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On Being Outside of the Body photo

On a bench outside the classroom on our fifteen-minute break, I close my eyes and practice the grounding exercise my therapist taught me earlier that week. Facing the rush hour freeway, I try to imagine myself at the beach. Details, I remember, it’s all about the details: no one else is on the beach, no sunshine, just my body and the day’s pleasant gloom.

It’s a late June day, 85 degrees out, and about the same temperature inside the unairconditioned classroom I'm soon going to have to return to. In my head, it’s a foggy day at Crystal Cove and the water is misting its salt into my pores. When I finish the exercise, or maybe when my brain reminds me I have somewhere else to be, the place where I actually am, I open my perpetually filmy eyes. My glasses do little for the lack of visual clarity I constantly experience and have come to expect. I decide I’m close enough to the ground to guide myself back into the classroom.

* * *

This week we’re talking about poems that have to do with nature. Coincidental, maybe, considering I’ve just attempted to imagine myself in it as a refuge, following my therapist’s orders to mentally transport myself to a relaxing place when I feel like I’m starting to leave my body. I don’t even know if I actually like the beach. I hate sand.

I return to the front of the room and direct the seven students who have showed up today to flip to the third page of the poetry packet I’ve handed out. We’re reading Mary Oliver. Some weeks there are more students, some weeks there are less. I don’t question where they’ve gone when they return after a week or two of not being here; I’m just glad to have them at all. A student whose usual excitement about the class is tangible isn’t here this week. A few minutes into the class, someone from the front office pokes her head in the door.

“Kim wanted to let you know that she couldn’t be here today, but that she really wanted to. She said to let you know that she’ll be here next week.”

In a class void of grading, I appreciate the extra effort.  My college students typically don’t alert me of their absence, just hope it’ll slip by without my noticing, but I always notice, perhaps because I wished my frequent absences when I was in school had been noted.

Peter, who sits in the front row, reads the poem “Wild Geese” aloud. I don’t know if I believe I am capable of healing but this is beginning to convince me of its possibility. As it typically goes with teaching, I’m learning from my students, maybe more than they are from me. The two hour, once a week class is the only thing in my life right now that thins the air around me, which is otherwise thick and near impossible to get through. However disorienting the density of the world around me feels, I am temporarily near ease.

“You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees.”

* * *

I don’t know much about my students here, only that they are adults who have been affected either directly or indirectly in some way by mental illness. The institute here is to support them, help them reintegrate into a world that typically neglects the kinds of struggles they have been through. The continuing education courses are offered in different disciplines and class topics. I teach creative writing and in this class specifically, poetry.

I’m surprised by their enthusiasm for the material. They raise their hands to share ideas without prompt and don’t hesitate to read what they’ve written when asked. They listen intently as I talk about the romantic poets, regurgitating the literary knowledge I’ve compiled from undergraduate and graduate school. They trust that I know what I’m talking about; I don’t even trust that I’m presently in my own body. 

My students don’t know much about me, their instructor, only my ties with the nearby university. They certainly don’t know anything about the current flaring state of my own mental illness, how it’s snaked its way into the once unbothered crevices of my days. If they detect its presence, they don’t confess to it. I decide my concealment is not an accomplishment. Maybe without the success of my facade, I wouldn’t have to worry so much about the risk of losing it.

Losing it—these days I am terrified of what that means and how close I am to it. If honesty is important, I’m honestly afraid of losing my fucking mind. My hands don’t feel like my hands and lately the thought takes up significant space in my consciousness. I stretch a palm out in front of me and watch it move in lagged time. I am disturbed by the existence of my own teeth, like exposed bones in my mouth. At night, I dream that they are crumbling down my throat, small stones becoming dust. When I wake up, my tongue searches for what’s left of them. I am both relieved and anxious to find that they remain the same as they did when I fell asleep, fully intact. I grind them consistently without effort, and the resulting headaches become a comforting reminder that I am capable of at least feeling something, even if pain, 

On Sunday I go with Ariel to Sawtelle to get bread pudding, sticky and cloyingly saccharine but a favorite of mine. “Isn’t it good?” he asks after I take a bite. I nod, a physical lie. It tastes like cardboard to me. When he drops me off at home at 7 p.m., I go straight to bed.

* * *

Despite the vivid and sometimes stressful state of my nocturnal subconscious, I have decided I like dreaming because it doesn’t feel real and because it certifiably isn’t. Being awake doesn’t feel real either, but because it’s supposed to. I’m perpetually uncomfortable, on edge. How do I even know I really am awake if being awake feels like a dream? I have to pep talk myself into peeing every time I sit down on the toilet because my brain doesn’t trust its own signals, isn’t certain that it belongs to my body at that very moment. It requires tangible effort to guide my neurons in the right direction, but even that act of directing doesn’t feel like a task I should be trusted with. Who could be controlling me, if not me?

* * *

On week three of the poetry course, I am on my fifth day of Wellbutrin. The first few days on the medication are good, maybe great if you ask soon enough after I take it. I’ve written 10 pages each day I’ve been on it and everything tastes like shit in a way I‘ve always wished it would. I eat 2 miniature clementines for dinner and feel more productive than I ever have in my life. 

This week we are writing and reading love poems. I am so single I can feel the absence in my fingernails. I’ve been on a few dates since the start of summer but have had to scrape what little personality I can find to bring with me on them. It isn’t enough to keep anyone’s interest, my own included. I wonder if love could fix me in the way psych meds and therapy haven’t yet been able to. I am on my third medication trial of the summer and I am starting to believe there is no cure for whatever this is.

We read odes and during the second half of the class I ask them to write one for something, anything of their choosing. A student who sits in the middle row volunteers to read her poem. It’s called “Ode to My Poetry Teacher,” she tells the class. Momentarily, I am confident that I’m where I’m supposed to be and although the feeling will dissipate not long after I leave the classroom, I keep the sentiment with me.

I won't admit it, but I’m actively looking for love, looking for it like it is the thing I am missing, as though missing something is why I feel the way I do. Later that evening I will go on a date with someone who is kind, but will text me after and ask to see me again, in a situation more intimate. I will politely let him know I am looking for something else. What else would that be? he will ask. I am unsure so I wont respond.

* * *

My students make me smile, a genuine kind that lately has been hard to locate. It’s not often you smile in your sleep, and although I’ve been known to do it before, it’s unlikely that I’ll notice it if I do. Because lately all I really do is sleep, I don’t have much time for other joy. I workout, eat enough to survive, and prepare my lesson plans, but not much else. I’d rather be alone with my subconscious than surrounded and conscious.

The doctor who prescribes me the Wellbutrin doesn’t seem concerned with my sixteen-hour rest schedule. Glancing at my arms, he asks if I lift weights. I nod. Before the appointment ends, I tell him I think I might be depressed. I’m here for fatigue but maybe it’s depression, I offer. A girl like you? he asks. Depressed? I don’t think you are. I consider telling him I don’t feel like I’m inside my body but decide against it, a careful disclosure reserved for those with empathy. Explaining what I feel would be exhausting and likely hopeless.

He looks me up and down again and gives me a prescription for something I can’t pronounce, to keep me from falling asleep during the day. At the next appointment I bargain for something else, something more psychiatric, worried about what will happen if I don’t. The Wellbutrin will give you energy, he tells me. If you have suicidal thoughts, stop taking it.

I’ve been depressed before and I’ve taken antidepressants to help. This isn’t depression and it’s not really anxiety either, but I don’t have the language to call it what it is. Does that make me a bad writer?

* * *

On the seventh day of Wellbutrin, the cloud of impending doom that has been accumulating in my peripherals transitions to the front of my vision. That night, I cry in front of my mother, something I never do, and pull my hair out from my scalp, something I used to do but haven’t done since high school. I am flooded with the knowledge that I am steps away from being completely unable to function. I confess that I am terrified I will be unable to teach my university job in the fall, an opportunity that I worked tirelessly to secure and prepare for. My mother is visibly concerned, caught off guard by my lapse of emotional control. This spillage of vulnerability is completely unlike me, typically put together and cautious, but it’s too late in the confession for me to retract. 

She’s surprisingly calm in offering solutions. Maybe a bath will help? I agree because there’s no use in pleading for else when I don’t know what it is I’m pleading for. My mother cannot make the psych meds work better, make my brain chemicals balance into shape, so I follow her advice, taking a Xanax and letting the hot water make a prune out of me. The next day I don’t continue with the dosage, under the advice of my doctor. It’s not a normal side effect, no. Stop taking the medication. I stop the Wellbutrin and don’t return to his office.

Although I think briefly about death as an end to the doom that I can’t seem to escape, I decide I do not want it. I doubt that death will make me feel alive again. 

* * *

In the Facebook group for depersonalization and derealization, the members share a similar pessimism, discouraged sentiments about their misery knowing no relief. When I read the posts, the doom cloud around me strengthens its grip. Does anyone feel like they are watching themselves from a high vantage point? Do reflective surfaces send you further away from yourself? Does anyone else get terrorized by existential thoughts? Has anyone else not cried in years? Do you remember what it felt like to feel? Does anyone else worry that this will never end? Will this ever end?

* * *

Depersonalization is the sensation of being away from your body in a way that’s in direct opposition to the kind proposed by meditation. Mirrors can become a ramp for my detachment to slide down, sending me farther away from myself even as I’m in front of myself, facing myself. Derealization, the feeling of not being real, is another accompanying spiral that knows little relief; it’s an endless battle between being outside of the body or being in it and terrified. I am constantly questioning the realness of things around me, my connection to the earth, its validity. The big existential questions of life, too, are tortuous in a way that most people typically don’t find them to be. I am often overwhelmed by the strangeness of things that are not at all strange. My brain is skilled in making the familiar feel foreign, taking comfort and turning it into dread. 

* * *

My therapist tells me that she would like to try EMDR again with me today if that’s okay. We’ve been doing it for the past couple of sessions to try to work through any trauma that may be causing the detachment. She asks what medication I am trying this week and writes it down. Lexapro, a former solution to sadness from my teenage years, is now causing the room to whirl in a delayed motion. I ask if we can take a break from the reprocessing this week. The thought of following her moving finger with my eyes makes the barely contents of my stomach slosh. She nods. Of course.

* * *

It is nearing the end of July, my last week of the poetry class, and I’ve decided that attempting to be inside of my body is an effort I can afford. For the last class we’re reading a collection of miscellaneous poems that have helped me return to earth, if only for a brief period of time. I don’t confess this to my students, instead tell them that they’re just poems I really like. Maggie Smith, Maya Angelou, and more Mary Oliver.

“Good Bones” by Maggie Smith is their favorite of this bunch, they decide collectively. I agree with them. 

* * *

I will say goodbye to my students at the end of class and I will think of them often, hope for their stability like I do my own. I will wonder if they too, ever bargain for functionality in their heads. Do they ever ask what could be sacrificed in return for sanity?

My detachment won't end abruptly, instead it will linger and ebb as I search for a solution. The fourth medication of the summer, Celexa, will work well, maybe not perfectly, but enough to keep my body in tune with my mind. The work done in therapy will help me work towards keeping my soles on the ground for some of the time, if not all of the time. I will not notice these things are working and that is when they will begin to best. 

Depersonalization, the stranger who showed up at my door one day and remained, will come and go like one would expect it to, like most mental illnesses, not a temporary companion. I will interrogate it for its intentions and spend countless hours trying to transcribe it. I will take the medication and I will do the therapy, and I will do the work required to get by. And when my solutions have been exhausted, I will return to the one that is constant; I will read the poems that have briefly pulled me back down from an elevated place, and I will remember what they did for me, what they can do for me, and what I hope they do for others. 

“This place could be beautiful,

right? You could make this place beautiful.”


image: Dorothy Chan