The Problem (TM) – Analyse a conversation

I had a chat with a person who admitted to having many problems themselves.  I offered my services as a problem solving amateur, willing to try to get to the bottom of this.  Presented is the conversation (With details changed for privacy).

I had my first shot at analysing the person’s problems and drilling down to the bottom.  I am interested in what other people have to say is the problem.  Here we study the meta-strategy of how to solve the problem, which I find much more interesting than the object level analysis of the problem and how to solve it.

I don’t think I got to the bottom of the problem, and I don’t think I conducted myself in a top-notch capacity but needless to say I wonder if you have any comments about what IS TheProblem(tm), how did you come to that conclusion and what can be done about it (for the benefit of this person and anyone with a similar problem).


Zebra
Hey

ELiot
Where would you like to start?
Do you want to share about your history?

Zebra
I was previously very depressed, and then recovered for a few years. While I’m glad I was able to have those couple years, I don’t think they were worth suffering through the depression, and I didn’t at the time, when I didn’t think it would return.

Zebra
(Though it hasn’t returned as bad as it was.)

ELiot
So you are currently feeling depressed

Zebra
Yes. Possibly as a symptom of bipolar disorder (I’ve recently started having manic episodes), or possibly not–I’ve never been diagnosed with that, and until recently had never had issues with mania.

ELiot
How much are you sleeping? One Indication of bipolar swings is total sleep

Zebra
The last couple days I’ve slept okay, but when I had more manic symptoms sleep was very intermittent. A few weeks ago I punched a housemate in the face ten times, breaking her nose; at that point, I’d not slept in two days.

ELiot
Sounds like a bad event.

Zebra
I guess immediately I feel quite isolated, very stressed, and don’t know how to proceed forward.

ELiot
Is there a specific stress?

Zebra
I guess; loneliness, numerous tensions with my girlfriend, some financial issues (to a large extent a symptom of the recent mania), extreme dissatisfaction with myself and especially my own appearance, frustrations with daily life, and a general dissatisfaction with the world.

ELiot
Manic up should correlate with little sleep, manic down with extra sleep. Manic up should also come with a variation on _feeling invincible_

Which of the things in that list do you think can’t change?

Zebra
I suppose they’re all changeable if you apply enough effort, but that seems like a lot of work, and frankly I’ve never seen much in the world that seems worth it.

As I said, I’ve gotten better, to some extent, previously.

Even after I had already gotten better and I no longer wanted to suicide, I wished I had previously, because even though life then was fine, it just wasn’t worth what had gone before.

I don’t feel invincible really.

ELiot
When in manic up states?

Zebra
When in manic states I still don’t feel invincible.

ELiot
If you could remove the problems listed do you think you would want to live?

Zebra
All of them? Yes, if I could do some magically, or at a reasonable cost.

ELiot
I would say that is a good thing. But it depends on your goals.

I can offer ideas about working with those problems to make them better, but not if you don’t want that.

Zebra
Well those would be good.

ELiot
Would you like to pick a specific one from the list to talk about?

I can pick one if you like

Zebra
Uhm, you can pick. I’m not sure which one would be most imminently solvable.

ELiot
I am going to write the list out

1. Loneliness
2. Girlfriend tension
3. Financial issues
4. Self + appearance
5. Daily life
6. Dissatisfied with the world

Zebra
Yep, that’s most of it.

ELiot
What burdens do you currently have on your life? I. E. Supporting a child, have to show up at work each day. Etc.

Thinking about number 5 – Regular commitments

Zebra
Not a whole lot really. I’ve no job or school (family money, though not a large amount). My girlfriend is financially dependent on me at this point, though she’s supposed to be starting a job this month.

To be honest even going downstairs to buy food, or really even to talk to a delivery person on the phone, feels like a huge burden.

ELiot
So in terms of pressure on your daily life?

Zebra
I often find myself not eating until nighttime, or sometimes not eating at all, due to wanting to avoid those stressors.

ELiot
Is that bad?

Zebra
Well, yeah. It feels very negative and causes me stress and I really don’t feel life has much to offer in return for even minor inconveniences.

ELiot
is there a reason that not eating is a bad thing to do for you?

Zebra
I don’t see life as particularly positive, really, and just want it to be over with so I don’t have to bother with this crap every day. On the other hand, actually going about killing yourself is fucking scary.

So I guess I’m trying to find some way out of that conclusion so I won’t have to face the immediately distasteful action of actually offing myself, even though it’s probably preferable to suffering through a lifetime of even minor annoyances.

ELiot
Is this correct: you feel stressed about not wanting to leave to go buy food. Then you feel stressed about not buying food as well.

Zebra
Yes.

And I guess I’m kind of lonely, and even minor inconveniences, when they have no positive aspects in between, eventually get you really, really down.

I feel like what I do most days is just wait, be sad and lonely, be slightly annoyed, and wait and cry and be lonely more.

When I go out sometimes it’s ok, and sometimes I realise the people around me are crap and I am too and I get even sadder.

ELiot
Here is how I see this very limited problem. Without looking at other things just yet.

When making the first choice, either stay home and not buy food or leave and buy food you choose the less stress option. To stay home. I see that as a win. You successfully made the right choice to avoid the immediate stress. Then later you decide that going out is more important/useful/(Less stress) than staying home and not having food. Seems like you also win by carrying out the choice to leave and get food have less stress.

You appear to be stressing yourself out over two reasonable choices. I would suggest that you have done well to make both the choice of staying home and later the choice to leave for food.

Zebra
The stress of not going is physiological rather than psychological, so I don’t think looking at that differently can really fix it.

And really I don’t want to be staying at home, as that’s also very stressful.

I’m just not sure what else to do…

ELiot
In terms of where to go? Or in terms of how to spend your time?

Zebra
Both

There’s nothing much I can identify that I really want to do.

ELiot
I can suggest options down those paths

Zebra
ok.

ELiot
I don’t know where you are gegraphically, but if we consider specifically where to go and what to do near where you are;

I would look at; google, “things to do in *city*” as well as looking at meetups in city. As well as looking for parks, museums, monuments, walks, local history, pretty geography, public spaces I. E. Libraries, evening classes, sports to play

Zebra
I’m in Hong Kong.

I go to meetups sometimes.

ELiot
Generally the idea of exploration of the place

Also temples, religious places, hikes

Zebra
As for meetups, sometimes you meet interesting people, but often it’s stressful dealing with idiots. And most people are idiots.

ELiot
You are mostly allowed to do what you like with your time. In terms of going places and later going home to sleep etc.

A large fraction of people are idiots

Zebra
And the more interesting people are often difficult to connect with more than superficially.

ELiot
“Allowed to” is a funny idea. No one needs to give you permission to do what you like.

Going to add 7. Social strategy

Zebra
True. I just don’t feel like I _like_ much.

Also I’m frequently very exhausted, and it’s often hard to work up the energy to do those things.

ELiot
Do you think you have tried to find many things you like or do you think the bottle neck lies before that? In trying to find them?

If you do nothing (because you are tired) is that a problem?

Zebra
Yeah, doing nothing all the time sucks. If I stay home I feel like I’m in jail…

but if I go out I feel like I’ve been sent as a labourer to Australia.

ELiot
At some point the desire to stay home because you are tired should weigh up against the desire to go out and feel like you are not in jail. That is a fine time to leave, feeling bad about both staying at home and leaving the house sounds like a recipe for displeasure either way… Does that make sense?

Zebra
Well it is, obviously, which is why I feel like I’m in a no-win situation, and want to die.

(or at least part of it)

I mean, occasionally there are meetups and stuff which I go to, and those are ok, but really I have so much free time and since my mental health issues started I’ve alienated almost everyone I knew.

And that just increases the stress and makes it difficult to make new friends.

ELiot
I would be going down the path of tracing that feeling of bad to its source because it’s not really about staying or going it’s about that bad pressure that appears self imposed.

Do you feel like you _should be doing_ things?

I.e. Going out

Zebra
Well, I really dislike being alone, but I don’t much like most people.

I think that’s what it boils down to.

And yes, I get that that might not be a healthy state to be in, but again, that I’m not in a healthy state has already been established.

ELiot
Do you know what part or kind of social interaction you like? When you say “dislike alone” what is “not alone”

Zebra
Well, I like talking with friends and drinking and doing stuff, but often it’s difficult to make new friends.

ELiot
Conversation with new people is “not alone”

And you sometimes feel alone when you hang around old friends

Zebra
Yes, that’s true.

ELiot
Can you financially afford to go drinking and doing stuff?

Zebra
I guess new people I meet are often very disappointing, and more than that, even when they aren’t, I myself have a lot of recently developed mental issues it takes a lot of effort to control.

I kind of zone out, frequently. People find that scary.

ELiot
What kind of new people would you like to meet?

Zebra
Uhm, I dunno. It’s hard to specify really.

ELiot
Is your zoning out actually absence or is it more like daydreaming?

Zebra
Absence

Or sometimes I just sort of feel sad.

But usually no internal thoughts associated.

I can sort of afford to go drinking and stuff.

ELiot
Do you recall things that happen while you are absent?

Zebra
Mostly not. I can sort of remember it happening but super vague.

ELiot
Do you feel like you are an automa – following a path you were on, and then you zone back in?

Zebra
It’s not like in the middle of a sentence, but people notice that I look dead and then sometimes I don’t respond until they call me a couple times, though sometimes I can respond immediately.

More like my energy’s just gone, I guess.

Sometimes I’ll lose track of the conversation, even when I myself am speaking.

That’s not as common recently, though.

ELiot
I was going to say I suspect an absent seizure. It came up in the lw open thread this week. Let me get you a link

Zebra
My mother claims I told her I was hospitalised for a head injury around the time my mental health problems started worsening.

I can’t remember the incident, though, and she has not much in the way of specific details.

ELiot
http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/niv/open_thread_apr_18_apr_24_2016/d8ow

If you have something like that I am sure it makes everything worse

Zebra
I had depression before that, but as I said, it had mostly gotten better. On the other hand, there were a lot of issues in my life around the same time which may have led to the recurrence of symptoms as well.

ELiot
Okay, what kind of person would you like to meet?

Zebra
Hmm, previously I wanted to see a neurologist because my symptoms were much worse, but they’ve lessened now.

ELiot
There is medication to reduce seizures to nearly nothing

Which might help

Zebra
Well, an intelligent person, but those are rare; or someone who’s fun, but finding one who’s willing to put up with my lethargy and depression is hard; or someone who’s nice and not a complete idiot.

ELiot
It also might help to keep a diary of what you do each day to try to keep track of how often they happen

Zebra
Maybe. I’m not at all certain I’m having seizures, though.

I have pretty bad memory, too.

ELiot
Where might you find intelligent people?

A brain scan would tell you if you are or are not having seizures

Zebra
I have no idea. I guess some of the intellectually-focused meetup groups have some, but not all that many.

Yeah, I’ve been meaning to go to a neurologist, but I frequently fail to get around to stuff.

ELiot
I would suggest university campus as a viable place

To find smart ones

Zebra
Maybe, but I’m not in university and probably don’t have the effort to enter.

Also, somewhat smart, but not very smart, people really annoy me.

Universities have a lot of those.

ELiot
Campuses here are just places you can walk into, not sure what it’s like there

If you want to get out of the house and see something, universities are a nice place to visit

Zebra
Hmm, I guess I could try.

Many offer classes to the public very cheaply.

ELiot
You can probably also work out how to sneak into a lecture anyway – they usually don’t check the roll

Any topic of study fancy your interest? To sneak into a lecture about

Zebra
Hmm, not sure. Linguistics or history might be fun.

CS would probably just be a recap of basic material.

ELiot
You can usually find course details online and work out where the lectures are and just kinda walk in and sit down – For a bit of fun

Zebra
How does that translate to meeting people though?

(If it’s not obvious, I’ve never been to uni.)

ELiot
Chat to people if you want to. Lectures have breaks, uni tries to encourage social groups too usually, barbecues and stuff

If you make yourself look approachable and friendly people will talk to you. It’s how I avoid approaching others. I wear funny hats and strangers talk to me

Zebra
Really? Haha, what sort of hats?

ELiot
Pirate hat, top hats, Stetson,

I have about 50 hats

Different ones all the time

That’s on the topic of appearance tho

Zebra
I don’t look very approachable now 🙁 Since I became ill again my personal health and hygeine have done very poorly.

ELiot
Do you like being hygienic? Indifferent?

Zebra
Well, I like being hygenic, but getting to that state is difficult.

Also, I’ve probably gained 40kg since then, so even if I was it’s probably all for naught.

ELiot
What contributes to that state? For me it’s having a shower and brushing my teeth.

Maybe deodorant too. And clean clothes

Zebra
Well, those things.

Now I’ve got so fat it’s hard to buy clothes :-/

ELiot
I would say you can work on that

Both the fat and the clothes

If you want to

Exercise would help you, leaving the house to go for a walk would help you, you don’t need anywhere to go other than around a block or something

Do you track your weight?

Zebra
Yes, but it’s very difficult.

ELiot
Is it still climbing or staying where it is?

Zebra
I’ve tried some stuff. Fasting, methamphetamine, etc., but I was never able to really reduce it.

ELiot
Difficult to track? To walk? To exercise? To buy clothes?

Weight loss is difficult, Yes

Zebra
I just don’t have the energy to excercise. Even when I was taking methamphetamine I didn’t have the energy for it.

ELiot
Would you consider paying for a service that helped you lose weight?

Zebra
Right now I think it’s not climbing, but I didn’t buy a new scale when my last one broke.

Yes, if I thought it had reasonable chance of being effective.

ELiot
An option would be to look at what is available

Near to where you live

Zebra
I don’t think there are any drugs that work as well for weighy loss as meth, though, and that was not effective enough.

I don’t know what else such a service could provide really.

I mean, I _know_ you need to excercise and eat healthy, but I just haven’t been able to do it.

ELiot
Commitment, a gym, a trainer setting a program

There are greater experts in the field of weight loss than I

Zebra
Honestly, I’ve tried so much, I do not realistically think I would continue to follow through with that.

ELiot
Okay

Zebra
Other than the very deepest depths of depression (which I still haven’t fallen to this time around), I’ve never experienced anything as unpleasant as excercise.

ELiot
I can offer ideas about weight loss and exercise but maybe another time.

What types of exercise?

Zebra
I suppose there are some illnesses which might do better than meth, but trying to induce those makes me feel very squeamish.

Pretty much anything.

It’a just so hot and icky and tiring.

ELiot
Oh! Yes, a problem with your geography

Other geographies are not as hot and sticky. Even that has solutions. My exercise is walking, running, swimming, unicycle, circus skills, rock climbing, ice skating, laser tag, and trampoline, I also did pole dance for a while. Also I would kayak and hike more if I had more opportunities…

Zebra
True. I had some fun doing outdoor type stuff in the Southwestern US.

Moving has its own host of problems, though.

ELiot
Other sports I have done include table tennis, actual tennis, archery…

Zebra
The primary one being that I don’t know anyone anywhere else.

ELiot
I don’t imagine moving will solve all your problems

Zebra
Except my mother in Florida, USA.

ELiot
Yes I was going to say, it would certainly make loneliness harder

Especially when you don’t currently know how to make new friends very well

You can exercise at night, find an indoor pool to swim in maybe.

Zebra
Yes. I did the moving thing once, and it was probably good at the time, but I had fairly exceptional circumstances then which I don’t have now.

There’s a pretty nice pool in my condo, but I get tired. Swimming is exhausting.

And very self-conscious doing excercise around others.

ELiot
Yes.

Zebra
That’s probably equally as serious an issue as the exhaustion.

ELiot
Night time for self conscious

Take a friend or girlfriend?

Moral support?

Zebra
Makes me more self conscious 🙁

ELiot
You need support network not criticism

Do you trust these people?

Do you think you could track how far you swim and try to increase laps or so?

The idea being to measure progress and feel like you are going somewhere

Zebra
I don’t think I’ve ever actually trusted anyone, even as a child.

ELiot
That is a different problem

Zebra
Yeah. I have a lot of problems. 🙁

ELiot
That is okay for a place to be

Better to know than not know.

To be more specific you have a lot of problems *at the same time*

Which is making it hard to work out what the biggest one is, and where to start

Zebra
Yes. That kind of sucks.

ELiot
It appears that at the bottom of each problem there is a slightly different problem, also with a solution but one that too needs implementation

I am confident that this can all be fixed, I am also confident that you can enjoy the journey of doing so.

Perhaps you might benefit from writing down the problems until you have a clearer picture for yourself

Zebra
Yes, that’s how it feels to me too. There’s a large web of problems which are fixable with enough effort, but inter-related so hard to fix one at a time, and I don’t really feel like I have the effort to do it all at once, nor that it would be worth it.

ELiot
As you talk to me you are clarifying the problems, I imagine that can help to identify them to help solve them.

If I were in your position I would pick the first one that I encountered and try to make a little progress on it before the next one hit me, and trying to make progress on the next one too.

I firmly believe in the concept of _making it easier for future you_.

Zebra
Sometimes I feel that all of them could be fixed in one go with a more radical change, but that’s a rather scary thing to do.

ELiot
It is. Especially without experience in radical changes.

Zebra
Well, I moved alone to a country I’d never been when I was 18. So I guess it’s not entirely unfamiliar.

ELiot
A change of scenery would probably change the problems. Not necessarily fix them

Zebra
Yeah.

ELiot
It could be the motivation you need to help make it easier for you to make progress

But it could also leave you exhausted and worse off

Zebra
I’ve looked some into moving to the Republic of Georgia.

But I do have friends here, even if there are only a few remaining and I feel increasingly alienated from them.

ELiot
You might benefit from a time management system

Zebra
Why? I don’t have enough to even fill one activity per day…

ELiot
A list of problems, followed by a list of ways to solve the problems followed by a plan of how to spend your next 168 hours towards solving those problems while also not making new ones…

Each week

Energy limited? That’s also a problem. With a solution. You do need sleep and rest

Zebra
I usually sleep a lot, but it doesn’t feel restful.

I try to go on holidays, but again, usually come back more stressed than before.

ELiot
That too has a solution. Are you getting enough light when you wake up?

Zebra
I typically keep the blinds closed.

I don’t like light 🙁

ELiot
Bright light when you wake up will help you feel awake more. Only when you wake up.

Zebra
But then what do I do?

ELiot
Pick something you want to change and go for it.

The strategy of: “Try X”

It might help to have a notebook paper trail of ideas you have tried

Or thoughts you have had about each problem and how to solve it

Zebra
Most of the things I want to change are hard to change, computer related (and this not really helpful to not feeling terrible and alone), or things I don’t have a good plan for how to change.

ELiot
You have as much to do as you want to. You can make a plan.

Zebra
I guess if I did something computer related it could make money, maybe, but I’d still feel awful. In the longer term it may be helpful, but I’ve tried this before and it is difficult to not get depressed and quit to go cry all day after 30 minutes.

ELiot
Even the meta strategy of “trying to plan” can help

You should write down that idea

It also seems like you apply pressure and expectations above what you have evidence of yourself being capable of.

Zebra
The idea of trying to plan, or?

ELiot
Yes and the “computer thing” idea

You should update on the estimation of your capabilities to be more of a reflection on what you have recently observed you are able to do

Zebra
I have a lot of computer thing ideas. I know pretty specifically how to do them, but sitting it down and typing it out is harder.

Well, I can walk to 7/11 if I put a lot of effort into it.

That’s about it…

ELiot
Which is a way of saying to start small. Reset from the beginning (which is not easy)

Zebra
That doesn’t seem helpful.

ELiot
That’s what your baseline is

Anything upwards is now impressive.

Including this conversation

You have come a long way already

Zebra
Doesn’t feel like it. Starting from walking to 7/11 sounds kind of exhausting and not very enjoyable.

ELiot
But that’s where you are right now

I would say try habit RPG, but I never found it useful to me

Zebra
Yeah, but I mean, back on to the original point, all this seems much harder than trying to work through my hangups about suicide.

ELiot
Possibly, Yes.

All these problems are solveable, But perhaps

What about the possibility of solving the most immediate discomfort at any time?

What is the most immediate discomfort right now?

Zebra
I feel stressed about life being shit generally, I guess.

Which is generally how I feel when I have nothing specific to be stressed about.

ELiot
What can you do about that right now? How can you make life less generally shit for the you that lives 10 minutes in the future?

Or maybe make yourself feel less stressed about it

Zebra
I guess I could try to do some meditation. That used to work, but hasn’t been so much recently.

For the stress part, at least.

I have no idea how to make life immediately less crap in the next ten minutes.

ELiot
I would suggest your environment or hygiene

As they are usually quick low hanging ideas.

Zebra
What sorts of things are you thinking of specifically with regard to those that could be accomplished within 10 minutes?

ELiot
A shower, a little cleaning up your space, changing clothes

Taking out the trash

Zebra
I guess that’s doable.

Zebra
Welp, done that. I suppose I do feel mildly better…

ELiot
That particular strategy is called success spirals. Successfully doing a thing to help the you of the future slightly. One bit at a time.

I should add – if you want to talk about death we should have that talk too

Death, dying, pain

Zebra
Well, death seems somewhat scary in the immediate sense.

Especially death by falling, which is the most low-effort solution for someone living in a high rise building.

ELiot
You need at least 10 floors to be confident of a sudden death

Zebra
More high-effort strategies, like pentobarbital or such, seem more palatable, but not quite as immediately actionable.

I’m on the tenth floor, and I think there’s 20 something.

ELiot
And it depends whether you want to impact others I. E. Seeing you fall and or the body

Zebra
I don’t really care, though obviously I wouldn’t want anyone seeing me “on the ledge” if I couldn’t go through with it.

OTOH, nighttime is a thing.

ELiot
Yes

Zebra
But it’s … scary.

Have you ever been with someone during suicide?

ELiot
No, I recently discouraged someone from taking action in person. They were making rash decisions at the time

Zebra
Ah

ELiot
At least 3 people in my life have come close. They are not all better yet, still in limbo of up and down

I would still encourage you to do the things that you want. Have you read the guilt series by nate soares?

Zebra
No. What is it about?

ELiot
Why we have guilt and defeating it where it’s not appropriate

Zebra
I don’t think I experience a significant amount of guilt.

ELiot
Guilt in the sense of, “should be going out” but “should stay in”. The conflicting desire of parts of you to do different things. And sorting it out
Zebra
Ah, hmm

I will read the Guilt series then…

ELiot
I also went through a period of time when I felt purposeless, I described it as, “everything is meaningless” and it’s bothering me. As distinctly different to, “everything is meaningless and it doesn’t matter”

Zebra
Everything being meaningless doesn’t bother me. I don’t think meaningfulness is a possible thing in any universe. Everything being shitty and empty bothers me, but that’s rather different.

http://mindingourway.com/dont-steer-with-guilt/ <- this?

ELiot
Yes, but that’s the middle of the series, better to start in the beginning

http://mindingourway.com/guilt/

That’s the table of contents

Zebra
Hmm, it’s a pretty good read.

———————————— Later in time……………
Zebra
Finished it. It was long!

I liked it more than Eliezer’s writing. It may even have been potentially useful irl, maybe.

ELiot
do you think you can apply things to your life?

Zebra
Maybe. I’ve been trying to do the breaking things up part.

I made a small amount of money with stupid computer things… I guess that’s a modicum of progress, maybe.

I liked the last part about changing goals. That might be useful.

Visualising bad things seems like a potentially helpful strategy as well.

Zebra
A lot of the techniques do seem effective. Hopefully it will make a positive difference.

———————A long time later————–
ELiot
hey

I promised to get back to you.

how are things?

Zebra
Hi

ELiot
it’s been a while..

Zebra
I’m doing somewhat better. Got on meds for bipolar disorder, which has helped a lot.

Yeah. Been trying to actually do things now, so I feel less stagnant.

ELiot
Oh! great!

Zebra
Hopefully life will end up in a better place than before.


The Problem TM

What is actually the problem?  I have a theory, but I also wanted to publish this without declaring my answer.  I will share my ideas in a few weeks but I want to know what you think and how you came to that answer.


Meta: this conversation happened over 6 months ago, this took 2 hours to collate, tidy and publish.

Also published on lesswrong here: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/nsn/

Part 2: http://bearlamp.com.au/the-problem-analyse-a-conversation-part-2/
Part 2 on lesswrong: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/nt8/the_problem_tm_part_2/

 

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