Memoirs of My Recent Madness, Part I: The Unanswerable Words

"Listen, what's the most horrible experience you can imagine? To me—it's being left, unarmed, in a sealed cell with a drooling beast of prey or a maniac who's had some disease that's eaten his brain out. You'd have nothing but your voice—your voice and your thought. You'd scream to that creature why it should not touch you, you'd have the most eloquent words, the unanswerable words, you'd become the vessel of the absolute truth. And you'd see living eyes watching you and you'd know that the thing can't hear you, that it can't be reached, not reached, not in any way, yet it's breathing and moving there before you with a purpose of its own. That's horror. Well, that's what's hanging over the world, prowling somewhere through mankind, that same thing, something closed, mindless, utterly wanton, but something with an aim and a cunning of its own. I don't think I'm a coward, but I'm afraid of it. And that's all I know—only that it exists. I don't know its purpose, I don't know its nature."

The Fountainhead by Ayn Rand

So, right. I thought I was done recovering from my delusional nervous breakdown and 17–20 February wrongful imprisonment (I continue to refuse to use the word hospitalization)—which I didn't even get around to blogging for a month—but then it turned out that I wasn't done. Or maybe I was done, but then quickly ran into another series of stressors which once again pushed me over the edge into sleep deprivation and impaired sanity (in the form of damaged priors; I think my fluid reasoning was still pretty good throughout). Now I think I'm back to normal ("normal").

This kind of thing tends to happen to me every few years or so. (This "if it looks like everyone is lying about late-onset gender dysphoria in males, maybe self- and other-reports and -perceptions are wrong in general" breakdown was preceded by my December 2007 "school is actually bad" breakdown, my December 2010 "I feel guilty about not doing a very good job at my live-in internship for this cult or whatever that's trying to prevent the coming robot apocalypse" breakdown, and my February 2013 "school is actually still bad—no, really; also, I'm scared about how the Tegmark IV multiverse contains unimaginably large amounts of suffering" breakdown.)

I concede that it's plausible that my psychology falls into a reference class that could receive a bipolar I or paranoid schizophrenia diagnosis if I were to seek out a diagnosis, but right now, I'm modeling the field of psychiatry as an evolved social-control mechanism rather than a genuine attempt to help people, and I correspondingly decline to use its language and categories. (You sometimes hear people talk about psychiatric conditions being "underdiagnosed" at higher IQs, but that's backwards: the underlying psychological variations were here first; people only bother bucketing them into a "diagnosis" when people with the relevant traits cause problems in Society. But the evolutionarily-novel way that Society happens to be structured isn't necessarily optimized to be good for humans except insofar as humans following their individual incentive gradients usually don't screw things up too badly for themselves. Existing Society is just the thing the forces of memetic evolution happened to cough up in the disruptive wake of the industrial revolution; it doesn't necessarily make sense. And I don't cause problems.)

Glancing over my email Sent folder, it looks like the time to pinpoint as when things started to, um, become eventful again, was 2 April. That evening, I got an email tip from our local shaman/raconteur "Travis" (previous appearance) that someone we knew had just been thrown in psychiatric prison too (Subject: Another autogynophilic [sic] rationalist is in a psych ward) and asking if I wanted to get involved. The person in question turned out to be my trans woman friend "Roberta", who had apparently been trying to board a plane in "Cleveland" to visit her family somewhere in Europe (which is large enough that I'm not going to obfuscate its identity with a scare-quoted substitute). Soon enough, I and a number of Roberta's other friends managed to coordinate to start calling psychiatric "hospitals" in the Cleveland area, hoping to find out where she was and talk to her (Subject: information centralizing thread for [roberta] situation).

So, a horrifying thing that I didn't realize while I was in psychiatric prison in February, that I learned during this April attempt trying to help bust someone else out, is that these places have a policy of refusing to confirm or deny whether they're holding someone (because "privacy"). They'll take down your phone number and say, If we have a patient with such a name, then we'll give her your message and she can choose to call you back, but we can neither confirm nor deny whether we have a patient by that name.

We had reason to believe Roberta was being held at a particular "hospital"—because one of the other "hospitals" actually did tell us that she had been there, but was then discharged and probably sent to this place—but the "hospital" refused to confirm this, offering only to take a message. If she was there.

I didn't consider this acceptable: after having observed psychiatric prison employees blatantly make shit up in my own case (the paperwork asserted that I "self presented", but getting accosted by cops while trying to enter the train station to get to my apartment to sleep because trying to sleep at my mother's house didn't work so well, and not resisting as they led me into an ambulance after interviewing me for a few minutes, is not the same thing as "self presenting"!), I didn't trust them to reliably deliver a phone message: I could easily imagine scenarios in which, for example, the receptionist would dutifully take down the message, leave it to someone else to actually deliver it to Roberta, and then that someone else would get distracted, never deliver the message, and get away with it. Roberta wouldn't be able to complain about not receiving a message she never knew existed, and I wouldn't be able to complain if I wasn't allowed to even know whether Roberta was even there.

I called the "hospital" multiple times, trying every tactic I could think of to get through to any of the actual human beings serving as the flesh substrates of the policy-bound Glomarbots I was talking to, and reporting back to the coordination email thread. After divulging my February psych ward sob story in a burst of passion to the "patient's rights advocate" Ashley, I did get forwarded to Karen, the "hospital"'s Manager of Patient Relations. Karen, of course, gave me the same non-answers as everyone else and insisted that messages do, in fact, get delivered in her "hospital." As I continued to press the point, she told me that I had to trust people, and I said that after my recent psych ward experience, no, I don't trust people anymore. But, I added (sensing that this was the end of the line) I am willing trust her, Karen, the Manager of Patient Relations. I said that I felt better being reassured by someone with a four-word title. I asked if she was religious, and she said that she was a Christian, and that her word was her bond.

Perhaps some readers are currently thinking that my behavior was unreasonable, that I should have just trusted the competent, caring professionals to take care of my poor mad friend.

I expect those readers to fucking update when I say that my concerns turned out to be completely justified, as Roberta later (on 14 April) reported that "I have no memories of any staff telling me anything along the lines of 'Someone named [Mark] called and left a message', and this is something that would have been memorable."

(It's slightly inconvenient that this report came after I had already publicly conceded my bet of $500 against Scott Alexander (of Slate Star Codex fame)'s $25, that Roberta hadn't gotten our messages, on the basis of testimony from our friend "Jocelyn", who lives in Cleveland and visited Roberta on 4 April—luckily, it seems that the psych ward employees only feared that HIPAA demons would eat them if they acted like human beings over the telephone, and they hadn't been programmed to deny meatspace visitors. Apparently, Jocelyn mentioned to Roberta that friends had left messages for her and interpreted Roberta's response as affirming that she had received them, when, at the time, Roberta was actually thinking in terms of interpreting lots of observations as messages from various sources. Scott and I agreed to cancel the bet and give the $500 to the Center for Applied Rationality. But it is interesting to note that, in contrast to Scott's theory that keeping patients incommunicado is illegal and therefore doesn't happen, my theory that psych ward employees (besides Scott) are lying kidnappers made a correct prediction at 20:1 odds.)

Anyway, Roberta is fine. I'm fine. But it turns out that we live in a world in which not only is it the case that you can get arbitrarily kidnapped by the authorities and ordered to take unknown drugs under implied threat of force, it's also the case that when your friends who actually care about you start calling around to find out where you are, the bastards will refuse to admit whether they've kidnapped you and claim that it's for your benefit, and if you complain about this (Subject: Hijack Innocent People And Abscond), most ordinary good nice smart law-abiding people will implicitly or explicitly take the authorities' side, because once you've been placed in the social role of "crazy person", no one will listen to anything you say, even if you have surprisingly cogent arguments for why the casual processes that placed you in the social role of "crazy person" were mistaken to have done so.

So, that was pretty upsetting, which probably contributed to my own mental state descending into paranoid and pronoid delusions of reference over the next two weeks. And again, I understand and affirm that there's a level of description at which this can be understood as my being "mentally ill".

But it also kind of makes sense, right? Well—it's going to take several paragraphs to explain what I mean by that.

To review, I got really upset and lost a lot of sleep back in February because I didn't know how to make sense of my observations of an alarming fraction of the smartest people I know being seemingly unwilling to publicly affirm the conjunction biological sex is a predictively useful category and categories should be predictively useful. (I'm not making this up! I couldn't make this up!) And because I got upset, that means that I'm the crazy one?! Which means I deserve to be taken to a literal secret prison (if you're not allowed to leave, it's a prison; if the guards refuse to tell anyone whether you're there, it's a secret prison) and drugged by completely unaccountable authority figures, and I'm not supposed to object when the imprisonment-and-drugging is called "care", which I have to pay for?! (The medical insurance—note, not "health insurance"; medicine and health are distinct concepts—from my dayjob covered almost all of the ambulance and prison bills, but I think this should still be described as me having to pay: assuming economics isn't fake, a change in Society leading to fewer psychiatric imprisonments should reduce medical insurance costs, which in turn should increase the fraction of total compensenation from my dayjob that I receive in the form of money rather than medical insurance.)

I'm complaining, but if possible, I'd like to avoid portraying myself as a victim here. The primary intended effect of the complaint is not to try to convince you that I have been wronged by someone or something, and that they "should" be held accountable for my suffering. Rather, I'm trying to explain what it felt like to have my model of social reality get undermined.

I thought I was safe; I thought that words meant the same thing to other people that they meant to me; I thought I understood the limits of what ideologically-fashionable nonsense good nice smart law-abiding people in "Portland" would accept—or at least, I thought that the very smartest people in Portland would be a little more honest; I thought it was possible to reason with cops. I knew that there was injustice in the world—everyone knows that—but I thought that at least there was justice for people like me.

But after the months of trying to figure out whether I, too, am "trans" (answer: as much as anyone, Yes—unless you mean the good kind, but if you're reading this blog, you probably don't know any of the good kind), and my February ordeal, and confronting the impenetrable Eichmannian blankness of authoritarian submission while trying to get a straight yes-or-no answer from the Cleveland prison employees as to whether they were holding Roberta—all my illusions of safety had crumbled, and I was, and am, left with the dim and yet no-longer-deniable apprehension of the core reality of human existence: people are animals that manipulate each other by making noises. Any high-minded folderol about morality or the meanings of words is subservient to that—is constructed out of that.

Bayes's theorem tells us that the probability of a hypothesis given the evidence, equals the probability of the evidence given the hypothesis, times the prior probability of the hypothesis, divided by the sum, over all hypotheses j, of the probability of the evidence given hypothesis j, times the prior probability of hypothesis j.

But what do you do when you've depleted your stock of hypotheses, when all of your models have been broken and j indexes over the empty set? What is there left to do but wander around childlike, helpless, pleading, bluffing, trying new things at random in those piercing flashes of terror when the fear of the unknown gets momentarily overpowered by the fear of not knowing, as you desperately work to discover what kind of world you live in—what kind of world you have always lived in?

So, yes, I went crazy again in April. But only because I had tried being sane and that didn't work.

It would be difficult and tedious—not to mention somewhat emotionally painful—to reconstruct the exact sequence of everything I thought and did during this period; the general theme was extreme confusion and uncertainty about, um, everything, including the nature of reality, but particularly about people's true motivations and what threats might lurk ubiquitously behind everyone's socially-desirable lies about how the world works, which I had spent my entire life being duped by.

Maybe people get kidnapped and thrown in prisons (mostly prisons-masquerading-as-hospitals if they're of my social class) all the time. Maybe they often die in there. Maybe sometimes they escape, perhaps with the help of friends who are willing to pretend to be family members, the authorities being more likely to release someone into the care of family rather than mere friends. (And then no one talks about it, fearing stigma and loss of credibility.) Maybe sometimes the prison authorities mistake someone's identity and manage to successfully use social pressure to brainwash them into accepting that identity—the authorities reasoning that if the paperwork says the patient's name is, say, Michael Jones, that must be his name, and he mustn't be released until he truly accepts this, even if the patient currently insists that his name is Mark Saotome-Westlake (the testimony of crazy people being assigned zero evidential weight, and the possibility of a paperwork mixup being assigned prior probability zero). Maybe people who talk about reincarnation and past lives are actually talking about things that really happened to them before a traumatic event after which they ended up in a new social environment that forcibly brainwashed them into adopting a new identity. (Stockholm syndrome has every reason to be adaptive; as a just-so story, imagine a surviving woman on the losing side of tribal warfare during the endless æons of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness doing better for her genes by starting a new life under the bondage of her captors rather than going down with a fight like her brothers.) Maybe—and stranger hypotheses than these still.

To be continued.