2016-12-07

The Monster

Originally published December 16, 2014

It has many names: akrasia, apraxia, weakness of will, autistic inertia, an insufficiency of spoons, the wall, the hole, being a non-player character, chaotic inversion, absence of purposefulness, too busy to think about life, the inner Bruce, the need to lose, unstructured procrastination, the infungibility of scarce time, lack of agency, sphexishness, revealed preferences, executive dysfunction, the rarity of absolution, effortful decision-making problems, the valley of bad rationality, the collapse of feasibility of default roles, the route-eater, severe Algernon tradeoffs, broken OODA loop, tropisms toward negative life outcomes, Matryoshka principal-agent problems, the Catch-22 foundry, intelligence level 0, perversely-incentivized intuitive game theory modules, the unaccusable accusation-garnerer, the Preventer, the invisible self-reinforcing restrainer, picoeconomic dislocation, breakdown of will, hidden motives, innocent failures, multiply-fractured executive ego, bad meta-habits, corrupted hardware, the machine of actively self-mislabeling self-control handles, the complex maladaptive system, the mirror maze miseryhouse...

The monster is my new name for my lifelong inability to do things on purpose.

My 12th grade English teacher assigned heavy, time-consuming assignments at the end of the schoolyear after the AP exams were already over. Everyone protested, except me because I didn't do them. Her response to the complaints was unexpectedly wise, something like, "If you can't get yourself to do these assignments now, what makes you think you'll be able to do your just-as-hard assignments in college?" It was an eye-opener for me: I realized that my habit of never doing assignments was not going to magically disappear.

It occurred to me that going to college would be a very bad idea. It actually occurred to me. But I still went, because it was the default path. I lazily applied to one and only one mediocre ("good") school and got accepted. I dutifully went and dropped out after failing all of my courses the second semester and now I am in debt. The monster won.

I need to emphasize how damaging this incidental inability to act correctly or intentionally was. During the first half of the first semester I was subjected to a tyrannical sociopathic roommate whose attitude toward me was "haha, why haven't you gotten over your stupid social anxiety, obviously I should expertly, Machiavellianly arrange for the consensus to be that what we and your involuntary instincts do to you is your fault, hahaha".  My effortful, coordinated attempts to switch rooms or something were useless; no official would have any of it. After the very stressful Incident whereupon I was freed from his company the worst thing that could have ever possibly happened did happen, and I was gone. I never recovered from the roommate or from Connie's death. I spent the second semester alone, feeling guilty about not doing my coursework instead of doing it. The monster wouldn't let me do it.

The default view that people take and I don't mean hypothetical people this actually happens is that if you fail at college or at finding a job, it's because of something culpable about your conscious game-theoretic homunculus, rather than other things like involuntary perversely-incentivized rejection-related neurosis, or some moderately-incentivizable non-conscious thing like Handle or Vladimir_M talks about, or the bottom falling out of the economy, or being inappropriately assigned to college though it's an infeasible default role, or not being in contact with normal sources of culture and advice that would provide the breadth of context to point out that you might need attention from the disabled students office from day one, or horrible mixed-message logical entailments of culturally propagated expectations...

I sleep for around twelve hours a day. When I awaken, it takes me at least three hours to get out of the car. Tasks that ordinary men can do instantly take me years to finally get around to, if I don't eventually give up on them. And they keep piling up, so I lose track of some; things fall apart; all descends into entropy. I don't shower or brush my teeth very often. I do laundry once every three months maybe. Homelessness makes each of these problems worse. In 2013 someone bought me a microphone, which I wanted to use to record audiobooks, and I when it arrived I found I couldn't plug it into my laptop. It still awaits an adapter. That sort of thing happens all the time.

Nothing has ever held my interest forever. I first started animating in 2000 with cute flipbooks, animating on and off, mostly off, for subsequent years, and finally gave up on it when I realized in 2014 I didn't have the motivation to do a series of movies I've wanted to for a long time. That lasted longer than anything else. Even things I'm completely addicted to, like League of Legends, can't hold my interest. I played that game obsessively for a year, and one day stopped and never started again. In that case I didn't want to start again, but even when I want to start again it doesn't matter; the monster won't let me. The most virtuous thing I've spent my time doing was spending late 2013 to April 2014 independently learning the calculus. I didn't mean to stop, but I did. I kept trying to start again and couldn't. Dozens of times I've tried to learn programming and involuntarily crumbled at the first or second hurdle.

The monster does not feel like an absence of some ability. I call it the monster because it feels like an active, evil presence blocking me from doing what I should. It lives in everyone to some degree, but in me it has grown very strong. In growing strong the monster has grown strange. Where in most folk the small monster manifests only in temporary procrastinations and mild social aversions, in me it has consumed all.

For instance, it has compelled me to pre-emptively either provoke my rejection out of, or directly reject myself out of, all the communities through which I might have had a real support network. There are tropisms, correlated effects from shared historical causes, that prevented many potential relationships and which caused me to sever the most important connections I did have. I am angry at my past for building up a set of bad habits and failing to build up good habits which people normally acquire and use to kludge together a social life. What I do have are a very few people who arguably care about me but are almost as dysfunctional as I am, or superficial acquaintances who feel vaguely guilty about their proximity to my self-perpetuating horrible problems but won't try to help me with them.

I can't approach girls. I spend most of my waking moments in agony from the mix of sexual privation, lack of intimacy or affection, and plain multifarious lonesomeness. Yet despite, and also because of, the severe pain, I cannot even try to screw up the nerve to do the one thing that could theoretically alleviate it. It isn't fear that stops me. When I tell people about this inability to even try to try, let alone try, let alone try and succeed, they always assume the only possible explanation is fear. Yes there is sometimes fear when the situation arises, but that's just the wrong explanation. The psychological state I enter does not seem to be one that other humans can relate to, one of being physically incapable of taking an action that one is not afraid of taking. ("Fear" is in part a fake explanation that people use to mask their ignorance of what's really going on, which is certain to be much more complicated than a single word.)

What is actually going on then? when I want to approach but doing so feels like an error message is blocking my path and the OK button is grayed out. In 8th grade I was diagnosed with Asperger's, but I don't think that really suffices or even captures any of the dynamics. I don't know what the monster is made of, but this particular inability feels like it comes from the same place as my inability to learn the calculus or programming, and my inability to go to the DMV on my own, and my inability to walk into a pharmacy to get heartburn medication, and my inability to focus on a non-video-game task for more than 15 seconds, and my inability to gather allies, by which I mean the monster causes all of them.

When I bring it up, people are very quick to pretend that there is no such thing as the monster in anyone ever, in part because it represents a convenient excuse to be lazy. But this is flatly denying reality; you can see it in anyone, and of course in some people it will be stronger than in others. Even when all I'm trying to do is claim that I did not choose to fail at life as hard as I did, that I did not knowingly and willingly decide to let things fall apart so hard, that I failed because I didn't have as much control over my life as they want to believe everyone has, because otherwise how horrible would the world be, a place where people's lives are routinely ruined and it's not even their fault...

I don't even disagree with the sorts of meta-policies that lead to a cultural norm of pressuring people to shape the fuck up and get a job or whatever. But the forces that have to exist to keep such a norm stable—the Schellingian game theory about punishment of non-punishers, interest of elites in promoting the norms, etc.—lead to Triversian self-deception in which people make themselves believe false things about how draconian application of the norm is likely to affect other people's future likelihood of shaping the fuck up, so as to avoid social repercussions and weakening the structure in which the norm is embedded*. People in the actual society are mostly worked to the point of constant low-level misery, which not only creates resentment of people not subjected to that exact kind of misery but also implies that they themselves are already under enough pressure that they're willing to work the amount of time and effort that makes them that miserable. The combination of all of these things makes it impossible to realize that trying to elicit the same amount of effort from me by applying that pressure, outside a setting where my executive ego doesn't have to be involved in generating and choosing to continue to follow plans, I collapse.

(Argh, I'm so bound-up by various internally conflicting incommunicable fetters, incompatible precommitment-like devices, introspectively inaccessible aversions, and unspeakable preferences, that I can't say anything at all on the object-level. The things I'm trying to do with this mess-bundle feel subjectively so important and urgent all the time and people keep not treating them that way and that feedback results in me getting even more desperate and broken and bound... The correct-according-to-a-nonexistent-but-useful-standard move in this situation is to JOotS, as Hofstadter would say, to go meta and explain the bound-upness. But that's no good either; I'm bound-up on all the higher meta levels too. How did this even happen!? There is no use even trying to explain. Best to just call it part of the monster.)

Part of the mechanism is that the sorts of things people suggest I do to deal with the monster are things I could only do if the monster were not there.

Consider that my father's understanding of why I fail is, "my belief that I will fail causes me to fail." ...Really, that's his understanding. Why does he stop at the basic, easily corrected mistake of getting the order of causality backwards, instead of even bothering to come with a subtler, more defensible-seeming wrong understanding? I want to call it an excess of just-world alief leading to Triversian self-deception, maybe something about principal-agent problems involving unresolvable payoff matrix asymmetries, but in truth I don't know. My own father.

People sometimes ask me, if I'm so incapable of ever doing anything about my horrible situation, why don't I kill myself. The monster won't let me.

When I think about what the monster is trying to do by blocking me at every turn, I don't get far. It may be related to problems with emotional attachments resulting from my mother disappearing and being murdered soon after I was born ("i need to make sure nothing can ever be that bad again") and Connie dying unexpectedly and for no reason, and subsequently being abandoned by every romantic partner and several important acquaintances, occasionally in ways that left me feeling extremely hurt and bitter for years.

In desperation for worthwhile attachments and acceptance, the monster causes abject isolation. It's astonishing; it cannot be chanceful; it's like something is hounding me... It's like someone is trying to get the monster (or me or something) to admit that the effects of its actions are directly opposite to the goals in terms of which it lashes out with those actions.

It took me a very, very long time to admit that it's a disability. I cannot slay the monster, any more than you can choose not to suffer your excretory system. No matter how vigilant I am, it grows stronger faster than I do. I have a disability.

I am usually very angry at society for letting it come to this, for letting my bad habits fester and coagulate into a powerful monster feeding off the absence of virtuous interruptions of this feedback loop, letting me become a homeless unemployable chronically lonely sexless birdless worthless wretch, instead of turning me into the person I could have been if I'd had proper interventions sufficiently long ago. On top of this, society also makes it nearly impossible for people like me, who've been failed by it, to opt out, to kill themselves safely, painlessly, and in a way that won't get us imprisoned in a mental hospitalprison in the event of failure ("Attempting suicide doesn't get you sent to regular jail, so it's legal!" no fuck you) as punishment for violating a sacred taboo. I've been hospitalized against my will twice just for talking about being suicidal, and FUCK THAT. P.S. if you're reading this don't try to get me imprisoned a third time. I will never forgive you

Part of this anger seems to be the perception that society tries hard to frame the situation in such a way that it's impossible for me to plausibly claim that I am doing the best I can with severely limited resources over insurmountable stumbling blocks. The perception is that society is trying hard to finally open a long-lusted-after crack in my fortifications and say "A-ha! You never really cared about being a virtuous, useful, good person at all," in order to expropriate my identity and take away my last claim to personhood, while claiming, either knowingly falsely or without consciously understanding the distinction at all, but without any way for me to call them on that, that I knowingly chose to deserve it. This is how I felt when I was libeled recently by some cruel vagueblogs, absent from which was any apparent remembered realization that I am still a person who appropriately cares about and takes into account other people's welfare, in a way that successfully made it impossible for me to defend myself, and with no one else out there willing to defend me.

This is parallel to, for instance, "If I don't retaliate against the person who cruelly derided one of the only beings that actually properly cared about me yes this actually happened someone made fun of me and my bird because I am sad that she died, it will just cement everything's excuses to abandon me for disloyalty."

Because I know the monster lives inside me, I know that the paths by which I might have done direct good myself are cut off. So the only remaining subjectively compelling routes for doing a lot of good in the world are of two classes. The first involves being a good influence on others, who themselves would do more good, and less harm, than they otherwise would. But the monster has eaten this route as well; even the people who believe they should be influenced by me are generally influenced in the wrong direction or not at all. The monster interferes with my ability to interact with people. It makes everything wrong.*

The second class involves an unprecedented level of altruistic assistance from someone else. I keep thinking that if a miracle were to occur, if someone were to rescue me from this Hell and bring me to a stable situation where I could practice arete, the monster would weaken, and partial recovery could begin. It is far too late for me to become the person I should have been, too much irreparable damage has been done, but I still think that I have some potential to reanimate into something worthwhile, if only... if only someone would get past my surliness, and ignore the weirdness and inconvenience of the type of altruistic act that would be required... I frequently inspire a transient velleity to help me out of the hole, but needless to say, that has never resulted in actual help.

The ordinary reader is still unconvinced and still wants to denounce me with some foolishness like "It's all in your head." Why is the ordinary reader still here? I don't know. An equally vicious class of reader wants to give condescending advice. A better class of reader sympathizes and wants to give me a hug (which would not help) or say something comforting and non-judgemental (which also would not help). Be assured that there is no reaction you can have that I have not already seen. I've had the conversation hundreds of times, and part of why I wrote this blog post is so that I never have to have it again. I have heard all the dismissals, seen all the advice, and failed to pretend to appreciate all the bromides. No one has ever yet responded with "Come stay at my place for as long as you want."

The previous paragraph is very unpleasant. I wanted to intrigue people about the possibility of cooperating with me in a nonstandard way to help me get on my feet, but what I did was manufacture a new way to repel people. I am leaving it in as another example of how the monster manifests. You could say the monster wrote that paragraph. Maybe it wrote this one. Is there anything left of me?

In me the monster has consumed all. There are no longer any routes whatsoever by which I may attain absolution. Absolution isn't for everyone. Not everyone gets the chance to do good with their life. The only things awaiting me are suffering and death.

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