Sunday, February 7, 2016

Graduating to every other week therapy

I've never been to summer camp. The closest I got to the experience was sixth grade camp, when as an 11 year old I went up to the mountains (snow! cold!) with all of my classmates for a week. I still have so many vivid memories of it. Everything I know about recognizing constellations I learned there, camp songs, a love/hate relationship to the hot dog, making snow survival shelters (we surely would have died if actually required to live in ours) and what seemed to be the startling amount of trust and freedom I enjoyed in leaving my family and any real responsible adult supervision and running amok in the mountains with a 15 to 1 ratio of camp counselors (barely more than children themselves) to children, and with knives and other sharp tools. Even though it was just a week, I came back from camp a changed person. Not to say that the person I was before was bad or even that I needed to change in that particular way in order to mature. Nor to say that the person I changed into was any less me than the person before. It's hard to describe the sensation, but whatever it was I was ok with it because for whatever reason I still recognized the person I became.

I recently graduated from every week therapy to every other week therapy. The change was precipitated by me reaching and maintaining a certain level of awareness and understanding about myself, other people, and the world. I feel the difference, but I also don't feel that different. I recognize who I am. I just feel more proficient, like if I had always been only a music sight reader and then finally learned how to play by ear, or vice versa. And naturally I understand the world in a more fuller and richer way, simply because now I engage with it in more ways than I did previously. Everyone has a blindspot. That was always my special talent to know growing up. Now I know better my own.

The most interesting development has been my more nuanced view of self. How is it that I am the same person I was as a too-aggressive child, a manipulative teenager, a scheming young adult, a risk-taking 30 something, and now someone who has graduated to every other week therapy. But even odder to realize is that during the periods that I was "truest" to "myself", those were when I was most engaged and satisfied by life, no matter my financial situation or family situation or anything else that may have been weighing me down in the world at large. It turned out it wasn't the fact that I was born/made a sociopath that caused most of my problems. It was actually my ill-informed adaptations to the world that I had picked up along the way that made my heart shrink and blacken. Some of you will understand what I mean and I apologize for not being able to explain better, but it was the societal emphasis and rewards based almost solely on appearances, end results, and bottom lines that created all of the wrong incentives -- versus a focus on the process over the outcome and learning through making mistakes = ok and understanding that society will (and must) adapt to you sometimes, it can't always be you adapting to it, and how to know when is when and what is what. Self-awareness about my sociopathic tendencies didn't make me better, it made me worse as I came to internalize how unpalatable that was in society. That's when my behavior became so aggressive, passive, hollow, desperate, and impotent. That's when I started wearing masks basically all of the time. Sayonara to my sense of self. I may have hurt others a little less but it was accomplished by hurting myself much more. Because I could always fit square pegs into round holes, even if it got a little ugly and I got dirty doing it. And it felt like that was the solution -- that was what was being asked of me as part of my faustian deal to make things go down easier for me, to avoid having to deal with any negativity or fall out based on anyone's disapproval.

But now I wonder, what to say to everyone? How do I respond to people who email me? How can I communicate this adequately to others so that they won't make the same mistake -- won't wait until there are decades of barnacles of garbage encrusting them, until they finally cease being recognizable to themselves, before they realize that who they are is not a problem that needs fixing. I want my little relatives to know this, you all, anyone who also will wonder about the meaning of the lyrics to Landslide or wonder what does it feel like to keep living (and most paradoxically keep changing) after you feel like you've finally discovered who you really are. To know how to resonate with this life, both so maddeningly static and so dynamic. And to learn what one must never, never sacrifice, even just to get by, even if it seems like that is what is being required of you to do. 

Friday, February 5, 2016

Mr. Robot's reduction of people to patterns

I started watching the tv show Mr. Robot. I have never done much programming. I guess the closest I have come is working in Excel, which I have done since I was a tween, and maybe some basic coding that they you used to teach youngsters back when computers were much simpler in a way (does anyone remember DOS?).  But I really did enjoy it. I enjoyed the predictability and the knowing that if you pulled this lever you got this result. I even enjoyed trying to pull a lever and getting the wrong result, because it was just a puzzle to solve -- a puzzle that I knew had an answer just waiting for me to discover. It's no surprise I often thought of people that way too, and so does the main character of Mr. Robot.

The anti-social protagonist hacks everyone he knows to find out all about them. It gives him the illusion of knowing people. He says that he is very good at reading people. And he is in a way, in the sense that so many normal people are terribly predictable -- looking for love in all the wrong places, etc. But I have also seen other real life people, particularly with personality disorders, similarly attempt to reduce people to patterns and predictions and it seems ridiculously sysiphean to me -- often by the time you recognize a pattern, the person or situation has changed and your data is stale. Moreover, to my eyes, they are clearly less successful and accurate with it than they believe themselves to be. And so in maintaining those beliefs that (1) people can be easily reduced to knowable patterns and (2) that they have successfully reduced people to those said patterns, those types appear a little delusional to me. (I'm sure that I am the same with my delusions.)

With all of that said, I still think there is something very useful and often powerful about being able to recognize the patterns in the people around us (even if it will never give us as clear a picture of each other as we might fool ourselves into believing).

A reader gives a similar math analogy:

The environment in which I grew up was certainly governed by physical violence. This enviornment, however, had a steadily balanced input from both sides of morality/ethics: at school was the common child's play, at home was my father's emotional instability brought on from too much drink, at the gym was the overzealous, self-righteous police. Through my Grandparents, at home, I received a clearer understanding of an ethical/moral constitution for a Family man. From the gym I was able to glean between the Warrior's code of conduct (almost Nietzschiean in its focus on self-control  and discipline), and the police offered the legal ramifications of societies expectations. Through these I was able to become Nietzsche's Child, Campbell's Self Revolving Wheel, where, in his Discourse of The Three Metamorphoses, I compiled my own codes; allowing me to adapt to whatever the environment I found myself expected. For me, this was a mathematical puzzle; just as language is an algebraic formula wherein the values are interchangeable and the formula remains the same.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

PTSD and sociopathy

A reader recently wrote about the connection between sociopathy and post traumatic stress disorder:

I think I had post-traumatic stress disorder for two years. Your book however is the closest I have ever felt to being understood. In which case is it possible to be a sociopath for two years of your life? Or are the two related? I hadn't seen any similar links on your blog but I thought I'd share my story in case there are others like mine.

I am not sure if you can learn to be a sociopath, or if I have been one my whole life, or, indeed, writing this, I have been "cured". I had a happy childhood as an expat only child. Life was exciting, I was loved. I 'think' I used to be empathetic..I was always very concerned with people's problems, but it's hard to tell if it was curiosity and wanting to solve the puzzles in their lives or because I was upset by their hurt. I hated criticism, but because I was never wrong, not because I ever felt I had done wrong. To me, other children were nice, but rather stupid and didn't interest me much. My favourite games to play I would role play as a successful adult. I was quite quiet, perceived as shy and unassuming, and I constantly felt underestimated - a secret I saw to my advantage and loved. Aside from this, I feel I was a normal-ish child. I had more interest in over-achieving at school and being the best than of dealing with my peers, I enjoyed company when I had it but was quite content to be left alone. Perhaps had I grown up with siblings as competition my attitude would have been different.

As a teenager I was quiet but popular, seen as smart and sweet and liked by everyone even though I feel nobody really knew me. Through travelling I had learnt at a young age to adapt, to blend in, to make new friends. I found girls brought too much drama and needless emotional turmoil to my life and I didn't understand their mind games or fake attitudes, so my friends have always primarily been boys. I like that when they had a problem with each other it would be addressed with a hit to the face and be forgotten the next day. I hate unnecessary emotions. I also have a great disdain for violence, more because that also inevitably leads to gossiping emotional drama than because of the actual violence. I would have no qualms punching someone in the face given the opportunity and would greatly enjoy it. I was always the "peace keeper" breaking up fights in the playground. Most people saw me as the sensitive soul doing a good deed. I am in fact incapable of watching a fight and not being involved, I would have loved being hit by one of the bullies only to be able to beat him until I was restrained, but, primarily, I loved my power. I loved how ballsy I felt as a small framed girl being able to stand in the face of someone the rest of the school cowered to, I enjoyed making him feel weak, I enjoyed knowing that he couldn't hurt me physically or emotionally.

I don't think I've ever deliberately tried to manipulate people unless they've crossed me. I don't get a thrill out of manipulation because I find people's emotions such a nuisance and because ultimately, I like being seen as a nice person and don't want to unravel my own reputation. I am an exceptional liar and mid-teens realised I revelled in playing the murderous, sultry villains in drama "acting" was in fact just a subsection of my inner self.

It takes a lot to make me angry. But when I am a shift occurs in my mind and indifference becomes cold, malicious hatred. I don't have an exceptional regard for myself (probably a result of abusive tendencies and relationships with other sociopaths in an attempt to prove myself I was "normal"), but I know I am a survivor, I know I am pretty and flirt with almost everyone, I am charming and, when I am doing something I love, incredibly intelligent. I have never viewed people with malice, rather with a kind of nonchalance. I enjoy unravelling the ins and outs of people's stories and personalities, not because I will use that in a game against them, but because their self-discovery is my game. I enjoy working out people before they've even began to work out themselves. I think the way I view myself is much the same way I view other people. I have always been hyper introspective, I like to be the best, including at understanding myself, and perhaps that's when I start to runaway, when people start to get to high up the scale of understanding me, and I'll do something "out of character" (which for me really is all just a part of my character) and push them away.

I have very high sexual needs, so I suppose it has always seemed more pragmatic to have long-term relationships to satisfy this. For this reason I haven't been able to engage in any same-sex relationships as I experimented with as a child (I try to be faithful these days, except when seeking revenge). I like that men can be manipulated with just the raise of an eyebrow. I am a nice person and am good at adapting to being the perfect partner. Most of my relationships have been littered with arguments, "you're too independent", "you don't seem to even care", "you have too many male friends", "you never talk to me", "why didn't you ask for my advice"?! I get annoyed when people take my easygoing nature and uncomplicated pleasantness for granted. I am nice because it is convenient for me to be so and I enjoy the rewards of affection I get in return. When people confuse being nice with naivety or stupidity I see red. Perhaps this is why I surround myself with other suitable suitors that I claim are just innocent friends. I like people to know I have replacements lined up so that they treat me better. I also like people to flirt with when my current partner is being too emotionally needy. I find over-emotional pathetic.

So far perhaps my story sounds bland, I am potentially mildly sociopathic but I am not interested enough in the consequences of creating emotional havoc to indulge in any tendencies. Or perhaps I am just an incredibly laid back person, an intelligent and independent only child.

However, when I was sixteen my father was diagnosed with brain cancer. I was very close to my dad and my mum so this hurt me, a lot. My whole life became a soap opera, which I hated. I pushed myself even harder with my studies and did everything to try and make my dad happy and to make our lives as normal as possible. I hated anyone coming to our house, I felt insanely protective of our tiny three person bubble and anyone trying to burst that. I felt like if I allowed my emotions out I would be giving into them indefinitely and wouldn't succeed, so I would tell myself I was being pathetic and the emotions would fade out after about 5 seconds. Eventually the emotions just stopped. I don't remember when or how but I just stopped feeling. I was calm and composed, I would work on limited sleep and little food, since eating bored me and sleep seemed a waste of time. I spoke to almost nobody. I chose when I would go to and walk out of school. At the beginning I got a thrill out of concocting the most elaborate lies to bunk off but by the end I enjoyed that I could just get away with it. I would go home and work alone, I found my peers stupid and painfully immature and didn't think there was anything a teacher could teach me that I couldn't teach myself. I went home to avoid my incredible urges to punch someone in the face or throttle someone just to wake them up to reality, let them feel real pain and to be able to enjoy the lack of emotion I would have in doing it. I would imagine strange occurrences in my head where I would be able to exert my heightened coldness to undo people. I know I could have killed someone and would have enjoyed it.

About a year after my fathers death I began to get a few emotions back. I remember reading a joke and feeling shock when I remembered how to laugh. Gradually over four more years other emotions have come back to me. During a brief encounter with a counsellor (I was more intent on unravelling her than letting her in so I gave up) I was told I had had post-traumatic stress. Nobody ever diagnosed me at the time, but it seemed a reasonable evaluation and one I had considered several times before.

I can now say that I have the majority of emotions that I had before my dads illness, I "feel" as well as logically calculate that I am happy, and I am very much in love. I care about my friends and invest a lot of time in them and enjoying their company. I trained in architecture, but, learning I couldn't be the best quickly enough or earn enough money, I switched to international development. Most people think I am a saint, they don't understand that I do what I do because I'm good at it, I like helping people for my own sake and I'm one of the few people capable of finding logical solutions to over-emotional disasters. I've been through enough I can be clinical in disaster analysis. I hope that I can undo the incompetency of previous development failures and I like feeling like I am perceived as a "good", intellectual person..even if I don't perceive it myself as "good", I just think I'm highly competent at helping people, mainly because most of the time I can detach from empathy. This said, there is this part of me that still switches beyond indifference, if I find someone pathetic, if someone angers me, if I'm caught in the wrong mood, my brain switches from feeling like I care, beyond indifference, to wanting to hurt them. In those moments the most important people in my life mean absolutely nothing to me. I would of course never say any of this to them, but these are the questions that interest me:

1. Is post-traumatic stress just a branch of sociopathy? Or am I just one or the other?
3. Does everyone have sociopathic tendencies under extreme conditions as a built in survival mechanism or is it just a few of us?
4. Under different circumstances, at what point or if ever would i have shown sociopathic tendencies?
5. Have I really been able to undo the extremes of my sociopathic post-traumatic stress and go back to the extent of my emotions before they cut off? Will I be able to learn new emotions? Will I ever forget how to "switch off"?
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