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June Sniff on Derealisation and the Psychiatric System

“It's as if I am watching a movie of what apparently is my life, but my seat is at the very back of a massive theatre.”

Montrealer June Sniff was first diagnosed with O.C.D. at the age of 12. The following year, depression and anxiety were also added to her diagnoses.

“I've always been highly sensitive and when I started puberty, I became starkly aware that my childhood was over; I had to grow up. My (valid) reaction to this shocking fact was with deep agony and resistance”.

She remembers describing to her psychiatrist that while looking at her hands “they seemed as if they had shrunk down to doll-size” and also explaining "I don't feel real". Soon after she learned about Derealisation.

Often coupled with Depersonalisation, Derealisation is a common symptom of anxiety, depression, and PTSD. “It feels like familiar reality is inaccessible and I am caught in a type of dream-state” says June, describing her experience with it. “I feel like I'm a thousand lightyears away from whatever my eyes are witnessing. The same sense of disconnect applies to the voice and message coming out of my mouth, and most notably of all, this detachment concerns my very consciousness as well; thoughts feel foreign and far away, murky and foggy, unfamiliar and out of my control.”

An early diagnosis can be a blessing, but in June’s case, this meant formative years and early adulthood heavily medicated and in the tight grips of a psychiatric system that has been well off the mark in helping her.

“I believe much of my fearful reaction to the experience is due to psychiatry conditioning me to judge every experience as "wrong" or “sick’” she says. “I have been conditioned from a young age to believe that my mind is not to be trusted, that I am unsafe in my brain.”

Mental illness as chemical imbalance was introduced to the public in the late 70's and 80's, largely due to psychiatry’s desperate to understand mental illness as primarily biological (it's easier to prescribe drugs when there is a biological reason). However, studies have shown a lack of convincing evidence that mental illness is associated with lower serotonin activity.

June is aware of how many people have been helped by psychiatry and medication, but also believes that it can be more helpful to look at the bigger picture, rather than pathologising the individual. “Understanding that there is nothing wrong with you/you are just living in a scary society would mean holding many powerful systems accountable.” Her vision of the best alternative to the current psychiatric system would assure those suffering that “a) you are not stuck in this storm, and b) you will come out of this storm with a sense of meaning.”

Having realised that “the medication used to treat my "mental illness" could also cause symptoms of the very disorder they're meant to treat”, June is now off the meds, and out of the system.

The effects of the medication withdrawal, coupled with the experience of Derealisation, and the trauma of being a psychiatric patient for more than a decade, still mean that June generally experiences a nightmarish “(un)reality”.

But she is still able to experience beauty. “If I am able to reframe the condition I find myself in with more compassion and less judgement, there is a spot of pleasure; like a good dream; floaty, mystical, channelling wonder, like a toddler exploring a garden for the very first time…Many people have described certain psychedelic trips the same way I describe an awe-filled bout of derealisation”.

This clash of eeriness and beauty helps to explain June’s style, which features eerie figures and dreamy moods. Describing this particular image, June says “The empty, ghost-like figures depict the vagueness found in states of derealisation. Loved-ones are unfamiliar, strangers are as strange as ever. Information is being processed differently while dissociating: the mind's filtering-system feels compromised. In this piece I am witnessing a very important meeting between two figures though I'm unable to coherently gather the message or tone.”

Follow June Sniff's explorations here.


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