Life is but a dream...
July 18, 2010 12:35 PM   Subscribe

Throughout my childhood, I had persistent feelings of being "in a dream," as well as frequent, rather jarring feelings of "is this real"? Is this phenomenon common? Is there a name for it?

Throughout my childhood (ie, from as early as I can remember through around age 12 or 13), I frequently had the sensation that I was not really "living" my life, but rather, dreaming it. This manifested itself in two ways, one general and sort of intellectual, one very specific and almost physical in its immediacy:

The general: I was a pretty spacey, dreamy kid who lived inside my own head. I would frequently wonder if my life was real or if I was dreaming the whole thing.

The specific: every once in a while, I would have a very sudden, jarring feeling of "wait, is this real?" I would suddenly look at whatever situation I was in as if I were an outsider, and would get disoriented very briefly. I would also sometimes (maybe 1 out of every 3 times this happened) feel of painful stab of an emotion I've never been able to describe, but it was somewhere in the neighborhood of wistfulness, homesickness and sadness. This feeling, while briefly unpleasant, never lasted more than a few seconds and didn't really interfere with my life.

These feelings started to get rarer and rarer as I got older, and I don't recall ever feeling this way after the age of 13, although I remain somewhat spacey and still spend a lot of time in my own head. :)

Maybe relevant: I have ADHD, inattentive type, though I was not diagnosed as a child. No serious childhood drama (ie, no abuse, death, divorce, etc).

This never really bothered me, and still doesn't but I've recently been thinking about this and wondering if it's common, and if there's a name/reason for it.
posted by wholebroad to Health & Fitness (31 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
posted by ManInSuit at 12:38 PM on July 18, 2010

Check out depersonalization disorder.
posted by Brian B. at 12:38 PM on July 18, 2010

Is this phenomenon common?

Wikipedia says: "The symptom of depersonalization is the third most common psychological symptom, after feelings of anxiety and feelings of depression."
posted by ManInSuit at 12:42 PM on July 18, 2010

Best answer: Though it's important to point out that it doesn't sound like you had a disorder. It doesn't really bother you, it's never gotten in the way of your socialization, and you even now were just wondering if there's a name for it. I think above commenters are right, the name for it is depersonalization.

I often experienced the inverse -- I would suddenly and forcefully become aware that this moment was real, and that I was living this moment now. And intense sense of the present. And it didn't happen during especially important moments -- just sort of spontaneously, when nothing important at all was happening.
posted by Made of Star Stuff at 12:42 PM on July 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

I had this happen a lot as a kid and sometimes as an adult. I think it's a side effect of living in your own head for a while.
posted by The Whelk at 12:45 PM on July 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

This was very frequent for me as a kid, and still happens occasionally.
posted by ubersturm at 1:02 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

This happened to me all through childhood, and continues through adulthood. I've noticed it tends to happen (though not exclusively) when I'm breathing shallowly for long periods of time. If I make myself concentrate on my breathing & take several full, deep breaths, I can often make the sensation disappear. Doctors have described it to me as depersonalization/dissociation. I have chronically low blood pressure -- always wondered if that was a factor, too.
posted by Zosia Blue at 1:05 PM on July 18, 2010

I know this isn't helpful, too! I had this a lot, especially in high school. Made of Star Stuff describes it well: the sense of things suddenly becoming real, and only in contrast to that does one realize that realness didn't exist for a long time before that. Ever since I learned that my Alice in Wonderland Syndrome is commonplace, I've been wanting to find out how many other of my screwedupednesses are experienced by other people. I'm so glad you asked about this, wholebroad.
posted by waldo at 1:05 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

I've had this happen to me quite often as a teenager, usually when I was in a crowd. It would be as if I had become disembodied and was floating through the scene at a slight remove from reality. As if I was viewing everything through a thin veil. Sound would also become somewhat muted. It would go on for several minutes.

I haven't experienced this in many many years now.
posted by Thorzdad at 1:18 PM on July 18, 2010

Best answer: Although depersonalization is not an uncommon phenomenon--one of those brain things that many people experience from time to time--I recommend bringing this up with a physician anyway. Especially if you have any history of neurologic insult/illness, premature birth, or head trauma. Why? Because depersonalization episodes can also be a sign of temporal lobe epilepsy.

I used to have this feeling a lot--as well as feelings similar to Made of Star Stuff's. It was more pronounced as a child, and faded out in my early teens--but it came back in college, and I still had spacey episodes as an adult. I regarded them as manifestations of anxiety or ADHD or just my personality. When my prescribing physician mentioned that it sounded a bit like TLE, and I might consider an MRI/full neurological work-up just to rule it out, I blew her off, because epilepsy is, you know, serious, and I have anxiety, so I figured I was being a hypochondriac--especially since a few months before I'd read about TLE, and thought it sounded similar to what I was experiencing. I genuinely thought I might be shaping what I was telling my doctor to line up with the article.

Two and a half years--and many, many spacey episodes--later, I had a generalized tonic-clonic seizure. In front of 3000 people. Turns out...guess who's not actually a neurologist qualified to make calls like 'eh, well, it's normal and probably fine'? That's right: me. And it cost me time and neurons, because in the most common form of TLE (i.e., mesial temporal lobe epilepsy--the wiki article uses 'medial' but 'mesial' is the more common phrasing), those little seizures eventually take a permanent cognitive toll.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 1:21 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The other part of this--the one I skim over during most retellings, because it's hard to accept how dangerous and reckless it turned out to be--is the part where for that two and a half years I was driving with untreated seizures because I did not get this worked up.

It was nothing but luck--and probably the antidepressant I was on that also happens to be an anticonvulsant--that kept me from killing myself or other people, simply because I thought my problem was too minor/inconsequential to have it looked into.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 1:27 PM on July 18, 2010

Best answer: I have this too, and sometimes (sometimes not) accompanied by a surreal sense of... the only way to describe it as is falling, although not physically. Just kinda like my psyche plummets from the fifth floor to the basement. No idea. And I'm sure I'm describing that all wrong too.

The emotion is rather strange, and it's like an intense heartbreak over something I've never known. Like I've lost something very important to me, but can't remember what it is. Which makes it more heartbreaking.

I always thought it was just a blood-sugar-pressure thing and not anything mental. Perhaps I was wrong. That would be a relief because afterward I tend to panic myself into believing I have diabetes or hypoglycemia or am having a stroke or something. Or Petit Mal seizures.
posted by From the Fortress at 1:27 PM on July 18, 2010

This was me, too, when I was younger. I would find myself walking by a mirror and just stop and stare, trying to figure out what I was, why we were/what the point was. It took a backseat to being a teenager (although everyone is questioning life then anyway), but has been happening to me again throughout my 20's.
posted by june made him a gemini at 1:28 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Crumbs, three posts in a row. I'll do better in future...I guess what I mean to say is that probably it's nothing. The numbers are in your favor there. They genuinely are.

But if it is this particular something, though, the risk of not looking into it is not just yours. That's why I recommend the physician. It is better to look like a hypochondriac, than to risk doing what I did, and the chance of being responsible for an accident like one that happened to an immediate family member. He was driving, and a young woman had a seizure at the wheel and hit him. His SUV rolled, and was totaled. It was, again, some incredibly fortunate roll of the cosmic dice that he walked away from that accident with a few bruises.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 1:36 PM on July 18, 2010

"Before I was shot, I always thought that I was more half-there than all-there - I always suspected that I was watching TV instead of living life. Right when I was being shot and ever since, I knew that I was watching television."

-Andy Warhol
posted by Juliet Banana at 1:41 PM on July 18, 2010

Best answer: Okay, why not. I'll do the spiritual interpretation:

Might be that you spent much of your childhood in a near-enlightened state, and over time became trapped here in the relative with the rest of us causing the experience to stop.

Many saints and mystics describe the non-attachment portion of their sadhana, as they sought to turn away from the eternally changing relative world to the infinite and non-changing world within, as having qualities of unreality and disjointedness like you describe.

Seeing "all of this" as a dream state is, in many spiritual and philosophical disciplines, a step in the right direction.

Tat tvam asi. ("That thou art," or, I am That, thou art That, and all of this is That.)
posted by goblinbox at 2:05 PM on July 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Adam Duritz, Counting Crows lead singer, suffers from a depersonalization disorder and talked about it with Men's Health a few years back.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 2:15 PM on July 18, 2010

Adam Duritz is suffering from a mental condition? Wow, you'd never know it from his lyrics...

nthing - I used to more frequently experience a sudden sense of dislocation from my usual perception of reality - nothing really overtly sensory, just a sudden realization that - wow, it's hard to put into words, but all of a sudden you're recognizing, rather than taking for granted, that you're experiencing reality from a subjective viewpoint. That's kind of a blah, reductionist way of putting it, but it can be intense and cause a bit of anxiety.

I used to get this more often in my tweens and teens. From a religious perspective (which I was and am), I didn't think of it so much as this isn't real as how can I be comprehending all this around me? or cognition that I am my soul, not my body. Obviously, you're not going to agree if you don't believe in a soul, but that's my take on it.

There could be a neurological explanation (which in my view doesn't negate the spiritual), but generally I got into this state when I was pondering philosophical stuff, so to me it's no harder to figure or correlate than "I looked at a sunset and got goosebumps." I still feel this sense of wonder, for lack of a better term, sometimes, but not usually accompanied by that sense of dislocation, and I think it's honestly because I'm more used to the idea of being alive. :-)

Barring some debilitative symptoms, actual loss of consciousness, impairment of judgment, etc. I don't think it's a problem.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:39 PM on July 18, 2010

I used to get this as a result of having panic attacks, mostly from ages 10-13. I've gotten it a handful of times since then- a few times when I've been extremely overheated and also in a room with strobe lights, and a handful of times from smoking pot. The difference is that for me, when this happens, everything looks like a dream. But even when I was a kid I knew it was not a dream. Also, the only emotion coming along with it was fear, when I was a kid, and annoyance, when I was older.
posted by Ashley801 at 2:56 PM on July 18, 2010

Barring some debilitative symptoms, actual loss of consciousness, impairment of judgment, etc. I don't think it's a problem.

The danger in this approach is, as other posters pointed out upthread, you can start with a small issue, blow it off, and then end up with a vastly more serious problem that can have consequences for more folks than just yourself. If you've never had some oddball neurological symptom before that you can recall, you're better off getting it investigated than you would be waiting around to see if it either goes away (as the OP's problem mostly appears to have) or pounces you bigtime (as another poster's TLE did).

As far as the spiritual aspect goes, I had an epic personal-issue catharsis during a hardcore migraine episode a few years back. It didn't preclude me from telling my neurologist about it in detail, because that sort of disinhibited euphoric state was not part of my usual presentation. I try to keep my faith straight from my medical condition, lest I fall prey to "no, that can't have been something serious, it was a religious experience" and fuck myself up.
posted by fairytale of los angeles at 3:10 PM on July 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Some call this enlightenment, dear. I'm recalling one of the last episodes of Star Trek TNG in which a war is averted when the young character, Wesley, is able to do exactly this, step outside entrenchment in the the reality of others and into a new level of consciousness. He'd been working hard to get there and he had similar concerns about madness, but he had a mentor and persevered. Then a whole, new world became available to him.

I'd find a good Jungian to work with if I were you.
posted by tangram1 at 3:34 PM on July 18, 2010

I think I had something like this as a child. In my case, it was probably a result of recurring dreams which seemed just like real life--only one or two things would seem off. Maybe my dream!parents acted slightly differently or my dream!house had a slightly different layout. I would wake up and feel all weirded out, wondering if what I was experiencing was real or another dream.

(Probably didn't help that I read / watched a lot of sci-fi and fantasy.)
posted by junques at 4:15 PM on July 18, 2010

I spent a lot of time like this as a child and teenager as well (for ex., -- a month of normalcy, followed by a month of depersonalization, then back to normalcy, etc.). I always thought I was maybe fading out of reality and becoming invisible. I did things like dropping my book on the floor in class to see if anyone would look. If they did, then I knew I was still "here."

It all started when I was very young and realized the concept of self. I think that blew my mind quite a bit. Also during this time I was dealing with OCD and anxiety (both untreated). When I finally got treatment (in my 20's) I found the depersonalization went hand in hand with anxiety disorder so that helped me deal with it a bit better.

Now I'm pretty much "cured" I guess, with the help of medication. However, I can still cause depersonalization to happen at will. I don't do it very often because I can't really find a way to make anything useful come of it. Also, it's scary if I do it for too long :)
posted by Kloryne at 5:12 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

frequent, rather jarring feelings of "is this real"?

Experiences like this as a child eventually led me to a serious study of philosophy, particularly metaphysics and epistemology.

If nothing else, I learned that people like you and I are in good and esteemed company. The entire Western philosophical tradition is full of people fairly obsessed with this question, to be honest. :)
posted by edguardo at 6:35 PM on July 18, 2010

I'd see a neurologist, as this temporal-lobe epileptic sees some things in what you describe as being very similar to his own experience with auras, the feelings I get before I have a full-on seizure.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:55 PM on July 18, 2010

Didn't see the upthread stuff about the epilepsy. Get it checked out, because us temporal lobers do have some experience with what you describe. For me it was a year or so between the first experience of symptoms and the first full-blown seizure.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:57 PM on July 18, 2010

I experienced (and still do) something quite like this. Beginning at the age of four (I remember the first instance quite distinctly -- I was sitting in front of a fireplace reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), I have had moments where I suddenly feel completely apart from the world around me and in fact feel no connection whatsoever to any of my memories. It's a bit like I am an entirely different person from the person who has lived my life for the past nineteen years. (It's quite impossible to explain, but that's the best way I can put it.) It was enormously terrifying as a small child, but I've become a bit more used to it now.

(I don't know if what I experience is properly called dissociative disorder, but I do know that I was delighted to read about that condition in my first psychology course and realize that I was not quite so weird.)
posted by punchdrunkhistory at 7:12 PM on July 18, 2010

Best answer: fairytale of los angeles has it: that's really my point: that dismissing it out-of-hand or viewing it solely as a spiritual/intellectual event, might mean overlooking some actual pathological process going on. That doesn't negate the value or meaning you can take away from such events, even if it is determined that they arise from neuropathology. You are the person who gives these events meaning, no matter what their origin.

The irony of reading some of the responses here about philosophy and inspiration is interesting. The reason I gave up philosophy of science and analytic philosophy is that after long stretches of lone reading and writing and thinking, I would reach a mental space that eerily replicated the inside of a partial-complex seizure,* and the autonomic/emotional distortions that accompany it. And this is fully medicated, well-rested, alcohol-free.

Ultimately, I was not sure the world would miss my analysis of feminist empiricism, Richard Rorty, or set theory enough that it would be worth evoking that particular sensation on a regular basis. So, for everyone who is saying 'oh, this is enlightenment, or an inspiration to be philosophical,' I can tell you 'Sure, it might be. It most likely is a totally normal experience that you can use to shape how you think about the world and ask interesting questions. Just like most people feel deja or jamais vu at some point or another without an associated ictal event. But in my experience, you can't tell the difference from the inside.'

And you know what? If it is pathology, you can still use it to be inspired in those ways. I couldn't, but that's me.

Also, that the OP has ADD is a tip-off that it's even more worth following up medically. If you have one set of neurological/neuropsychiatric differences, you are more likely to have others.

On preview: Hi, Ironmouth. You don't know me, but I was hoping you'd stop in.
posted by Uniformitarianism Now! at 8:14 PM on July 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Thanks for asking this. My daughter frequently (2-3 times a month) blurts out the exact question "is this real?" She doesn't seem to be deeply distressed, but certainly genuinely puzzled, and I've been struggling with whether we can help her to process the feeling or if it's better to let her develop her own strategy.
posted by sudama at 8:56 AM on July 19, 2010

Response by poster: Wow, thanks for all the diverse and thoughtful answers. The epilepsy thing is interesting - I had literally never thought of that before. I have a check-up with my GP coming up so I'll ask her to refer me to someone. I doubt it's that, since it hasn't happened in 20 years, but, well, if Six Feet Under taught me anything, it's not to mess around when something may be misfiring in your brain!

Some call this enlightenment, dear.

Dammit, all this learning and I've gotten less enlightened over the years...

It's interesting, though not surprising, to hear that I'm not the only one who had this happen. It's funny how damned existential kids can be.

My daughter frequently (2-3 times a month) blurts out the exact question "is this real?"

Is this real life?
posted by wholebroad at 10:40 AM on July 19, 2010

Response by poster: Oh, and this perfectly describes the emotional feeling I was trying to convey:

The emotion is rather strange, and it's like an intense heartbreak over something I've never known. Like I've lost something very important to me, but can't remember what it is. Which makes it more heartbreaking.

It's an especially weird sensation to experience as a little kid.
posted by wholebroad at 10:48 AM on July 19, 2010

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