Things Jordan Peterson’s Rehab Taught Me
I too sir sucked fluid out of my wife's abdominal cavity through a tube.
This article was originally posted on Medium on September 21, 2019. It came up in conversation on the “stoic dating” group on Facebook today, where I’m a moderator, and the members incessantly argue about whether Jordan Peterson is “stoic” or not. The schism in the stoic online community over this question is largely down culture war lines, which frustrates me because in my view culture war itself isn’t particularly stoic. My view on JP is that my exposure to him has been very valuable to me, but I wouldn’t consider him stoic purely because he’s a culture warrior, as are his detractors.
Jordan Peterson is many things. His media exposure comes mostly from his position in the front lines of the Culture War, bearing the battle standard of individualism against social constructionist collectivists in a skirmish we’ve spoken about before on HWFO. But he’s (at least) two other things. He spends most of his life as a self-help public speaker, conveying a different if parallel message to a wash of youth abandoned by the collectivists, for whom his message of individual strength in the face of external chaos is beneficial. And he’s also a husband and father.
I paid a lot of attention when Peterson’s wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer, because his predicament and my predicament over the last several years were tangled together in a curiously parallel way. And because of this entanglement, I feel I have some unique perspectives on the fact that he recently checked himself into rehab for withdrawals from the anti-depressant Clonazepam.
My wife Buffy was diagnosed with stage four early onset colon cancer in August of 2017 at the age of 41, a hopeless initial diagnosis, with tumors on her liver and lungs on her first CT scan. This was irrecoverable, and our only available medical approach after the colectomy was to prolong her life as long as possible with chemotherapy. This threw our lives, as well as the lives of our three and five-year-old children, into nearly unbearable chaos. My task and responsibility as the father and husband was to hold the family together through what I hope will be the darkest part of any of our lives.
Throughout 2017 and 2018, my friends and family complimented me to no end on how well I rose to that task, and handled that responsibility. I presume their compliments weren’t hollow, but admit I don’t have the outside perspective they do. I do feel I did as well as anyone could, given the circumstances. I didn’t go to a therapist. I didn’t use a counselor. My confidants during this time were my wife, and one other close friend. My toolkit to make sense of the chaos around me, and maintain the strength to get to the end, consisted of three things:
Writing. I started this publication, mostly as a distraction.
Nicotine. I started vaping for a bit. I truly think this helped.
I watched Jordan Peterson YouTube videos.
I first stumbled into Peterson when I saw Joe Rogan #1006, his first appearance with Bret Weinstein, in what might be labeled the first seed of the gang of thinkers that branded themselves the “Intellectual Dark Web.” I was hooked on their willingness to apply evolutionary theory to societal development, to tie science in with politics and philosophy to extract deeper meaning, and their willingness to plainly articulate many of the same thoughts I’d had in my head for years prior. But what brought me back to Peterson wasn’t the Culture War stuff, it was the stoic message. Videos like this:
Peterson bounces around within this idea space during many of his lectures, but that video synthesizes most of what I needed, and spoke directly to my situation. My goal as a man was to remake myself into the most reliable person at my wife’s funeral, and I think I achieved that. On the way, I became the most reliable person in the infusion center, in the bedroom, in the home parenting my two kids when Buffy was laid out in the bed in chemo, acting as a de facto hospice nurse, draining the fluid from her belly from ascites as her lymph system started to fail, managing her pain medication as she died in our home.
Jordan Peterson YouTube videos.
She passed away in April. I still have a bottle of the anti-anxiety medication Lorazepam in my medicine cabinet, that neither Buffy nor I ever opened.
Jordan’s wife Tammy was struck with a rare kidney cancer in the summer, no more than a few months after Buffy died. Tammy had significant surgery, the surgery had complications, and her lymphatic system was compromised, leading to ascites just like Buffy. I read the articles. I wondered if Jordan was at home, using vacuum sealed Pleurx Drain bottles to suck the fluid out of his wife’s belly through a surgically installed catheter, like I’d done months before. I wondered if Tammy would die, like Buffy did. And I wondered what Jordan was doing to manage his stress and battle his dragon.
As of several days ago, we know most of these answers. His wife will recover, if with fewer organs, her ascites has abated, and Jordan managed his situation with a drug called Clonazepam, at the direction of his own doctors. To which he is now addicted, and must seek drug rehabilitation in a clinic.
I don’t stand in judgement of Jordan for turning to pharmaceuticals to manage stress, as so many others in the western world do. I admit to choosing one at the time: nicotine. But I think there may be some things we all can learn, even perhaps him, from comparing our two curiously similar and curiously linked situations.
A lesson emerges from a careful unpacking, that I think may be beneficial for everyone to think about. Let’s begin by comparing these situations.
My situation, both from a medical and family perspective, was probably objectively worse. Buffy struggled for far longer, and didn’t survive. My children are younger, and more impressionable, and lost their mother. I’m now a single father, and while I do well professionally I don’t make anything like Jordan does.
But Jordan’s situation was worse in different ways. He’s stranded (arguably by choice) at the front lines of a culture war, and embattled by a media engine which revels in mischaracterizing him to reap clickbait money. This is a stress layer I can’t fathom. He probably caught a second layer of stress from the fact that he is a central, known figure who speaks about how to deal with these kinds of stresses. So that’s an additional burden. But beyond all that, Jordan was missing a tool that I had, because Jordan Peterson can’t just watch Jordan Peterson videos. And that’s both horrible and fascinating, and worth a deeper look.
Jordan Peterson videos were helpful to me because I imparted an unconscious authority bias onto the things he was saying. I’m pretty damn smart I think, but Jordan is probably smarter. The things he said made sense, and he articulated them clearly. He carried the resume of someone who knew about that which he spoke. I unconsciously trusted the things he was saying were true, because of these factors. And I still think many of them are true, and were certainly helpful to me, but I can acknowledge that they were only useful in part because I trusted they were useful. That authority bias worked like a placebo, and placebos have real effects, on top of whatever effects his actual advice imparted.
Jordan, on the other hand, can’t assign that authority bias to himself. Nobody of true intellect monolithically believes in the things they’re saying, because that’s the path of an ideologue. And this is self-evident in any of his long form speaking events. He thinks out loud and challenges his own assumptions. He can’t trust that his own advice would be useful, because he can’t appeal to his own authority.
For him to fight his dragon in same way I fought mine, he would need a meta-Jordan-Peterson to watch on YouTube. Somebody else higher up the ladder of self-help abstraction. Of more authority than he.
It makes me think that this inclination towards authority bias in our minds has evolved over time, as an evolutionary response to banding into society level tribes, because authority bias is useful. It makes me think that for everyone to benefit from this sort of thing, you’d need a figure at the very top of the ladder of self-help abstraction to which all could appeal. Perhaps this is the societal function of the Church, or God.
It also makes me think that people should stay the hell away from Clonazepam.