My 7-Year Pursuit of How To Live
A near-death experience, an improbable disorder, and a global quest for answers
Dakar, Saly, Kedougou. Marrakech, Fez, Cairo. Chicago, Aspen, Los Angeles. Beijing, Langfang, Hangzhou. And finally, Springfield, Kambah, Ballengarra, and Fassifern Valley… a good whirl around the world…
I write from Brisbane International Airport. In one day, I’ll be home. In one week, I’ll be 22.
This marks the end of my 2018: a wild, bizarre, electrifying adventure-of-the-decade that’s shed me so many skins, I figured I’d whip up a quick life update/reflection to replace the one from 2017, which has long since expired.
Let’s. Get. Personal.
I. What Got Me Here?
I started up at the University of Chicago in 2015. Around this time, I was (1) considerably weaker, (2) fundamentally useless, and (3) a pathetic fool.
Insecure. Self-absorbed. Depressed. On weekends, I glugged New Amsterdam and danced up any guy with a face, pulse, and enough functioning brain cells to say semi-coherently, “Hey, you’re pretty.” On weekdays, I bumbled about campus, endeavoring to ingratiate myself with friend groups that had already closed their doors. I was spooked by the world: too timid to speak up in class, too homesick to be remotely authentic. I was spooked by myself: trapped, oblivious, in that first-generation Chinese-American inferiority complex.
At the time, I had no idea who I wanted to be. And I’m not talking “author” or “banker” or “door-to-door kitchen appliance salesman.” That’s a what. I mean who. I’m saying I was immature without being aware of it—I did not know what maturity meant for me, and I did not even care to wonder. What I did care about were boys, careers, and the day-to-day dramas of university life. I drifted in place. Imagine a sensory deprivation tank. Hardly a notion of up or down, forward or backward.
And certainly I had stretch to go in that forward direction.
Most people are born with common sense and, at the very least, a pea-sized comfort zone. I came along with neither. Up until my teens, I could barely make eye contact without experiencing the symptoms of cardiac arrest. How do I know this? I filled my socially bereaved time with exhilarating teenage activities like memorizing the seventeen government-mandated health-class textbook symptoms of a cardiac arrest. People in middle school thought I was “smart.” I suppose it is easy to confuse “smart” with “fills a friendless void with flashcards and colored pencils.”
(Here, I must pause and extend due recognition to the three friends I did have. Your souls are kind and selfless. I hope you accomplish extraordinary things one day.
Okay, carry on.)
The mere thought of asking a waiter for napkins gave me a conniption. Root beer was alcoholic and alcohol meant death. I had no idea how to work a gas pump and, upon being forced to try by myself at the ripe old age of sixteen, accidentally doused my entire body, plus a good lot of the car, in gasoline.
No, I was not necessarily cognizant of the fact that I (a) lacked worldly knowledge and (b) possessed the comfort zone of an arachnophobe drowning in a tub of spiders. But somehow—somehow—I had the instinct to fight back. First by forcing myself to become a cheerleader. Then a server, a backpacker…
And then interning at Facebook…
Only in mid-2017, six years into this erratic potpourri, did I deduce a rationale behind my actions. My subconscious had realized I was a pathetic fool! and this discovery! had set off the irrepressible urge! to amend that fact!
To fall back on earlier imagery: my subconscious had surfaced from the sensory deprivation tank, gasping for air. It knew which way was forward, even if I didn’t know myself. Until I got my shit together, my subconscious would provide the instincts I needed to guide me forward.
(I view my subconscious as a distinct, inaccessible entity that waters the roots of my writing, decisions, and perspectives, which in turn support the tree that is me as a person. Read on to find out why.)
So this gut feeling got me forcefully hacking away at my boundaries by pursuing experiences outside of them. The further out I shoved that wall—and the more directions I shoved it in—the more knowledge and maturity I came across, laid out like Easter eggs in that newly cleared space that was once a hinterland only moments before.
And THIS, my friends, has been a long answer to a short question someone asked me not long ago:
Why are you the way you are?
[Why do you do the things you do?]
A short answer to the short question I answered with a long answer:
Because I didn’t used to be.
[Because I couldn’t do them before, and now that I’ve done them, I can.]
Interestingly enough, with most everything I do, I commit unwillingly. I get involved because I know I’ll be grown into a different, better person after the fact—a mechanism that has proven true time and time again. If you’re a regular here at Between Me & You, you’ll know I’ve spent October-December farming up the eastern seaboard of Australia. Whether or not you’re a regular, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that I was barely excited about the trip. Mainly confused. Largely in shock. After I got my grant money, I spent a good lot of my spare time fretting and griping and lamenting at my boyfriend who, in a truly astonishing feat of indefatigable heroism, has managed to date me since freshman year.
Anyway, by mid-2017, as a result of regularly forcing myself to undergo experiences that would change me, I had indeed grown myself into a new person. I could speak up in class and introduce myself to strangers without experiencing heartburn, palpitations, and cold sweat; I could have conversations without worrying about what other people thought about me; I could navigate foreign countries without my parents. I lost my insecurity and gained some self-respect. These may not seem like milestones to you, but for me, they were monumental. (I must say, however, that I still get very nervous around gas pumps. If you tap me on the shoulder as I fill the tank I will scream.)
Yet all was not well. As it happens, my last personal update on this blog also occurred mid-2017. It was “We Need to Talk, Take 2,” a follow-up to “We Need to Talk.” To summarize: August 2017, I got sucker-punched into oblivion by a week-long breakdown. It leveled me up from symptoms that psychiatrists identified as “maybe bipolar, maybe borderline, possibly anxiety, and definitely some anorexia” to “I have actually no clue what’s wrong with you so kindly quit school and go to behavioral therapy instead but (!!!) make sure you pay me first.” My primary care physician even claimed I was having epileptic seizures. She also pronounced I wasn’t getting enough oxygen to my brain, on account of my heart beating too slow, on account of my cardiovascular system being in disarray, on account of whatever, or something.
I will never forgive that physician for convincing me I was about to get croaked from a couple of heart murmurs. All exams concluded there was nothing physically wrong with me. (Besides a trivial anomaly whereby my heart sends electrical signals from a weird place it’s not supposed to, but that’s fine. It’s trivial.)
Regardless, I consider it a Christmas miracle that I passed all my classes that quarter. I was in and out of the hospital for testing, falling behind on two part-time jobs, duking it out with my insurance company (what rhymes with schstay schfar schaway schfrom Schunited Schealthcare?), and day-drinking from pert little mason jars I could bring with me to the front row of ECON 20300 to sip politely all through lecture. Most of all, I was getting ass-kicked by a variety pack of psychotic symptoms that no. doctor. could. explain.
There is nothing quite as terrifying as psychotic symptoms that no. doctor. can. explain. It was then that I decided to recognize my subconscious as a separate entity. If you’d asked me “what is your greatest fear?” during those months, I would’ve said just that—”my subconscious”—because, after much consideration, it was the only logical thing I could pin to blame for my situation.
Finally, in October, a breakthrough: diagnosis. Depersonalization-derealization disorder (DDD). It turns out this is what I had. And still have.
The easiest way for me to explain DDD is, it’s like being on LSD without a choice, 25 hours a day, 8 days a week. Sometimes it’s a good trip; sometimes it’s a bad one. The symptoms, according to actual LSD users, are similar enough. On the plus side, I started getting synaesthesia. Very cool. On the minus side, I was trapped in a persistent, neverending dissociative state. My mind had left its body… and neither I nor my psychiatrists could locate where it went. Not so cool.
Occasionally, I would (and still do) have episodes in which the dissociation spike(d/s) to extremes. During these episodes, I’d feel completely divorced from my body, to the point where I could squeeze an ice cube and calmly observe the chill, but not at all react from the pain. I looked at my body parts and saw warped, unfamiliar flesh, like butcher shop meats hanging on display. I couldn’t recognize myself in the mirror. I had trouble differentiating between distant memories and present reality. I sat through panic attacks; bouts of paranoia, delusions. They’re out to get me. I need to sleep with a knife. When I wake up tomorrow I will have snapped and gone off to rattle shopping carts along the street, screaming about Judgment Day and platypuses in gym shorts.
This is very hard to explain.
In essence, episodes of severe dissociation meant living an objective reality. Every mortal object, plant or animal, bore the same significance. Every action, from the tipping of a plastic cup to a jump in front of a moving train, carried equal weight.
For sure, this scared the bejeezus out of me. Even my psychiatrist was flabbergasted. Each week she tested a new method for baiting my wayward mind back into its container. This is a euphemism for “repeating onslaughts of nervous enthusiasm followed by extensive awkward silences.”
Late 2017: a turning point whose magnitude will never be contested by any other milestone, save for probably the eventual birth of my first child, or maybe the climate-change apocalypse if it gets here soon enough. I had a near-death experience. Without having to shove at my Boundary of Walls (Wall of Boundaries?), I got catapulted clear overhead, landing belly-flop in the hinterland beyond. I suspect I would’ve gotten there eventually if I kept pushing out my walls. Instead, it happened all at once.
As I regained my wits, I scrabbled to find my footing. This new space I landed in was pure, unbridled aliveness. I felt the state of being alive as a sixth sense, almost. It granted me a tremendous, life-altering revelation—the Easter egg to destroy and ingest all other Easter eggs: Existence is (a) finite and (b) binary:
- (a) It ends.
- (b) We either have it, or we don’t.
This appears obvious, but there’s a difference between knowing and understanding. Perhaps many of us know this. But it took a near-death experience for me to understand it.
Forget about YOLO or making the most or appreciating the time. It all boils down to one no-frills statement that swallows it all. Really, life is so damn simple: it’s a 1 or a 0, and as of now, we’ve all got a 1. So what’re we gonna do with it?
Existence is a gift—a rare, astronomically improbable gift. Whether it is bad or good, at least we get to exist. Since I came upon this revelation, I have found it nearly impossible to distinguish between positive experiences and negative ones. Why? They all fall together into an aggregate stew of 1-not-0. For a variation on this concept, Ctrl+f the word “experience” in this interview with the wonderful Parke Muth.
When I look around me, I am struck clean to the bone by wonder. Stop and think about the ocean. Rain. Cereal. Duct tape. Fingernails, DVDs, patent-leather shoes. The plain fact that everything exists is a miracle. Where it is, when it is, the way it is. And then start thinking about humanity. Our capacity to make music that makes others cry. Our ability to love, the complexities of hate. Our instincts to clap our hands together when we are pleased, to smile when we are happy, to forgive, to create new life, to experience joy. Distilling the universe down to the binary of existing-or-not, you’ll see that everything is spectacular, simply because it does exist. Everything is delicious and infinitely fascinating—the good and the bad.
Again, my subconscious understood this before I did. My outlook on life changed very slowly to catch up, supplemented by the people and places I crossed in Senegal, Morocco, and Egypt. My mental condition remained rocky through most of 2018. Sure, I felt different about living—an opportunity instead of a given—but I still struggled with the symptoms of DDD. It was frustrating, especially because I couldn’t express myself properly, and I desperately wanted someone to appreciate what I was going through. DDD can get to be a lonely ol’ time.
But because my subconscious realized, without me, that I had broken into a new, foreign territory outside any boundaries whatsoever, it gave me the urge to do something. Do what?
I filed for a leave of absence, spent two weeks writing research proposals, and secured funding for eight weeks in China and ten weeks in Australia.
II. Where Am I Now?
My DDD and post-near-death-experience revelation came together to forge the trek of a lifetime.
Financially, I had university funding to cover expenses; my last few months in the States, I eked by on $25/week of food to cover the opportunity cost of being unemployed while overseas.
Academically, I genuinely believed in the grant proposals I submitted. They asked questions I could answer reasonably throughout my travels, with copious amounts of observing, interviewing, note-taking, and writing. (In my opinion, this is the most valuable way to see the world. Stick around for an upcoming post called “How to Travel.”)
And because I set myself up to learn, I did.
In China, my research focused on race, culture, and identity in first-generation Chinese Americans. I had got around to nailing down and worrying over that inferiority complex the year before, thanks to an interview project by my talented bud Anne Wang. The way I went about the problem was, I’d been meaning to transcribe my family history for awhile already, so I’d do exactly that while concurrently free-writing about my childhood and coming-of-age in America. Like I mentioned earlier, I view my subconscious as a highly underrated, hugely powerful separate entity. With this project, I trusted that if I simultaneously gathered knowledge of the past and present of my heritage, the two would drift into my subconscious and blend automatically to generate insight and understanding.
That hunch proved correct. My efforts filled out a hundred-page doc, which in turn filled out my sense of self. A warming sense of comfort with my identity between Chinese and American. A stronger intuition for race and the way it works among individuals, societies, nations, and, most importantly, within myself. Here’s the introduction that served as my engine:
I doubt this document will ever see the light of day. It’s more or less a diary mashed into a wordbarf of interview notes. However, the person I became as a result of writing it is now better equipped to write about race, culture, and identity in the years to come, whether fiction or nonfiction. That’s the unparalleled power of writing: in the act of doing it, you change yourself.
But WAIT… There’s MORE…
Early on during my eight weeks, I found out my blood pressure was wriggling feebly about the 80/50 range—dangerously low, compared to the desired 120/80. A likely cause was my on-and-off habit of counting calories to satisfy a hundred-pound maximum. Faced with the discovery that I, at 21, possessed the body of a decaying 93-year-old alcoholic, I aspired to gain some weight. And have been gaining weight ever since.
Yes, it is hard. I haven’t dared yet to step on a scale. Once in a while, I find it fairly unpleasant to look in the mirror. But all I have to do is remind myself that I need this body to support my brain if I want to get anything done—and in order for that to happen, I need to support it.
It wasn’t the eating that fixed my blood pressure, though. In September, all kinds of fat luck conspired to plop me into a hidden second-floor meeting room of a tiny teahouse in Beijing, where I apprenticed myself to a Daoist master. He specializes in an ancient form of meditation that utilizes human awareness to return the body’s energy to its natural state. (I am not allowed to say more beyond this, so if you plan to ask me for details, I will be compelled to point behind you, yell “WHAT’S THAT,” and hotfoot madly from the premises, leaving you to pay for my meal, bubble tea, or both.) December marks my third month practicing two hours a day. Sure, it’s adjusted my blood pressure. But also, out of left field… my DDD.
The intensive meditation has given me the peculiar ability to govern my dissociation. That is, I can control when, and how far, my mind leaves its body. As if that’s not loony enough, my perception of time has shifted toward the simultaneous. That is, I live the past and future at once in the present. The condition that was once a threat has become, in a sense, my superpower. It gives me the wherewithal to understand humanity in a variety of strange yet enlightening dimensions.
In the past, each time I expanded my boundaries, I felt like I was shedding the old self like a lizard growing out of its skin. This time, in China, I felt like I’d left the entire goddamn lizard in the dust. (Finally! A way to explain the tattoo that was meant to be a dragon but has since been mistaken for a lizard, snake, anime character, and, embarrassingly enough for all parties involved, a mouse.)
And that is how I arrived in Australia. Skinless. Lizardless. Tripping on LSD despite not tripping on LSD.
Armed with my new plane of existence, I bumbled through four weeks on a cattle farm, three weeks on a free-range egg farm, four days on an alpaca stud, and two weeks on an organic vegetable farm.
Certainly I amassed a collection of diverse practical skills that I will probably never call upon again: milking cows, welding sheep cages, grading eggs, improvising blues, picking parsley, making sauerkraut, dancing rock-and-roll, patting alpaca poo, seeding grass, preparing garlic, so on, etcetera, and so forth. But these are only fringe takeaways. As I’ve noted many times before, the greatest payoff isn’t the knowledge I acquired, but the person I became in the process of acquiring said knowledge.
On the shallowest level, I finally plucked up the self-discipline to quit instant-messaging and (for the most part) social media. This gave me the time to finally pursue the subjects I’ve been nudging lazily under the bed for ages: politics, the economy, physics, and classics I am profoundly ashamed, as a creative writing major, to admit I have not read yet. Getting caught-up on the 21st century has been great. Firstly I am not dumb anymore. Wahoo! Three cheers! Secondly I now have leeway to begin analyzing problems and solutions in preparation to help others in the future.
On a deeper level, I filled my subconscious with people and places. I will now coin the term “soul food” to denote said combination of people and places. Do not read too deeply into this phrase. It is for shits and giggles, and no, I have not yet decided how I feel about the notion of a “soul.”
Riddhi Sangam, an excellent writer friend of mine, pointed out last month that we rarely experience absolute emotions. I.e., seldom do we feel 100% happy, or 100% sad, or 100% hungry and nothing else at all. (Do not ask me why I listed “hungry” as an emotion. It is likely, however, that my boyfriend knows the answer.)
I mentioned my DDD gives me synaesthesia. I get it mildly with music, most intensely with emotions. If my plane weren’t boarding, I’d illustrate for you, because it’s positively absurd and endlessly enchanting. But I am on a tireless quest! to return! to American soil! So for now I will only say that it’s enabled me to become remarkably keen on my emotions these past few months. Not just what I’m feeling, but its proportions to my other feelings. The shapes, sizes, textures, and colors.
So I am aware when I’m graced with a moment of absolute emotion. The best way to describe one is: an instantaneous, simultaneous collision of (a) hunger for aliveness and (b) the satisfaction of that hunger. Pure. Primal. Gaping and spontaneous.
The wind blasts as I balance, legs wide, on the open back of a ute hurtling across liquid green hills.
A gap-toothed musician throws his head back and sings, wringing the crowded pub into a shore of beached, gasping hearts.
On my neck, the first prickles of icy rain after a sultry afternoon of distant thunder crawling ever closer.
Fierce, unspoken kinship shared in glances among three female backpackers waiting, each alone, for a bus under a flickering 1:00am bulb outside the dilapidated station.
Sweet, milky breath of a grandmother who teeters on her chair, brushing an index finger along handwritten lines as she reads from her scrapbook the story of her great-great-grandparents’ crossing from England.
III. Where Am I Headed?
I didn’t intend for this post to happen. “The Year My Life Got Stranger Than Fiction” began as “My Whirl Around the World,” a reflection on my travels. Then I got sidetracked explaining why I decided to embark on said travels. Soon the paragraphs spiraled in all sorts of tangents, so I let them go, pieced them together, pruned them, ate five muffins in one sitting, and came out with whatever this is.
Invariably I have misgivings when I publish private matters. Certainly my little web of Internet haters can be trusted to rear up and strike—I am always prepared yet never ready. [CUE: grainy security cam footage of my boyfriend hauling my limp, crying figure out of Saieh Hall for Economics as I wail, “Anonymous User 47 is right! I AM a useless, rambling moron who doesn’t deserve a university degree!”] I wonder why I feel the urge to keep exposing all my deepest, darkest secrets. The phrase itself implies they should remain pigeonholed in the deep and the dark.
And that, my friends, is the answer.
My time spent in objective reality has revealed the most fruitful way for us to perceive our places in humanity. Every single one of us has something in common: we’re dead men walking. Not in a Negative Nancy way. In an Objective Olga way. We’re all sitting in the same boat: slowly decaying human bodies gifted a temporary 1 instead of 0. There is no exception. Not Beyonce, not Chuck Palahniuk (I love you Chuck Palahniuk), not Obama, not Trump, not the bully next door, not a cardiologist, not anyone who looks or acts different from you or me. We’re all. Sitting in. The same. Boat. Camaraderie should be natural, but it isn’t. How come humanity isn’t steeped in genuine connections and to-the-grit relationships? Where is that camaraderie?
Vulnerability has a bad stigma. In truth, the more vulnerable we are with each other, the better off we are. We learn the most through empathy. So, by putting all my cards on the table for everyone to see, I open myself to the gritty and the genuine. I don’t believe in secrets and boundaries, and I want my friends and potential friends to know that. For the third time: we need to talk. Cards on the table. Gutter guards down.
That being said, I’d like to directly address my readers before I sign off and board my plane at last.
To readers in the mental illness community:
There is nothing like mental illness. I commend and respect you.
It took me seven years (and a spin around the globe) to make something out of mine. For much of that span, it seemed unlikely I’d succeed—and it felt unbearable to consider either success or failure. But look what’s come out of it. A superpower.
In many ways, your mental illness is a superpower. You were given that astounding 1-not-0. That’s the baseline. Then you were given a burden, the burden of a mind that works against you. And what happened next? You fought it every day to stay alive. That’s how you’re reading this post right now.
Keep fighting, because that fight is the act of you growing into your superpower. If you can win out against your mind, you are invincible to all else. Why? You are the greatest enemy you will ever encounter, because you are the perspective through which everything else occurs.
To loved ones of those with mental illness: I can’t speak for everyone, but for me, my recovery was a journey I needed to grow into myself. For whatever reason, I never felt comfortable reaching out to the people I trust. The path I took this year was only one I could have forged for myself, sans rules, sans instruction. HOWEVER. The only reason I completed the path was my family, my mentors, and my friends. Though I had to march alone, I gathered all my strength from the fundamental awareness that they have faith in me.
I owe so much to the people who believe in me. That is how you can help somebody. Show them you have faith in their worth. Show them, and keep showing them.
To all readers:
My whirl around the world in three statements:
(1) I found out who I had become.
(2) I decided who I wanted to be.
(3) And I became her.
This post is not about mental illness. It’s about my pursuit of How To Live. In my search for answers this year, I’ve made conclusions that I believe apply to everyone.
Much like the first chapter of a book teaches us how to read it, the experiences we gather in our lives teach us how to live it. In other words, what happens now informs us how to be the people we are in the next second, minute, hour, year. So it doesn’t matter who, where, what, and how you are. You have the 1-not-0. You have this moment. You don’t even have to do anything with it; simply acknowledging it is enough.
Happy 2019, folks. I’m with you.
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