Episode: Numbness & Detachment

Something I’ve been pondering lately goes a little something like this:

A person (well, many actually) says to me, “my medication makes me feel numb and totally detached.”

So I reply, “are you sure? Because I feel that way and I’m not taking any medication that might cause it.”

Then we stand for a moment, shuffle our feet, one of us coughs, and we go our own ways.

Seriously though, if I had a dime for every time I’ve been told medication was producing some kind of detachment/disassociation, I’d be rich.

I’m not saying that it isn’t the medication, because (clearly) I’m not a doctor and can’t tell you what any medication may or may not be doing. Multiply that by the fact that each human appears to react to medications differently, and we’ve got a real puzzle on our hands.

What I said, though, is true.

I often feel numb, to some degree at least. For me it is like the 3rd, hidden episode. There’s mania, depression, normalcy (which isn’t an episode at all) and then this. The void. The black hole of feelings.

It is something that can be hard to describe if you haven’t felt it, but it is sort of like having a gaping hole where your feelings were, previously.

Let’s say I have a wonderful friendship with my dog, we’re best friends. I love her, we do everything together. Then one day, I suddenly realize that those feelings of love have vanished for no apparent reason. My brain is telling me, “well of course you still love her, she’s your buddy!” but I can’t seem to feel it.

This is the part where people really start to freak out, and I’ve done so myself in the past with a few relationships. Talk about shaking things up, how fun would it be to break up and then have that numbness vanish in a week or two on its own? It can make for some horrifying and awkward moments! Thankfully I’ve learned my lesson there, and like all other episodes, it is generally temporary.

I would say that for me, the absence of love is the easiest to identify. I love a lot of things, you know. Like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Macaroni and cheese. Love is the first thing I notice when it is mysteriously out back taking a smoke break instead of being present and available.

Sadness is another one that really scares people when it mysteriously fails to show up, usually in an already upsetting situation. When my grandma passed away I was extremely detached from the whole thing, I didn’t cry once at the funeral, but it wasn’t for lack of wanting to or trying. The sadness had just escaped somewhere else.

You might think that being unable to feel sadness would be great, but even just with my grandma’s funeral, I had to wait months before I was finally able to grieve. It wasn’t until I had the numbness abate on its own that I could start to move on.

And chick flicks? Don’t even get me started. I couldn’t cry watching those for the most part even if I wanted to! The numbness led me to watch all sorts of terrible things when I was young, simply because I couldn’t feel the effects of them. Hannibal isn’t nearly as frightening when you’re numb to his charms.

It isn’t that this numb state is particularly detrimental or uncomfortable, but it is boring. Oh, so boring. And what usually gets me into trouble is trying to shake things up because of how bored I am. Really, I should probably be more thankful it isn’t worse.

So it got me to thinking, all of this, and the idea that it could be caused by medications is annoying, to be sure. But the idea that it isn’t caused by that for me is considerably more annoying, because that means it is coming from within.

Having bipolar disorder, I experience all sorts of emotions, even when I shouldn’t. Is it reasonable to consider I may have birthed this numbness and detachment as a coping mechanism?

Sometimes I have emotions that don’t fit what is going on, or they’re extreme, or completely unreal. It seems only natural that I distance myself in some way from my emotions, don’t you think? If I really hung on every single feeling I have, I’d be much worse off than I am right now -overwhelmed to the nth degree, probably confused, and exhausted.

My emotions can be very unreliable, so I guess I’ve just discounted them completely. I’ve detached myself from them so they aren’t as heavy.

A couple of weeks ago I talked to 8 different people with bipolar disorder who said they have experienced the same thing, in regard to feeling numbness/lack of feelings. Is this just how we’ve evolved in order to cope with our extraordinary feelings?

And if that is the case, could it be possible that it may not be the medication, it is just us?

I don’t have any research today to confirm or deny that thought, because I’d really just like to leave as that: a thought.

I’d be really interested, though, if I could potentially hone this ability to have an on and off switch. In times of crisis I couldn’t imagine a better mechanism, but in times of peace… can’t I just feel a little love for my macaroni and cheese?

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18 responses to “Episode: Numbness & Detachment

  1. Very interesting post. I have felt that “void” for much of my life.
    I got the word Chaos tattooed on the back of my neck in greek… There are some different ideas of what the greek word in mythology means but one was ” a gaping void that gave birth to the universe.” For me, I am the void, and my children are my universe.

  2. I get what you’re saying. I have the same experience, and it started way before medication. I can’t predict when it’s going to happen. But when it does, it really freaks my wife out. I tell her that it’s not personal, and that it will pass. And it always does.

    By the way, I really dig your writing style. You have a strong voice.

  3. On The Void

    The village of Disthymia. No pain, no joy, no love, no hate, no past, no future, I do not exist. There is nothing but an eternity and nothing to fill it but empty meaningless motions. I don’t want to live and I don’t want to die; there’s nothing to live for and nothing to die for. It’s suicide of the soul, not of the body. I lost over ten years there. I never want to go there again. Please don’t let me go there again.

    Is that what you mean?

  4. I’ve had those numb, empty non-feeling episodes before. I never paid attention to what triggered it, but I always want to feel something, usually pain because I know I can’t fool myself with pain. (No worries, I’m safe and haven’t cut ever or anything.) It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. Appreciate your writing so much.

    • Sarah @ bi[polar] curious

      I’m glad to hear you are safe and haven’t spent time in that self-harm realm, because it is a really easy place to fall into. Like you, I have spent time absolutely yearning for any feeling at all -and pain in particular seems to be the only thing that can arouse enough feeling to put the numbness on the back-burner. I fell into that self-harm place a long time ago, but when my family found out, the pain I was putting myself through was compounded exponentially when I realized it was causing them pain too. Because of that, I’ve never done it again.

      I think to some degree, exercise has been a helpful alternative in that place. If I can get myself motivated enough to do it, the endorphins from exercising can be pretty helpful at times. Of course, it can be just as easy to go overboard with exercise to the point where it becomes a self-harm situation… so moderation in everything, as they say, I suppose.

  5. I get it, definitely. I’ve never thought of it as a coping mechanism, though. I hate it. I think if I had to link it to something it’s possible it creeps up in an identity crisis. Or maybe the identity crisis stems from the numbness. Who knows? The problem is that at the time I’m just too numb to care :-p

  6. This article was really helpful as a non bipolar person to understand what I was dealing with in a former relationship.

  7. This was very insightful especially in terms of it being a potential defense mechanism. I hadn’t noticed until reading this, there is a distinct correlation between when I’m feeling EVERYTHING followed by feeling NOTHING. I’m not sure if its just the sequence of moods, or perhaps it really is my inner workings to defer to numbness in order to give myself a break from the overwhelmingness of feeling everything all at once. The downside is not being able to control what you are numb to and what you are not. My friendships often suffer as a result because I appear very cold, and once my emotions return to me I wind up apologizing. On the plus side, I do appreciate the mental break from all of the other emotions. It’s kind of a catch-22.

  8. Hector Martinez

    Very helpful observations… Been in love with someone who has those frequent episodes of numbness and total emotional detachment can be very hurtful and sometimes makes me feel like total crap myself, even questioning my own mental sanity… The person I love is currently in manic stage, engaging in dangerous, highly promiscuous sexual behavior, acting like this is the “new normal”… I’m feeling like loosing my mind!

  9. It is called depersonalization, which seems to be just one kind of dissociation. I’ve learnt that, too. If I hadn’t been able to surpress my feelings i wouldn’t have been able to adjust to an officially normal curriculum vitae with school and college or I would even not have survived my youth full of severe depression. For me it gets stronger with stress, existancially threatening feelings and shame of being like this. Dissociation is often a consequence of trauma. For most people it is a coping mechanism automatized by our own organism to save our (social) lives.
    Naltrexone is helping some people with it, Lamictal is helping others. But it’s pretty hard if not impossible to control.
    For me, the numbness of dissociation is different from the numbness of antipsychotics or ADs (will try Lamictal next) and for me it is easier to accept than being blunted artificially from the outside because after Ten years I can finally accept it’s necessary to get along with sometimes unbearable feelings. I really don’t like it though. Ruminating about it and being overly attentive to it, makes it worse for me too.
    Thats why I hate meds that detach me even more. Anybody on meds that dont make that worse?
    Greetz from a german hospital bed.

  10. It is called depersonalization, which seems to be just one kind of dissociation. I’ve learnt that, too. If I hadn’t been able to surpress my feelings i wouldn’t have been able to adjust to an officially normal curriculum vitae with school and college or I would even not have survived my youth full of severe depression. For me it gets stronger with stress, existancially threatening feelings and shame of being like this. Dissociation is often a consequence of trauma. For most people it is a coping mechanism automatized by our own organism to save our (social) lives.
    Naltrexone is helping some people with it, Lamictal is helping others. But it’s pretty hard if not impossible to control.
    For me, the numbness of dissociation is different from the numbness of antipsychotics or ADs (will try Lamictal next) and for me it is easier to accept than being blunted artificially from the outside because after Ten years I can finally accept it’s necessary to get along with sometimes unbearable feelings. I really don’t like it though. Ruminating about it and being overly attentive to it, makes it worse for me too.
    Thats why I hate meds that detach me even more. Anybody on meds that dont make that worse?
    Greetz from a german hospital.

  11. I’m not bipolar (at least I don’t know because I refused to see a psychologist) but honestly I’m the same way….like I miss feeling high ( my teachers literally assumed I was on drugs and sent me to the office….) but I can’t feel sad either. I don’t feel anything at all and it’s really scary because I feel like I literally don’t exist. I used to feel either very very sad and suicidal and or really really happy and high and it just change every few months but now I just can’t feel anything at all and honestly I’d rather feel sad than how it is now. Good to know I’m not the only one.

  12. From someone who has been married for 23+ years to a man with Bipolar II, I can say from my perspective that this bipolar symptom – emotional detachment – is probably one of the more difficult challenges of being in a relationship with someone who has bipolar, and likely one of the primary reasons 90% of marriages that include a bipolar spouse end in divorce. At times when an “appropriate” response might be to show empathy, concern, or compassion, my husband can be just a blank slate, or annoyed with me for showing emotion at all. Often when he’s in this state, he views everything in black and white, only in extremes, and it’s damaging to not only our marital relationship but also to his relationship with his children. It can make parenting as a team with reason, love, and compassion very difficult, to say the least.

    When he’s not detached, or depressed, or hypomanic, he’s great. In those moments, he’s a caring and loving father and husband, and those times are the reason we’re still married after 23 years.

    I’ve read a LOT about bipolar over the years, and while it seems there is a lot of information and support available for those who have it, there’s not nearly enough out there for those who love and support someone with bipolar. It can be a very lonely place to be at times.

  13. Carolina Torruella

    This was so spot on. Could not have said it any better. It’s very hard to try to explain it to people who don’t have this disorder. Have you found something that helps get you through this?

  14. I have felt numb both on and off of medication – so for me it’s not the meds that make me numb, just an episode I have to deal with.

  15. Thanks this explains what a girl with bipolar close to me is going through, she’s very quiet and detached from certain people but talks to others

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