Reply All: #74 Making Friends
August 25, 2016 7:48 AM - Subscribe

This week, a story about people who start hearing voices in their heads. But, instead of trying to get rid of the voices, they try to make more. Reporter Laura Klivans has the story.
posted by SansPoint (31 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This was... fascinating... and a little disturbing. Not sure how to feel about the Tulpas thing at all.
posted by SansPoint at 7:49 AM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Previously on MeFi also.

This was a hard episode for me to listen to. I might have to listen again to take it in because the first time through my mind was all over the place. Parts of it hit too close to home for me except it's hard for me to understand wanting Tulpas or similar phenomena. The difference here I think is the level of control of the situation which seems counter intuitive if the Tulpas are considered separate sentient beings.

I don't know what I think about all of this but it was a well done episode of the podcast and I enjoyed it.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 9:14 AM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Clinging to the Wreckage: Thanks for the Previously. I missed that thread the first tiem around.
posted by SansPoint at 9:20 AM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

The story of the divorce is positively heartbreaking, but I'm happy that Shay (Shea?) seems to have found a new happy home. And I really hope that writing the letter was cathartic for John.

I thought this was a really great episode and the topic was handled with a great deal of compassion. Kinda sad that "you weren't punching down" is something I'm patting someone on the back for, but after reading about a third of the "previously" comments... oof.

I keep recommending Reply All to my podcast-listening friends and I continue to be impressed with how thoughtful each episode is.
posted by giraffe at 12:17 PM on August 25, 2016 [3 favorites]

Also, this reminded me of that Oliver Sacks story about the elderly woman who hallucinated that she had a gentleman caller every night. She knew he wasn't real, and it wasn't distressing to her (beyond "this is outside the norm") so he encouraged her to enjoy his visits. Seems like a good way to approach Tulpas.
posted by giraffe at 12:30 PM on August 25, 2016

Yeah, that "previously" is a lot of point and laugh which I don't think is deserved. I agree that they handle all of their topics well on Reply All. I think "you weren't punching down" is worth a pat on the back here because they don't owe anybody anything and they could have easily made light of many specifics of this topic. It's doubly worrying because Tulpas seem pretty close to very serious mental issues that should not be made fun of or ignored.
posted by Clinging to the Wreckage at 12:49 PM on August 25, 2016 [1 favorite]

I feel bad now about my comment in that old thread. I was a lonely internet weirdo teen myself and I would not have been thrilled if Vice had done a story about my roleplay phpbbs or what have you.
posted by theodolite at 1:23 PM on August 25, 2016 [4 favorites]

I have to say it really struck me that when they read from "John's" letter about the breakup, the foregrounded part wasn't along the lines of "dissociation is unhealthy" or "I didn't know if I could trust her if she's hiding such big secrets," but that he was unsettled by the idea that her tulpas would fall in love with other people - a sort of polyamory-by-proxy. Am really curious whether that was as much of a focus in their discussions and the breakdown of the marriage.
posted by psoas at 11:39 PM on August 25, 2016 [2 favorites]

Agreed, psoas! I wasn't clear if that was just something that John worried about maybe happening, or if it actually did happen.
posted by oakroom at 5:41 AM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

Interesting, unusual, and heartbreaking episode. I'm still kinda digesting it. I think it's interesting that tulpas are largely created by their tulpamancers. I suppose it's not that different than a child having an imaginary friend, or creating a personality for a stuffed animal.

As a former psych major, I find it fascinating that several psych professionals said that Shea's situation doesn't meet the definition of a disorder because it wasn't causing distress.

From looking at the subreddit, it looks like Shea was happy with the episode. Interesting that she posted the episode as a "crew" of her and her tulpas. It's not often that we have the opportunity for an extended conversation with the subject of an episode, so that's pretty cool.
posted by radioamy at 10:20 AM on August 26, 2016 [1 favorite]

re: not pointing and laughing at subjects ...

... Imagining tulpas and tulpamancy as a subject on "Oh no Ross and Carey" and I just ... would rather not.

Reply All did a great thing here where they treated her with human dignity at first and just let everything unfold from there. They gave their audience room to draw their own conclusions about the "reality" or "healthiness" of tulpas without judging one way or another.

Good work.
posted by Tevin at 11:16 AM on August 26, 2016

he was unsettled by the idea that her tulpas would fall in love with other people - a sort of polyamory-by-proxy. Am really curious whether that was as much of a focus in their discussions and the breakdown of the marriage.

The impression I got is that it was happening, in a way that would look to outsiders like a typical online affair, but from Shae's point of view it wasn't her that was cheating, it was one of her tulpas. And it makes me wonder how that could even be addressed in a couple's therapy type situation -- how do you reconcile with someone who (to you) doesn't take responsibility for her behavior? Or with someone who doesn't take the most important part of you seriously?

And even absent actual affairs, it definitely seemed like Shae chose her friends (both online and tulpa) over her husband and marriage. I hope John's doing ok now, though I think it was big of him to not speak on the show itself.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:09 PM on August 26, 2016 [6 favorites]

The impression I got is that it was happening, in a way that would look to outsiders like a typical online affair

And reading the sub-reddit has removed doubt on this score... I think I need to nope out of this whole world.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:17 PM on August 26, 2016 [2 favorites]

This was a phenomenal episode. Lots to chew on.
posted by Fizz at 11:38 AM on August 27, 2016

I realize I live in an incredibly rare and eccentric bubble, but jealous monogamy and church gossip seem like far more problematic potential mental illnesses than letting imaginary voices take over your body. After listening to Shea's story and her husband's letter, it's hard not to be happy for Shea. She sounds like a neat person, and the Tulpas seem to have rescued her from a life that I'd gnaw my own arm off in order to escape. I'm happy to hear that she's finding her people.

But, leaving aside my own emotional reaction to the story, it was beautifully presented. This is Reply All at its best.
posted by eotvos at 3:49 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I was really disappointed in Shea's decision that, though John had apparently asked her to go, she decided she should avoid therapy because she had believed the line she heard in the "tulpamancer community" about the inevitability of her being diagnosed as dissociative. I think that's a pretty poisonous message to be giving out to people who, regardless of whether their imaginary friends are problematic, might really need therapy in order to repair relationships or deal with other life issues. It reminds me of the sorts of messages cultish religions give about why not to seek outside help with problems.

Mostly, this left me reflecting on how the existence of the internet creates this extreme structure and codification to behaviors that, though fairly common, were not subject to the architectural visions of a few powerful personalities before. It may be that there's nothing at all new about people "hearing voices" and feeling like they have alter egos inside them (after all, it's sort of the basis for lots of superhero genre fiction and things like that). But the way that a person who has a bit of that tendency, perhaps unelaborated but present, can stumble into this community and find themselves sort of given a prescription for what will and should happen (names, hierarchies, systems, how to create new tulpas, rules by which tulpas operate) -- well, I wonder about this. It ends up seeming to draw people into accepting an architecture and community they would never have come up with on their own, becoming a more complex psycho-social phenomenon instead of individual psychological proclivity. Whenever someone gets into something new and comes up with a complete taxonomy and worldview based on an existing community about that thing they've run across - whether it's a fanbase or swing dance or alt.right or a religion or libertarianism or whatever - I shudder a bit, because it seems to allow folks to abnegate their independent thinking in favor of a strutured system already built for them, explaining themselves to them in a way many people are eager to sign onto.

I'd love to hear a followup in 20 years.
posted by Miko at 8:23 PM on August 27, 2016 [12 favorites]

Her first experience -- a calm voice that tells you what to do during a time of extreme distress -- is something I've heard reported a number of times. E.g., Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir "Eat Pray Love" begins with such an experience. I was nodding my head during that part of the episode, cuz I'd heard it so many times.
posted by chrchr at 8:43 PM on August 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I think the show's pointing out pretty explicitly that these folks tend to be creative, lonely types really clears things up a bit. Like, hey, maybe unhappy folks are finding a way to actually get by in life using the tools available to them. Good on them!

The fact that nothing is a mental disorder, de facto, if it doesn't cause distress is well worth noting as well — if it's not a problem, what benefit is there to "fixing" it?

This was a really interesting episode overall.
posted by DoctorFedora at 10:58 PM on August 27, 2016

if it's not a problem, what benefit is there to "fixing" it?

A problem for whom? It's a tempting perspective, but the "distress" litmus test leaves aside a lot of functional abilities. I went onto the Reply All Facebook page, and someone asked a set of good questions: is she in touch with her parents? What's that relationship like? How's work going? She's already lost a marriage, and who knows whether that's a good thing or not, but it is possible to be completely unconcerned, to not feel distress yourself, and at the same time not be able to function as a normal adult and to cause plenty of distress to others. A dimension the investigation largely left out.
posted by Miko at 4:44 AM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

And I still think it's incredibly irresponsible for people in this community to dissuade one another from seeking professional help.
posted by Miko at 4:45 AM on August 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

It sounded to me like she gets along more or less fine in most parts of her life unrelated to her marriage (though, on the other hand, she also presumably keeps that stuff to herself ordinarily), and on that front I certainly felt for the husband. I'm not saying that I think she's normal or anything, but I do wonder just how dangerous the whole phenomenon is on the whole with otherwise reasonably well-adjusted people who can manage to make their ways through life, by and large.
posted by DoctorFedora at 5:02 AM on August 28, 2016

This made me think about 1870s Spirtualism & spiritual mediums/con artist. In Spirtualism there were true believers and con artist preyed upon them using things like "fronting" (without calling it that).
posted by CMcG at 5:27 AM on August 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't think Shea does herself any favors by revealing more about her relationship in that Reddit thread. Otoh, marriages break up, that doesn't mean people are bad or crazy.

The voice changes with Timbre were unsettlingly strong.

My grouchiest self says the tulpa names are way too twee and make my next naming choice want to be Dave or Ellen or Jessica.
posted by bq at 8:44 AM on August 28, 2016

Yeah, the overlap with sci-fi fanfic and its naming traditions is cloying.
posted by Miko at 9:14 AM on August 28, 2016

Now that I've read the reddit thread about the episode, it sounds like she was a victim of psychological abuse in the relationship, which complicates the story quite a bit and causes me to do lots more speculation about her life and coping mechanisms. From reading the subreddit, it's clear enough to me for my own personal satisfaction that this stuff is an exercise in fantasy, and I would be not at all surprised to hear about more traumas in the histories of these folks (isolation being one of them). Again, I'd like to hear a revisit in 20 years to see how these folks have gone on, particularly those who have confronted their issues and changed their circumstances.
posted by Miko at 9:23 AM on August 28, 2016

Yeah this whole thing is really complex. On one hand there's a big difference between this and voices telling you to do bad things or being unable to control your actions. On the other hand, her fostering these relationships in her mind AND creating more of them is a problem to me. It would be one thing if she hung onto something that popped up in highschool. But during her marriage she spent time creating new cast members.

Now, clearly it seems that the marriage had other problems - because otherwise I don't see a need to sit on a forum all day and create new tulpas. Right? On the other hand, I also see where the husband is coming from. So obviously there's more to the story than what we know from this little podcast - on both sides.

But when she was saying how she didn't want to lose her tulpas for her marriage - at the same time I'm sitting here thinking "Yeah, but you can stop trying to create more, right? Or you can try to limit your interaction or be open with your partner about who is fronting, right?"

And it's not for everyone. Obviously. Perhaps there is a partner out there who is okay with this. Possibly someone else with tulpas. I mean people have all sorts of relationships that aren't unhealthy or damaging but outside of the "norm". Infact I think there was another podcast where someone talked about his wife who had two personalities and he loved each of them. Then she passed away. (Does anyone remember this? Was it This American Life?)

And I do feel like Shea's tulpas were creating a bad dynamic in her relationshp, and therefore creating some form of harm. Again, I don't know if the relationship was healthy beyond the tulpa issue and I doubt it was - but from the podcast:

"Shea told him that if two tulpas fell in love that didn't mean that the tulpamancers wouldn't be cheating."

Her husband also wrote "Let me play devil's advocate, say I accept the tulpas. What does Christmas look like? Do I have Christmas with my wife and then we drive up to California so Shea's tulpa can celebrate Christmas with the tulpa's husband? That is an open marriage. That is not what either of us vowed at our wedding day."

That would surely be a dealbreaker for me. That's beyond "I have personalities in my head that sometimes help me cope." That goes into "These personalities are independent people and take control of my body and emotions and don't have the same vows and you and I as husband and wife."

And it clearly sounds like there's some specifics in there. That paired with him doing things (that I don't agree with) like removing her computer sounds like when you can't your spouse texting or emailing in an emotional affair.

But yeah, I think that her getting help for depression - the thing that seems to bring the tulpas to be stronger - is a helpful place to start. Everyone has coping mechanisms. But I also think that these are having more control over her than she seems to realize.

It also seems like people with tulpas would heavily deny the amount of control due to the sense of community and cute names and fantasy and that's definitely worrying. Because if they're writing on the forums that they're totally in control you're not seeing it from an outside perspective. Like someone saying they're fine when they're clearly having a panic attack or something.

You can't fully trust the self-reporting when it comes to stuff like this. And I'm a person who deals with anxiety so I understand needing a reality check on it with my therapist. There's definitely anxiety quirks that I know are crazy and I can clearly recognize they're unrealistic but there's other things that are more subtle to me that someone else would pick up on. I think the forum nature of this community creates a big problem for people reinforcing things as "normal" that may infact be harmful to them or those around them because they're not getting the full story.
posted by Crystalinne at 1:28 PM on August 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

Having thought about it more, there's so much unreliable narrator stuff going on in Shae's case specifically that all I can do now is hope that she and John are both happy in their new lives.

As far as tulpamancers go, they sound like interesting people overall, but I don't think I could handle being around someone who I knew was letting their tulpa "front. "

Maybe, someday, reddit will become the kind of place where sub reddits aren't allowed to discourage people from seeking mental health help.
posted by sparklemotion at 2:45 PM on August 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

There's a lot of interesting stuff about tulpas on the Wikipedia page.

Did you know? The name comes from a Buddhist concept of creating something with the mind.

Did you know? The tulpamancer community originated on 4chan in 2009, and became associated with "My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic".
posted by chrchr at 7:29 PM on August 28, 2016

I can get the part about "if it's not causing distress then it's not a disorder," but for me the part where she spoke of how she cannot imagine being able to do writing or art without the tulpas was the beginning of seeing the distress she's not really acknowledging. She seems to be hinting there that she probably cannot fully function in life without them anymore. While that may not be actually causing problems for her right now (well, I mean, except for a divorce), what happens if she becomes more dependent on them? Will she be able to acknowledge that and get help?
posted by dnash at 8:23 AM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

Did you know? The name comes from a Buddhist concept of creating something with the mind.

They mentioned this in the podcast, but I believe they also noticed that the concept, evolved pretty far from its original religious meaning. It strikes me as a way of retroactively lending the behavior legitimacy by creating a link with an ancient practice.

Interestingly, on the reddit thread she talks about a therapist, so that must have come about after the podcast (or was edited out, or she concealed it, who knows), but at least that makes me feel better about her individually. However I continue to think this community as a whole is not setting the healthiest norms for troubled people who are using this as a coping strategy. It may be better than whatever they're coming from, in a transitional sense, but I can't think it's great or even an uncomplicated good.
posted by Miko at 9:44 AM on August 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

While that may not be actually causing problems for her right now (well, I mean, except for a divorce), what happens if she becomes more dependent on them?

I think the assumption is that there isn't, inherently, anything wrong with depending on tulpas.

Shea's tulpas seem to (I am not Shea's therapist) help her with her depression. So she's dependent on them for that reason. If she were self-medicating with alcohol, the issues that come along with alcohol addition would be a "distress" requiring treatment of the "disorder" of alcoholism (and alternative treatments for the underlying depression). If she were self-medicating with diet and exercise, there'd be no disorder unless the diet and exercise led to say orthorexia and/or hypergymnasia.

So, self-medicating with tulpas seems fine until the tulpas themselves are the problem. Maybe she might lose the ability to stay in "control" of who is "fronting" some day, or she might decide that she no longer wants to hear the tulpas but can't make them go away.

As for the divorce -- to me that doesn't seem like "distress" because, in this case, it seems clear that Shea made the choice to keep the tulpas (and stay in the tulpa community) and lose her marriage*. It would be different if Shea had tried to save the marriage by eliminating the tulpas and couldn't. Or even if Shea had tried to save the marriage by leaving the tulpa community (therefore separating her tulpas from their tulpa partners), but she couldn't stop Varyn from logging in.

*I'm not judging Shea for this: "he doesn't respect my wishes to participate in the community that I enjoy" is a perfectly valid reason for not wanting to stay in a marriage in and of itself.
posted by sparklemotion at 10:17 AM on August 29, 2016

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