I’ve always known that if you really try to stare into space long enough, you can pry open the screen of reality and reveal a sliver of what is behind. Growing up, it was like a game, to lie awake during naptime and stare until I could see the frames of the world shifting off-kilter the slightest bit, just enough to let the detachment come through. Since reality was no longer real, I was no longer attached to anything: not the wooden bed frame, the drywall ceiling, my family’s conversation in the next room, or the body I reside in. My mind floated up like a heavy but determined helium balloon, to a distance where the world below looked like a cool Julian Voss Andreae sculpture; if you try a different angle, everything disappears into thin air. Once I was done with the game, I would break my gaze, and reality would readily unfold to occupy my entire field of vision again.
In psychology, this feeling is called depersonalization-derealization: observing oneself outside of one’s own body and perceiving things around oneself as not being real. Although classified as a disorder at the extreme, most people have experienced this feeling at some point in their lives. For me, naptime during kindergarten was when I most often allowed myself to drift into detachment. I distinctly remember the lines of the ceiling tiles in the nap room, since I have seen them tilt and bend so many times in my mind. The teachers would shut the doors and windows to block out the sound of traffic, but in my moments of detachment, nothing could stop me from floating out to the city streets and looking through the window at a room full of sleeping children. I saw my friends sleeping in their small wooden beds, and I saw myself breathing under a blue blanket, all the while feeling the rise and fall of my chest and that same blanket tucked snugly under my chin.
It usually took some time to fully return to my body after naptime, and even then the aftertaste of the experience tended to linger. Once, we had sweet potatoes after the nap. Still dazed from detachment, I suddenly began to think about how unreal food and taste are. I really like sweet potatoes, but during a moment of detachment, they were just a pleasant illusion—and pleasant illusions are still illusions. What is the point of enjoying something that might not even exist? As I chewed on my sweet potatoes, I felt like I was just biting down on air. If sweet potatoes didn’t matter because they’re an illusion, then neither would warm blankets, friends, or earning a prize at school. The same thought process applied to less pleasant things, like feeling abandoned by a friend or losing a beloved toy: If neither pleasant nor unpleasant things are real, then it makes no sense to get all involved and emotional about them. If I wanted, I could just detach at any moment, so the people and events in my life reach me like commotions on land reach a fish in the water.
As I grew older and had less time dedicated to stare at the ceiling, I visited the feeling of detachment less frequently. Even so, it was comforting to know that it was an option. By the time I was a teenager, I checked my ability to detach like checking on a homemade fallout shelter. It became less about the sensation of detachment itself and more about the reassurance that, if things got out of hand, I would still have this last escape to buffer me from the unpredictable world outside.
Right before I came to the United States for college, I lost my ability to detach. I was in a small hotel room in Hangzhou that smelled of cigarettes and dampness, sniffling from the cold and a long cry. I went there for a nonprofit training event with a friend, who was sitting in the bed next to mine. By day, we learned about the organization and practical skills, and by night, we talked about ourselves. We did the classic retreat-style activity of sitting around a dim light and sharing our darkest moments until everyone cries. Clichéd, I know, but the intimacy alone was enough to bring me to tears. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember crying and confessing while my chest trembled like aged machinery. The tears came from a combination of being so intensely connected to a group of people, talking openly about myself for the first time in a while, embarrassment, and feeling simultaneously hopeful about the changes I could make and hopeless about the limits of that future. I was too overwhelmed to process all of these emotions and possibilities—so I cried instead.
Emotions still brimmed to the edge of my heart when we went back to our hotel room. I knew if I let all of the emotions spill out, I would probably not be able to collect myself back up before tomorrow. This is the kind of moment that I reserve detachment for—when I desperately need to press the easy button, run away, dissociate, at least for now. I climbed into bed, took a deep breath, then gazed into the walls like I had so many times before. But this time, their sharp lines refused to tilt and let me escape from myself. No matter how hard I tried, the walls still looked like walls: cold, tangible, real, sealing me in.
All the panic, grief, love, and fear that I had been holding back all night spilled out of my heart. Somehow, I knew that I would never be able to detach again. Maybe it was the newness of the environment, the coldness, or my exhaustion that made everything that night felt like the build up to a long farewell. I got ready to clench my jaw through the nausea of disappointment, but the wave passed before I was ready. Instead, I found myself drawing in a long breath, and my body loosened up on its own accord. My emergency exit had crumbled before my eyes, but I was… relieved. Without a way to escape, I could finally stop thinking about escaping. I could fully commit to work, to bond with people, to live my life in the present, because there wouldn’t be an alternative. I don’t have to reason with myself that I actually might like sweet potatoes anymore.
So there I was, with the room enclosing me in a perfect square, while a faint, steady rhythm leaked from the faucet like a prelude to a larger symphony. My hands, made out of flesh over flesh, rested limp on the yellowed bed sheet. At this time of the year in South China, you can’t escape the clammy air or the misty rains in the afternoon, which find their ways into the palms of my hand through every damp sheet. I ran my fingers through them. It was cold and damp and real, like the smell of rain when you step out of a small airplane cabin.
My friend leaned over from the other bed. “Do you want to talk?”
This world was all I had now. There was nowhere else to be.
In the morning, I hugged many people. I hugged my friend, even though we are both terrible at hugging, especially with each other. I was still lightheaded from the previous night’s emotions, but it was light the way a willow branch is light, knowing it is connected to a trunk and roots that claw into the earth, no matter where the wind is blowing. I have lost one world, but I have this one, right here, right now. I rarely enjoy hugs, but it didn’t matter that morning, because they were my only way of telling people what I couldn’t quite put into words then: I have nowhere else to be now, but there is no place I’d rather be than right here with you.
Virginia Woolf writes that for most of our lives, we live in the cotton wool of daily life: tedious, repetitive, our senses muffled. But for a few unexpected moments, the world becomes violently clear and intense. One becomes truly present, truly awake. She calls these moments “moments of being,” a phrase that perfectly describes the embodiment that I felt that morning. It was as if I was seeing and hearing people for the first time, and as I put my arms around them, we became one solid form with our feet planted into the earth. As I held on to the hug, all the colors and words and shapes and sounds of that moment held on to me with a symphony of voices that sounded like “you are here you are here you are here.” I am here, gladly.