Jumping from the physical sciences (biology, physics, chemistry) and into psychological research methods is quite a leap. I am no expert in biology, physics and certainly not chemistry, and I never finished a degree in any of them, but I’ve taken enough to get a general understanding of proper research principals. Applying that mindset to people, however, is quite strange.
My professor quoted determinism as the most distinctive philosophical quality of all science. He also went on to (proudly) mention psychological research has 20% more accounts of replicated studies than physics and I resisted raising my hand and snapping back with a “well, no one in physics fraudulently fabricates a picture of a black hole the way psychological researchers fake prescription medication research for their own profit.”
But, that’s beside the point.
It’s not the first time I’ve heard this, and the further you go in science the more determinism becomes a question. It’s nestled deeply in psychology as well, which is probably the most terrifying place it can rest.
In a very basic sense, determinism is the thought that everything, every event/state of affairs/decision we make has been determined by events previous to that state. Some hard-lined determinists argue this is reason to scrap free will, while others insist free will exists within the parameters of determinism.
There’s thought that Quantum Mechanics has solid foundation for undermining determinism, and while it does present issues determinism cannot provide answers for, it’s been pointed out there are a few ways it could in fact support the idea of determinism.
I haven’t spent years studying Quantum theory, I can only know what I’ve learned from friends who went further than me in physics, and from research articles I’ve read in some journals. But, the Stanford Encylopedia of Philosophy has a great, short section on the multiple ways QM supports and doesn’t support determinism. (No, there isn’t a ton of incomprehensible math or professional jargon you can’t decipher). If you are also skeptical, I’d take a look at that link. There’s also discussion of naked singularities and probability.
That article concludes there can be no definitive conclusion–not in the way of empirical, mathematical support for determinism as a way of the universe. Instead, it postulates the universe be made up of both deterministic and indeterministic variables (i.e, proper randomness, proper chance).
This is one philosophical topic we can actually gather data for. But what does this have to do with psychology? Fucking everything, as it turns out. Let me reiterate some of B.F Skinner’s words and warnings from an excerpt of his (deterministic) book Beyond Freedom and Dignity:
“The appeal to reason has certain advantages over the authoritative command. A threat of punishment, no matter how subtle, generates emotional reactions and tendencies to escape or revolt. Perhaps the controllee merely ‘feels resentment’ at being made to act in a given way, but even that is to be avoided. When we ‘appeal to reason’, he ‘feels freer to do as he pleases’.”
In terms of the behavioral sciences, he’s referencing controlling unwanted/unruly behavior not with threats or anger or obvious statements (i.e, you’re going to hurt yourself jumping off that curb like that), but appealing to reason (look at how likely you are to get in an accident drunk driving! You could kill someone, or yourself!), disguising the control so that the person believes they have a sense of freedom. Skinner is not too fond of freedom. He insists “we must accept the fact that some kind of control of human behavior is inevitable . . . we are all controlled by the world in which we live, and part of the world has been and will be constructed by men”.
Appealing to reason is considered more compassionate than threats, but it can become unnecessarily coercive as it has within America’s mental health system. For example, if someone tells a professional “I can’t take it anymore, I want to end my life”. Often fear triggers a response of “how would your family feel? Would you want to do that to them? Think about how much you’d hurt them.”
And while on the surface that seems logical and effective, it’s shaming (how dare you consider doing this to your family). It’s refusing someone a decision and leading them into your preferred decision. And it’s also is a quick tactic to believe you have removed the crisis, to feel good for removing that crisis, to fulfill your quite well-intentioned need to save someone. It also often doesn’t allow us to explore the feelings behind the crisis in that deep, profound moment. But, it offers the question that is often debated of whether we have the right to tell someone “you have to live.”
This, of course, is rooted in the idea that if the benefit outweighs the risk, the benefit is worthy. The risk here would be removing someone’s freedom; the benefit, that someone continues to live. This, then, presents the question: is living chained (without knowing you’re chained) better than dying free?
It’s where the APA comes up with their experiment guidelines: if the scientific benefit is substantial, pain (human participants) or death (animal subjects) is warranted.
It makes us feel weird to think about all of this. It makes us feel bad too, for all the families who have lost someone to suicide, all the pain and horror that causes. As someone who was frequently suicidal, and attempted once, it makes me feel extra weird. We don’t want our friends or families or ourselves to feel that pain. But philosophically, that doesn’t remove the question of whether it’s our right to tell someone when they can live and when they can die.
And so, Skinner foreshadows many things really, with “The danger of the misuse of power is possibly greater than ever”.
The summary of his book, offered by one of my first philosophy texts, says he lectures on this idea that “behavioral scientists can and should be given the power to ‘engineer’ human behavior in accordance with an agreed-upon set of ideals (social harmony, individual happiness, and productivity)”.
Some form of control does seem inevitable. Is it because we like order and organization? Is it because we’re all power hungry? Is it because we can only see the world from our perspective and so absorb things personally/take them to heart? Or do we control out of fear of no control and therefore will never know if there is a version of constructive chaos?
I don’t have the answers. But, if we’ve created our mental healthcare system based on the idea that behaviorists should engineer human behavior into what they believe is the proper standard behavior, than I dare say we’ve actually lost some control.
As a species we really adore concrete things. We like to have hard lines; we like our tables to have edges, our doors to have frames, and a lot of the time that’s practical and necessary. I’ve noticed we also like our thoughts to have the same uniform structure.
Our brains are there to make sense of everything and when something doesn’t make sense we must make it make sense and to do that we find a perfect little box and if we can’t find a perfect little box, we create the broken box; if something doesn’t fit the standard box, that something must be broken. The broken box is where mental health issues lie.
We often call ourselves broken, ill, sick, all these negative connotations because that’s the box we’ve been given, and we feel broken, ill, and sick.
Within the broken box, there are three more little soggy boxes in the rain: mild, moderate, and severe. They’ve been around for a couple decades now, could use some time out in the sun and duct tape on the sides. In the mild box, you won’t find much help or understanding. Maybe you get anxiety every once in a while, or in specific situations. Maybe someone’s poured an ounce of depresso in your coffee and you have that annoying “blah” feeling, but you never miss work, you never want to die, and you function well.
The moderate box is a little less full. Your anxiety is constant. You get two ounces of depresso each morning and miss work once in a blue moon because you just can’t take it anymore. You think about finding a therapist, but draw the line at psychiatry until someone convinces you otherwise.
The severe box is the smallest, but that’s supposed to be good. Your anxiety won’t let you leave your house–not for the last three years. Your depression fills your cups of coffee, all four of them, every morning, and you don’t leave your bed, let alone your house. You can’t think straight, you’re spouting words which don’t exist on earth and God’s been talking to you, really talking to you this time, and you’re the chosen one. You can’t work, you can’t shop for yourself, and help is forced, not chosen.
So, for those of us who don’t fit in the soggy boxes, where do we go? We float in the ether.
Sometime I’ll talk about the most broken areas of the mental health system, and that will include the closet they keep all these boxes. But in this post I wanted to talk about variation.
I’ve never considered myself mentally ill, or to have a mental disorder. That’s not because I’m in “denial”. It’s because I don’t see myself as ill. I was in therapy at 6 for not talking. All of school was trauma because I still didn’t talk, I didn’t make friends, anxiety made me cry every five minutes, I was homeless for a few years and then also hormones. I think puberty should be considered a trauma. In high school I got depressed, was deep in self harm already, got on medication and into therapy. Neither helped.
In college, I solved Ebola and cured anxiety with frequencies. It’s a long story. Then I questioned things. People didn’t seem to hear the same things I did, or notice patterns I did. For some reason this didn’t frighten me. It startled me, but it never frightened me. I only got frightened when I was dragged into hell, trapped by demons, and then caused the Las Vegas mass shooting.
Obviously I didn’t cause the Las Vegas shooting, but I thought it was because of me.
And the things I heard: it was strange. It wasn’t just people outside talking to me, or talking about me, they were in my head too. Like, really lodged in there.
When you read this post silently to yourself, you have that mini-you voice. They were not that. They were similar as I didn’t hear them outside of my head, but they were differently pitched than my mini-me voice. They said random things (my favorite is “Put that burrito on reservation”), commented on things, and overwhelmed me when I sat in class. I dropped a lot of classes during this awakening period.
It never felt appropriate calling these voices because I knew it’d be dismissed and so when assessed I said I heard externally ones occasionally and they didn’t always say a lot, I didn’t know them well, and one just screamed.
Again, I didn’t fit in any box. I had periods of grandiosity, of depression, but also of consistent, unbreakable, delusions, regardless of my mood (sometimes). I’d seen things others didn’t. All I was missing to really put the dot on their fucking I’s were consistent, mind-numbing external voices.
So I read some papers. It was thought just a little over a decade ago that internal voices weren’t a thing, and then when they were, they were considered less severe than external ones.
And then I found this 2016 gem.
And felt oddly validated. Strangely validated. Horrifyingly validated.
Because now I fit in a box. And that feeling has plagued me ever since.
I don’t want to fit in one of those soggy, disgusting, abandoned closet boxes. But if I don’t, my struggles will be invalidated and dismissed.
So, I created my own box. Not a sick, diseased, ill box, but one which harbors a variety of human experiences and calls them just that. It’s not really a box at all, it’s just a flat piece of cardboard on the floor with no ceiling, no walls, and you can stretch your arms and breathe fresh air. There’s no duct tape or shipping labels or clumsy shoving of your limbs.
In the abstract of the above article, the researchers say they found those with internal voices to be more aware of where the voices come from. And that makes things easier, I think, because when I do hear things externally, I usually believe it’s someone in the building or outside of the building commenting on me or hating on me or whatever, and that’s a lot harder to work through.
Maybe it’s the awareness that dilutes the fear. It doesn’t dilute the stress.
And their internal nature doesn’t mean I believe they’re coming from me. So, do with that information what you will.
My point? We are human. Humans have experiences. Humans have varied experiences. And to call an experience, even a terrifying one, even a disrupting one, even a repetitive, life shattering one an illness like cancer is an illness, an illness like high blood pressure is an illness, is some kind of twisted medical logical fallacy.
You want mental health to be treated like physical health?
It already is.
I don’t know about the rest of you, but one thing I struggled with a lot in the worst of my mental health was feeling free. Not just from myself and my own judgments, but from other people’s judgments and the judgments of life; I talked a bit in the previous post about how it feels life has a standard of living we should be striving toward.
Growing up with anxiety meant every little thing made me cry. I felt kinds words reprimanded me, I felt harsh words reprimanded me, and silence or confusion around my actions or word made me feel “stupid”. That’s been a big hurdle for me: feeling stupid. Let me give you a recent example.
I decided to quit a second job I had acquired about six months before. One anxiety I still battle is approaching people, and a series of events lead up to me ghosting the job (as I have every job I’ve quit for the last 7 years). Their incessant calling my phone, my mother’s phone, and my primary job sparked paranoia; I heard the workers talking about me, their voices, their thoughts, and had the first panic attack I’ve had in 2.5 years. At the end of it all, friends seemed to reflect that I’d felt bad for ghosting my employer. But that wasn’t the case.
The things I heard were them discussing how stupid I’d been to do this. I feared looking stupid in the eyes of people I’d probably never see again.
There’s no guarantee had I quit “properly” I wouldn’t have experienced the same things. I always thought they considered me stupid, and that is in relation to how little I speak. That’s traced back into a childhood of selective mutism and gut wrenching anxiety and people actually thinking I was slow.
So, freedom felt hard to come by. Unobtainable. Non-existent.
My first realization came some months back: I needed to give myself permission to speak. I had never been given the chance or the encouragement as a child; at home, I was bullied into stifling my voice, especially around “grown folks”, and at school I was reprimanded for never talking. My child brain didn’t know how to reason through that contradiction. And so my first step as an adult was to remind myself I’m allowed to speak.
My second revelation came as I thought about the meaning of freedom. Could I do whatever I wanted? Murder without a conscience? Disregard consequence? Revel in havoc and embrace chaos? I dabbled in heavy partying for a brief period, mixed medications and alcohol hoping to feel alive and free in debauchery and carelessness. I didn’t feel trapped anymore, but I didn’t feel free either. So chaos wasn’t freedom, it was just a localized, appealing version of pain.
If recklessness wasn’t freedom, than what was? I thought back to the days I berated myself and physically hurt myself out of confusion and some underlying need to be noticed. I didn’t consider myself a bad person, but I didn’t think I was very good either, and then I learned.
I learned I judged myself (and assumed other people’s judgments) were based on whether or not I saw myself, or they saw me, as a bad person, a stupid person, an awkward person. I wanted to be good with the assumption that good meant genius, perfect, social. Being smart wasn’t enough for me–I needed to be smarter than everyone or my intelligence was worth nothing. I needed to not have acne or be so tall or wear unflattering clothes. I needed to not isolate. I needed to not need isolation. I needed to meet people and have friends and be normal. Normal was good. By those standards, I was very, very bad.
I spent time cycling around town, hiking in mountains, and thinking. I learned bad was pretty good.
I don’t mean this in the cliche sense of “in every bad person, there’s a good heart”, nor do I mean “not being normal is also good.” I mean, quite literally, we wouldn’t understand this concept of “bad” without good, and visa versa. Both are within each other, and created from each other, and therefore to label myself one or other, I labeled myself both. And I don’t mean that in the sense of “yes, everyone has a good side and a bad side”. Again, I mean this quite literally, and in a concrete sense, separate from the outcome of actions or thoughts. I.e, starting a riot in the middle of the street is called bad and therefore also called good. One concept can’t exist without the other in every form of life.
It didn’t mean that because snorting coke was both good and bad I should indulge. It meant I could acknowledge the duality and weigh my choices based on the outcome I wanted. I don’t not do drugs because it’s “bad”. I don’t do drugs because it would serve no purpose in the way of freedom.
That brought a lot of comfort because I no longer logically needed to live up to an invisible standard.
Being content with and understanding the connective duality of life gave me freedom from myself. It allowed me to allow space for those voices in my head, including my own negative thoughts; we were all now equal in our non-equality. Their darkness, and my own, was now also light. There was freedom in not fighting, and by not fighting, I fought. It’s similar to breaking an enemies resistance without fighting, which I believe is a central theme in Doaism teachings.
None of this stopped the pain. But all of this let me understand pain, and what I understand, I don’t fear.
It’s refreshing to understand yourself.
When I stopped seriously blogging about two years ago, it was abrupt and painful. Painful because I missed the writing community of almost five years which had enjoyed stories and laughs and tears and memories and traumas alongside me. They were there when I got my first car. They were there when I quit each job I got. They were there when I became employed at a Peer Respite house. They were there in my largest transformations of self.
Also painful because I was cracking up. Breaking down. In the hospital, confused and somewhat oddly satisfied in my terror of life. I felt alive again in a twisted way. I felt targeted and special and immortal and genius and connected to something greater than myself.
I posted every once in a while, but lost my follower’s attention. I created a slough of new sites, but WordPress changed so much of their format that I got frustrated trying to adapt. So, I went dark.
I told myself I’d be back only when I felt secure in myself. I’d be back only when I knew I had something important to say. I have something important to say.
This journey through depression and delusion and anxiety has given me new insights on darkness. Its introduced me to the true duality of nature so described in daoism. It’s roughly coddled me into accepting not only myself but all of life.
At the beginning of the pain, before I even worked at the respite house, a voice kept telling me “dead man walking”. Considering I’m a woman, it kind of cracked me up and also simultaneously terrified me; someone, something, was coming to kill me I thought. But I don’t think he predicted my future. I think he commented on my present. I was dead. I enjoyed nothing. I faked smiles. I practiced expert avoidance. I ignored myself and my inner processes because they scared me and because of that fear those inner processes found a way to express themselves for the first time in both of our lives. That way was voices, beliefs, depressions, a mania, panic attacks, and the underlying feeling of being broken.
I could talk about childhood stuff here. I could talk about medication and homelessness and the trauma of school. But I spent years reiterating that on my previous blog. I’ve spent time reiterating it to friends and therapists. And now, I can sum it all up in one word: fear.
I feared everything, for many reasons. I feared life. I feared being sad. I feared being happy because sadness came after. I feared anxiety, I feared death, I feared fear.
I think many of us go into therapy or other treatments confused on what “processing emotions” means. I think some therapists and psychiatrists who have never really gone through that heavy process are also confused on what it means. So they blurt it because they’re supposed to, it’s part of the script.
Processing emotions for me meant more than just talking about them and feeling them. It meant not telling myself “tomorrow will be better” or “this is temporary” or “I’ll be happy some day”. It meant not telling myself “you need to get up”. It meant greeting darkness with a handshake and respecting the space it needed within me. The darkness is lonely, too.
It meant sharing my body and my mind with panic and voices and fear and setting boundaries with them; if we all have to live in here together, we need to communicate and I can’t hold the power. But neither can you.
It meant getting comfortable with uncertainty. There is no standard “life”. My experiences don’t make life worse than what life should be, they don’t make life better than what life should be because life doesn’t have a designated “should”. It doesn’t have a designated “have to”. It’s just there.
It meant veering from my psychology degree and studying philosophy, a bit of physics, and leafing through neuroscience articles. It meant studying research. It meant, for me, getting off medication, and really feeling ALL of myself.
I’m sure most people have heard of the double-slit experiment in physics. I remember hearing about it for the first time as I sat high as a kite in High School chemistry. You learn the conclusion is that photons (and other particles) behave as both a wave and a particle, given the observed interference pattern. What high school teachers don’t talk much about is that the reason we come to that conclusion and label it as a reasonable consensus is because, as of right now, we’ll never know if we’re wrong.
We can’t see a single photon pass through anything with the naked eye. And so when we don’t observe it with a camera, when we can’t see what’s happening, the photon behaves as a single photon. The camera we use to observe this particle has a tiny light. That tiny light is a confounding variable–it could be affecting the particle’s behavior. Or maybe it isn’t. But, because we can never see for ourselves with a naked eye, we’ll never know. That’s the paradox, and part of the foundation of the Uncertainty Principal.
We’ll never know. We’re limited in this life we have, and when we’re not okay with that, we run ourselves exhausted trying to fix what isn’t broken.
I’m not scared of darkness anymore. What is there to be scared of?