Small and Vulnerable

Anyone who is dedicating the majority of their time or money to Effective Altruism needs to ask themselves why. Why not focus on enjoying life and spending your time doing what you love most? Here is my answer:

I have a twin sister but neither of us had many other friends growing up. From second to fifth grade we had none. From sixth to eighth we had one friend. As you might guess I was bullied quite badly. Multiple teachers contributed to this. Despite having no friends my parents wanted us to be normal. They pressured me to play sports with the boys in the neighborhood. I was unable to play with an acceptable level of skill and was not invited to the games anyway. But we were still forced to go ‘play outside’ after school. We had to find ways to kill time. Often we literally rode our bicycles in a circle in a parking lot. We were forced to ‘play outside’ for hours most days and even longer on weekends. I was not even allowed to bring a book outside though sometimes I would hide them outside at night and find them the next day. Until high school, I had no access to the internet. After dinner, I could watch TV, read and play video games. These were the main sources of joy in my childhood.

Amazingly my mom made fun of her children for being weirdos. My sister used to face a wall and stim with her fingers when she was overwhelmed. For some reason, my mom interpreted this as ‘OCD’. So she made up a song titled ‘OCD! Do you mean me?’ It had several verses! This is just one, especially insane, example.

My dad liked to ‘slap me around. He usually did not hit me very hard but he would slap me in the face all the time. He also loved to call me ‘boy’ instead of my name. He claims he got this idea from Tarzan. It took me years to stop flinching when people raised their hands or put them anywhere near my face. I have struggled with gender since childhood. My parents did not tolerate even minor gender nonconformity like growing my hair out. I would get hit reasonably hard if I insisted on something as ‘extreme’ as crossing my legs ’like a girl in public. I recently started HRT and already feel much better. My family is a lot of the reason I delayed transitioning.

If you go by the checklist I have quite severe ADHD. ‘Very often’ seemed like an understatement for most of the questions. My ADHD was untreated until recently. I could not focus on school or homework so trying to do my homework took way too much time. I was always in trouble in school and considered a very bad student. It definitely hurts when authority figures constantly, and often explicitly, treat you like a fuck up and a failure who can’t be trusted. But looking back it seems amazing I was considered such a bad student. I love most of the subjects you study in school! When I finally got access to the internet I spent hours per day reading Wikipedia articles. I still spend a lot of time listening to lectures on all sorts of subjects, especially history. Why were people so cruel to a little child who wanted to learn things?

Luckily things improved in high school. Once I had more freedom and distance from my parents my social skills improved a huge amount. In high school, I finally had internet access which helped an enormous amount. My parents finally connected our computer at home to the internet because they thought my sister and I needed it for school. I also had access to the computers in the high school library. By my junior year in high school, I was not really unpopular. Ironically my parent’s overbearing pressure to be a ‘normal kid’ probably prevented me from having a social life until I got a little independence. Sadly I was still constantly in trouble in school throughout my high school years.

The abuse at home was very bad. But, to be honest, the absolute worst part of my childhood and adolescence was the constant sleep deprivation. Even at thirty years old I cannot handle getting up early; I rarely wake before nine-thirty. A year ago I briefly had to be awake at six-thirty for work. I felt terrible all day and could not think straight. When I was younger I had an even stronger need to sleep in but I had to be in school before eight. People were amazed at my ability to fall into a deep sleep in the middle of a loud classroom. Unless someone woke me up I would just stay asleep at my desk. This was a horrible experience and surely terrible for my brain. I got a break from this torment during the summers but I didn’t really escape until I made it to college.

Obviously, I was an outlier in many respects. But many people are outliers in some important respects. They still deserve an environment that is healthy and lets them flourish. I wanted to learn all sorts of things. But instead of helping me, the school system tortured me and permanently damaged my brain. No one deserves to be treated like that.

We should not frame this in terms of my parents being aberrations. I live in the United States. Many groups here normalize far more extreme repression and physical punishment. In some subcultures, my parent’s behavior is considered unacceptable. But much of what happened to me is still normalized. Even supposedly liberal parents are often terrible to trans children. Society isn’t going to stop sleep-depriving children anytime soon. And there are many people being severely mistreated in very different circumstances.

I cannot get my childhood back, can’t go back in time and transition earlier, and if my brain was harmed the damage is permanent. Whatever other traumas I have won’t fully heal. But I eventually got out. There are millions of people in prison, trapped in abusive nursing homes, or starving in Yemen. There are many more animals on farms. Those people haven’t escaped yet and it is unclear they will ever escape to somewhere safe. Society never should have normalized what happened to me and we shouldn’t normalize what is happening to them. This is an emergency.

When I was small and vulnerable I needed help. For the most part, no help came. I was forced to stew in boredom and misery until I grew bigger, stronger, and accorded more respect. It is always hard to compare experiences. But I know what it’s like to spend about a decade miserable, knowing you are being mistreated and being unable to defend yourself. Maybe one day I will again be unable to defend myself because I am sick or in prison. But for now, I am relatively healthy and free. I cannot just abandon the people and animals who are still trapped. Every day I try to imagine them somehow watching me and I ask whether they would think I forgot them. I hope I never forget. I hope my actions always show I have forgotten neither my past nor their present.

This post also appeared on my blog.