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I Fake It So Real: My Battle with Derealization

How can you learn to be human when you're already human?

One of my childhood memories that has stuck with me the most was of an experience at Disneyland, back when I was six or seven.

I was getting into the little car for the Pinocchio ride, and before pulling the lever to send me on my way, the ride operator, noticing my somber face, said, "You should smile, you're at Disneyland."

So, I smiled.

I remember this because it's the earliest example I can recall of what I would be going through for the rest of my life (so far, and probably until the end). I remember walking through the gates of Disneyland, and thinking, "This doesn't feel real. Why doesn't this feel real to me? I'm going to Disneyland, I should be happy. When do I start feeling happy?"

I was always vaguely aware that there was something... wrong... with me. I knew I wasn't like other people. That I was lacking some functionality that they possessed. I didn't work quite right. When I became a little older, I'd find out about the depression that runs in my family. But it was only recently that I found out about derealization.

Derealization disorder, to put it simply, is when nothing seems real to you. Lots of people can experience this in fleeting moments. Some people can have it last for hours. For me, it has been a constant my entire life. Nothing feels real, or immediate. I have trouble responding to things because to me, it's not real. It's like watching a movie. Things are happening around me, and it's almost as if I briefly forget I can interact with them.

I've had this thought, countless times: When does the "happy" feeling happen? Events that would have normal people jumping for joy, or giggling excitedly, or smiling uncontrollably, I find myself just waiting to have a reaction to. Why don't I feel moved? When will the emotion hit me like it hits everyone else? When will something make me react?

I've spent my life trying to figure out how to cope with it. How to sort of program myself into reacting like a neurotypical person. Smile when you're meant to be happy. Raise your voice when you're meant to be excited. Act offended when someone insults you. To me, these things are distant. A touch, a word, an oncoming vehicle, even. I react to them because I know I'm supposed to, not because I feel a genuine, emotional impetus to do so. But the worst part of it is, I think, trying to build relationships.

How can I tell my loved ones, "Listen, I do love you, deeper than you'll ever know. But also, I kind of don't think you're real. Part of me is convinced this is all a dream, so none of it matters"? How can I expect someone to believe such drastic contradictions? Anyone, upon hearing such words, would be justified in their anger, and in wanting to cut me out of their life.

I do feel love. I feel hurt, and fear, and happiness, and excitement. It just doesn't work quite right, for me. For my fellow Trekkies, think of Data from The Next Generation, the android who longed to be a human, but who lacked a key component: A chip, inserted into his "brain," which would allow him to feel emotion. He can't experience things like love, anger, fear, etc, the way that we humans can. But his human (and alien) friendships are important to him, so he painstakingly teaches himself about humanity and emotions, even though physically, he lacks that component. And he does this because, in his own way, he does love his friends.

That's what it's like for me. It's like learning to be human. Except, I already am a human, I just don't function properly. I love my friends. I love my family. And I don't want them to think I don't care about them, because of my disorder. Even if this life does turn out to be a dream, it doesn't disqualify my love for them. It wouldn't render our relationship meaningless. So I'm trying. I'm trying very hard to find ways to maintain my relationships in a healthy way. My processor is damaged, but I'm not broken. Every day, I remind myself that I'm in this battle for myself, and my loved ones, because, real or unreal, we deserve happiness.

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