CW: mentions su*c*de
Caption for the image above: The many faces of Dissociation by @what.is.mental.illness; Derealization, feeling disconnected from the world around you; Identity Confusion, inner struggle about one’s sense of self/identity; Amnesia, memory loss often described as “losing time”; Depersonalization, feeling disconnected from your own body, mind or self; Identity alteration, sense of acting like a different person some of the time.
What do you do when your soul detaches from your body, and you lose touch with reality? The following is my interpretation of what I call “nihilism attacks,” and how I combat them.
To start, this is (for me) a form of dissociation. It is visceral at the base level, as in it’s impossible to stop once onset takes place, just like my autistic meltdowns. But because I continue to grasp meta awareness throughout, I can’t say it isn’t partly intellectual still.
It goes like this:
Wave after wave of information floods my consciousness to the point of overwhelm. In the case of my nihilism attacks, and not regular dissociation, this overwhelm is always brought on by compounding thoughts about world suffering on all levels—suffering in my own personal life, to suffering external to the identities I hold (this includes friends and strangers alike), to suffering the Earth is facing everyday as global warming increases. There is no order to it, but each thought compounds the others.
Then I will feel a shift in my chest and gut—that feeling when you just barely avoid a crash on the road—and my mind will take on a lucid dreaming effect. That’s really the only way I can describe it. It’s like lucid dreaming but while awake: The shift increases until at last my mind perceives my soul to be 6 inches out of my body. Or in these particular episodes, it’s 6 inches within, too condensed, watching my life play out as if I were at the movie theater taking in a feature film.
I can make decisions and witness my body doing them, but it doesn’t feel like I’m the one calling the shots or experiencing the consequences. I can look at my hands and put pressure on different parts of my body, but they don’t look or feel like mine. I detach from my humanity and reality.
The attack that inspired this post consisted of me rocking back and forth, hugging my knees, and wailing without consent—all very common in this next step of an attack. Literally my body will need to shriek and wail and cry to relieve some of the stress it’s under, and it won’t let me say no. I’m learning that even though this kind of wailing does stress my body out physically, and I’ve gotten sick from it in the past, it is necessary to allow this energy to come up and out. This is where meta awareness comes in.
Before meta awareness is helpful, it harms me. This stage is the ugliest of all, even though I’m not a pretty crier. It’s within this stage of attack that my mind has a conversation with itself about the meaning of life, how everything leads to suffering because the world is suffering, and how I should just give up. It is in this stage where not only am I detached from my humanity because I’m detached from my body, but I genuinely feel like I’m in the wrong place/plane in time. I feel like I’m not human at all, only a consciousness held captive within a human avatar. In this awareness, I am very attached to the idea that the world is a simulation strictly designed to torture us until we die, just so we can come back in a different body and be tortured again.
Even though this is a scary thought, and it does compel me to consider unaliving myself for a moment, it’s also my saving grace. Because if this nihilistic attack is going to make me consider that all of everything is pointless, that this is all just a simulation that repeats itself, then I might as well continue forward with that knowledge and make this reality one I can be proud of. If there is so much suffering, then why not become a conduit to less suffering while I’m here, to the best of my abilities?
Over time, with practice, my meta awareness has allowed me to:
- hold space for the wailing, but also give soothing reminders to my system that I need to stop or it will hurt me more
- understand that even if it’s all “fake,” I have autonomy and get to decide how I show up as who I am to any circumstance (i.e. I no longer solely exist in a reactionary state)
- understand that who I am is love, compassion, gentleness, gratitude, joy, truth, and a whole list of qualities such as these (I believe everyone has the potential to see themselves and others in this way)
- embolden my compassion and empathy, to use as a foundational tool to continue forward
All is not lost, because WE decide it so.
Now this isn’t to say that depression isn’t real, or that people who do unalive themselves are selfish, weak, cowards, failures, etc. No. In my life coach training, we use this particular definition of vulnerability: “To be vulnerable is to allow the winds of life to blow freely over your soul.” And sometimes people get swept up in those winds, and lose themselves. How can we fault them for wanting an out? We can’t. Period. The whole point is that they decided for themselves what the next best step was for them, in the time/circumstances they found themselves in. It is not selfish to be so consumed by circumstances and brain chemistry that you find a way to quiet the winds permanently. Maybe if we had better healthcare and a more compassionate, understanding, and accommodating society, less people would unalive themselves. But right now these are the circumstances we have, and I refuse to blame anyone for doing what they thought best for themselves. (And I am speaking out of my own grief of losing friends this way, as well as from my own dark places where I’ve considered unaliving myself more than a few times.) Blame the failing infrastructure? Yes. Blame the individual? No.
However, it’s important to note the end of the quote I just used: “To be vulnerable is to allow the winds of life to blow freely over your soul. To let life in, on life’s own terms. To be vulnerable means you realize there is nothing to protect.” This is what encourages me to push forward. If there’s nothing to protect, why not give life your all and say yes to the future while you’re already here? I choose to flip that nihilism on its head. I don’t always get it right, but practicing the notion of reverse nihilism truly does inspire me to continue living. I choose to continue the work I’ve set out to do while I’m a physical part of this timeline, even if the physical form I have can be a living hell day to day.
Quick aside: I say reverse nihilism instead of optimism because I don’t approach this concept from an optimistic perspective; optimism is merely a side effect of flipping nihilism on its head. I am not optimistic because my attitude reflects “a belief or hope that the outcome of some specific endeavor, or outcomes in general, will be positive, favorable, and desirable” (Wiki). Rather my attitude simply reflects a commitment to seeing things through, whether perceived to be good or bad, in spite of my nihilism.
So how do I come back to Earth? My attacks can last anywhere from 3 minutes, to 3 hours or longer. There’s really no way to tell how long they’ll be, which is why practicing grounding techniques outside of crisis moments is so vital. You have to be prepared.
The attack that elicited this article from me lasted only 20-ish minutes, which is pretty damn good for me. Normally they’re much longer (I think I’ve only had 3-5 min attacks twice out of many). For this one, my defense strategy was this:
- let my body wail a bit, but hold onto meta awareness
- push out thoughts of suffering by redirecting my attention to what’s around me; things I can hear, see, smell, and touch (I save tasting for the end)
- GET OUTSIDE and BREATHE; focusing on breath is HUGE (highly recommend reading You Are Here: Discovering the Magic of the Present Moment by Zen monk, author, and meditation master, Thich Nhat Hanh)
- squish grass between my toes and move my body to dance with the wind
- pet the dog, play fetch with her
- stay hydrated and eat something comforting (avocado toast for me that day)
- gentle aftercare (cartoons and stuffy cuddles with a weighted blanket)
By the time I was consuming avocado toast (yes I am a millennial, and no, $2.50 for a comforting meal is not why I’m in poverty), I had reconnected to my body enough to actually enjoy what I was tasting. The taste is what cements me back into my body completely—the final push.
So, if you find yourself having a similar attack, or dissociating in general, know that 1) you are not alone and 2) there are ways you can help yourself find your way back. Here’s a great list of more grounding and soothing techniques, as well as some tips to get the most out of them. And here is a quick article about dissociation if you’re looking for more information.
If you (or someone you know) are in crisis and need help, please call a hotline to talk with someone.
Stay well, stay safe 💜🌈💜
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