Monday, November 24, 2014

Escape from the Shadow Realm

In the words of the Grateful Dead and Soul II Soul, what a long, strange trip it's been back to life, back to reality. I finally seem to be coming out of a soul coma. For the last few years, I've been plagued by a sense of unreality, a feeling that the world and its inhabitants are unreal or (more often) that some inter-dimensional haze separates me from everything (and everyone) else. The effect is mainly emotional, but I'm most aware of its visual component. It slightly blurs my vision, softening all edges.

Apparently, this is a symptom of Depersonalization Disorder. I discovered this quite by accident when I looked up Adam Duritz of Counting Crows on Wikipedia. On an episode of the hit podcast Jordan, Jesse, Go! one of the hosts (Jordan) said Mr. Duritz's dreadlocks were fake, so I decided to conduct some independent research. I was unable to confirm that claim, but I did learn that he experiences the aforementioned disorder, which is marked by a feeling that the world isn’t real.

Usually, I would be relieved to learn that my condition has a name and afflicts others too. But that revelation increased my anxiety. For some reason, I wanted to keep this malady to myself. I wanted it to remain personal, unique and nameless. I didn't want to label it with a clinical diagnosis. My bouts of depression often provoke this reaction: “Must sadness always be pathologized? Can't I just be bummed out? Isn't there enough pain and suffering in the world to justify being down in the dumps?”

I've been out of phase with Reality since the fall of 2010, but it feels like I’m almost all the way back. I keep bursting through fuzzy membranes of distortion that were cutting me off from the Real World. It's like I'm traveling through dimensions, getting closer to my home dimension, but never quite there. I'm striving to put right what once went wrong and hoping that the next leap will be the leap home. (Sorry, I had to.) The goalposts keep moving. The closer I get to Reality, the more I notice the sensations that are still missing. I didn’t even notice my sense of smell had diminished until it returned in full force a week ago.

This case of Depersonalization Disorder must be a result of repressing emotional pain. I think my mind has tried to escape reality to avoid the stress and misery of my situation. My closest friends stopped calling me back, and I failed to find any new friends with whom I connected emotionally. The only jobs I could get were of the soul-crushing corporate variety. My cousin, with whom I’d been living, moved back home to Chicago, and I didn’t want to live with strangers anymore. Therefore, I moved in with my parents for what was supposed to be one winter, but which just passed five years. My relationship with them was still broken from adolescence and fraught with tension and anger. By pretty much any measure, I should’ve been despondent. Internally, I conformed to that expectation, but I was unable to process my grief.

In the absence of constructive action to extricate myself from this predicament, my brain took me out of my rut and whisked me away to the Shadow Realm. The world became a ghost town and the people tumbleweeds. I could still see and hear them, but their actions didn’t have much positive effect on me. However, even benign comments and deeds were enough to trigger my anxiety. When nothing anyone is saying or doing makes you feel better and often makes you feel worse, I guess turning everyone into a wraith is a logical defense mechanism. It comes in especially handy when your friends disappear, because the transition from ghost to empty air is less jarring than that from corporeal being to nothing.

This parallel universe was safe, but it was also boring and lonely. Nothing was worth doing, because I was numb. Since everyone was a shade, physical contact felt illusory and emotional connection vanished completely. I wasn’t willing to open up to the only people who were emotionally available to me at the time. I lost the ability to connect with new people. I was too afraid to open up to them, feeling like I’d been emotionally abandoned by my family and all my closest friends.

This isn’t the first time I’ve withdrawn from the world. It’s a habit I developed as a child. I would routinely plunge into the abyss of TV rather than attempt human contact. My parents had to force me to go outside and play with the other kids. Socialization has always offered me greater rewards than television, but it also offers greater risks, foremost among these, rejection. Being a sensitive boy, I was an easy target for verbal abuse as the new kid in elementary school and then as any kid in middle school. By the time I got to high school, I’d already had my fill of rejection.

That pain has driven me to flee the company of people many times. I often wish I could live alone and keep the world at arm's length to avoid being hurt anymore. If it were up to me, I would live Jorge Luis Borges's "life of the mind." I would lose myself in fantasy, TV, movies, music and books. For about half of my two years in Chicago, right after college, I realized that dream. Discovering that all my bachelor’s degree entitled me to was a seemingly infinite string of temp jobs left me bitter. I wanted nothing more to do with a society that had convinced me a college degree was the Key to the Kingdom and then, once I got one, still denied me a stable, white-collar job. I retreated into my apartment and spent my days watching TV and playing video games.

But the peace of solitude quickly curdled into paranoid isolation. Each day became a repetition of eating too much, watching too much TV and staying up too late. I was lonely, depressed and obese. This is what happens whenever I spend too much time alone. Physical symptoms crop up that are severe enough to convince me I need to overcome my fear of rejection and re-engage with people. Ultimately, my body is the one that keeps pulling me back into the World.

There’s always been a tension between my desire to be in the middle of Life, amidst teeming Humanity with all its joys and troubles, and my desire to be free of those obligations, indulging in solitude and serenity. I assume most people have to deal with that tension and strike a balance between the stress of engagement and the loneliness of isolation. I’m usually overwhelmed by the stress and easily hurt by my family and friends’ perceived rejection or abandonment. If you’re grateful for my continued participation in Life’s Grand Pageant, you can thank my unconscious. If it were up to my conscious mind, I would’ve checked out a long time ago.

I think this desire for escape is fueled by our Lonely Society. I doubt it would be so easy to slip into the Shadow Realm if I were part of a true community, like in the Olden Days. Those personal connections are what keep me rooted in Reality. Having supportive family and friends gives me a feeling of self-worth that convinces me living in the Real World is worth the pain and struggle. On my own, I’m liable to lose touch with Reality and fly off into a void of despair at the apparent futility and cruelty of Life. The love of my family and friends (eventually) convinces me to stick around by renewing my faith in Humanity and giving me hope for the Future.

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