Please Remind Me I’m Real
BEEP, beep, beep
This tunnel is one of my biggest fears. I’m driving my car on the M5, about to go through the airport tunnel. Horns are blaring since no one likes peak hour, yet the pace is consistent.
The lights that line the walls start zooming past, and my mind does a little trick. Suddenly the cars aren’t moving at all, and it’s the walls that are. The cars are stationary, and yet I need to make sure I keep my feet on the pedals and keep a distance from the car in front.
This tunnel was always a trigger into a derealisation episode. The world would suddenly seem unreal, and I had to fight the temptation to turn the wheel off my lane just to prove it was. I hated driving like this when I had passengers, yet found that passengers were the strongest motivator to keep me in the lane.
But derealisation chased me in all my waking moments. It kept me in constant confusion between what was real and unreal. It remained sly; an experience difficult to express in words. For me, it was the sense of detachment from the real world, as if I wasn’t inhabiting my body and simply watching from a television screen. It gave me ideas to try dangerously stupid things to remember I was real, that I wasn’t stuck in a trip, unable to ever get out.
I haven’t always had it. Derealisation is an intense symptom strongly associated with high levels of anxiety or dissociative disorders. It’s often triggered from trauma or extreme-anxiety-causing events. Sadly, it continues to go undetected or misdiagnosed in many.
For me, learning the term “derealisation” helped me draw a line on what was real and what wasn’t. I was able to grasp that these feelings had nothing to do with being stuck in an alternate reality, but were completely real with ongoing symptoms.
Wake up, wake up, WAKE UP.
I open my eyes to the shadows of my room, my heartbeat erratic, my thoughts speeding. This was always the worst bit. That moment before sleep, that split second before you drift. I turn over in my bed and reach for my phone. Scrolling through my friends list to see who’s still awake, I choose someone recently active.
Me: Hey G, you there?
G: Yeah. Ok?
Me: Remind me I’m awake.
G: You’re awake. Go to sleep.
Sometimes my terminology would change. Awake, alive, real: they all meant the same to me. I started leaving my bedroom door open so the snores down the hallway would remind me that the world was real.
Nights were always the hardest for me, yet that doesn’t run the same for everyone. Three years after my first episode, I couchsurfed and met a friend who woke up to these experiences. Mornings would take a while to leave the house; one morning he was a rock in the ocean. Another he was the summer breeze. I laughed when he told me, as I imagine most other people would. I once left him for five minutes at a waterfall to go take photos. He thought I had been gone for at least an hour.
Depersonalisation is the next level of dissociative disorders. It is the lack of connection with one’s own identity. For me, my first episode was luckily my only episode of depersonalisation. I confused myself from being an Asian woman in her early 20s to an old African-American woman lying on her deathbed. I forgot who my parents and friends were; I couldn’t remember what was outside the park, or what I had been doing with my life up until the park. I forgot schools existed. It was terrifying.
THUMP, thump, thump…
The vibrations coming from the speakers are strong, amplified by the stomping of feet at the festival. Everywhere I turn there are bodies, streaks of light, and an array of costumes from flower fairies to doctors.
My friend pulls me into the crowd and being intoxicated, I trip out. All I can do is stand still or run. I try to dance — though I’m sure it was more likely a mild sway — but frantically I’m trying to pull my brain back into my body. Soon enough I give up and opt to run. A walk to the toilets will help me out.
But where toilets were a great escape, the psychologist rooms I entered never helped. The first I tried was too new in the field, seemingly lost when I delved deeper into how I was feeling. The second psychologist I saw had more experience with drug-related mental health conditions, yet didn’t leave me any reassurance that he understood.
Eventually I gave up and relied on myself. I identified my triggers — any mind altering substances (including alcohol) and highly sensory-stimulating situations — and worked out how to avoid or eliminate them. When I felt more stable, I started introducing them back into my lifestyle.
Blink, blink, blink….
The world may be tilting but everything’s ok. I’m inside a dark, domed room, lying down on the mirrored floor; I’m watching the ceiling as petals spread out over the starry sky and fall apart before my eyes. The air smells of flowers, and the enchanting music overlaps other sounds in the room.
This immersive exhibit was a treat for the senses, but also overwhelming. My brain’s tripping out, as if I’ve stepped away from my body and entered an alternate universe; but pleasantly. Like floating on the moon, or jumping on clouds. And that’s okay because I know it always comes to a stop.
After so many years, I’ve learned to override the negatives with positives. I treated my out-of-body experiences as new adventures; I found myself fascinated over the smallest things (like how thousands of years ago another human would have been sitting where I am now); I started being gentler on myself for not following the status quo.
I encouraged myself to do the things I’ve always wanted to: travel alone, stop following the expectations of others, and to challenge myself. I will always tell people that I wish I had never experienced derealisation and depersonalisation, but if you’re like me and you have — we’re going to be okay.
Cover by Anthony Tran