Clutching the steering wheel of my mother’s car, my hands suddenly catch my attention, as if a ray of sun suddenly shone on the muddy backwaters of my mind and exposed the millions of microscopic particles floating in the constant stream of experience. The knuckles poking out like the rounded tops of an ancient mountain range; the pale, teal-tinted veins descending from them like rivulets under ice. Curled around the black faux-leather wheel in the shape of question marks, my hands are responsible for so much. It’s an absurd experience, almost ridiculously so, but just as startling every time: how do they know what they’re doing? Am I not supposed to be the captain of this thing? Whose body is this?
It starts at the tips of my fingers and ripples to the core of my metabolic system: the realization of being so very alive. But not in the fun way. It’s a mixture of awe and dread: a sudden awareness of the autonomy yet the immense vulnerability of the organism that I live in – or that I am. This anxious animal body dressed in whatever colors resonated with me this morning, water and memory, electricity and blood, performing movements on autopilot that send me and this car cruising through streets that crisscross the planet like arteries.
It feels like zooming out of my body, or like living inside of a stranger. It’s a bizarre disconnection to the flesh and bones of my body, like being only theoretically alive. It’s being overwhelmed by a sense of unpredictability and unfamiliarity of the self: I’m me, but… why don’t I feel like it? And it’s not merely self-reflection, either – the surreal feeling extends to everything. It draws aside the curtain of comfort that makes functioning normally in society possible, and shrieks: “just LOOK at the magic and the insanity everywhere! Good luck trying to think about anything else, ha! By the way, that spider you just squished is made of whatever you’re made of, and so is that banana you were about to eat. Also, are you sure you exist?” Then, complacently, it leers at your widened eyes and your loss of appetite.
What I experience is a form of dissociation. Discussing the reasons for, or the variety of dissociative states is way beyond my current competence, and to avoid generalizing or misinforming anyone, I can only safely speak for my own subjective experiences. Welcome, all, to my very own personal chaos. Writing about one’s human messiness is an exercise of getting closer to its core and a way to make sense of this strange existence. Moreover, dissociation is not written about nearly enough considering how common it is, so here is an attempt.
Being a nearly everyday occurrence, this certainly intrudes on daily life. First of all, it complicates social situations, because the sudden awareness of the meticulously crafted embroidery underneath my skin overwhelms my capacity to process qualia, which means that I’ll sometimes forget to do anything with my physical exterior. This inevitably makes me seem absent (my sincerest apologies if I’ve ever done this to you, I do care about what you had for lunch or what your boyfriend did to upset you this time, but the universe is just so distracting right now). Secondly, this is an awkward thing to try to explain to others and thus find some solace, because drawing attention to The Utter Weirdness of Everything isn’t exactly the kind of small talk most want to have. So, when these intrusive thoughts come, they come with a feeling of incompatibility with most of the surrounding world – as if the sense of detachment from the self wasn’t enough. Thirdly, the pondering does get repetitive, and there are times it’s frustrating to be stuck in the fundamentals of it all. And finally, it can be absolutely freaking terrifying. To be startled by the workings of the skin case you happen to inhabit? To be spooked by the eyes in the mirror, dark and glossy like beetles, across which inner emotions crawl for all the world to see? Perhaps it is the loss of control that is frightening about it. However “yours” you consider your body, it doesn’t need you – the consciousness and its collection of world knowledge – for a fraction of what it does.
In order to turn this article into more than a mere elaborate complaint about the way my brain is laid out, and as an attempt to reach out to anyone with the same distracting disposition, here are some things that can help. One technique is naming things for every sense, and immersing yourself in the things you can smell, see, touch, hear at that moment. Such sensory evidence can be a way of feeling pleasant-alive instead of scary-alive: for example, cold exposure forces you to truly focus on how you’re feeling. Those of you who have survived a Northern winter know how hard it is to think of anything else when the cold invades you. It begins as a tingle on the cheeks, steals into your nostrils, freezing them, discreetly slips in between your toes and climbs under your shirt. As uncomfortable as it is, it’s precisely this observation of the world meeting the surface of you that pulls you to the very center of the present moment.
Another trick suggested by a friend is carrying a grounding object, such as a rock, with you: an anchor to hold when the tide of dissociation threatens to swipe you into outer space. Then there are breathing exercises, which should already be a habit as common as brushing your teeth. Personally, movement is the best medicine, because it brings me in tune with my limbs again. It turns the feelings of strangeness to those of playfulness, wonder, and joy. It helps me make the most of sensory experience, replacing the anxiety-inducing awareness of the concept of the self with a sort of harmony. With every muscle cooperating to hold a handstand, for example, it is as if you are thinking with your body, rather than about your body. This is an important thing to notice, because we have a strange, dualistic way of referring to our bodies in third person as if they were separate entities from “us”. This, thoroughly engraved in our heads, complicates the mind-body connection, making it less seamless than it might be. And all the time we spend feeling weird about our bodies is time we cannot spend making the most of them.
Anyway, having consciousness is weird, y’all. And despite all the complications of dissociation, there are things that can help ground you. This most certainly isn’t always easy, and there will be moments where your body feels foreign and the world intangible. But perhaps, it is possible to learn to be at peace with becoming a sponge to all the weird sensations that blur one’s boundaries. We are, after all, just haunted atoms, just sprawling collections of dreams and memories carried around by miraculously well-designed yet wonderfully awkward skin cases.