There is an elaborate coping mechanism I created as a child which has been a part of my life for the past 29 or so years. In Magical Shrinking I use the phrase Alternate Universe (AU) to describe this phenomenon. In essence, when I was roughly 9 years old, I created a world in my head that became as real as the life I am consciously a part of every day. It’s difficult to explain the AU quickly, but I’m going to discuss it briefly this today, especially for people who have read the book already.
Here’s what you must know in order to read about the AU. My biological parents are dead, and I have an adopted father, Richard, and his wife Susan. That’s all you need to know without reading the book. You’ve got to buy it to find out what happened to my parents…When I refer to Richard and Susan, I’m referring to my AU parents. Also, in the AU I’m a famous musician.
There are two main ways the AU works in my life. One contains the part in my head which is always running. Even when I’m not paying attention to it, life is going on, and if I spend time in Real Life (RL), I can check into the AU to see what’s been happening. It progresses whether or not I am there consciously.
The second way the AU works is when I bring it to the forefront of my RL world. I can either choose to be AU Chris in my RL day, or if necessary, the AU Chris will take over naturally. For example, as an intern or caseworker sometimes I was AU Chris because the situation called for someone to be tougher than RL me.
There’s a clear difference between RL and AU me, but it’s nowhere near as pronounced as it was when I was younger. The main difference at this point is the different parents, money, and fame. My life is my life, except the musical ability and being a celebrity.
An example is the grocery store. Sometimes I’m there and I just handle my business and buy my stuff. No big deal. Just the RL life me, getting what I need. Especially when I’m with Jason or my mom. When I’m alone? I’m usually AU Chris. People in the grocery store know I’m famous, but they’re cool about it and don’t hassle me. I take care of my business and leave. No problem. People don’t need to feel funny about my celebrity status, I’m as normal as anyone else.
It was different when I was younger. It took years for the AU to develop to the point where it is now. I can turn it on and off like nothing. I can kick back and enjoy it, or put it aside as I do what I need to do. As a child I couldn’t separate the AU from RL easily at all. It was stressful, and embarrassing, even though only I knew about it. The fear of someone finding my pictures of Richard and/or Susan cut out from TV Guide was intense (they are actually people from TV whom I turned into relatives). What would I say if my mom found them? Why did I have these random pictures?
By high school I needed Richard and Susan badly – but not all the time. When I had the Holms, they were sufficient. The AU existed, but I had a RL that was deep and fulfilling. At school sometimes I needed Richard too much, and had to break off from reality to access the AU. I would wait until class was underway and then let myself sink into the AU. I’d be there, as AU Chris in my class.
This was the point when I was diagnosed with depersonalization disorder (age 15), which made sense. My reality was incredibly confusing. What was real? What did real even mean?
It evolved as I aged. I didn’t have to drift off to the point of others noticing I wasn’t there consciously. By the end of my junior year in high school I’d figured out how to do it well. And when something happened that I didn’t like, at school, for example, I could be AU Chris in a second and handle anything. RL Chris was tentative and weak.
In my journals I usually wrote as RL Chris, and one can read about how unsure of myself I was. How little I understood about my motivations – especially to get high. It didn’t make sense to me in RL. In the AU I was a serious addict. RL me wondered if I could experiment with drugs and handle them better than AU Chris. AU Chris was really out of control, but RL Chris might be able to use drugs successfully.
Much more happened in the AU than is documented in Magical Shrinking. The book would have been twice as long if I’d included all of the AU stories. It’s important to realize that the AU stories are there. At any point in my life I can go into my brain and figure out what was happening in the AU, with a couple exceptions. When I was under too much stress at certain points in my life, the AU became elusive, and although I can access a faint idea of what was going on during that time, it’s not real enough to report.
Periodically I will write about the AU on the blog, because it’s an integral part of my story. It can be a little hard to understand and process. Interestingly, after reading the book, a few people have told me they have a similar coping mechanism they’ve used to deal with life. I’d love to know how common this is, because it felt unspeakably crazy when I was growing up, and frankly still seemed crazy until a couple years ago when Mark and I worked on it in therapy.