Writing Excuses 8.11: Abnormal Psychology

Robison Wells joins us again, this time to help us with a discussion of writing characters with abnormal psychology. What are our resources for describing these characters in compelling, believable ways? What are the tricks, the pitfalls, and the landmines.

Brandon frames the discussion with some terms from his abnormal psych class, but let’s lay down a caveat right now: none of us are experts in abnormal psych. We have done lots of research in lots of different fields, we all love learning things, but we’re not doctors.

And that’s where you need to start — love learning, and research this heavily. This is an exercise in “writing the other.” Dr. Laura Skellchock helps us with this research by describing what’s going on with his panic disorder, giving us helpful insight into the sorts of details we’ll need to make any mentally ill character believable.


Take Rob’s explanation of what it feels like to be him, and write a character from that POV.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman, who also narrates.

32 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.11: Abnormal Psychology”

  1. Rob has certainly been cropping up a lot recently. Is he going to become a permanent edition to the podcast?

  2. Rob, as soon as you said “withdrawal symptoms” my brain filled in “brain zaps” and then I cringed when you confirmed it. I was on a very low dose of Lexapro for a few months and while I didn’t have many of them while coming off they were the most uncomfortable thing I have ever experienced like suddenly your ears and vision are filled with static, but it’s your brain. It is very much something that can’t be adequately described or understood till you have them, and when you do you suddenly understand what people meant.

    (kind of like feeling the Spirit for those spiritual folk out there)

    Anyway, I just wanted to let you know that I feel for you, and hope they don’t persist too long.

  3. I despise that caveat, “We’re not doctors…” It’s meant to be a disclaimer, but it’s based upon this idea that doctors know what they are talking about. That one should defer to them. It’s pre internet thinking where knowledge was more based on authority than process. Deal with a chronic illness for a few years, watch doctors fail, unthinking, then blatantly invent answers and illusions about the extent of their expertise crumbles.

    The unquestioning deference actually causes a lot of the problems, doctors are so rarely called out on their bullshit that they stop trying to be careful. They start speaking as if they have authoritative answers because people treat them like they do, expect it of them. When in many cases they are clueless. Stabbing in the dark.

    I have a doctorate, but if I don’t know the answer I won’t pretend I do. I do not attempt to keep my omnipotent mystique intact. What I will do is go through the process of discovering the answers to questions. Then I’ll tell you how sure I am at the end. HINT: I’m never absolutely sure of anything.

    It’s called science people. Observe, theorize, test, repeat. Anyone can do it. Not just M.D.’s.


  4. I just wanted to say thank you to you all for talking so openly about this. Depression just sucks, I have it and one of the things that I’ve had to accept is changing medications often, but also spikes that will still hit. The good news is that my ‘base line’ as they call it is rising.

    Never before had I thought of writing a book or a short story and drawing from my experiences with Depression to do it. I’m very excited at this prospect.

    One detail I didn’t hear discussed is that every case of mental illness is unique and so is the way the ‘victim’ deals with it. We all develop coping mechanisms. (Thanks, Rob, for talking so openly about the “strange” things you do to cope. Helped me remember I’m not so alone.) Those coping mechanisms can vary on quite a large scale. So, I feel that if one writing about a disease one doesn’t have it is important to take in as many accounts as possible.

    My apologies if this came of in a ‘know-it-all’ fashion. I am writing it at three in the morning. (Fear of going to sleep is another issue for me with my Depression.)

    Thank you all again! You’ve given me another reason to adore listening to this podcast.

    <3 Ashley

  5. I think the word you were looking for at the beginning of the ‘cast is “neurotransmitters.”

  6. Great podcast guys! To recommend another good resource for understanding mental illness, or really any disease of your interest, contact a graduate student scientist writing their dissertation on the subject. Browse your local research university, see if anyone studies that disease, and shoot the graduate student an email–NOT the professor or Principle Investigator as you are unlikely to be answered–but the graduate student. They will have insight and understanding on that disease on a level very distinct from a traditional, clinical point of view. And as a neuroscience graduate student studying the molecular mechanisms of mental disease, believe me, we LOVE to talk about our work.

  7. I really liked the fact that the crew stressed that abnormal psychology is often just “normal” psychology shifted. OCD is an excellent example, partially because most people have OCD tendencies that are heightened under intense stress. Small things, like double-checking if you locked a door, folding your clothes in an exact manner, or eating foods alphabetically, don’t interfere with life much, but can give people a small window into that world.

    @Jo, the caveat is appropriate. Doctors are authoritative based on the nature of their field, not on their infallibility. When someone says that they’re not a doctor, what they are saying is that they haven’t studied medicine as taught by recognized doctors, they haven’t been granted a degree by recognized doctors, they do not maintain an active license as governed by recognized doctors, they do not participate with other doctors concerning the acceptance or rejection of new theories or practices, and they do not themselves get to decide who else gets to be a recognized doctor.

    The medical profession is a highly professionalized one, to the good of society. A downside of this (which is true of most highly professionalized fields) is the imposter syndrome: a doctor admitting that they don’t know something acknowledges and justifies their fear that they’re secretly a fraud. That said, if you want the best medical help, MD/PhD’s are where it’s at.

    The Writing Excuses crew doesn’t belong to the medical profession, so it’s quite right that they don’t claim that field’s authority. Saying that you’re not a doctor doesn’t mean that you aren’t knowledgeable, it just means that you don’t have all those layers of training and approval to back you up.

    @Angela, an excellent idea. Additionally, postdoctoral researchers might be another viable resource: the main difference between them and 4th or 5th year grad student is that they’ve gone into a new field of study (say, from obesity research to studying puberty), have more projects, and have far less time. However, they also are desperate for validation, and so can also be very willing to talk.

    Also, despite it being hard to get started,I’d recommend that people take to reading scientific papers themselves. You can do so in the comfort of your own home via PubMed Central (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/), which has the full text of many recent journal articles. It can take a new grad student several hours to read through just one, because they’re so dense, complex, and deal with unfamiliar terms, but if you keep at it, you’ll learn the lingo, go through them quickly, and can find out all sorts of cool new things that never get distributed to the lay media.

  8. When he was talking about his panic disorders I had some “OMG that’s me!” moments. Small places to hide. Crying in the shower so no one can hear me. Running away. Many of these were caused by my ex-husband who was emotionally and mentally abusive, but I still do it sometimes. It’s become a coping mechanism to deal with things.

    “Hiding it makes it worse”, YES! That very much. My boyfriend has helped me work through so much of my issues just by talking about it. It takes so much for me to bring it out into the open because I always think I have to be strong, be “normal” for everyone around me. He just gave me permission to break down and cry, and to let it all out… That was the turning point for me I think.

    Thank you so much for talking about this.

  9. One of the ways that psychology has been shifting over recent years is a change from there being an imaginary line between normal and abnormal to there being more of a continuum involving a range of behaviors. One of the things that my Abnormal Psychology teacher talked about very early in the class is the idea of “medical student syndrome,” because so many of the symptoms that are a part of mental disorders are present in all of us to some degree. If there is a distinct dividing line between normal and abnormal, that line is whether or not the symptom affects your daily life.

    @Jo – One of the biggest problems with mental healthcare at the moment is the fact that the first doctor most of us see for a problem is a general practitioner. Most medical doctors don’t have to to take a large number of psychology courses, so it’s very possible that they aren’t qualified to deal with a mental disorder in an appropriate way. If you’re having a problem with your foot, you’re not going to see an ear doctor, yet this is essentially what most of us do when we think that we may have some sort of mental disorder. Ideally, you would want to go see either a Psychiatrist, a Clinical Psychologist, or a Counseling Psychologist.

    One of the things that I’ve really enjoyed about Dan’s books is that he takes the time to get the psychology right. John Cleaver was a fascinating character, and Michael from The Hollow City was amazing in every way. Information is out there if you’re willing to take the time to look for it. I would suggest that you take the time to look through an Intro to Psychology textbook for somewhere to start, I also liked the suggestion to talk to graduate students in psychology. Most larger colleges should have a decent sized psychology department, and would probably have a couple of grad students running around. If you have the time to, sneak into a psychology class like Brandon did and listen to a few lectures, you could also hang out after the class and talk to the professor about what you want to write about. One of the things that I found out while in college was that most of the teachers wanted the students to do well, and the really good teachers would listen to you even if you weren’t in their class.

    Ok, now that I’ve rambled on for a while, I have two things I would like to point you to. The first is a series of blog posts that I did a while back where I discussed Antisocial Personality Disorder. The first post along with links to the second and third posts can be found here: http://blizzerd03.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/sociopaths-in-our-culture-part-1-definition/ (I don’t claim to be an expert on the topic, but I have a B.A. in Psychology and took several classes dealing with personality disorders).

    And lastly, in your discussion you mentioned how different cultures look at different issues of psychology. The best book that I’ve found dealing with that is Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche by Ethan Watters. Even if you aren’t planning on writing about a character with one of the personality disorders discussed in the book, it’s a fascinating read that shows how much of an impact culture has on the way that we show personality disorders.

  10. Rob: It was remarkable to hear you speak of your day to day coping mechanisms. If it makes a difference, I’m glad you’ve become a regular visitor to the pod cast. Your additions are so often insightful, and no offense to the usual cast, but it good to have you mix it up.

  11. Dan or whoever: One tip I have when writing about mental illness, is in depicting it as a neutral component. A bit like the sword not necessarily being a killer, but rather the person who wields it determines its outcome.

  12. @Rob: thanks for being so open about this podcast. I have a family member that I think may suffer from the same thing, so this was very insightful.

    One of my favorite treatments of a mental illness in books is the first-person perspective of Megan Lindholm’s WIZARD OF THE PIGEONS (for those of you who don’t know, Megan is now writing as Robin Hobb), which also deals with homelessness. Part of the magic of this book is that you never know if the main character (who is homeless and suffering from PTSD) actually has magical abilities and magician friends, or whether that is his own mind’s interpretation of his schizophrenic delusions.
    Now granted, it has been a while since I read the book, and it may have been influenced by the zeitgeist of the time in which mental illness was glorified abit, but I still thought she did a good job with it.
    I also have not read Dan’s Hollow City, which I now will.

  13. In my environmental science class, we learned disability-adjusted life years (DALYs), which is a measure of disease burden that combines premature deaths and loss of a healthy life. In 1990, depression was the 4th leading cause of global disease burden, and it is estimated that in 2020, it will become the second (with heart disease first; data from World Health Organization). I just thought it was an interesting fact. Again, thanks for addressing abnormal psychology.

  14. I have brain zaps as well. I think I know the exact medicine that Rob is on, then. They’re weird. Rob did explain them well but I’d like to add something. When I get brain zaps, I get like a shivery feeling in my head. Like a headache but more like a shiver.

  15. Great episodes. I couldn’t help but chime in and say there is hope. When I hear of other people suffering, I feel that relating my findings and what worked from me might be of some benifit to others.

    I had OCD behaviors and depression for nearly ten years from age 17 to 27. I know what it feels like to live with a constant feeling of dread, and hoplessness. I know what it feels like to obsese over very strange fears that paralize you. And how hard it is on loved ones. And how no amont of explainng from either yourself or others can make the fears and depression go away. It’s aweful.

    Today I am nearly symptom free.

    For me what worked was a combination of natural supplements, and emotional therapy. The supplements that helped with my OCD and depression was a supplement called RelaxMax (I know, cheesy name) brand is XYMOGEN. The ingredients of Relax Max are Magnesium, Inositol, Taurine, GABA, and L-Theanine. You can probably get each of those supplements seperate. RelaxMax is just convineient. And the other supplement was white chesnut drops, and probiotics. I think they can be found at many health supplement stores.

    When your brain is stuck in fight or flight mode all the time you are burning all sorts of nutrients. Your system gets starved, and the problem gets worse.

    But what causes it the first place? There are many factors. I’ve just come across the GAPS diet. Anyone suffering from anxiety, depression, OCD, even schizophrenia, should check it out.

    In short, the theory is that the gut is like the roots system of a tree. If the roots of a tree get damaged the tree withers. Same if our gut goes out of wack nutrients are not absorbed, then chemical imbalances follow as well as a host of parasitical problems. GAPS diet is meant to heal the gut so nutrients can be absorbed again, http://www.gaps.me/ explains it in short.

    Any way, I hope this helps someone. Thanks for doing the podcast.

  16. I’ve really enjoyed the podcasts that focus on personal health and writing. While I feel incredibly uncomfortable talking to other people about my own issues, it’s somehow easier to talk to other people who have survived through similar ordeals, even if I don’t know them very well. So thank you for having the courage to come out and talk about your experiences.

    The main character of my novel definitely suffers from some kind of mental illness (PTSD, probably, and seizure-induced aggression.) Even though I’ve suffered from PTSD, I’m quite nervous about placing her into an “archetype.” I’d like to think that the PTSD is not her sole defining identifier, though her seizures are pretty crucial to the plot. She’s one of the heroes, and I do think that placing a character into an “archetype” can be pretty reductive and essentialist. I love this character, even though she might be considered unlikeable to potential readers. But I REALLY don’t want to put her into a box that says “THIS IS WHAT PTSD LOOKS LIKE.” Her mental health also intersects with her race, gender, and other individual attributes, which make her a pretty unique individual.

    I suppose when I hear archetype I replace it in my head with “stereotype.” I’m not interested in having her fit some psychiatrist-approved checklist. Or am I just understanding the term archetype incorrectly? The thing is, every time I read a “how-to” book on literary archetypes I want to throw it across the room. (This is the “Vengeful Mother Archetype.” This is the “Whore” archetype.) Anyway, if anyone has any general comments about the difference between an archetype and a stereotype then I’d love to hear them. :)

  17. @SAS: Archetypes are useful in many different ways, but are often used as a starting point, not the entire character.
    Writers may employ a strict archetype (such as the Vengeful Mother) as a device to explore their motivations and how they became the way they are . However, most people use them as a starting point and change aspects of the character. Think of it as picking an avatar in a video game and customizing it with your own preferences.

    Archetypes CAN be stereotypes, but they are not necessarily the same thing. (Someone else may need to define the difference between the two.)

    So Archetype does not equal stereotype. Think of Archetype as a template, rather than a stamp.

  18. Hmm…I can’t say I’m a convert. I’d rather start from scratch than swap certain attributes in n’ out, avatar-style. I recognize that archetypes are useful for some readers, because it allows them to understand the character better and maybe even allows them to empathize better, but they’re just not for me.

    I guess my issue is that even the “starting point” of a character can be cliche, stereotypical, offensive, or just plain inaccurate, even if a writer does his/her best to create an original after that initial starting point. Eg. A vengeful mother, regardless of how well-constructed she is, will still get my eyeballs rolling because it’s been done too many times and essentializes female violence. I think, even given the “template vs. stamp” definition, that the dividing line is too arbitrary to be of good use on a practical level. Put another way: many archetypes rely on stereotypes to construct a template.

    1 – An original model or type after which other similar things are patterned; a prototype: “‘Frankenstein’ . . . ‘Dracula’ . . . ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ . . . the archetypes that have influenced all subsequent horror stories” (New York Times).
    2- An ideal example of a type; quintessence: an archetype of the successful entrepreneur.

    1 – A conventional, formulaic, and oversimplified conception,
    opinion, or image.
    2 – One that is regarded as embodying or conforming to a set image or type.

    All the archetypes I’ve read seem to rely on similar patterns established by previous writers. That means there are certain cues and mannerisms that they’re going to emulate, and these mannerisms might be inaccurate or harmful. I’m not saying that archetypes are inherently wrong, but that I’m personally going to avoid them when writing about characters with mental illness. I’d much rather create my own well-researched blueprint.

    Thanks for the response, though. It’s definitely given me something to think about.

  19. I wanted to major in World Building. But I was told that’s not a major…. so I ended up choosing Anthropology and just told everyone that I really loved cultures and humans. And oriented my minor classes towards my secret major.

    Why can’t I major in World Building anyway?

    I wanted to chime in that sometimes mental illnesses can seem transient too…

    For example, someone might have _Abnormal_ with an underline and underscore psychology according to our society standards that they can’t function and it’s permanent.

    But sometimes under great stress there are transient states of coping as well that appear to be abnormal for a time or show up more given certain circumstances.

    To disclaim, I’ve seen both. Though I’ve experienced only the transient state. (Also working actively getting out of some of the crap I was dealt so I wouldn’t end up with negative coping strategies–which relates to (not always), but isn’t the same as Abnormal Psychology.)

    Also, I’ll chime in and say that people really should try to research before bugging people about writing the other. Targeted questions from someone who is absolutely stuck looks like they care and value your time and shows their absolute determination to get it correct versus the person who asks surface questions of things they should already know with basic research AND then proceeds to jump forward and just step in it. (But I saw it on this Television show/movie… so it has to be right.) When they start to argue with you because they didn’t do baseline research, it also gets annoying and also it looks like they didn’t have the passion in the first place, which means that it feels like your time was lost.

    A single person is not the pinnacle of everything. You need a chorus and to pick out the common denominator and then pick from the deviating factors and I’d say, hint at them, or put a lantern on it that this is not representative of everyone on X issues. Personally, also, if the person ONLY asks me, I feel nervous that my experiences won’t match and they’ll point to me that it was my fault they didn’t get the proper research. Which is awkward because really, I don’t represent everyone in my group and the onus should be on the writer to find out that diversity within the other anyway. (And I don’t know everything either.)

    Has there been a podcast on “How to ask an expert? (And ask more than one if possible)” might be a good topic.

  20. @Jo Good catch. Until you mentioned the problems with doctors I was going along with the implied message: Doctors, our last hope for understanding ourselves, yay for authority (anyone know the right way to punctuate that?). Just thinking of seeing my doctor to discover the causes of a symptom depresses me. Perhaps pseudo-doctors or unquestioning deference or even the scientific method would make for a good horror novel. Too mundane for you? Ok, then how about a country song?

  21. @SAS? I was thinking about it, and I tend to think of archetypes as guidelines or skeletons that you can use for building on, largely by adding and filling in details. Stereotypes, on the other hand, are more like masks or filters that ignore any individual variations to enforce their limited and narrow version over whatever details may differ. So archetypes are useful as starting points, but permit and indeed encourage individual variation and detailing. Stereotypes reject such individual differences, suppressing the variations. Does that help?

  22. Hmm…I’m sensing another podcast! Archetypes & Stereotypes–their uses and their pitfalls.
    We should probably Can O’ Worms this to stay on subject.

  23. Wow, this was a really surprising podcast–in a good way! I am a passionate writer but one who has functioned on a high level of stress most of her life. Only now has it culminated to a point that it’s made me completely dysfunctional. And with all the treatment and therapy that’s going on to help myself I find it incredible to find the HUGE amount of people who have the same kinds of conditions, the same sorts of things that make it difficult for them to function in society. Each of us are different, of course, but I honestly thought that my family and I were alone in our mental illnesses–probably because my parents told me not to talk about it openly with people since I was a kid. People make horrible assumptions about mental illness without recognizing that it’s probably much closer to them than they think. These kinds of assumptions and prejudices probably caused my dad to be treated quite horribly by his bosses in some of his previous occupations.

    What people call “the normal way to be” is truly just an idealized condition that we all try to aspire to without realizing that our natural conditions are flawed and injured and in need of assistance. And though I am an ardent idealist, I’m not an unrealistic one (yeah i know laugh at me). We should try to help ourselves to be happy and functional and productive of course–but society’s current way of dealing with it is through denial, causing generalizations. It’s extremely unhealthy. One of the reasons I dislike BBC’s Sherlock is because it romanticizes Sherlock’s unhealthy and frankly dangerous mental condition to no end, making it almost a thing to desire because this strangeness is what makes him cool or attractive. And of course other forms of media demonize some illnesses or sanctify others–both of which are also very harmful. These things can complicate and hurt both our feelings about ourselves and about others when it comes to extremities in personality or emotion or behavior.

    For anything to be understood, it needs to be understood personally. You can’t make assumptions about a culture because of what you’ve read about it or what you’ve seen about it on TV–go and talk to a person in that culture. I mean, it’s not bad to try to do research on any subject, or strive to understand something, or experiment with the knowledge you have. That’s all just part of learning. But don’t assume or generalize ANYTHING second-hand.

    I have panic disorder, too, Robison, though I seem to deal with my intensified fear in a slightly different way. Sometimes I feel that urge to run away, sometimes I need to scream, sometimes I just writhe around in the intense internal discomfort that comes from anxiety. I worry excessively, sometimes sleep too much or too little, have strange appetites, have memory loss, all that. And when these things have been going on for long a long time, it feels like I’ll simply die from exhaustion. It hurts all over, sometimes it’s an effort just walking. I get confused very easily because my emotions and thoughts roll over each other and into each other chaotically. Things just run at a million miles per hour and I wouldn’t be surprised if it would drive someone to self-harm just to try and stop themselves. And a lot of these symptoms come from my own personal traits as well–maybe it’s the same disorder, but maybe it’s caused by something different (societies expectations and my own natural disposition don’t get along well) and it manifests itself differently because of my own personality and physical traits (my head can easily connect themes of wildly different things together quickly and my body is fairly weak.)

    More than anything, when writing about characters, they should each be carefully constructed and thought about as their own separate persons–not a stereotype or a race or a religion or an illness or a culture–but as a person with their own emotions and weaknesses and strengths and confidences and insecurities. I think the show Community does this expertly. For though a lot of the characters seem to be stereotypes on the outside, each turns out to be a deeply complex and self-driven individual–revealing the ways we look at others despite how people truly are in themselves. Each character in Community is extremely diverse, and each are very deeply flawed, so flawed that you wonder why don’t hate them. But the thing is, you love them because you see a little bit of yourself in each of them. They are all crazy and bigger-than-life, and yet we can relate to them. Doesn’t this reveal that we are each quite crazy and bigger than the world’s expectations of us? Because we all hold secret insecurities, and we all have those urges to do things not deemed normal.

    So no matter who you’re writing about–a 35-year-old heterosexual American white guy with an office job or a 9-year-old Muslim schoolgirl living in Singapore, remember that they are a person with thoughts and feelings that are also your own. We are all so similar when it comes right down to it. We can’t go through the exact same experiences as another person no matter who they are, but as writers we have the power to empathize and put ourselves, as they say, in another person’s shoes, because every individual is so much more similar than what we may be led to believe.

    Or to put it another way–who would you be if you were born in 16th c. Russia? Or in Revolutionist China? Or as a native to a land invaded by Europeans? Or as a Kshatriya in the Hindu caste system? Or as a Canadian? (Wink to Canadians.) Our experiences shape us, but we are all still us. Things will influence our feelings and emotions, but those feelings and emotions are the same anywhere.

    Sorry for the long rant. I am an idealist. I’d like the world to become peaceful through communication, and through communication the realization explained above. Let us all kiss and be friends, as it were. haha

  24. Yeah, this is definitely a conversation that could go on and on and on and on. And in the end, I don’t think we’d get anywhere. XD

  25. Hiding depression isn’t the only thing that doesn’t help. Having people tell you to “Snap out of it,” doesn’t help either.

  26. Hello,

    I’ve only just started listening to your podcast and have listened to a few older episodes. I have had severe OCD since I was about 8 years old. I am 23 and it persists to this day. I have never taken medication, but through behavorial therapy was able to reduce compulsions by about 95%. This episode really gave me the desire to write about my experience (perhaps by projecting the disorder onto some poor unsuspecting fictional character.) Thank you for your very thought provoking episode!

    (P.S. I only share a few symptoms with whatshisface in As Good as it Gets.)

  27. I agree that no matter what creative field you are in, the process of writing, dancing, making music, or whatever will always have some kind of cathartic ability. For a while, playing jazz piano allowed for a tremendous transformation of nervous energy and OCD tendencies into some highly energetic and dexterous music! As one of my art school buddies once said, ‘No angst, no art.’

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