Don't Contact Him: Advice from So Sad Today
Time heals all wounds jk.
Illustration by Joel Benjamin
Dear So Sad Today,
Recently I had a panic attack with a new symptom I’ve never had before. It was horrible. I was out to lunch with a co-worker of mine, and he was talking a lot and wouldn’t shut up. I began to feel more and more anxious. All of a sudden, I felt like I was in a bad movie. It was like I was watching both of us and had no idea what was going on. I couldn’t figure out what was happening. I literally thought I was going crazy, but I was too scared to say anything, because that might make it more real. Also I didn’t want him to think I was insane. How do I make sure this never happens again? I had to sit there for 45 minutes like that, and it was some of the worst torture of my life.
Dear Spun Out,
It sounds like you experienced derealization: a sudden shift in your perception of the world, to the extent that it no longer feels real. One minute, you’re eating a sandwich with a bro from work, the next minute you’re in a bad dream, a weird movie, a state somewhat reminiscent of déjà vu.
Living in reality has never been my favorite thing—that is, unless it’s just been stripped from me, against my will, during a panic attack. In that case, I’m like: Just give me fucking reality back. Sometimes I’ll get depersonalization along with it, where I feel like I’m watching myself from outside myself. Like you, I’ve had the experience at restaurants before, and it’s always like, “How are these idiots going on about pepper when it makes no fucking sense that we even exist? Shouldn’t we be addressing that first?”
I also find the experience of derealization reminiscent of the psychedelic trips of my teen years, in the vein that everything familiar is suddenly decontextualized, and I am forced to question what I think I know about myself, other people, and the nature of existence. Of course, if you’ve eaten mushrooms, you sort of know why it’s happening. When you’re totally sober, it’s fucking terrifying.
There’s actually reasons behind why this happens involving neurochemistry and the fight or flight response. In Panic Away, Barry McDonagh writes, “The sensation is caused by delayed perception and mental preoccupation. While under stress or anxiety, the buildup of stress chemicals in your system causes a delayed response in sending information between neurotransmitter sites in your body. This slight delay between experience and thought can create a sensation of unreality… it’s only a side effect of excessive anxiety—it will pass as soon as your anxiety level comes down.”
But what to do about it if your anxiety level isn’t coming down? I once had a therapist who said, “You can leave any situation.” While technically I suppose this is true, those of us self-conscious, perfectionistic folk (the kind often prone to anxiety) aren’t inclined to easily just walk out of a situation: particularly involving a job, a date, or any other realm where there is fear of judgment. While I can’t tell you how to never experience this again, I know a good cognitive behavioral technique involving numbers to help assuage the situation.
I’ve learned that I can give any feeling—even that of derealization—a number on a scale of 1-10. The sensations themselves might be nebulous, difficult to describe in words, but I can usually tell if they’re a 3 (shit feels strange) or a 10 (I’m totally fucking losing it). The thing is, the sensation itself isn’t totally unmanageable. People pay their dealers money for this feeling all the time. But my fear around the experience—the thoughts that tell me something terrible is happening, that I’ve gone mad and am never coming back, are what ratchet it up to a 10. I find that if I give both the sensation a number, as well as the thoughts and fears around it a number, there is a discrepancy. Usually, this helps to bring me back down to a lower number and not feed the anxiety. It also gives me something to do with my mind instead of telling myself stories of doom.
Dear So Sad Today,
Last night I had a dream about my horrible ex. The dream was so real I felt like I could smell him. In the dream he wanted me back and was being really kind to me. We didn’t have sex, but we were kissing in this gazebo thing. He kept telling me he had made a mistake. I know I shouldn’t contact him. We’ve broken up and gotten back together so many times. He’s cheated on me at least twice that I know of. But I woke up from this dream so sad that it wasn’t real. I’ve been thinking about him all day. Part of me kind of figures, well it’s been three months, and I’m still miserable without him so I might as well just be miserable with him. Maybe he really misses me too? I know what I should do, but why should I do it?
Dear Moist Dreams,
You’ve come to the right place. I am always having these dreams of longing. Usually it’s about a more recent heartbreak, but sometimes about people who I’ve been totally over for years. Most recently I had a dream about my seventh grade crush (the grown up version of him) who I made out with once in the back room at a bar mitzvah and then spent years burning effigies of him to try and “break the spell” he had on me. He was a really good kisser. Anyway, I’ve seen him many times in adulthood and had no feelings for him. But the day after the dream, I literally wanted to message him on Facebook with a proposition! I didn’t do that, but I did text an old mutual friend like, “Yo, is he married?” And I thought about him for three days. After the first day, it definitely got easier. After the third day, I no longer was pining.
All of this is to say of course you feel emotionally hungover, vulnerable, susceptible to rekindling the relationship the day after a dream! A dream gives us euphoric recall. It is often a wish fulfillment. We often get closer to our unrequited love in a spiritual sense than we do in waking life.
So are our feelings in the day following a dream real? Yes and no. In the dream he was present for you in a way that he doesn’t seem to be able to be in waking life. This is more about the fantasy of the relationship, the mourning of it, than the actual person. Does this mean that you should act on those feelings? Hell no. Never make a sudden move in the days following a romantic dream. Tell yourself you can get in touch with him if you still feel miserable in a week. Make a note in your calendar. In seven days I can revisit this! But not today. Kick that can.
Obviously, you are still going to miss him in a week. Shit takes fucking forever to get over. But it won’t be that same type of bittersweet, Leo and Claire Danes in Romeo and Juliet longing that you feel today. Today is suffering. Tomorrow is less suffering. And I guarantee you will eventually get over him. One day, you will realize you barely think of him at all—except, of course, when he appears again in a dream. Which he will. They always do.