I've got a funny feeling... it's dissociation | Comedian Amy Matthews on the ‘indie mental health quirk’ she’s developed

I've got a funny feeling... it's dissociation

Comedian Amy Matthews on the ‘indie mental health quirk’ she’s developed

Not to show off, but I’ve only gone and gotten myself one of the more alternative/indie mental health quirks. That’s right, I’ve spent a lot of this year navigating dissociation – the Wes Anderson of mental health conditions: an acute awareness of its own filmic quality, a lack of visceral emotion and everyone who has experienced it thinks they’re in a small little club when actually millions of people are familiar with its tropes.

I started experiencing prolonged episodes of depersonalisation and derealisation in September last year. After an extended period of extreme highs and extreme lows, My Brain and My Body had a little meeting that I wasn’t invited to, where they said to each other, ‘we’re going to fashion a very loose connection between us, to protect Amy from these two extremes that she’s been subject to for a while’. 

My Brain and My Body shook hands and independently had a giggle to themselves as they embarked on their little holiday from feeling anything properly for a bit. My Body spent its holiday putting its energy into re-learning the dance from the Wuthering Heights video, and My Brain took a little trip to Numb-Out Island, where it delighted in ordering room-temperature vanilla cocktails from the bar and enjoyed the 70 shades of beige at the hotel. 

I – Amy, the person – was only made aware that My Brain and My Body had put their ‘out-of-office’ on when I realised I was going days at a time in a state that can only be described as ‘once removed’ from my own body. I had completely dissociated.

My Brain and My Body asserted that they occasionally sign out to protect me, and as with most well-meaning acts of protection, it causes more problems than solutions (see also: homeschooling, The Second Amendment, and putting Princess Fiona in the highest room of the tallest tower).

Now, dissociation is a tricky sensation to describe because it presents in so many different ways. As an umbrella term, it’s a sense of detachment, so we’re all dissociating to a minor degree when we scroll on our phone, or daydream, or listen to the tinny rendition of a Norah Jones single whilst we’re put on hold to HMRC. 

But you can also get depersonalisation, where you disconnect from feeling that your own body is yours. You can also get derealisation, where the world around you feels artificial and unreal. Us lucky ones get a yummy combination of both. I can only speak to what it feels like for me, and even that is quite tricky to articulate, but I’ll give it a go.

You know when you try to push the opposite poles of two magnets together and you can feel that bubble of space between them. A nothingness defined by its somethingness. It’s like living with whatever that is, coating your skin. Or perhaps more accurately, it’s coating the little kernel of you that lives like a tiny Borrower in the middle of your body or head. 

That somethingness of nothingness envelopes that little Borrower, creating a buffer zone between you and even your own physicality, as well as the external world it interacts with. On one hand, it’s a protective layer, and on the other, a prohibitive and unpleasant membrane between you and any visceral sensation. It’s like living in a cheap condom*.  

Luckily, I knew what it was, else I think it would have scared me a bit. My first experience of it was as a side-effect from an ear infection that I had at university years ago. And even then, I had a familiarity with what it might be when it first occurred. 

An ex-boyfriend of mine had experienced drug-induced derealisation when we were teenagers. He had described the sensation to me as feeling like he was watching a film of his life as opposed to being present in the moment. He described the sensation of everything feeling ‘blunted’, and that conversation with others felt a bit like the way characters interact with each other in Peep Show. 

So when I had my first experience of it, as I looked down at my hands – rather ironically, in a seminar about the Enlightenment – they didn’t feel like my hands at all. This sensation continued into the day and then ebbed and flowed throughout the following few weeks. 

Nothing felt like it was in high definition. Colours weren’t colouring. Textures weren’t texturing. If you’ve ever slid the ‘fade’ filter up to 100 on Instagram, that’s what it feels like someone has done to your sensory and emotional relationship to the world. It’s all misty and blunt and tepid and unsaturated. It’s the muffled sound of your neighbour’s TV through the wall. It’s the faint ghost of spearmint on over-chewed gum. It’s the living embodiment of the needle hissing on grooveless vinyl between songs.

Luckily as my life has become a little less painful, and the dust has settled on a turbulent year, these dissociative episodes have lessened. They occur less frequently and for shorter periods of time. And I’ve resigned to the fact that when they do crop up, there’s not a quick fix. Trying to push against them just means you suffer twice, so I just greet it like a boring friend – with patience and the knowledge that it’ll go away soon. 

If I get it before a gig I’ll sometimes take a sharp sniff of a menthol stick which seems to help a little bit. I just think that’s worth mentioning in case rumours begin that I have had a complete personality makeover and have started sniffing a mystery substance before I go on stage. It’s just a hit of menthol that helps recalibrate things for a brief moment before having to be switched on onstage.

My Edinburgh Fringe show – I Feel Like I’m Made Of Spiders – is about the three disconnections that happened this year that made me feel untethered: disconnection from home, disconnection from a significant other and disconnection of My Brain from My Body: ie, dissociation. 

The overwhelmingly affirming thing to come from doing the previews of this show has been that without fail, after every performance, someone has gotten in touch with me after and either said that they hadn’t seen dissociation spoken about before and it made them feel less alone, or that they had experienced the sensation before and didn’t know that there was a name for it. 

There is a delicious irony in writing a show about disconnection which has meant that so many strangers have connected with it in a meaningful way.

Amy ​Matthews: I Feel Like I’m Made Of Spiders will be at Monkey Barrel at The Tron at 3pm  during the Edinburgh Fringe, starting on August 2.

*The condom in this metaphor is an old-fashioned, horribly synthetic, overly thick, plasticky one. It’s 2023, there are enough thin-feel condoms on the market to have safe and lovely sex, without it being shit for either party. If you’re sleeping with a person with a penis who says otherwise, tell them to wrap it up in that red flag they just brought to the table instead. 

Published: 18 Jul 2023

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