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Writing Excuses 8.11: Abnormal Psychology

Writing Excuses 8.11: Abnormal Psychology


Key points: The simple model of crazy or not crazy is oversimplified. There are many components to a psychological profile, and the question is whether you can live your life the way you want to or not. Think about why you want to put abnormal psychology in your book, and the challenges involved. It can give someone an experience that they couldn't have otherwise. You are writing the other. Don't demonize it or sanctify it. Do your research, don't depend on Hollywood! Get the details right. Remember that different cultures and time periods have handled with mental illness in different ways. Drug treatments are a continuing experimentation, not a simple prescription.

[Mary] Season Eight, Episode 11.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, abnormal psychology.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we might be that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I don't think that was a psychological disorder.
[Brandon] Yeah. I don't know where that came from, Dan.
[Dan] You don't... Well.
[Howard] Dumb is normal.
[Dan] Hey, it's not a good joke if I have to explain it.
[Brandon] Inability to make good jokes...
[Mary] I'm not going to disagree with that.
[Howard] There's somebody else in the room.
[Rob] It's Rob Wells. Or is it?

[Brandon] For a while, we've been wanting to do a podcast on writing characters who have abnormal psychology patterns. Dan is an expert at this, and Rob happens to be an expert at being crazy. Sorry. I couldn't help myself.
[Dan] We just had like a five-minute conversation about all the jokes we weren't going to make about Rob. Now the floodgates are open.
[Rob] Feel free, feel free.
[Howard] For those of you who listened to...
[Rob] Last episode was a bit more serious than this one. You can make comments.
[Howard] Yeah. Last episode all of the jokes that I told about Rob were jokes that I'd already told on Twitter, so I felt okay about it.
[Rob] Yeah, yeah. Because he'd already been a callous jerk.

[Brandon] Let's kick this off with something I learned in psychology class. When I was in college, being the writer that I was, I snuck into classes quite a bit. I was very annoyed that my school would let me do a degree which was called... Which I called the Brandon learns about people degree, where I would take psychology classes and history classes, basically the become an epic fantasy writer degree. So I... I hope that this doesn't get me fired from BYU. I snuck into quite a number of classes. One of them that I snuck into was abnormal psych, like a 400 level abnormal psychology class. It was happening in one of those big large rooms where the professor didn't know anybody in it, so it was a good one to sneak into. In this class, one of the first things that I learned was that... The teacher got up and said, "Look. We like to define people as crazy or not crazy. Or the common man does. That doesn't actually exist. What we have are personality archetypes. People are all on various levels and scales on this. When someone becomes crazy... Crazy quote unquote, what we define that as is when you are unable to live your life the way you want to because of the way that your psychology profile is going." Now certainly there are certain things that are... That something breaks quote unquote and you move very far on one of these scales suddenly or you've got a chemical imbalance. Some depressions are chemical imbalances, where the certain mix of things moving around in your head... What do you call those? Not... Neural hormones...
[Rob] Neurochemicals?
[Brandon] Neurochemicals and hormones...
[Mary] Mitochondrions?
[Brandon] Do things to you that make you feel these emotions.
[Howard] Midichlorians!
[Mary] Midichlorians. Thank you.
[Brandon] Midichlorians. But really, the way to look at it, and this has changed the way I look at it since the beginning is... What is OCD? The normal person will say OCD... This is just very far along a scale that is a normal personality archetype.
[Mary] The first story I sold was a story about somebody with OCD. I was reading a lot about it and discovered that the person I was rooming with had books about it because he was obsessive-compulsive. One of the things that I learned was that most people have some degree of obsessive-compulsive and it doesn't... You don't get to tack that D on it until it becomes this disorder that you were talking about, where it interferes with your life.
[Brandon] Right. I think that there's even... By the way, we are not experts on this, so you'll want to go do your research. I'm recalling things from a class 10 years ago, that I've since read about and things, but... Anyway, there's also OCPD, which is obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, which is like a different form of obsessive-compulsive. It is really when the personality archetype goes too far. Actual OCD is like even a step that, as I recall. Where there's something different psychologically happening in the brain, like different type of chemicals. But OCPD is what we would normally think of as OCD. That's just the person that their personality has gotten to the point that they obsess over everything.

[Howard] I think the lesson here for writers... Lesson? The question here for writers is why do you want to put abnormal psych in your book? What are the challenges that face you? The reason I want to do it is because I want my reader to have an experience that... A mental experience that they just can't have otherwise. In fact, done well, it can be an experience that's more real to them than flying on a spaceship or swinging a light saber or whatever else... Sorry. Nod back to the midichlorians.
[Mary] Mitochondrions or whatever they are.
[Howard] Whatever they are. If you can really sell a character with abnormal psych, or, at risk of overburdening the term, abnormal... If you can really sell that to the reader, you've done something wonderful in that you've given somebody an experience that they couldn't have otherwise, and you've opened their eyes to a world that really exists here among us.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that Dan... Sorry. That was one of the things that I particularly like about the Hollow City, was that it gave me an idea of what it would be like to be schizophrenic. With that first story that I had, with the OCD one, I handed it to a friend because I was like, "Look! I published a story!" She read it and she said, "I think my husband has this." The story was about a man who was masking it from his wife. It turned out that he did have OCD, and they... He was in his 50s, and they were finally... Instead of just, "Oh, he's a packrat" it's like, "Oh, he has OCD." He got medicated and... After doing a lot of denial about that's what it was.
[Howard] 25 years of National Geographic magazines can finally go to the yard sale.
[Mary] Yes. Or just straight into the trash. But you... You said you had a similar experience with the Hollow City?

[Dan] Yeah. I actually had a really cool experience with Hollow City. I had a friend read the book whose mother is schizophrenic. She has horrible memories of growing up with a schizophrenic mom. Her dad had passed away, so they were just being raised by their mom. Their mom was just completely crazy. Sometimes she would attack the children. I had tried so hard to get schizophrenia right in my book. To do it justice and really present it as a thing instead of a caricature. So I gave it to this friend, and she came back, and I was very nervous to hear what she said. What she said was that it was the first time that she had been able to see schizophrenia from her mother's point of view. She said, "This book helped me to understand and forgive my mother." Which frankly is the best review I have ever gotten from anyone ever. So, yeah, if you do this right, you can do it really well. Now, but the one thing I want to caution as you're asking yourself, "What do I gain? Should I talk about abnormal psychology? Should I put this into my story?" You need to be careful not to... What do... What's the best way to present this?

[Brandon] You're writing the other. Just as if you were picking a minority race that you are not one of them. Or you're picking a... Some... If you do it wrong, it can be so offensive. Even if you do it right, you need to be aware that you're writing the other. You're putting words in the mouth of someone... A group to whom you do not belong.
[Dan] There was a panel at WorldCon a few years ago in Denver that was about psychology and writing. I went to this panel all excited because I'd just released Serial Killer and I was hoping we could talk about crazy people or whatever. What the panel turned into was an entire audience full of people who have mental illness or are related to people with mental illness complaining about how it is never presented well. It's always either demonized or sainted. That is a really common thing in our media. You can look... At the one hand, you have Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs, who basically is just transgendered, and they managed to turn that into this awful, horrible serial killer. On the other end of the scale, you've got movies like One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest which was a very 60s mentality, where you would look at the mentally ill and say, "Oh, it's a lifestyle. Who are we to tell them that they're wrong?" That kind of mentality has put millions of people in prison because we're not adequately dealing with mental illness. So the truth is somewhere in the middle. You need to be careful not to demonize it or not to kind of canonize it, either.
[Howard] If you just want to do caricatures of mental illness and demonize it, then go get a job writing Batman super villains.
[Rob] One thing, and this goes a little bit back to our previous episode on our own personal mental health, but there's an author who I have enormous respect for whose name I can't remember except the first name is Gabrielle. But she wrote a book called Scars. It's a young adult novel about cutting. The cover of the book is an arm that is covered in scars. I learned that that arm on the cover of the book is the author's arm. That she dealt with this, and that she went on...
[Howard] Wow.
[Rob] To write the book. In her bio, she says, "I write books that I needed to read." So I think that is also a very legitimate reason to include characters, is if you have dealt with these problems in the past and you think that it can be therapeutic to you or therapeutic to other people to read it.

[Brandon] All right. Let's do our book of the week. We have a very appropriate book of the week called Incognito. Rob, you're going to tell us about it?
[Rob] Yeah. One of my very favorite books. I read a lot of nonfiction, but this one is called Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain. It's essentially a neuroscience book for the layperson. It gets into all sorts of abnormal psychologies. It's kind of a broad look at really fascinating studies that have been taking on... Or taking place recently. By an author named, David Eagleman. Honestly, with every single page that turned... I was reading this book in bed, and I would turn over to my wife and I'm like, "I've got to read you this. I've got to read you this." It was literally every single page. It was just so fascinating. But it would get into the reasons why we have mental illnesses. It talked about, for example, the shooter... The Texas... The tower... The University of Texas in the 60s? It talked about the reasons for his mental illness and the reasons he went out and shot everyone and the brain tumors that he had that led to this. Just the books are so fascinating... The book is just so fascinating. I recommend it to everybody.
[Howard] Start a 30 day free trial membership, and get a copy of Incognito: The Secret Life of the Brain... Who's the author again?
[Rob] David Eagleman.
[Howard] By David Eagleman for free. Then pick something else up for 30% off. You'd be crazy not to.
[Rob] Wa-wa.

[Dan] Hey, Rob, the book Scars, is that Cheryl Rainfield?
[Rob] Probably.
[Dan] Okay. Not Gabrielle. It's unfortunately not on audible, but it does look... Cheryl Rainfield, if you want to look it up.
[Brandon] Yeah. In case she's listening and she's like, "Oh, Rob! Gabrielle? What?"
[Rob] Hey, I'm mentally ill.
[Howard] Cheryl Rainfield, Scars.
[Brandon] All right. Rob, let's talk...
[Rob] That's what the voices were telling me her name was.

[Brandon] From your perspective, good ways to write someone with a mental illness. Just describe, like yours. How would you write your mental illness well?
[Rob] I think... I mean, the biggest way is just to talk to someone who has it. I think there's so many... I think that most people's views of mental illness are shaped by Hollywood. When you think of OCD, you think of As Good As It Gets, Jack Nicholson's character. Maybe there's a lot of truth to that, maybe there's not a lot of truth to that. So I would say find someone who has this. Then, if you can't find someone who has your specific illness that you're looking for, find a psychiatrist. They're more than willing to talk. My next-door neighbor was a psychiatrist, and he and I had a lot of really fascinating, in-depth conversations about both about my mental illness but about mental illness generally. So I would say absolutely do your research. It's not hard to do research, because mental illness is so prevalent. A lot of people are afraid to bring it up, because there's a stigma behind it still. But, for example, my psychiatrist, my personal psychiatrist, was telling me that depression is more... [Pause]
[off microphone] Keep talking. Keep talking.
[Rob] Oh. Pardon. My psychiatrist was telling me that depression is more prevalent in the United States than heart disease. We think of heart disease as being... I mean, it's the number one killer. But depression is so common. It's not that hard to find people who have it. Talk to them and get your facts straight.

[Brandon] So your... Let's talk about yours. Your mental illness, specifically. Give us some specifics that people... People want to write someone who has panic disorder like you.
[Rob] Sure. Sure. I mean, some of the basics. Like I said before, it is similar to you are... Your autonomic nervous system thinks that you are constantly in danger, your fight-or-flight response is always going off. So you have symptoms such as I need to run away. I always have this feeling that I need to run away or that I need to hide. Literally, and I know this sounds weird for a 35-year-old man, but my wife has come into the bedroom and found me sitting in the closet or sitting in the little space between the bed and the wall where it's just a place that I can hide. I have, and again, I'm a 35-year-old man, I have a security blanket. These are all just things that I have developed to help me cope with the constant fear that I'm in. I have to kind of psych myself up to go places. I have to think it through, I have to kind of make a list of all of the things that could possibly go wrong, and I have to prepare myself, say if this happens, I will address it this way and this way and this way. So, I mean, there are a lot of... I mean, there's a ton to it. I could go on and on.
[Brandon] Those things are awesome. Each of those things. That's what you're looking for as a writer, are those little details to get right.
[Mary] One thing that I think that a lot of the illnesses have in common is the people recognize... Like that the person who is experiencing recognizes that this is something that they need to mask. And that the fear of discovery is fairly strong in a lot of them... Particularly with OCD. And depression I think also people... "How are you?" "I'm fine!"
[Brandon] Well, and it feeds into it. My wife has depression, and... Hiding the depression makes the depression worse. Then... It can just... I am... The... One of the big things that triggers for her, when she's feeling depressed, and it's completely for her a disorder... What do you call it?... It's chemical. It's a chemical imbalance. It's just that. It happened to her at one point. She went to the psychiatrist when she was in her 20s. She's like, "I can't believe this is happening." They talked to her, and they're like, "It's just a chemical imbalance. There is no secret thing in your childhood that is causing this. There is nothing like that. You have a chemical imbalance. Here's a drug." And it worked. The drug like stops her from feeling depression like 19 out of 20 times. She still, once a month or so, have a depressive episode. The thing about it is, is the worry that you're going to ruin everything for everybody else is what you get depressed about for her, and then being depressed does ruin everything for everyone else, in her view, and that just then... It's self-fulfilling, and boom! It's awful. I'm feeling depressed, no one can be happy now, we'll never be happy again, end of the world!

[Dan] Now you mentioned drugs. That's one thing that if you were going to write about psychology, you need to make sure to consider that because they've become so prevalent and so important. One of the things that kind of gratified me about Rob's mental illness was that I'd finished Hollow City.
[Rob] Mental illness is very gratifying.
[Dan] I'd finished writing Hollow City right before all of this happened to him. He is taking a lot of the same drugs that are having a lot of the same side effects. I kept... Every time he would tell me some new, horrible thing, I'd say, "Oh, man, I'm so sorry. Let me know if there's anything I can do to help." Also, "Yes, I got it right! I'm so excited."
[Brandon] Yet there are misconceptions...
[Rob] Yeah. Misconceptions. One important thing to note when you're talking about medicine, and again, this goes back to the research angle, you're talking about depression, OCD... For example, I've mentioned I have self harm issues. Self harm again because by a lot of things. It is... I actually have... My self harm is caused by OCD. Which is more rare. A lot of the time, it is caused by borderline personality disorder. It can be caused by a lot of different things. So when you are saying, "I'm going to write a character who has self harm issues," you have to do research, more than just "oh, they cut themselves." You have to say, "Why do they cut themselves? How would they be treated for cutting themselves?" Because it's a whole different level of medicine if it's borderline personality than if it's OCD.

[Mary] Also, because we are science fiction and fantasy writers, recognizing that the way these things are handled varies wildly based on what culture you're in and what time period you're in. I mean...
[Brandon] That's wonderful to point out.
[Mary] One of the... Looking back through history, a lot of people think that some of the changeling legends were actually kids with autism.

[Brandon] One thing to keep in mind, even for modern-day, what I found is... You can correct me if I'm wrong here, Rob, but even the doctors don't know a whole lot about this. Particularly which drugs will work. They really take a try this drug for a couple of months, let's see what effect it has on you. If that doesn't work, we'll try this drug. Or even if that does work, we'll try this other drug and see if the side effects are not quite as bad. My brother-in-law is manic-depressive. Like the serious manic-depressive, like when he's manic, he's indestructible and he would go out and buy TVs for... He'd buy 10 of them for $1000 each. He'd go drive at 120 mph because he's indestructible. In depression, he'd be completely suicidal. He has been on a sequence of drugs and they slowly over like 20 years have found drugs that don't have horrible side effects but still keep his... Keep him in check and help him live a better life. It's not like you go on a drug and it fixes you. You go on a drug and you see if it helps a little bit.
[Rob] Yeah. That's... I mean, I am now a good... I mean, I've been having the symptoms for a couple of years now, but I have actually been seeing a doctor for a little over a year. They still haven't isolated which drug I ought to be on. Just as the base drug. There are some... The one that treats my OCD works really well, and I have like a Valium-type drug that treats individual panic attacks, but the base level drug... They're still experimenting. That is, I mean, that is definitely something that affects everyone who goes through mental illness, is this experimentation with medicine. Going on it, going off it. There are always withdrawal symptoms. Right now, I currently have withdrawal symptoms because they're lowering the dose that I'm on on one medicine. I have this thing called the brain zap. Which I think is an awesome name for a symptom.
[Mary] That's fantastic.
[Rob] But it's basically...
[Howard] That's the clinical...
[Rob] Yeah, its... Yeah. Pretty much because they don't know what causes it yet. There is so much about mental illness that they don't know what causes... Or they don't know what the cause is. But yeah, that is what the doctors refer to it as, is brain zap.
[Mary] What is it?
[Rob] It is an electrical feeling. It's almost like popping... Your ears are popping because of altitude. Except that it's electrical. You've got kind of a metallic taste in your mouth, there's a ringing in your ears, very unpleasant.
[Mary] Oh, that would be... Yes, that sounds like it.
[Brandon] Wow.
[Rob] So. But this is something that almost every single person who has mental illness goes through, because you are always either going on a medicine or going off a medicine until they find it, and it could take years.

[Brandon] All right. We are out of time. This has been a fascinating topic. We've barely scratched the surface. For a writing prompt, Rob, would we mind... Would you mind if I just say take Rob's list... Explanation of what it feels like to be him, and write a story with a protagonist that has that same panic disorder?
[Rob] No, that's... You can't do that.
[Brandon] Okay. Can't do that. It's copyrighted by Rob.
[Dan] A day in the life of Rob.
[Howard] Don't make him a writer, make him a guy with a degree in marketing or something.
[Brandon] Yeah, there you go. This has been Writing Excuses, you're out of excuses, now go write.
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