When the self slips


From ‘The Lost Head and the Bird’ by Sohrab Hura IMAGE/Magnum Photos

Individuals living with depersonalisation disorder bring vivid insight to the question of whether the self is an illusion

One day in the late 19th century, the Austrian physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach gets on a bus. As he stares down the aisle, he sees a person at the other end, a character he dismisses as a ‘shabby pedagogue’. In the next instant, Mach realises the shabby pedagogue is none other than himself, staring out from a mirror positioned at the back of the bus.

For a few moments, Mach had become a stranger to himself. Psychologists estimate that around three-quarters of us will experience similar symptoms of self-detachment at some point in our lives. If you’ve been through trauma, or narrowly escaped a nasty accident, you might recall how a sense of unreality can wash over you, how you suddenly disconnect from yourself, or feel as if you’re floating in the air and watching from above. These states of mind seem to function as an experiential airbag, allowing us to deal with life-threatening dangers which would otherwise be overwhelming.

Luckily, with care and patience, the airbag can usually be wrapped up after the traumatic event, and we find ourselves back in our bodies and our lives. But in some unlucky cases, the protective mechanism gets ‘stuck’. People can be trapped outside themselves, unable to inhabit their own experiences, feelings and thoughts – like Mach, if he were unable to reconnect to himself after spying the shabby pedagogue in the mirror.

This is now Jane Charlton’s experience of her day-to-day life. I met Jane, a British woman in her mid-30s, about a year ago, when she gave a moving talk to a packed audience at an interdisciplinary workshop I’d organised in London. It is one thing to study a phenomenon in the lab, or from a philosopher’s armchair perspective. But it’s quite another to meet someone face-to-face who is living with the condition that you’re using to ground this or that theory or interpretation.

If I quieten my mind, I can almost taste the colour and richness of life as I knew it before, says Jane. It comes with a sense of expectation, a feeling of being an agent in changing and plotting a course through the world. This is, I think, the very act of ‘living’, which I bear witness to in others, all day, every day. I still understand it academically, but I can barely remember what it feels like. These days I’m in a constant state of grief; I feel as if I’m grieving for my own death, even if I seem to be around to witness it.

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