The Tragedy of JBP

Jordan B. Peterson, darling of the right, punching bag of the left, has had an amazingly shitty year.

Peterson rocketed to fame after publishing a couple of books and making some fairly anodyne (as far as I can tell) statements about the encroachment of political correctness on college campuses and in Canadian Law.

Fame is bad for people: just look at the lives of movie stars. At this point, Hollywood has probably developed some protocols for dealing with some of the unpleasant parts of being famous–I doubt Johnny Depp reads all of the mail he receives; Lady Gaga probably has someone who manages her online presence, etc–but we know Peterson wasn’t doing this because his daughter is doing his press releases.

Authors don’t expect to become famous, much less reviled.

I should note that I haven’t actually read Peterson’s book (I’m not in the market for self-help), nor have a watched more than a smattering of podcasts/interviews, but I have spent enough time here on the internet to get the general flavor of things. Peterson has always struck me as a basically kind-hearted, well-intentioned person who was trying to help others, not tear them down, so even if I disagreed with this or that specific thing he said, he still seemed like a pretty decent guy.

In exchange for being basically decent and trying to help people, Peterson received an amazing amount of hate. The left reacted to him like a demon casting off its disguise and screaming in hysterical rage.

Most famous people get more love than hate; this level of hate isn’t good for anyone, much less someone who isn’t a sociopath or a murderer.

Despite the hysterics that JBP was going to destroy civilization, he has faded pretty quickly from view. His time in the spotlight ended with a speed that makes all of the hysteria look, in retrospect, absurd. He wasn’t a threat; he was just a guy who published a book and had his fifteen minutes of fame.

The benefit of hindsight makes the lunacy of it all the stranger. I can’t think of a similarly mid-profile leftist (Peterson is way below the fame level of Krugman or Ta Nehisi) who has received the same level of vitriol. Maybe David Hogg? (But maybe that’s just sampling bias due to the particular things I happen to read.)

Peterson faded from view in part because there isn’t very much for intellectual “right wingers” who aren’t insane and aren’t on TV to do. Books take a long time to write, and hosting a regular podcast gets old. The idea that JBP was part of the “Alt Right” was only ever correct in the vaguest sense of him not being part of the mainstream Republican right, which I wouldn’t really expect him to be since he’s not even an American. He doesn’t seem to be racist, think we should repeal the 19th amendment, or want to invade Poland. The idea that he is some sort of gateway to the Alt Right proper is the kind of fevered nonsense that comes of trying to smash all human existence into a single left-right axis with everything that is not explicitly trying to accelerate leftward labeled as “reactionary.”

But anyway, Peterson’s life since he dropped out of sight has apparently been absolutely awful. According to his daughter, “Dad was put on a low dose of a benzodiazepine a few years ago for anxiety following an extremely severe autoimmune reaction to food.”

This is maddeningly specific and unspecific at the same time. What sort of autoimmune reaction? What sort of food? Is he allergic to shellfish? I am familiar with some of the conditions that might get characterized this way, eg:

In a joint effort,  Ye Qian, PhD, professor of dermatology, and Timothy Moran, MD, PhD, assistant professor of pediatrics, found that walnut allergen, in addition to inducing allergic diseases to certain individuals, could also promote autoantibody development in an autoimmune skin disease called pemphigus vulgaris. …

Two major outcomes of a dysfunctional immune system are allergy and autoimmunity. Growing evidence suggests there are some connections between the development of these two abnormalities.

Can autoimmune conditions cause anxiety? Presumably they can cause all sorts of things, especially if we play fast and lose with what we call “autoimmune.” People who are breaking out in hives and feel their throats constricting because they just ate a peanut presumably feel a lot of anxiety. Some people who are sensitive to wheat experience psychiatric symptoms (eg, celiac psychosis) that are caused by some sort of weird bodily reaction to the wheat.

So this is not a crazy thing to claim, but it might be garbled since some people use terms like “autoimmune” very loosely.

BUT, if the anxiety was caused by an autoimmune reaction to food, then the correct response shouldn’t have been psychiatric medication. It should have been treating the autoimmune disorder (and eliminating whatever food was triggering it from the diet). For that you probably need immune-suppressing drugs like infliximab or steroids like prednisone.

Anxiety is unpleasant and benzos can bring it down, especially in an emergency, but if the autoimmune condition is triggering the anxiety than you really aren’t making it go away. This is life if you have the flu and it’s causing a fever and you take an aspirin to bring down your fever, well, you still have the flu and you still feel shitty.

Except instead of aspirin, you’re taking something that is much stronger and has a much higher risk of side effects.

So at least from what she’s said (and I admit that this might be a highly compressed or slightly garbled account of things,) Peterson shouldn’t have been on benzos at all and had a different medical disorder that effectively went untreated.

According to his daughter, Peterson’s dose was increased when his wife developed cancer. Cancer is understandably extremely stressful and people need help getting through it, though I question the wisdom of giving psychiatric medication for people going through conditions which really ought to make you feel shitty. If your wife is dying and you don’t feel bad, I think there’s something wrong.

At this point, the bezos stopped doing their job (perhaps because of the untreated autoimmune disorder?):

It became apparent that he was suffering from both a physical dependency and a paradoxical reaction to the medication.

This is really interesting, at least from an abstract point of view.

To radically over-simplify the brain, think of it as having two potential directions, up and down. When you up regulate something, you get more of it. When you downregulate, you get less of it. The actual mechanics involved are obviously way more complicated. Sometimes a chemical has an exciting effect, so more of that chemical means more of the effect you want, and sometimes a chemical has a depressing effect, so more of that chemical means less of the effect you want. Brains also have receptors, which have to be present to actually use the chemicals, so it doesn’t matter how many chemicals you have if you don’t have any receptors to receive them.

Anti-anxiety drugs, like alcohol, are designed to depress the brain. Here’s a great video by ChubbyEmu explaining how alcohol dependence works:

I don’t know the exact mechanism of benzos, but the principle is likely the same. As you put in more and more depressants, trying to down-regulate the brain, the brain up-regulates something else to reassert homeostasis. This is how you build up tolerance to drugs and even become dependent on them: the physical architecture of your brain has been modified to deal with them. Take the drugs away, and suddenly the physical architecture of the brain no longer has the the right balance of chemicals to receptors that it needs. If you take out a depressant, suddenly your brain is massively up-reulated. If you’ve been chugging alcohol, all of that un-depressed brain activity is likely to massively up itself into a seizure as brain activity explodes.

In Peterson’s case, when he tried to go off benzos, he developed akathisia, a condition usually described as restlessness but described by people who’ve had it as an absolutely maddening compulsion to move endlessly for hours and hours and hours on end with no rest or stillness, no ability to turn off the racing thoughts in your brain or stop talking like you are a train hurling 300 miles an hour down the track until you fall asleep, exhausted, only to wake up the next day and do it all over again until you want to put a bullet in your brain.

I am pretty sure that you can recover from this as your brain eventually resets to its original balance, but that takes a very long time and in the meanwhile you are still dependent on the same drug/medication that caused the problem in the first place. (A hospital dealing with a patient going through acute alcohol withdrawal will give the patient alcohol to stop their seizure, for example.)

Here is where it seems that Mikhaila and her dad gave up on “North American” medicine and went off to Russia to detox Peterson cold turkey.

After several failed treatment attempts in North American hospitals, including attempts at tapering and micro-tapering, we had to seek an emergency medical benzodiazepine detox, which we were only able to find in Russia.

I understand where they’re coming from and their frustration, but once you’ve built a tolerance to drug, there is no safe way to detox without tapering, and tapering is just going to be shitty, because your brain is now designed to use that drug and you can’t get around that until you build new brain architecture.

Unfortunately, just as going cold turkey off an alcohol addition can cause seizures, so taking Peterson off the benzos seems to have had terrible effects, and he ended up in a COMA. Excuse me, a medically induced coma. I think they usually do that because someone has gone into uncontrollable seizures, but maybe there are other reasons for them:

She and her husband took him to Moscow last month, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia and put into an induced coma for eight days. She said his withdrawal was “horrific,” worse than anything she had ever heard about. She said Russian doctors are not influenced by pharmaceutical companies to treat the side-effects of one drug with more drugs, and that they “have the guts to medically detox someone from benzodiazepines.”

There is just so much horrifying here; Peterson, please do not ever place your life in your daughter’s hands again. She does not understand addiction. Look, I undrserstand your reluctance to try to treat the akasithia with more medications, but that is not a good reason to go to Russia. Peterson could just have refused the prescription for anti-akasithia drugs while still continuing a controlled, tapered detox in a “North American” hospital. The fact that they apparently couldn’t find any doctors in all of “North America” who would sign off on this plan, not even a “naturopath”, is a huge red flag. Of course his withdrawal was “horrific”; that’s why the doctors kept telling you not to do this fucking thing but you had to go drag your dad to some second world country to find doctors willing to gamble with his life.

By the way, a “coma” shouldn’t be “horrific.” By nature, people in comas don’t really do anything. They’re asleep. Something is being left out of this story.

She continues:

Jordan Peterson has only just come out of an intensive care unit, Mikhaila said. He has neurological damage, and a long way to go to full recovery. He is taking anti-seizure medication and cannot type or walk unaided, but is “on the mend” and his sense of humour has returned.

Aha. Seizures. Looks like I was right. The “horrific” part of this ordeal was most likely her dad going status epilepticus. But let’s all admire the “guts” of Russian doctors to go along with this absolutely insane idea and give her dad permanent brain damage. Great job, Mikhaila.

Everything about this is horrifying. Peterson strikes me as a decent man who wanted to make people’s lives better. Whether his advice was good or not, most of it didn’t sound outright terrible. Hard to go wrong with “clean your room.” He’s been hit with a ton of hate, his wife had cancer, and he was, from the sounds of it, incorrectly put on very strong and dependency forming medications. Getting off the medication became its own hell, so his daughter gave up on “North American” medicine and went for the cold turkey method, which of course caused seizures and brain damage.

Bloody hell.

I know where people are coming from when they look at conventional medicine and say, “Gosh, that seems wrong.” Yes, putting Peterson on benzos on the first place may have been wrong. Increasing his dosage may have also been wrong. There may have been other wrong decisions in there. But that doesn’t make going off cold turkey the right decision.

There’s this awful place you end up when you have a medical condition that falls just on the edge of mapped medical territory. We are great at treating broken bones. Trauma medical care is amazing. We can transplant organs and save people from heart attacks. Antibiotics and vaccines are also amazing. And we have solved many long-term conditions, like type 1 diabetes.

Autoimmune conditions are much harder to treat and much less well-mapped territory. Sometimes doctors are wrong. Sometimes ordinary people have good ideas that medicine hasn’t recognized yet. Sometimes a specialized diet like eating just meat is exactly what someone needs. And sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the doctors are right. Finding the correct balance and knowing which information to trust (some peer-reviewed medical papers have turned out to be fraudulent, too,) can be hard. I don’t know how to resolve this dilemma besides “Start with accepted medicine. Talk to doctors. Watch Chubby Emu or something similar. Get a basic idea of the land. Then move on to patient forums. See what patients say. Sometimes patients report side effects as being much more common or severe than medical studies indicate. Sometimes they indicate that certain medications are more effective than indicated. etc. Watch out for anyone touting a cure that sounds too good to be true or that could kill you (do NOT, under any circumstances, drink a gallon of soy sauce.) Watch out for rabbit holes where the relevant authors only cite each other. Watch out for “papers” that don’t seem to have come from anywhere. Watch out for people trying to sell you something. And just keep learning as much as you can.”

Good luck, try to stay healthy and well. Get your sunshine.

I hope poor Peterson recovers.