me recover my life from the depths of agony. It was the ability to realize the physical boundaries such as the separation of the body and everything around, as well as psychological boundaries such as self and other, that put sense into everything. DPDR has been called the evil twin of enlightenment, the difference being that you experience detachment from self without connection to the infinite oneness. It is realizing the dual nature of attachment and boundaries that makes enlightenment of oneness possible, but being stuck on either side is a relative nightmare. 

Through prior experiences, I knew that this ecstatic state of connection was going to pass, what made me happy was I had my work cut out for the next phase of my life. I remembered the lesson that both Silvia and I keep repeating to every group — “it is not enough to drink ayahuasca, you have to work on applying the lessons learned during the retreat in your everyday life”. Even though I had instances of feeling disconnected from my body and heart after the retreat, I experienced a deep feeling of relief because I knew that something very deep had shifted. I was no longer restless or impatient to get anything, I was feeling more easily content with what I had. Since that day I have been experiencing embodiment and connection far more often with a much deeper sense of contentment and appreciation for life. I have lost the urge to binge-eat or binge-watch, I can just experience contentment being here.

Giving Back

I recently watched the movie “Numb” starring Matthew Perry which was a great reminder of the DPDR state. It was deeply saddening to see the state of mental healthcare in our world today. People’s dependence on medication and substances to numb themselves out and the inability of “professionals” to provide adequate support to people suffering from this condition and many other issues. I don’t think drinking ayahuasca alone is of much help — while it can illuminate certain things, without the commitment to follow through and to have the proper tools to deal with the content that comes up, it can cause more harm than help. At the same time, through my experience I know that ayahuasca, with the proper guidance and in the proper set and setting, can be a gateway to accelerated ways of recovering from deeply disturbing issues that block the connection to our true selves.

Silvia, a highly skilled practitioner in shamanic, psychological, and spiritual work has put together a very powerful program that teaches people ways to reconnect with their own power and align with their essence while also using her deep intuition to provide guidance and feedback to people during the ayahuasca retreat.

Author: Rohan
Below are links to some other articles from my journey with ayahuasca:

Ayahuasca: A story of how I took back control of my life

Life is a two-way street: The most important lesson learned from Ayahuasca