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The Dream State

The past two years have revealed more about the resiliency of military kids, and the struggles we face, than ever before. We moved without knowing if we would make friends over video calls. Any difficulties we had meeting people before didn't parallel the struggle we faced under the circumstances of COVID-19. Military kids went to school for the first time without knowing how it looked or worked. I was late to my first-period English class because I could not figure out where it was. But more than anything, our chances of saying our goodbyes and going through our normal moving processes were thrown out the window. Sure, I’m thankful for the opportunity I've had to reconnect with people online and explore a new place, but the effects of having no clear-cut disconnection with my old community were more detrimental than I had thought.

I am an anxious person; I overthink, worry, and get stressed just like a large majority of my peers (though reasons and degrees of stress may vary from person to person). My anxiety is calmed with routine and consistency, from keeping the same wallpaper on my phone for the past three years, to the habit I unknowingly created for coping with moving: falling into a state of derealization around two months before a move, then disconnecting with friends and activities. I would quickly fall out of this state after adjusting to my new location.

Derealization (or depersonalization) is related to disassociation, which is a common kind of coping mechanism. The difference lies in the fact that disassociation causes a person to “leave” the place that they are in, while derealization makes something feel as if it is not happening. I call this the “dream state.” The best way to describe this for me is that feeling of “this can’t be happening” when you were younger and were super excited to go to Disney World, but minus the fun. I gradually fell into this state as a coping mechanism to feel a little more numb to the overwhelming emotions that came with moving: sadness, fear, and dread. Normally, I would only feel this way for a maximum of two weeks before settling into my new life, with me starting school and sports again. This changed with COVID-19.

In early March of 2020, I was in Arkansas, taking the National Latin Exam. I was at the school that I desperately wanted to attend until graduation. After finishing our exam, my grade level got called down to the library to learn about procedures for the next two weeks of school being online. It was kind of exciting, and I’m sure most people would agree that it was at the time. Two weeks of easy school? Sure, why not? It wasn’t nearly as exciting when they announced that school would be online for the rest of the year. How would I get to say goodbye to my friends? How would I have my final dive practice? How would I get to go to my dad’s retirement ceremony? Long story short: I wouldn’t get the opportunity for any of these. I would move into the TLFs, then head up to my grandparent’s cabin in upstate New York for three months, and eventually end up in Colorado Springs.

Throughout this time, I fell into my normal circumstance of the “dream state." Customs are good, right? Not so much this time around. Even after moving to Colorado, I wasn’t feeling any better. How was I supposed to get used to my “new normal” when the whole world was still adjusting to its own? Here, my mental state was at its worst. It felt like so many different things--watching someone else live out their life or living in a very mediocre dream, for example.

I continued to go to school twice a week, the other two days being online. I tried to pay attention in class and connect my online lessons to my in-person ones. Even if I was receiving high grades, it didn’t feel like I was learning the way I was before. I tried to start with a new diving club, but my head was so scrambled and confused by what was going on that throwing harder dives with a completely new group of people at a new pool was too difficult. I tried to make friends but found it difficult to establish an actual connection with anyone. I got overwhelmed in classes and became easily scared because there weren't any windows in my biology classroom. I wasn’t able to pull myself back from thinking about my life meaning nothing because I felt I would feel like this forever. I didn’t recognize myself in the mirror because of how much I had changed, even if I believed it was positive. I wasn’t making friends in person, so I fell back even more in my derealization to cope with the fact that I was not enjoying my life.

I realized that the only time I could “relax” was when I was focused on something else, like speeding through books. High school dive season helped, giving me both a physical outlet and a challenge, though it became frustrating to try and throw new things when it didn’t feel like I was on the board. I continued to fluctuate through feeling great and feeling horrible, trying to stay afloat in what felt like a tsunami. My only comfort was lying on the ground, no matter how dirty it was.

It wasn’t until I started to talk to other military kids that I felt like I could eventually get out of feeling like my life didn’t belong to me. I saw that others had fallen into the same trap, trying to cope with their move and getting stuck when COVID set up a new normal. Others felt like they weren’t present or in tune with their surroundings. They didn’t feel like they were happy with their lives or be able to enjoy their incredible achievements. Even before the pandemic, my friends felt as if their new houses weren’t their own, and that it wasn't them they saw in the mirror. Realizing that I wasn't alone, I was given hope and motivation to help myself through my vast and complicated emotions.

As I sit on my couch writing this, I still deal with the derealization-depersonalization disorder. But I now find joy in my life. I found friends at school who I could talk to. I love my school, more than I ever loved my previous one. I am able to attend school in person, and my classes are consistent and enjoyable. I tried diving with the club team again, and I love the sport and the people on my new team. I could never go back to my team in Arkansas now. Even though I may not be out of my “dream state," I now have the desire to emerge from it and be content with my life the way it is. I am still working towards getting out. I use a planner to write down events to establish that they are real. I have a mood tracker to see my progress. I trace my hands when I get overwhelmed to focus on the feeling and ground myself. I talk to my counselor on a consistent basis. I don’t just lie on the ground anymore; I’ve become dedicated to finding the best ways to endure my mental struggle.

If you, as a military kid, struggle as I did, please remember that you are not alone. Moving triggers strange reactions in the brain. It can be a traumatic experience for many. A complete change in “normal” can make some things feel like they aren’t real, though on a different level for every person. Derealization is just one of the many disorders that can be caused by moving, so even if this isn’t your challenge, please reach out to others and talk to them about what you’re experiencing. Talk to other military kids and discuss shared experiences. Chances are it may help you feel less isolated in your thoughts and give you the motivation to find healthy coping mechanisms.

While the team at Bloom certainly understands the struggles of being a military teen, we are by no means equipped or qualified to offer assistance or counsel. If you or a loved one is in need of mental help or is suffering from trauma or abuse, we encourage you to talk to a parent, teacher, counselor, or other trusted adult. Additionally, you can check out our Resources page for different places you can go to seek mental health help. Remember, you are not alone.


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