Tuesday, 3 June 2014

The Grr Crutch

Stephen Fry did a great doccie on his own manic depression, and one of the things I learnt more about from that was the concept of self-medication. I was loosely aware of it before, but he shed some more nuanced light on it. In general, the shit you do to make yourself feel better in the face of serious mental illness (in lieu of proper treatment) can be lumped together as self-medication. I'd always worried that I might fall into alcoholism (of which there is some family history) or comfort eating (just because it's one of the few ways I normally ingest anything), but neither seems that likely anymore. My laziness about shopping is enough to trump both.

My parents always accused me of being a PC addict, but that's never been true. They simply misunderstood that computers are a metatool for doing other, normal things with. They wouldn't accuse me of being a reading addict or a social interaction addict or a movie addict, and yet those are the things the PC offered me. I might once have thought I was a gaming addict, possibly, but it turns out I was mostly just filling empty hours with easy entertainment, and now that I'm much busier, I play far fewer games, with no apparent withdrawal.

So how have I coped with depression and anxiety, without proper medical assistance? Anger. Righteous fury. It occured to me tonight that I self-medicate by allowing myself to get cross and criticize the fuck out of people. If I have anything close to an unhealthy addiction, that's it.

This is not to say that all criticism is bad, or that nobody should ever get angry. This is something that can be channeled in positive ways, and I like to think I have managed some good with it. But that's the trap; no villain ever thinks they're the bad guy, they all believe they're doing the right thing, with ends justifying means. And this is the risk with angry shoutiness: How do you tell when you've crossed the line into unreasonable, unproductive and purely self-serving, if you've already excused yourself from self-doubt?

And self-doubt is exactly what I'm usually trying to escape. Freeing myself to say whatever I feel like, blindly trusting myself instead of second-guessing myself, feels great. Mere material stimulants, whether booze or sex or chocolate peanut butter, seem so irrelevant by comparison. They can make me feel nice, but they can't make me feel like I'm worth anything or contributing to anything good. Shattering a creationist's crapiscles or condemning racist bile lets me unleash most of my comfortable strengths, including my word-good-using-ness and my ability to spot flaws in arguments. But it also lets me feel like I have a place on the moral high ground, or at least that I'm doing something to support those on the real moral high ground, thus earning myself a bit of moral medium ground.

Trouble is, firstly, I haven't always kept this restricted to 'worthwhile' topics. Shitting on purely subjective choices I disagree with has given me similar thrills, but without being anywhere near as defensible; sometimes I'm simply making innocent people feel bad about themselves. And second, as Phil Plait and others have pointed out, the brute force sledgehammer of direct, aggressive debate is often not a good way to actually change anyone's mind. It may technically result in a logical win as per formal debating rules, but few people are actually persuaded in that way, so it may not be as helpful as I'd hoped.

Another probable risk is that it makes anger itself too appealing to me, and I do sometimes worry that I slip into rage too easily. I've been stewing all day over a variety of problems, and it just feels shit.

The one thing Mr Fry was not clear about was the way to get clear of self-medication habits and live a better, happier life. I may have to take a ferry to France instead.

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