Seeing in 2D

Words by Nadine Silva, Art by Connor Xia

CW: dissociation, depersonalisation


I pulled up out the front of his apartment block and I saw him pacing up and down the pathway. He hopped into my car, clearly flustered.

“Josh, what’s going on?”

“I don’t know, I can’t really explain it… I can see better.”

“Okay, you’re going to have to do better than that.”

“Everything makes so much more sense.”

“Are you on anything?”

“No. Fuck.”

After a couple of vague attempts to explain himself, he Googled his symptoms, which led him to an article about a disorder called ‘depersonalisation’.

When we arrived at my house, we continued his Google diagnosis by rummaging through medical documents and personal accounts of the disorder. We found a BBC News video that described the experience of seeing in 2D.

Josh nearly jumped out of his chair in agreement. He couldn’t stop rambling on about how everything looked different, from the bottle of Coke sitting on the table to my face. I sat there, listening and observing, realising that I had never seen him this enthusiastic about anything in my life.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders describes the experience of depersonalisation as having an altered perception of yourself; a feeling of detachment as if you are an outside observer of your own body or mind. Dr Elaine Hunter, the clinical lead of the Depersonalisation Disorder Service at Maudsley Hospital, has dedicated many years of research in the field. Upon my telling her of Josh’s experiences, she said that seeing in 2D was actually a common symptom of derealisation; a phenomenon explicitly linked to depersonalisation.

Josh and his non-identical twin brother were born in Indiana, United States. They first moved to Australia when they were five years old. After their parents divorced they moved back to the States with their father and lived with him until he tragically passed away in a car accident. At fourteen, they returned to live with their mother in Australia and have been living in Sydney since.

I remember the first time I heard them talk about their father. On one hand, Josh was able to speak so openly about him. On the other hand, Jake would become silent, and you could almost feel his pain whenever their father was mentioned.

Dr Hunter said that divorce was quite a common trigger, and that Josh’s moving back and forth probably contributed to his susceptibility to the disorder. An article in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment states that a frequent theme of depersonalisation is a reduction or loss of emotional responses.

“I had a blanket when I was a kid that I always slept with, ‘cause you know, kids have that shit. And I lost it on an airplane. I think it was the same time my parents were fighting a lot. After that, I slept with a blanket over my head, then my parents got divorced, and there were two weeks where I didn’t see my dad, and that was hard. And after that, nothing ever bothered me.”

At the computer, Josh pointed at the space between his eyebrows; at what Hindu traditions would refer to as ‘the third eye chakra’. In recent years, his mother, brother, and I have often tried different things to get him out of the dark hole he fell into. We never really got too far, which is why it comes as a shock to hear him say that he meditated his way out of his disorder.

“I got high, and then I knew I had to meditate, which is stupid because it reminds me of that fucking ayahuasca. Have you ever heard of ayahuasca? People ask those people how they figured out to combine two random plants in a rainforest and make that tea and they’re like, the plants told us. It’s kind of stupid like that but weed has always kind of guided me in a weird way. I never listened to it.”

Despite this, Josh said smoking weed would often trigger anxiety and intensify the depersonalisation. “I used to get high and have panic attacks all the fucking time.” Dr Hunter also stated that cannabis does not help with depersonalisation disorders.

The complexities of depersonalisation disorders are still not entirely understood. While the results from studies of treatments have varied, Dr Hunter recently ran an eight-week mindfulness course that produced good results amongst those experiencing depersonalisation.

Josh still has moments when he feels like the disorder resurfaces and the anxiety kicks back in. He still gets stuck in his own head sometimes, but it’s getting easier for him to pull himself out of it.

“I’m more positive, I trust myself more. I can speak better. I can read faster. I can do things better, physically. My reflexes are better. People make more sense. Emotions make way more sense. I’m feeling emotions properly for the first time and it’s freaking me out.”