I’m in a metal bathroom stall at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The walls are vibrating, the bass so deep I can feel it thrumming through the grayscale-tiled floor into my feet and snaking up to my chest. My eyes are closed and the bottom of my phone is pressed up close to my ear. I am not listening to the garish pop music coming from the walls, sung live to a concert full of screaming people a few doors down. Through my phone’s tinny speaker, I am listening to a Phoebe Bridgers cover of Bo Burnham’s “That Funny Feeling,” grasping onto the tendrils of her voice, fighting to catch every last drop of its sound.
The song is six minutes long, and I ride the length on repeat like a wave, waiting for each crest, the capstone line: “Full agoraphobic, losing focus, cover blown / A book on getting better hand-delivered by a drone / Total disassociation, fully out your mind / Googling ‘derealization,’ hating what you find.” The more I focus on the words, the less I feel the world tilting around me.
Recently, I have been surprised by the extent to which the pandemic has gradually and silently fallen out of everyday discussions. I don’t mean masks and Covid-19 tests. I’m talking about how the world imploded on itself, how what we used to call normal was thrown into a stark, strange, nostalgic light by Zoom screens and overfilled hospitals. Lives lived within a 100-foot radius, empty city streets at rush hour.
It is impossible to delineate a collective pandemic experience, and I would never want to try. Mine involved my being hit with a fractured snowball of change — my parents’ divorce; moving twice to their two new apartments; a monthslong relationship-that-never-was; seven-hour Zoom sessions with construction blaring outside; more identity crises and episodes of disillusionment than I can count. I began to see that we are all defined by the cracks and breaks, things between more than the things themselves.
The first time I listened to “That Funny Feeling,” I really did Google “derealization.” What I found eerily echoed something that kept happening in my own life, starting around when the world shut down in March 2020: “when you persistently or repeatedly ... have a sense that things around you aren't real,” as well as distortions of space, physicality, time, and clarity. These symptoms, when they come to me, are usually accompanied by something else: a recurring, throbbing pain in my chest, as if a band is wrapped tightly around the sinew next to my heart.
My therapist calls these all signs of anxiety. I know, logically, that she’s right, but to me they’re more like warning signals: “Wake up, look around, pay attention. Shit is crazy.” If I listen closely enough to these warnings, I can realize the absence of any sort of intrinsic reality. If I unravel people and situations down to their atomic levels, I can understand that everything — everything — is made up, and I can escape having to grapple with sadness and pain. I can retreat back into my head, safe with the knowledge that I have transcended it all.
In the middle of the pandemic, I’d walk out onto the street at night and stare at a neon sign for so long that it stopped being real in my mind; the yellow-green light sizzled and fell apart. Dinner with my dad’s new girlfriend? She seemed nice, she made him happy, I could tell. But I could convince myself that wasn’t me sitting there next to her at the table, that wasn’t my life.
Everything was a danger, my mind thought, because how could it not be? My rational self knew that change was the only real constant. But all I wanted was for all the change to stop.
The worst is over now, people keep saying. Normal is in sight, we can feel its light grazing our skin. Vaccinations are up, cases are down. Let’s go back, please, to the way things used to be.
But the neural pathways in my brain that force me up into anxious waking dreams are too deep, too well-oiled by the past 19 months. My bouts of derealization have opened a window into the feeling that everything is infinitely more strange and constructed and complicated — beautiful, even — than our rational selves let us be cognizant of in our daily lives.
Perversely, I have become a little bit addicted to this feeling. I cannot help but want to derealize, zoom out. Not only because it protects me from the sadness and pain of reality, but because on some level I believe that my derealized surreality is more true than anything else. Given the devastating, mind-twisting time we’re coming out of, doesn’t derealizing almost make more sense?
But as much as part of me wants to live on that level all the time — to retreat into myself and watch the world play out its from afar — I am beginning to understand that it closes me off from so much: conversation, connection, any sensation that is not a panicky ache in my chest. I don’t want that kind of life. I’ve been working on pulling myself back down.
I’m at dinner at Annenberg, and I am too tuned in. I can feel every click of a fork, every whisper of insecurity flickering between the people at the table over, every wave of color in the chandelier above my head. My chest starts to throb, then to tighten; it hurts. It’s too much, it’s all too much.
I tell myself sternly: listen up. You’re at college now. Your life is starting. Get a grip. No more space-time warps, no more sizzling neon signs. I link my hands behind my back and pull my shoulders back as hard as I can, half-wishing my chest would split open so the pain would go away. I swim laps at the Mac, take a nap, massage the side of my neck, ice skate in mindless loops, do a vinyasa flow, meditate.
Or if I can’t, if I have to stay and finish my meal and go through the rest of my day, I stare into space and negotiate with reality instead. I repeat to myself: this isn’t back then, this is now. You’re here, you’re safe. Nothing is hurting you, except for your mind. I swear. And sometimes, when I’m lucky, the pain starts to fade, things start to come back into focus. In those moments, I am practically in awe; it seems too good and too simple to be true.
I have found a strange sort of freedom in where I am now — a space between the real and the surreal. Walking down a crowded street, I can feel my feet on the concrete and the sun on my face again. I see neon signs flicker. I watch light deconstruct into particles on my skin.