There is cursing and mature themes in this.
Trigger warnings include abusive parents and typical religious mindfuckery
Hi. This is the story of most of my life so far. Most of my life so far has been a painful, boring and pointless waste of two decades due to a broken education system and no one around me having any idea what the fuck they're fucking doing, sometimes semi-willfully so. This story will likely either make you angry at me, angry on my behalf, really sad, really confused, or just plain bored or uninterested. Some of the subjects I discuss are needlessly politicized and artificially made controversial, and I will likely get a lot of negative responses from the average reader if the average reader ever bothered to read this. If you do not want to feel negative emotions, then turn back now. If you feel that criticizing a belief is a criticism of any person who believes it, then turn back now. I mean it, this may only make you angry at me, or you'll just think I'm an idiot. You have been warned.
First (or second) episodic memory
It was such a long time ago. The earliest thing I remember at this point was a time when I was four years old. One of my sisters had left a slinky on the stairs, and my father had started shouting at me for it. I was very frightened. This memory used to be more vivid, its feelings more visceral. Now it's been so long that the feelings associated with things that happened later get mixed up with this memory. I'm no longer certain it's a real memory. Arguably this might only be my second episodic memory. The first, it seems, was of getting my finger caught in a baby gate when I tried to use my finger as a key to open it. I remember that hurting. I don't know if that was a real memory either, but if it was, it feels like it happened at some point before the slinky incident.
I'm not sure the following events up through first grade happened exactly as described either, but I think it is at least somewhat close to what really happened. What I remember most clearly is that I learned to read before I would actually admit to myself that I knew how to read, and that I was already demonstrating significant social deficits in 1st grade, though I hadn't yet been diagnosed with Aspergers yet. I think what happened might have gone something like this:
"I can read!" I said, proudly.
"No you can'," said the other kid. "Four-year-olds can' read."
"And he's already reading!" said my mother.
"Wha? I can' read. I'm only four!"
"But you were reading just last week!"
"Four year olds can' read," I insisted, stubbornly.
"Read this," said my mother, pushing a picture book in front of me.
"I can' read," I said exasperatedly. "I'm nah' ole denough."
"Just tell me what it says."
"Once upon a time, there was..."
"See? You can read!"
"No I can'!"
"But you just did!"
"Tha’ was reading!?"
"We're nod allowed t' say i'." said one of the other kids.
"Why?" I asked.
"We just aren't."
"Whad is i' we're nod allowed t' say?"
"We're nod allowed t' say."
"Please tell me."
"Wai', then why d'you guys know wha' they are?"
"Just drop i', okay?"
"But whad if I say i' by accident! I can't know no' to say something I don't know." I whispered, with a pleading look.
"Alrigh'. A. S. S."
"Ass?" I asked. It was only two sounds. Barely a word at all. All the one syllable words I had heard previously were too simple to be offensive. "Wha' does tha' mean?"
"It's your, you know..."
"Your butt," the other boy whispered.
"But we're allowed to say butt." I said, confused. "That's not a cuss word. If they mean the same thing, if they're cinnamons, then why aren't we allowed to say ass?"
I was completely oblivious to everyone staring at me.
"Go to the principal's office," the teacher commanded me.
"Wha'? Why?" I asked, shocked.
"You know why."
"No I don't," I said, confused.
"Don't argue with me," said the teacher.
I refused to go. I had another class to go to, and as far as I knew I hadn't done anything wrong!
I was an out-of-control sobbing wreck as I was escorted to the principal's office. Other students stared at me as I passed.
My behavior and emotional stability would drastically decline over the next few years after that, and I needed to be medicated for it. I went from medication to medication for many years after that, and all of them made me worse, but that didn't stop my parents and everyone else from constantly having me try new ones, and blaming me entirely for their less than optimal effects. Having to go to the principal's office was a fairly regular occurrence until the end of fourth grade, when I was locked up in the teacher's lounge against my will and kept under guard until my parents arrived. This was a huge overreaction, since I was not physically dangerous, only disruptive. My sisters, parents and I moved to Ohio shorty after that.
I'm not sure it went exactly like this, but it's likely a pretty close approximation of what actually happened:
I sat at the table, staring at the sheet of paper.
"I can't do it."
"Yes you can," said the teacher.
"No I can't!"
"Do not shout at me.”
"This isn't fair!"
"Life's not fair. Now, are you going get your work done like a big boy, or do you want to go do the kindergarten activities with everyone else?"
"I don't wanna do the kindergarten activities," I said. "I already know all that stuff."
"Then prove it."
After only a month, my behavior and work ethic drastically improved, enough for me to be functional in a regular classroom. Even more than everyone else in the class was. It was a constant struggle for the fifth-grade teacher to keep classroom order, and I was possibly the only one who really tried to be quiet and pay attention most of the time. Often it was a struggle for me to hear him over the loud, obnoxious chatter of the other students, and I wondered why they hadn't been in the special classroom like I was.
6th and 7th grade
The following was a fairly typical experience throughout most of my childhood, but it got particularly bad at this point in time.
"BELIEVE WHAT YOU'RE TOLD AND DO WHAT YOU'RE TOLD!"
I cowered and lashed out like the caged animal I was. My attempts to please my master always failed, and my attempts to fight him off or free myself were equally fruitless.
To think he kept bullying me into following a ridiculous order like that out of concern for my safety! There were too many people who I was expected to believe and obey, contradicting each other, and if I failed to perfectly believe and obey every single one to the letter, or at least to perfectly believe and obey him, I would be punished. It drove me insane.
With no hope for a future in reality, I descended into the world of my dreams and imagination. I believed that I was worthless in reality. In my dream world I was special. In reality almost no one if anyone respected or understood me, not even my friends. In my dream world, I had friends who respected and understood me. In reality I felt useless, unable to help anyone or do anything right. In my dream world I was a legendary hero. But then the suffering of my waking life began to bleed over into my dream world. The world of my dreams was now at war with itself, and the tone became rather religious as I descended deeper into my madness. I no longer knew who I was in this world. I felt like I was being severely and cosmically punished for crimes I could not remember. I went from half-reluncantly thinking that maybe I was Christ to being almost convinced that I was the Devil or perhaps both.
And then with some intervention and another change in my psychiatric meds, I started to wake up. I had a bit of a relapse at some point in 9th or 10th grade, but it was much shorter and far less extreme.
At some point I came up with the following mantra to repeat in my head whenever I was tempted to descend back into that madness.
If the voices say they're real, don't believe them. If the voices say they'll punish you if you don't believe them, then they don't deserve your belief.
I realized I am homosexual. And since everyone around me believed that was somehow important, I believed it too. I started to embrace the more effeminate and less masculine aspects of myself. It didn't quite fit. Now I recognize that I'm only mostly homosexual. I'm barely attracted to the opposite sex at all, but barely at all is not the same as not at all. I have a much stronger preference for men, though.
Nowadays I usually avoid talking to people about my sexual preferences. And when I do talk about my sexual preferences, I just say that I prefer men, rather than saying “I am homosexual”. Most of the time when I talk about my sexual preferences, people will either flat out reject me or perhaps worse, they'll be all like "IT'S WHO YOU ARE!" and "YOU SHOULD BE PROUD!" I wish I could say the same thing back to those who say that sort of thing to me, about their sexual preferences, and see how it makes them feel, but I don't because that would probably offend them and they have the best of intentions when they're spouting this prejudicial nonsense.
Although, it often seems like most people who are open about their sexual preferences agree with said prejudicial nonsense, which doesn’t help at all.
I was just starting to seriously question the religious beliefs I had grown up with as well as the ones other people surrounded me with, when I watched Julia Sweeney's autobiographical stage monologue, "Letting Go of God". After that I found out for the first time that my parents, who are devout, practicing reform Jews, and who had taught me about God and the Torah and other stories as if they were true, completely neglecting and even hindering the development of my critical thinking skills...are nontheistic. They pray to a God that they do not believe exists and had done so even before I was born. And they had forced me to go to religious school where I was indoctrinated with bad fairytales for most of my childhood.
I remembered a time when I was younger, when I had first found out that the tooth fairy didn't exist. It was not long after they had sworn that they would never lie to me because they were my parents and that I could trust them. Then when I started making the most reasonable justifications I could for the tooth fairy's existence, my mother finally revealed that the tooth fairy didn't exist. They had lied to me. They had lied to me all along, and they kept punishing me for lying regardless of whether I was actually telling the truth or not.
They pretended to themselves that they cared about intelligence and reasonableness, but that was all just a badge of honor they wore to signify their allegiance to their ethnic and religious community and their political party.
My mind has always been who I am. For most of my life it was the only thing I was remotely good at, and even then it wasn’t very much. And in spite of this, they deliberately used anti-epistemology to interfere with the development of my cognitive skills in order to keep me trapped in their culture, because they cared more about the preservation of their heritage than about my own mental health. Both of my parents were fucking hypocrites! On top of all that, I had become the family scapegoat. It was the punchline of the extended joke my life had been up to that point.
With help from some of my teachers and healthcare providers, I started to break free from my programming, and began learning to trust and rely on my own intelligence more, instead of just believing what I was told to believe and doing what everyone else wanted or expected me to do. That was probably a relief to a lot of other people, because by constantly deferring to the judgement and permission of others to do basically anything, I had become an annoying suck-up.
I resolved to never let that happen again. I decided to think for myself from then on.
This was the period in my life where I started experiencing gender confusion. Needless to say I was seriously overthinking things. Although to be fair I never felt like I quite fit in with other guys I knew, but that was probably more because it was high school and my values, interests, and likely a lot of my internal mental life differed from most of my classmates in ways that had little or nothing to do with gender. I would eventually start meeting real transgender people in college, and then I would eventually start to realize that I really was cisgender male.
Now you're probably wondering, what the hell is 13th grade? I can explain, I swear! You see, I had completed all of the standard high school curriculum and passed my graduation test, but I needed to stay behind for disability services, since I totally wasn't ready to go out into the world, and I needed extra remedial education in communication and independent living skills or the world was going to chew me up and spit me back out, and who knew what condition that would leave me in. I had somewhat of a relapse in my psychological health caused by issues at home and at school. Throughout much of 13th grade, I also worked as a volunteer on the Floor Faculty of the local science museum. I finally recieved my real high school diploma near the end of the school year. Afterwards I continued to attend a community college that summer, before transferring to a university as a freshman in the fall.
University: First Year
Up to this point, I had already developed a history of sleep problems. Since it was football season, people were screaming at the top of their lungs and running down the halls banging on doors, including mine, in the early hours of the morning, on school nights while I was trying to sleep. On top of that, I had a new life coach, and she was very impatient and mean. I was overwhelmed with anxiety and stress, and that's an understatement.
In fact, saying that it was an understatement is also an understatement. Pretty much every time I got lost on campus I would have a full-blown angry, screaming panic attack, and people would stare at me like I was a fucking lunatic or a scary madman.
They weren't completely wrong, either. Deep, chronic anxiety really messes with your head. I also had a lot of leftover baggage from my childhood that was messing with me, including feelings of helplessness and anger at myself and at my situation. It didn't help that when I was a kid if I made even the slightest mistake there would be severe consequences for it.
Whenever I got lost or couldn't find something in my room that I needed, or slipped up in any other number of minor ways, it would feel catastrophic. Then I started taking a new anxiety medication. Things started getting better for me after that, although it was still a rough climb out of the hole I was in.
University: Second Year
In some ways better and some ways worse than the first year. My anxiety wasn't quite as bad once I was more used to campus, but I was still significantly chronically stressed and anxious. I had trouble keeping up with my course-load, and at some point it became a struggle to motivate myself. It didn’t help that the life coach I had at the time had gone from abrasive to verbally abusive.
By this point I had long since discovered the joys of quality derivative literature. While looking for something to read, I stumbled upon Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, an excellent Harry Potter fan novel by Eliezer Yudkowsky. After I started reading it I made what was perhaps the most mortifyingly embarrassing mistake I ever made.
While reading Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, I thought it made perfect sense. All my life I had wanted things to make sense, and Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality seemed to be the most rational thing I had ever read or heard. Suffice to say, I succumbed to the Halo Effect and underwent a Happy Death Spiral about rationality, demonstrating that it is possible to be dogmatic about absolutely anything, regardless of what it is.
Looking back at that phase, it seems both frightening and humiliating. I mean, I start learning about rationality and what was my immediate reaction? To be dogmatic about it. I had almost become the exact kind of unreasonable person that I really didn’t want to be. Talk about embarrassing.
I realized that the resolution I had made in 11th grade wasn’t enough. It wasn’t enough to just say that I would think for myself and not believe things just because other people did. I hadn’t ever really known how to evaluate evidence before. Before I read HPMOR, I would just find out whatever self-consistent, sensible-sounding things subject-relevant experts said, and I would just believe them. But self-consistent, sensible-sounding things subject-relevant experts said weren’t always right. And I couldn’t rely on them to entirely replace my own thinking because they weren’t with me to form judgements and make decisions for me 24/7. I needed to learn how to think better.
University: Third Year
So I learned. I started reading a lot more about critical thinking and rationality and pretty much everything else that caught my interest. As my anxiety went down it became easier to think more clearly and logically more often.
However, the more I learned, the more commonly-held convictions turned out to be bullshit, and the stranger and darker the real world appeared.
The nonexistence of deities was just the tip of the iceberg.
The human mind and soul weren’t something mysterious and ephemeral. They were patterns of brain functioning. When a brain stops working, it can no longer store those patterns, and so that person ceases to exist. Therefore, there probably wasn’t an afterlife. And that was not a good thing.
Global Climate change wasn’t the only global catastrophic risk. It was just the only one most people were talking about or doing anything about. There were plenty of others such as nuclear war, meteor impact, misuse of or accidents with nanotechnology, global pandemics, and unaligned general artificial intelligence, just to name a few.
Everyone was at least a little crazy unless they learnt how not to be. Not just crazy, but predictably crazy. There was an entire subfield of psychology devoted to studying exactly how people were crazy, “Heuristics and Biases”.
Millions of people all over the world, many of whom hadn’t done anything to harm anyone else, were frequently abducted from their homes, stripped of their property and their livelihoods and stuck in cages. And most people considered this to be perfectly normal, acceptable, and ethically justifiable as “criminal justice”.
The majority of people in the world were living in poverty.
A human being died about every one or two seconds.
Most people who donated to charity just donated to those which made them feel good, rather than donating to charities that actually did more good.
I learned that real life is terrible for most people, and that I’m one of the very lucky few who it isn’t so terrible for.
And that’s how I went from being a stupid, crazy moron to being a relatively sane and smart person—a little effort, a lot of money and resources spent on me, and a fuckton of luck.