Jeffrey Abugel, co-author of Feeling Unreal: Depersonalization Disorder and the Loss of the Self has worked as an editor and writer for more than 25 years. He has researched depersonalization and its relationship to philosophy and literature since the 1980s and is the founder of the depersonalization-themed website, www.depersonalization.info. He is also a member of the American Medical Writers Association. In the article below he reflects upon what it was like to see his book in the new film Numb, starring Matthew Perry.
Depersonalization Disorder is nothing to laugh about.
So when Harris Goldberg, the writer/director of a new movie called Numb, starring Matthew Perry, invited my co-author and I to the premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival we truly didn’t know what to expect. We suspected the film was autobiographical, and we knew that it involved Depersonalization Disorder(DPD), the topic we had doggedly pursued in our book Feeling Unreal.
I had spoken to Harris often on the phone, discussing DPD, how to treat it, how to live with it, how to express it. Then while Feeling Unreal was being completed, he began work on a screenplay about his own DPD experience. Uh oh, I thought. DPD is serious stuff. A source of pain, confusion, and frustration for millions of people worldwide. When word leaked out to the ever-skeptical, ever -broadening DPD online community, concerns about an upcoming “romantic comedy” involving depersonalization soon began to surface. What might we expect from the writer of Deuce Bigelow Male Gigolo and Without a Paddle?
Shortly after the publication of Feeling Unreal I called Harris to try and sniff out a little more about the film he was then editing for the final cut. No dice. I had to trust him, and wait and see. “Well, I’ll do all I can to promote the film, if you’ll do all you can to promote the book,” I said, and left it at that.
By premiere night, I made it through the lines and limousines, bright lights and hoopla to my third row seat like a kid waiting to be webbed by Spidey.
While it is not my intent to write a film review here, the movie played out as funny, engaging and touching. It also exhibited particular bravery on the part of its writer/director. Perry’s character becomes depersonalized after smoking pot—something that definitely happens in the real world. But also something that decidedly runs against the Hollywood grain and the thinking that marijuana is harmless. It was gratifying to see Harris’s entire premise built from this simple “inconvenient” truth. And despite the romance and humor, the film does well to portray the frustration of DPD patients who are so often misdiagnosed, and who find themselves trying to wade through the Physicians Desk Reference in search of relief.
About half way through, the case was made. After years of being immersed in depersonalization—flashbacks of the symptoms while doing research, the philosophical implications, and the hard labor that brought it all together in a serious book—I could see where the film was headed. Soon I would find the exit and a taxi home, glad that the condition was finally out in the mainstream and relieved that Harris had “done no harm.”
Then it happened, almost quicker than I could realize. In his search for more pills, more potential cures, more information about depersonalization, Matthew Perry is suddenly shown in an extreme close up reading Feeling Unreal. There it was, for more than a few seconds it seemed. The labor of love and passion that had filled my life for so many years was getting a camera close-up worthy of Norma Desmond. What a shock, what a surprise, what timing! Thank you Harris, I thought.
Of course it was a little shot of ego juice, and I smiled and relished the moment. But I knew all along that something far more important was happening. Depersonalization Disorder, the long-neglected subject of the book, was being placed in the public eye on a grand scale. People who have suffered for decades never knowing what ails them now have a mainstream point of reference. And a celluloid reference to our book. A personal goal set silently decades earlier had finally been realized.
Seeing the book onscreen was, in a way, an effort rewarded, and perhaps an important blow to a condition that had robbed the director and I of so much, for so long. Reality had been skewered once again, only this time, for the better. The experience was, for once, pleasingly unreal.