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April 13, 2023 Fiction


Peter Lasch

Hormesis photo

He cums and his brain slides sideways out of his ear and onto the floor. Upon return to lucidity he is less horny than he has ever been in his life. He feels ambient goodwill towards his girlfriend, bolstered by evolutionary self-interest, but mostly he feels like taking a shower. When he returns to the bedroom his girlfriend has already removed her collar and clip-on animal ears and is curled up, asleep, under her weighted blanket.

The package arrives while his girlfriend is at work. Inside of the package are four gray pills which he dry-swallows one by one.

She tells him that she’s thinking of going on Prozac. He tells her about how the effects of SSRIs in animal models were measured via forced swim test, where researchers dropped mice in water and timed how long it took the mice to give up on treading water. Mice dosed with SSRIs swam for longer and this was interpreted as resilience to hopelessness. But researchers would scoop mice out of the water after they stopped swimming, so a smart mouse would learn give up as soon as possible: did it not seem likely that SSRIs, rather than improving volition, were impairing the mice’s ability to learn to escape stressful situations? He suggests instead, tentatively, that she sees if her persistent low mood and anxious episodes persist if she goes off hormonal birth control.

She says that the birth control keeps her menstrual cramps in check and he asks her: have you ever heard of hormesis?

“Our concept of a healthy, well-functioning body is based on conditions that have only existed for the past hundred or so years, despite the fact that basic humans have been “anatomically modern” for the past two hundred thousand years. How did human females deal with menstruation for the hundreds of thousands of years before the invention of hormonal birth control— they may have experienced fewer periods due to later onset of puberty, more frequent pregnancies and earlier menopause, but they didn’t see menstruation as a “chronic health condition” that needed to be halted medically, even if it caused them discomfort.

And the discomfort— that’s where “hormesis” comes in. Basically low-dose stress, pain, toxins, even mild injury, all induce the body to overcompensate on the direction of greater health. Working out is just hurting your body so that it’ll heal stronger. A lot of the “health benefit” of vegetables come from what are effectively phytotoxins. Caloric restriction increases longevity in animal models, and probably in people too. So when studies of women on hormonal birth control demonstrate that they’re more anxious and depressed, I can’t help but wonder if part of it isn’t just the hormonal mediation of mood, but that they’re missing the boost from the hormetic stressor of losing blood on a regular basis. 

That’s just speculation on my part. But it gets far weirder than that. Like, basically all large wild mammals naturally have a high parasitic load. And this was true for humans too, right until we started disinfecting our water supply. You can actually track the correlation between mental illness and access clean water, both historically and geographically— and sure, correlation doesn’t equal causation, but when you consider that a consistently low level of parasites is just the kind of stress that stimulates the immune system and improves the efficiency of nutrient extraction during digestion, plus the fact that humans evolved in the persistent presence of such stress, doesn’t it seem like you’d get some interesting cognitive effects in their absence?”

His girlfriend strokes his hair in the wrong direction, gently, like petting a dog.

As a kid he read voraciously. It feels like he doesn’t read at all now when in fact he consumes orders of magnitude more writing, in the form of endless-scroll digital feeds, offsite links to digestibly-short long form blogposts, and the several private messaging channels of varying levels of pseudonymity that comprise the bulk of his interpersonal relationships. Immersive and forgettable as a dream, but it’s only upon awakening that the dreamer tries to remember a dream. And he’s always fully in it.

Some of this stuff feels like the parts of books he used to hide from his parents, sex and swearing, even knowing that they themselves already knew, that his conception was testament to the perversion at the origin of existence, all life beginning with a dirty joke— likewise, you just have to look at the numbers to see that some things don’t add up. Demographic distribution of IQ. And if IQ doesn’t measure anything, there’s income, educational attainment, crime rate, career choice. 

It’s not a hate thing. He doesn’t feel like he has some pre-existing problem with women and minorities that he needs to express by seeking out graphs indicating socially-inconvenient conclusions. It just feels easier, once you’ve seen the numbers, to think this way. It’s not obsessive. The obsessive move would be, upon seeing the numbers, to try to invent some baroque reason why they couldn’t possibly mean what they seem to mean.

There’s a story emergent in his feeds and the stuff about women and minorities is merely incidental to it. For hundreds of thousands of years it was impossible to deny the truth because truth was a saber-tooth-tiger with imminent intent to eat your face. Then grain domesticated man and man invented law. City-states forced cooperation on scales unforeseen by evolution and protein-poor grain-heavy diets left everyone crippled and retarded. Numbers were invented to convince people to ignore their obvious debility in favor of accruing every-greater quantities of grain. Now instead of counting grain, we count GDP, infant morality, access to clean water, all trending in the correct direction through the combined efforts of civilization. There’s other numbers: prevalence of mental illness, Western birthrate, the number of Americans who report having one or fewer close friends. But what about the things that can’t be quantized. What about the poverty of the human spirit. 

Every part of his body was made in the wrong shape for modernity. Eyes stretched into myopia by spending hours parsing tiny glyphs inches from his face instead of scanning the horizon for threats and game. School and work gave him scoliosis and social anxiety. Far enough on the natural distribution of attention span that he can get through his programming job without Adderall, but there are days where he wouldn’t mind some, if only he had the guts to lie to a psychiatrist.

He works out, lifting symmetrical pieces of metal in imitation of the life-sustaining physical labor carried out by his ancestors. But sun and steel have not shown him the path. He still hesitates, defers, sweats, feels too frequently but with insufficient intensity. He stops eating food that the WHO claims is is innocuous but that his ancestors didn’t have words for: most fruits and grains, anything with seed oil. He tells his girlfriend that his undiagnosed-yet-likely Asperger’s syndrome makes him picky like that. 

There’s supplements. He likes glycine the best because swallowing a tablespoon of nauseating sweet-metallic powder before bed approximates the discomfort that a hunter would go through in the process acquiring the equivalent amount of glycine from a wild animal. It seems like the more uncomfortable something is— cold showers, lifting heavy, not binging on ice cream— the better it is for you. Some people in his circles have started eating black mold. He wouldn’t go that far, but apparently the results speak for themselves. He did try eating only potatoes for a week, though that  eventually became too hard to explain to his girlfriend. 

A friend sends him an essay on the counterintuitive potential connection between parasite load and mental health. It’s from a good blog, not one of the overtly racist or schizophrenic ones, the kind of blog that gets linked by the New York Times. He jokes that he should try getting infected by parasites and his friend informs him of the existence of diet pills of last resort, capsules of tapeworm eggs from India. After that it’s just a matter of waiting for the Monero to hit his AlphaBay account wallet, and then the international shipping. 

When they first met dirty talk felt like solving timed coding challenges at a job interview. He was good at it and the interviewer liked him. Now he’s got the job and it just feels like work. There used to be reward in hitting the right combination of words and the resulting shudder, spasm, sigh. But he’s refined his technique to the point where he only notices a miss. And he reads less hentai manga now, so it’s harder to come up with ideas.

When you first start dating someone there’s a grace period. They’ll listen to the albums that you recommend and tolerate your sexual missteps. They might even develop a new fetish. But once you’re in a relationship you need to deliver a consistent product. Otherwise they will break up with you and you will fall into a pit filled with spikes and die.

She needs him to push her face into a pillow and call her a worthless whore or she can’t cum. Sometimes he does this and she still can’t cum, an orgasm-based gatcha game that he pays for in self-esteem. Sometimes she also needs to pretend to be his pet. He competently indulges this desire, scratching her behind the ears, rubbing her tummy, bidding her to perform simple tricks rewarded with ample monosyllabic praise. But then it’s up to him to somehow transition this scenario into sex, so, what, now he has to pretend that he’s having sex with a dog? 
He understands the basic idea at play, that being a pet means being the subject of both total control and unconditional tenderness. But on a meta level it seems like the power belongs to whoever can compel the other person to fuck a dog. 

A week into his tapeworm experiment and he feels basically the same, maybe a little hungrier. They’ve had sex twice in the interim, both initiated by his girlfriend curling her hands in approximation of paws and kneading his upper arm expectantly, like she was doing now. 

They’re reclining together on the bed. He puts aside his laptop and obediently tries to imagine a dog’s paw on his shoulder, not a dog-dog, more like an anime dog girl, the maximum quantity of dog that still elicits genital response. He grabs her wrist more forcefully than he would have if she hadn’t interrupted him in the middle of checking his email on his laptop. She growls at him.

He growls back, surprising both of them, then pulls her arm across his body, unsettling her balance and giving him just enough leverage to shift his weight in the opposite direction and pin her, face-up, against the bed. No mean feat, since she’s heavier than he is. Her face is just close enough to his that it’s more comfortable to let his eyes find middle distance while her features kaleidoscope. Short dark lashes flutter out of sync in a galaxy of freckles. He observes her lips until it is impossible not to kiss her. Her mouth tastes like hot water.

He grinds against her thigh, displacing her stockings. Thrown off their usual script, she hasn’t done much but the occasional encouraging wiggle, but she obligingly lifts her hips when he motions to pull her panties down. In one deft gesture he both mounts her and prevents her from rolling onto her stomach. 

He thinks about grabbing her face but it feels too pornographic somehow. Her breath keeps pace with him but her eyes open and shut on a schedule seemingly decorrellated with anything happening to her. When her eyes are open he can see himself faintly and whatever part of his oxytocin-amped brain is not already overclocked processing heat and pressure latches on to the image of her pupil reflecting his pupil reflecting her pupil on into infinity forever.

He’s scrolling through his Twitter feed on the balcony. His girlfriend leans against the door.

“Last night was interesting. But missionary doesn’t really do it for me.”

He glances up from his phone. “You seemed into it?”

“It seemed like YOU were into it. Which was hot. You growled at me.” She giggles. “Did you want to be the puppy for once?”

He slides his phone into his pocket, screen against his thigh. His face feels hot. “I wasn’t thinking about it that way, actually. It felt very human. Nearly all mammals mate from behind. But humans are uniquely adapted for sex face-to-face. There’s a whole level of pair bonding that you can only reach with intimate eye contact.”

His girlfriend looks at him pointedly. “That seems like an overgeneralization. Plenty of people get by just find without missionary.”

“I’m sure that they say they do. But often they just don’t know what they’re missing out on. And everyone around them is screwed up enough that they don’t have a basis for comparison.” The words are oddly loud in his ears, like some cavity in his body has drained to provide his speech with extra resonance. He can no longer bear to be sitting. “I’m not saying you’re screwed up. I mean— throughout your life, your conditions have always been suboptimal, nothing that naturally adapted for. But you don’t have to keep it that way.”

“You sound like that racist tapeworm blogger.”

An electric current through some dormant circuit along his spine, some anatomic artifact that evolution has forgotten to erase. “He’s not racist,” he sputters. “He was quoted by the New York Times.”

“They had to apologize for that,” his girlfriend says. “After people pointed out what he’s said in the past about the BLM protests. And women in science. And— why are you defending him? He tells people to swallow tapeworm eggs!”

He would prefer to be in a timeline where he is not fighting with his girlfriend. Instead he is in a timeline where his girlfriend’s empathy for the plight of victims of police brutality and sexism in STEM, groups which she has no personal relation to, lead her to reject the few people trying to have any original thoughts about the state of the world. “We talked about the tapeworm thing before. It’s not so crazy. I know some people doing it. And I, I’ve been trying it myself, and—“ here he looks into her eyes, trying to find whatever thing he summoned last night, but she has the eyes of someone who has realized that her boyfriend has willingly paid for and ingested racist tapeworm eggs.

Time to make an egress. She’s still standing between him and the door. He reaches out to brush her aside but she grabs his arm and before he can react she has leveraged her superior mass to push him backwards over the balcony.

He’s buckled into the passenger seat of his car. The world is crooked because his glasses are askew. His body is crooked because some things in it have been broken. His girlfriend is gripping the steering wheel tightly. 

“You’re going to the hospital.”


“I didn’t mean to hurt you. I’m sorry. I felt threatened. When you shoved me. I know you probably didn’t mean to. It was— I think it was my PTSD. Or cPTSD.”

He tastes blood in the back of his throat. “Ok.”

“Are you mad at me.”

“I don’t know. My head hurts. I’m glad that you’re taking me to the hospital.”

When he awakes in the hospital the air is blue and heavy and his girlfriend is asleep in a chair next to his bed. The few available photons quantize her form into pointillist static. Her face looks impossibly beautiful in low resolution. In that moment he feels that he could die happily with no regrets.

But he doesn’t die, and is discharged in the morning.

Late afternoon suns streams into the kitchen. His girlfriend presses three white pills into his hand. “I filled your prescription for you after I got off work today.”

“I didn’t know that they prescribe pills for concussions.”

She fills a glass of water in the sink. “They’re not for the concussion.”

Handing him the glass of water, she watches as he swallows the pills one by one.