The idea of detachment goes back centuries. It has a number of different meanings across a wide variety of religions and philosophies. The concept is key in becoming a more spiritual person and it is a state in which a person overcomes their attachment to their emotions, thoughts and any materials they hold dear. If you are not attached to these, in theory they cannot harm you. You can therefore live your life in this objective manner, making the best decisions possible and being free of the negative feelings that come with any outcome.
Granted I’m boiling it down to its simplest form but in essence that’s what it claims. Let’s be honest though, who on earth could adhere to that kind of life? I question whether truly being detached in a modern society could even have the benefits it perceives to have. I feel qualified to question that because for much of my life I have unintentionally caused myself to become varying levels of detached.
I didn’t get to that point through years of meditation, giving away my worldly possessions or by becoming one with nature. I got there by letting my depression take that concept to depths it was never meant to get to.
Let’s explore that together.
Detachment was one of those things I was using before I even really understood what it was. I was going through too many unhappy emotions for a teenager to be able to handle. There’s enough going on in a young person's mind through natural hormonal and body changes in puberty, that it's of no surprise that when you throw depression and anxiety into the mix, there’s sensory overload.
There was too much input for my brain to handle. My brain felt as if it was pulled in every direction and I couldn’t focus on any individual issue so they all tangled into one like a million pairs of wired headphones in my pocket. I couldn’t unravel one issue without pulling on a different one I wasn’t ready to deal with.
At that time in my life, the main cause of my anguish was other people. I was an outcast and people didn’t like me. But I so desperately wanted people to like me, I wanted to have lots of friends and would try to do whatever people wanted me to do to please them. This approach was only causing me emotional pain that I couldn't cope with much longer.
To counteract this, I did what seemed like such a great idea at the time. I emotionally took myself away from the people at my school. I actually only managed to do this when I knew I was leaving the school and I would be rid of them forever. But I still had time to try to develop this “skill”.
Like a lightswitch, turn it off!
If any of you have had the pleasure of seeing The Book of Mormon (written by the creators of South Park), you’ll remember a scene where they’re singing about turning off their thoughts about all things from domestic abuse to repressed homosexuality. It doesn’t sound like it, but the song is absolutely hilarious with their message being that “if you’re feeling certain feelings that just don’t feel right. Treat those pesky feelings like a reading light and turn it off”. That was essentially what I was trying to do.
I wasn’t very good at it to start with. How could I be? I was trying to go against every natural instinct of wanting to build and develop relationships, it was not going to be an easy task. Through the following months, I persevered and slowly got better at it.
When people were mean, I did everything in my power to suppress the feelings boiling up inside me. I was training my mind to be emotionally removed from situations. Evenings were spent locked away in my room playing scenarios in my head that would hurt me so that I would be prepared to deal with them in an emotionless manner if they were to ever occur.
I actually thought this process was unraveling my problems, but in hindsight all it was doing was pushing them down. At no point in my months of developing this detachment did I think about the negative consequences. Hell, the plan seemed fool-proof, except for the fact that there was a fool enacting the plan.
Houston, we have a problem
By the time I went to college, I felt indestructible. I didn’t care what people thought of me anymore and I felt like no situation could hurt me because I’d played them all out in my head. It was so freeing. I was making friends and I thought I was the smartest person in the world because I’d solved this problem through hard work of training my mind.
If for a millisecond I slipped back into old feelings of people not liking me, my new autopilot kicked those thoughts right on out.
I’m such a fucking genius.
But as time progressed, I realised that I wasn’t feeling much of anything. I thought I taught myself to not care about what other people think and accidentally taught myself to not care about people. I started having trouble empathising with people because in my mind I’d already played out so many scenarios of people treating me horribly that I couldn’t differentiate from those that hurt me and everybody else.
I also thought I’d taught myself that negative emotions were bad, but I’d actually taught myself that all emotions were bad. Nothing was giving me happiness or joy anymore. My brain was in a constant state of purgatory and I felt empty.
I’m such a fucking idiot.
It was too late to turn the lights back on. It turned them off and ripped the wiring out of the wall. The damage had already been done.
I’m honest with you, this realisation did not come as quickly as this blog suggests. It took years and years of not feeling much to realise that I’d numbed my senses. I spent the longest time not feeling much of anything, so I didn’t have a frame of reference for what I was meant to be missing. A common side effect of detachment is having a hazy memory and I’d forgotten a world where I truly felt.
I’d been watching life as a film without sound, surprised that I wasn’t getting the whole experience. But through the last year or so, I’ve come to realise that feelings are there for a reason. Who would have thought it?! Life doesn’t have a whole lot of meaning when you don’t fully experience it.
That’s not to say detachment doesn’t have it’s benefits. John Goodman's speech in The Gambler still rings true to a life I’d like to lead. Being in “the position of fuck you” seems beautiful to me. Having independence and freedom to the point that if you weren’t happy in your life, you could remove yourself from it and find a situation you are happy with sounds glorious. But I took that too far and was willing to remove myself from anything at the slightest moments notice because of how easy it was. This is not a life that breeds joy.
But as Wong in Doctor Strange says, “attachment to the material is detachment from the spiritual”. So now it’s time to reattach myself to my spirit and teach it to feel again. It’s going to be a long journey to reteach my natural emotions. I won’t do as young Dave did and lock myself away; I’ll do so by surrounding myself with those I love and feeling through them. I’ll smile when they smile, I’ll laugh when they laugh, I’ll cry when they cry and I’ll hurt when they hurt.
If you're reading this and feel like you can relate to this on some level, let's try working through this together. Don't blindly attach yourself to everything, but for the beautiful parts of life you want to enjoy, focus on being present in the moment and live your life as it's meant to be lived.
"Sometimes it’s painful. Sometimes it’s sad. And sometimes it’s surprising, happy. So you know what? Keep on growing up, kid. Don’t let me stop you. Make mistakes, learn from them and when life hurts you – because it will – remember the hurt. The hurt is good. It means you’re out of that cave." - Jim Hopper, Stranger Things.
I want to finally leave the cave and I hope to see you on the outside.
Until we speak again, keep hanging in there.