I cling to my rope, hung far above a dark chasm. As long as I have this rope, I am safe from dropping down below. I can only pray that the rope will keep its part in this mutual promise to keep me up. The rope holds up for years, and build myself a little swing on the end of the rope. It will help support me as I dangle above the black rift underneath me. I peer downward, and hope that I will never drop. As I lean over, I hear a small plink. I look sharply up and above me is a severed piece of rope sticking out from the column supporting my weight. I shiver and jerk back from the deep crack. I cling to my rope unsteadily for weeks, but eventually I am lulled back into a sense of security. I peer over the edge of my swing again, and lower my eyes into the infinite blackness. I hear another plink. Another severed fragment of rope sticks out above my head. I have only one piece of rope left holding me up, and I know that I must refrain from anything that would cause my rope to break. I cling desperately to the rope. I do not move my hanging body a fraction of an inch. I look upward, and will the rope to hold. I do not want to disappear into the darkness that I know looms below me. I hope that the rope will stay, I hope that it will not break.
Most people are fairly familiar with common anxiety symptoms, including shaking, pounding heart, headache, difficulty breathing, etc. However, there are some lesser known symptoms that I wanted to bring to attention today: Depersonalization and Derealization.
Depersonalization is when an individual feels detached from themselves. They feel like they are out of their body or that they are watching themselves. People experiencing Depersonalization can even feel like they are floating through space.
Derealization is the feeling that the world around you is fake. People who experience Derealization have a feeling that what they are seeing or doing is not real, or like they are in a dream.
The two are very similar and interconnected in many ways. The line between the two is very blurred, and they fade in and out from each other
Both Depersonalization and Derealization are symptoms of a panic attack. Many do not recognize them as anxiety-related even if they are diagnosed with anxiety or experience these phenomena frequently. When someone is having an episode of Depersonalization and/or Derealization, they do not necessarily experience other symptoms of anxiety, like heavy breathing or shaking, at the same time (although it is possible). These symptoms are not necessarily dangerous in and of themselves, but can be very disorienting and at times quite terrifying.
I didn’t realize that these were symptoms of my disorder until recently, and I’ve been experiencing them for years. Personally, I frequently have the feeling of dreaming or that I am floating and not connected to my body. On a bad day, it seems like I float up into the sky and into the galaxies.
Of course, there are ways to help calm these feelings and bring yourself back “down.” One of the methods I use is called Mindfulness. In order to practice Mindfulness, you focus on the five senses and what you experience in the real world. For example, you can feel textures or concentrate on bodily sensations like sitting on a chair. You can listen to sounds around you. You can eat something sweet or sour and focus on the taste. What helps me most is to look at colors, partly I think because I am an artist. I pay attention to all the colors around me, especially green, and their variations. This helps me to come back to myself and feel like I am connected with the world around me again.
I can remember the day, and it was perfect. The sky is crystal clear, outlining pine needles against the cyan. Thin wisps of clouds move across the sky. The mid-afternoon sun shines bright but the tree shades my eyes. The air is warm and pleasant, but not hot. I can vaguely hear water from the river, but only when I close my eyes. Somehow, the loss of sight seems to amplify my hearing. Below my back, I can feel the grass imprinting itself on my bare legs and arms. And a laugh.
What laugh? The bark on the tree is crisp and defined, a texture all of its own. Tiny globs of sap ooze from where it has been peeled away to reveal the wood underneath. Some of the old, dead needles have fallen. Now they are brittle and I like the tension and snap when I break them in half with my bare fingers. She smiles.
Who smiles? The breeze blows across, rustling the branches above. It feels nice against my face, calming and serene. A few loose strands of hair blow across my face. They tickle slightly but I am too mellow to do anything about it. Moving my hand to brush it away would disturb the serenity of the moment. The camera snaps.
I remember the day, and it was perfect. But I will not remember her.
1. Make a playlist of songs that make you happy or songs that are calming. Mine has a pretty wide smattering of music. It includes This Is Gospel by Panic! At The Disco, The Call by Regina Spektor, Slow Town by Twenty One Pilots, among others. This is helpful for a few reasons. First, music is a huge influence on your emotions. It has the power to make us feel different things. If you listen to a sad song, you feel down. If you listen to an upbeat song, you feel energy. If you listen to calming and happy music, you feel more relaxed and cheerful. Second, if you condition yourself to certain sounds or songs and use them to make you happier or more relaxed, every time you hear them they will have this effect on you. I have one song that I used as my alarm in the morning for a couple of years and now every time I hear it, I immediately wake up and it sparks more energy. There’s another song I used as my ringtone and now when it plays I immediately reach for my phone. If you condition yourself to calming music, you will start to feel better every time you hear it.
2. Make a safe place for yourself that you can retreat to. For example, I keep a zen garden in a corner of my room. I have a great setup with a tablecloth, a candle, a pretty box to hold my rocks, a jar and paper to write down wishes or good thoughts, and a small statue. In a way, it’s kind of a shrine. But it’s a small spot I’ve made for myself so that when I’m sad, upset, or feeling anxious, I can take a short break in my own little space.
3. There is a technique that is useful for calming anxiety called Mind-Body Bridging, or Mindfulness, especially if you experience symptoms like disconnectedness. Mind-Body Bridging calls for awareness of the five senses. Take a moment to notice the colors around you, textures that you can feel (like your clothes or a wall), any sounds or smells in your environment, the taste of your food or drink, etc. This helps bring the mind back down to earth and keep it calm. When I go through a panic attack, one of the symptoms I often experience is the sensation that I’m floating through space. This is classified under disconnectedness. When I focus on aspects of the world around me it helps bring me down and reconnect me to real life. The things I find especially helpful are a focus on colors or observing pressure on my body, like the ground below my feet or the chair I’m sitting on.
4. Meditation has a huge plethora of benefits, especially the effect of calmness that it brings.
I like to throw on a calming CD (Cry of the Loon, to be specific) and sit on a pillow. It’s recommended to meditate for half an hour a day or more if you have the time. With my busy schedule, I usually can’t make time for this. However, I do find that even ten minutes on a stressful day is beneficial to me.
5. Distract yourself. Throw in a movie or a video game, or make yourself a blanket nest and camp out with some Netflix. Getting your mind off of real life for a couple hours gives you time to settle down, especially if you have something to keep you from dwelling on thoughts.
6. Exercise. Go on a run. Go to the gym. Do yoga. Physical activity does wonders for the mental state. A recommended 20-30 minutes of cardio per day is not only good for your body, but helps significantly with mental and emotional difficulties.
I wrote this poem about four years ago at a summer camp. This sprung from one of my favorite exercises for writing. Taking an emotion and writing about it from a completely different perspective challenges your mind and your understanding of feelings.
Fire burns the ebony night
By haunting shadows of skeletal trees
Flames singe our glowing eyes
Our shadowed faces
Like skulls brought to life
Our voices moan unearthly songs
Chilling the bones of passers by
Who shudder, and hurry away
From the eerie notes fueling
Our fire-crazed minds
As a part of my service trip to Cambodia, we received the opportunity to go out into the village and visit some of the people we served in their homes. It was one of my favorite parts of the trip, as it has been every year that I’ve gone. We were able to talk to the families, learn about their lives, and tell them about ours as well. I love the exchange of cultures, and I love getting to know the people we work with on a closer and more intimate level.
The more we talked to the families we visited, the more my eyes were opened. The day I went, we visited around five families.
We were able to meet the village leader, an elderly woman around 60 years old. She had been elected by the village and keeps track of nearly everything: births, deaths, marriages, village matters, economics, etc. Her aptitude is incredible to be able to take care of so many people at once. She was so kind to us, especially for allowing us into her village. I will be forever grateful to her.
While visiting one family, we asked if any of them had lived through the reign of the Khmer Rouge. They all said no, but we continued talking. One of the women was sewing and ran a clothing business. She showed me her machine and the pants that she was currently working on. Her husband worked in a rice field. It was a large family, with children, friends, and nieces and nephews all involved. With hard work and determination, they were able to support themselves with shelter and food.
Right as we were about to leave this home, an elderly woman stepped forward from where she had been listening. She told us that she survived the Khmer Rouge and we could ask about it if we wanted. She said that she worked in a rice field very near to us, working long hours from the morning until nightfall. The Khmer Rouge gave her only a spoonful of rice a day, not enough to sustain such a heavy workload. She lost her entire family during the regime: her husband was killed for prior military service and all five of her children starved to death. She was the only survivor. She has since remarried and started a new family. I was honored that she was willing to talk to us about her experience. She is so brave to be able to tell us about such horrible things. I can only imagine the trauma and pain she must have gone through.
A recurring theme that we encountered was a lack of husbands: during the dry season, many of them travel to Thailand or Korea for work, as they cannot farm rice at this time. The women are left with the children, taking care of everything at home while their husbands are abroad. They only see each other rarely, and most are gone for long periods of time in order to generate income for their families.
The hardest part of our visits was our encounter with a woman whom we were told belonged to the poorest household in the village. She talked with us for a long time, telling us about her life. She had a beautiful little baby girl with her. The father, we learned, was far away on the border between Cambodia and Thailand. He was working there because he could get a higher payload than he would be able to in the village. Even so, he makes only 80 dollars a month. The need for this higher income is simple but tragic: he has throat cancer. The family is hoping to pay for the cure, but the treatment and surgery cost an unmanageable amount of 700 dollars. With only 80 dollars per month, some of which must be used for personal expenses and necessities, a surgery costing 700 dollars is impossible.
This woman will see her husband in six months. After that, he will return again to border work. I don’t know how long he has until the cancer takes him, but I can’t help thinking about the wife. She likely will not see him at his death. She will be left alone with a child and no way to support herself.
I can’t imagine enduring something like this: in a life of poverty, losing a husband and trying to support her family alone. I worry for her child, what will happen to this precious baby in months or years. I hurt for them, but I could never feel their pain entirely.
For information about the nonprofit that I went with or to apply to go on a trip yourself, visit http://www.youthlinc.org
If you want to contribute to funds or programs to help people in the Pursat region of Cambodia, visit http://www.sustainablecambodia.org/
My blog tends to be a little on the darker side, so today I wanted to share a few of the things that make me smile.
- City lights
- Tiny boxes
- Makeup, especially lipstick
- People’s little habits
- Deep talks
- Inappropriate jokes
There is a reason I am sharing this: if you take time to write down some of the things that make you happy, you can turn your mood around. If you write a list every day of ten or fifteen things that you love or that make you smile, it helps to improve your view of the world.
This is especially helpful for people who have depression or suicidal thoughts. It doesn’t fix the problem completely, but if you try and focus on the best parts of life it can ease some of the suffering. It is commonly used in therapy as a method of self help.
Even if you aren’t experiencing mental illness, it’s a great exercise to boost your energy and spirit for the day.
I’ve found it hugely helpful: when I think about things that I like to do, see, or experience, I feel much more lighthearted. I would encourage everyone to write your own list. It only takes a few minutes, and it gives you a little reminder of how great life really is.