Writing Anorexia Nervosa

A person with anorexia nervosa can see themselves as hideously fat even while dangerously underweight

Anorexia nervosa (usually just called anorexia) is an eating disorder characterised by an overpowering fear of being fat or of gaining weight. This fear is so all-consuming that it can lead to illness from self-starvation. This article looks at how to write engaging and believable characters with the condition.

The basis of the psychopathology of anorexia is believed to be valuing of thinness. People with anorexia feel that being thin is extremely important, to the extent of it being an obsession. For this reason, anorexia is much more common among women compared to men, and more common among women exposed to fashion media or who have an interest in sport and fitness compared to other women.

More specifically, thinness is considered important because it’s where a person’s sense of self-worth derives from. Thinness is seen as a virtue by anorexics, which is why the condition is so hard to understand for people who don’t have it.

Some might be surprised to hear that anorexia is one of the most deadly of all psychiatric conditions, up there with schizophrenia and major depressive disorder. An unusually low body weight is linked to a wide range of physical ailments, as many elementary bodily functions cannot operate past a certain level of starvation. Even without intending to, it’s common for anorexics to become sick and die as a consequence of lengthy periods of starvation.

If you are writing about a protagonist that suffers from anorexia, their internal dialogue might have a lot of anxiety based around a need to be in control of their body weight. Sometimes such a person will have a ruthless, almost sadistic approach towards their own body. This explains why there is a high degree of comorbidity with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. A person with anorexia often becomes extremely particular and fussy about their food and their calorie intake.

Then again, the approach might be more feminine. Instead of a desire to control, having a meal might conjure feelings of fear, almost panic. The sight or smell of food might trigger a reaction similar to that of a person with a phobia encountering their object of fear. It might be enough to also trigger powerful feelings of self-loathing.

Much like psychosis, anorexia tends to come and go in ’bouts’. An episode of anorexia is often triggered by a traumatic life event. It may be that sudden high levels of stress and anxiety result in a desire to compensate for a perceived loss of control.

Anorexia is not a psychotic disorder. A person with it will generally know that they have something amiss about them – but therein lies the difficulty. This reasonable part of the mind struggles incessantly against the part of the mind that commands that one must be thinner no matter what. It might be that the part of the mind that desires thinness above everything is somehow stronger, or more able to assert itself.

The effect that this might have on a protagonist of your story is therefore similar, in many ways, to that of one with depression. Constant feelings of having undermined oneself lead to guilt, personal recrimination, and a loss of confidence in one’s own intelligence, one’s competence or even one’s will to live. As is true of most of the conditions in this book, anorexics tend to have damaged self-esteem.

Like many of the other conditions in this book, it’s believed that anorexia nervosa frequently has an origin in childhood abuse. It might be that this is the reason for why it goes in bouts: dysregulated stress responsivity arising from the trauma leads to extremes of anxiety, and when one of those extremes is reached, a sudden desire for extreme control appears.

The experience of other characters who have a friend or family member suffering from anorexia is usually a difficult one. In many ways, watching someone waste away through anorexia is similar to watching them waste away through a heroin addiction.

This often brings with it a range of feelings that might profoundly affect that character, in particular frustration at not being able to get through to the anorexic about how dangerous their condition is, and guilt about not being able to “do more” for them. Although it’s true that it’s hard to reason with people who have mental illnesses – by definition – it’s still very common for friends and family of people with them to feel guilt about not being able to do more to get them to live a healthy, normal life.

A more distant character who encountered someone with anorexia might get the feeling that the anorexic is uptight and rigid. Anorexia is often associated with a sensitivity to insults and disrespect, as as perfectionism, and a character that demonstrated any of these traits could plausibly develop anorexia or have a past history of it.

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This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.

Writing Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Frequent handwashing can be a sign of a person who is struggling with OCD

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is characterised by the compulsive and repetitive performing of ritualistic behaviours intended to reduce anxiety. It’s a relatively common condition, and may not be as distressing as some of the others in this book, but a character with it will still be a striking one. This article looks at how to write believable and engaging characters with this condition.

An obsession is a pattern of thoughts that persists despite a conscious effort to get rid of it. These obsessions frequently cause anxiety, especially when they relate to lurid sexual or violent content, as they often do. Some other obsessions can border on the schizophrenic. God and the Devil are frequent subjects for obsessions, especially as pertains to future punishment for some misdeed.

These sort of thoughts can become highly intrusive and maddening in their persistence and the degree they distract from a normal life. If your protagonist has OCD, they might have a distressing interior monologue where anxiety and thoughts of decay and contamination are commonplace. Intrusive thoughts can be just as unpleasant as physical intrusions, especially when they come into the head when you’re trying to sleep or relax.

Compulsions are similar, only they relate to behaviours instead of thoughts. The classic example is compulsive hand washing. Others are compulsively checking that a door is locked, or that a stove is turned off. The person with OCD tends to worry about whether or not something is in correct order and this anxiety increases until that thing can be checked.

A person with OCD will usually be aware that they have a problem. This makes them different to psychotics, narcissists and psychopaths. A character with OCD might not necessarily be an outcast (or at least, not a true outcast), in contrast to the vast majority of characters inspired by this book.

Psychologists talk about a four-factor theory for understanding people with OCD. Essentially this is based on four groups of behaviours. There is a “symmetry” factor, a “forbidden thoughts” factor, a “cleaning” factor and a “hoarding” factor. If the protagonist of your story is or encounters a character with OCD, they will quickly notice one of these groups of behaviours.

The symmetry factor relates to an anxiety-driven compulsion to make everything balance in terms of symmetry. For instance, they might make sure that they take exactly the same number of steps to cross each segment of a repeating pattern of cobblestones. They might also be very fussy about books on a shelf or paintings on the wall lining up perfectly. Every left needs a right and vice-versa.

The forbidden thoughts factor relates to compulsively thinking about things only because one knows one isn’t supposed to. A character with OCD might start having frequently, intrusive, obsessive thoughts about a particular sexual fetish or situation, despite not finding it arousing (more the contrary). Thoughts of incest, pedophilia and homosexuality are all very common here.

Cleaning is probably the best-known of the common symptoms of OCD. The cleaning factor refers to how people with OCD are prone to quickly decide that something is contaminated and needs to be cleaned. For instance, just touching the ground might cause immense anxiety until the OCD sufferer washes their hands. Because there are thousands of potential contamination vectors, people with OCD often end up washing their hands dozens of times a day.

Hoarding is common but not often understood to be a symptom of OCD. Underlying this is often an anxiety about information being lost, and so the hoarder might hoard, for instance, a daily newspaper. The really clinical OCD comes into play when that person doesn’t want to get rid of what they’ve hoarded, even when it becomes a hygiene or fire risk.

It will be easy, if desired, to write sympathetically about a character with OCD. Usually people with the condition are regarded as eccentric rather than malicious. People with OCD don’t tend to take their suffering out on other people, although they can do if those other people prevent them from acting out their compulsions. Hoarding can, of course, lead to malicious behaviour, especially if the space in which the hoarding occurs is contested.

OCD can certainly feel malicious to a person with it, however, especially if the impulsive thoughts don’t give the person any peace. It’s common for impulsive thoughts to come at times that feel especially intrusive, like when trying to sleep or when making love. When this happens for long enough it’s possible to consider that a malevolent demon or entity might be causing them, although this is uncommon.

In contrast to most of the conditions in this book, OCD is not believed to be caused by trauma. The most generally accepted belief is that people with OCD have likely inherited an unusually high genetic propensity towards certain behaviours that were associated with survival in the past, such as checking for dangers and being meticulous about hygiene. A person with OCD is, by this reckoning, usually just hyper-vigilant.

For this reason, a character with OCD is likely to be doing considerably better than the a character with most other conditions described in the book. They might even be in a form of gainful employment where an extremely unusual level of meticulousness and cleanliness were advantages, such as surgeon. Certainly it is more likely that they will have a circle of compassionate friends than people with most other psychiatric conditions.

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This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.

Writing Depersonalisation Disorder

Depersonalisation Disorder is a brutally surreal experience. Also known as Derealisation Disorder, this condition is characterised by feeling like an outside observer of one’s own body despite being in it, and feeling like one isn’t actually in control of that body’s actions. Also common are feelings about reality being vague, dream-like, or less real than usual. This article gives some hints for how writers can handle characters with Depersonalisation Disorder.

This condition is almost always the result of stress, but a distinction needs to be made between a person who is temporarily dissociating in the moment because of an intensely traumatic event that has just happened, a person who has an established pattern of dissociating when exposed to certain stimuli that should not themselves be distressing, and a person who has a tendency to dissociate under small amounts of stress owing to psychological damage from past trauma.

It has to be made clear that Depersonalisation Disorder is not the same thing as psychosis. A person in a dissociated state will be aware that their perceptions are altered (or, at the very least, that something is wrong). In other words, they will not have lost touch with reality, which is a necessary quality of a psychotic experience. They will just have dissociation.

Dissociation is when one starts to feel emotions and sensations that aren’t usually associated with the environment that one is in. For example, one might be in an extremely stressful situation but not actually feel any stress: one simply watches everything from the perspective of consciousness, as if floating outside the body. Things feel unreal, surreal, so that sometimes one feels as if one is watching a film with one’s life on it instead of actually living it.

This lack of connection with the body is the strangest and most difficult thing about the condition. A person with depersonalisation can look at their own hand and not feel like they’re looking at their own body, which is a highly disconcerting experience. It’s also disconcerting to look at yourself in the mirror and not really understand who it is or that it’s you, or to recall a past memory and feel as if it really happened to someone else.

If written from a first person perspective, and written well, the experience of a character with Depersonalisation Disorder might be terrifying to the reader. Dissociation is often terrifying to experience personally, especially for the first time, and may be difficult to distinguish from a panic attack. However, often it is more weird than frightening, especially when the alternative is genuine suffering.

If the dissociation is occurring in a character being observed by the protagonist, that character might seem distant, vacant and “spaced-out”. The protagonist might get emotionless, zombie-like responses from the character undergoing dissociation, which might be a problem if there is something that has to be done quickly. It’s very possible that the protagonist mistakes the person dissociating for being under the influence of a psychoactive substance.

Most readers don’t do a lot of drugs. If they do, they might find the experience amusing to read about. After all, dissociation is a common effect of many recreational drugs. For such an audience, a character’s bout of dissociation might come across as highly comical, and doubly so when paired with another character who is perfectly straight in all regards.

Like most psychiatric conditions, Depersonalisation Disorder is believed to have an origin in psychological trauma. It’s very possible that a character with the condition will have experienced repeated trauma in childhood (usually emotional) that was so relentless it caused the mind to dissociate with reality in order to protect itself. This could be abuse, or a witnessed tragedy, or even simply a realisation about the true nature of things.

The case of Depersonalisation Disorder might then be an ego protection response to extreme trauma so that the person suffering the trauma doesn’t become cruel as a consequence of the suffering. Essentially one goes mad, when under inhumane stresses, in preference to becoming evil. This might be a way of showing the inherent goodness of a character, or their inherent naivety, depending on one’s approach.

Writing about a character who has dissociation might not be very interesting if the story revolves around the dissociation itself. The story might be more interesting if your character is an otherwise mentally healthy person who becomes dissociated as a result of extreme circumstances. This might be a one-time event or it could be part of a pattern.

If it’s a one-time event, it might be a reaction to a grisly sight like a car accident or something seen on a battlefield. This need not, then, be the central role in the story, but might rather be something that befalls the protagonist at a particular juncture, possibly transforming them or causing them to grow.

If part of a pattern, it might play a more central role in the story. It may be that the sight of a certain thing triggers an episode of dissociation on account of being associated with what caused the initial trauma, or it could be that relatively small amounts of stress or uncertainty are enough to tip a character over the edge.

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This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.

Writing Oppositional Defiant Disorder

Oppositional Defiant Disorder is characterised by repeated temper tantrums, pointless arguing, vicious outbursts and rulebreaking for the sake of rulebreaking. It’s what used to be known as “being a little shit.” The name comes from how a person with it sets themselves up defiantly in opposition to authority figures or anyone else trying to impose rules upon them.

If it is the protagonist of your story who is the character with ODD, they are extremely unlikely to think that the problem lies with them – but this is where their story gets interesting. If your protagonist has ODD you will be able to show someone whose thoughts twist through all manner of justifications for their behaviour, but who will not willingly take the blame themselves.

After all, your protagonist might actually have a point. Unlike the pure malice exhibited by a psychopath, someone with ODD might have a legitimate grievance against an asphyxiating rule-obsessed bureaucracy, or a surveillance state. This might make for an interesting story about an antihero who came into conflict with authority for the sake of his people or family (or for great justice).

For other characters in your story, a protagonist with ODD might appeal to them as a lovable rogue, or as a troubled soul with a heart of gold. The protagonist likely has a like-minded group of friends, as people with ODD often share the same grievance. This group of friends might have made a mission out of their shared grievance – and then you have a story ready to go.

In this sense, characters with diagnoses of ODD are especially well suited to fiction that appeals to the outsider, such as cyberpunk. Kris Smashtonati of The Verity Key is probably one such character. After all, any person with this condition is going to have some difficulty adjusting to live as a gainfully employed citizen, and that will put them on the margins, where life is more precarious (and dramatic). A properly integrated character with ODD might be better suited to comedy than to drama.

For the antagonists of your story (who are inevitably authority figures of some kind) ‘vindictive’ is a word they might describe the ODD character with. They would say that this character has difficulty regulating emotions or tolerating frustration. Such antagonists would dismiss the protests of the ODD character that the rules were too onerous – the rules are there for everyone’s good, like it or not.

In many ways, telling the story of ODD is really telling a story of an environment. There are believed to be biological factors involved, such as unusual neurotransmitter function or amygdala damage, but a person with ODD rarely develops it in the total absence of family or environmental factors.

Mood disorders are extremely common among the children of parents who have ODD, which gives a major clue about the etiology of the condition. If the protagonist of your story had ODD, it’s possible that his father was a real unpredictable sonofabitch, and the mother likewise. Inconsistent punishment is usually found among the childhoods of people with ODD.

ODD is capable of manifesting in a variety of different settings. Generally speaking, the broader the range of settings in which it manifests, the worse the ODD is. The most common is for oppositional and defiant behaviours to begin in the family home, so that the damage is done long before their first classroom experience.

This generalisation, or one like it, might be the key to understanding your ODD character. Usually the condition arises in response to the perception of unfair treatment from a parent, which may generalise into a belief that any and all authority figures are likewise unfair (and so to be defied). We can then predict that a character with this condition might have conflict with any other character that metaphorically represented a parent (teacher, policeman, bureaucrat etc.).

There is a sense in which ODD is on a spectrum that continues onto Conduct Disorder and, in the worst case, Antisocial Personality Disorder. In this regard, someone with ODD is likely to be much easier to get along with than someone with either of the latter two disorders. They might even be surrounded by such people so that they seem calm and reasonable by comparison.

Esoterically speaking, a character with ODD could be considered a chaotic element. It is unlikely that such a character will contribute to the good order of your story world, and their entrance might even be the spark that gets your story going. Indeed, it’s well possible that the ODD character has taken exception to a particular manifestation of order, and has resolved to break it up at any cost.

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This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.

Writing Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) is characterised by problems paying attention, hence “attention deficit”. For whatever reasons, people with ADHD tend to flit like butterflies from one focus of obsession to the next, usually fidgeting the whole time. It might not be one of the most severe mental illnesses, but it’s still capable of severely degrading a person’s quality of life.

People with ADHD often do things without remembering. The cliche is of a person with ADHD hearing their phone ring from the fridge, where they mistakenly put it because they thought it was a carton of milk or similar. This is common because attention has to be paid to something before it can be remembered, and a person with ADHD might have been paying attention to the thoughts in their head instead of the phone in their hands.

Also common for people with ADHD is struggling to complete tasks owing to having difficulty sustaining attention. They might start to complete a task, only to get distracted by something they noticed, and then to get sidetracked from that by a particularly unusual thought (the potential comedy value of such a thing should not be overlooked!).

The experience of having ADHD is, much like many other conditions, one of having too much chaos in one’s life. A character who has it will tend to be very disorganised, for the reason that paying attention to a task long enough to get it done is difficult (and rare).

Writing about this from a first-person perspective will be exhausting. Not only will it be hard to sustain for long, but it will seldom be necessary, for the reader should get the idea very quickly. For this reason, it’s hard to write from a stream of consciousness perspective here. Subtlety will have to be employed to describe an environment that reflects the impact of a person with ADHD.

As with many mental disorders, it’s easy to confuse ADHD with other conditions on account of apparently shared symptoms. A character with ADHD might appear psychotic to another because of a rambling conversational style that leaps from subject to subject. They might also seem dull-witted to someone who’s trying to teach them something that isn’t very interesting.

It’s also distressing to have ADHD (in most cases), and so many symptoms of it are those that are common to other mental disorders and which are ultimately stress-based: insomnia, anxiety, irritability, nausea, low self-esteem etc.

A lot of ADHD-induced behaviour can be mistaken for being on drugs. A lack of apparent ability to pay attention might be explained by another character as drug influence that is forcing the character with ADHD to pay attention to their inner world. The stereotypical caffeine high of jittery behaviour and staccato speech can also be hard to distinguish from a bout of attention deficit. It doesn’t help that use of drugs is common among people with ADHD.

For a variety of reasons, the personal experience of ADHD is frequently one of frustration. The condition itself is frustrating, because it’s hard to get things done and so chores and errands tend to build up and become stressful, but also the world, and its responses to ADHD, are frustrating – and often cruel.

Part of the story of a character with ADHD, then, might be about their experience as an outsider, for two major reasons.

The first is rejection by their peers. People with ADHD, especially as children, tend to behave in ways that lead to low social status. They are often not fun to be around because the fast talking and constant fidgeting puts others on edge. Worse, their attentional deficits can lead to a failure to process speech and body language cues as efficiently as someone without ADHD, degrading the social value of communicating with them.

Someone with ADHD might have trouble finding a friend who has the patience to listen to their machine-gun conversational style. On the other hand, if they do, it is more likely to be a genuine friend. There’s a good chance that the friends of people with ADHD have bonded with them by way of a shared experience of being an outsider.

The second is rejection by society. Society expects its charges to conform to a certain pattern: a pattern of passive, obedient consumerism. A character with ADHD might have trouble fitting into this pattern, because they find it boring as all hell (for good reason). Modern life is experienced by many as a cage, and few people feel this more keenly than those with ADHD.

This can lead to a kind of outsiderhood that brings with it bitterness, but it can also lead to characters who live highly unconventional lives owing to being unable to fit in with the demands placed on them by the standard work place. A character with ADHD could easily be a hero (or anti-hero) who rejected the excessive sobriety and mindless strictures of society in favour of a psychonautic life of consciousness exploration.

It’s easy for a person with an ADHD diagnosis to believe that the problem isn’t with them but rather with the world. After all, the demands of modern schooling are extremely unnatural if one considers that the human child has evolved to suit an environment that contains infinitely more novelty than a school classroom.

Indeed, there is some debate over whether ADHD is a mental disorder at all, or if it’s just a label given to those who have a high desire for stimulation and novelty. The biological past was a far more dangerous, violent, unpredictable – and therefore, exciting – place than the modern classroom or workplace, and it’s not realistic to expect all people to be easily able to make the transition.

It might be that your character is capable of distinguishing themselves from the majority of people with their condition by overcoming it and mastering an area of particular interest. People with ADHD sometimes are better at paying attention than the average person, as long as the subject matter appeals enough.

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This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.

Writing the Depressive

All of us know what it feels like to be sad, but few truly appreciate how it is to be clinically depressed. There’s something about wandering ghost-like through an ashen world of dead feelings that is a challenge to express to those who are full of healthy, natural vigour. This article shares some tips for writing realistic characters who suffer from depression.

Depression (in the sense of a mental illness) is otherwise known as major depressive disorder. To be diagnosed with it, a patient has to meet certain criteria. 21% of the French population have been diagnosed with the condition at some point in their lives, which speaks to its prevalence in the modern world.

There are two obvious approaches here.

The first is to use thoughts. Conveying the innermost thoughts of a character is, in many ways, the ultimate power of the literary medium.

The kind of thoughts that go through the mind of a depressed person tend to be anxiety, sadness and fear. Life not only seems to have no meaning, but seems completely hollow and empty. Even thirty seconds is a sufficiently long time in which to experience some genuine psychological torment, and it seems all-pervasive and never ending.

It’s important to distinguish depression from sadness. Depression is a mental illness, and as such it causes irrational thinking. A bereaved person can tell you that they expect to feel happy again at some point in the future once the shock has worn off; no such expectation exists for the depressive. It seems like it’s going to last forever.

Of those people who have never been depressed, few understand the ways that guilt can eat away at the minds of someone who is. Depression is not like a physical ailment in the sense that one can easily justify taking time off from regular duties to recover. It’s rare that a depressed person has the ability to think clearly enough about their condition to realise that they need a break.

It’s far more common for a depression sufferer to end up consumed by guilt in their every waking moment, thinking about the things they should be doing in the time they are convalescing, and how they are letting people down by being weak. This reveals one of the worst things about depression: the way in which it feels like one is persecuting oneself.

The second obvious approach is to use the reactions of other characters to the depressed one. All mental illnesses have a marked social impact, and depression is no exception.

Depression is a sinister, insidious illness. In many cases, a person with it will not realise that they have it. The protagonist of your story might end up arguing and fighting with people all day because of sourness or irritability caused by the condition, all the while assuming that the fractiousness that caused it was natural and normal.

Some well-meaning friend might tell them that they have depression only to be told to piss off. To a depressed person, a friendly suggestion to “Cheer up” might well be taken as an insult. Constant irritability is as much a part of depression as sadness is, and a story might be best able to evoke this through the social side.

In other cases a person can’t avoid realising they have depression, because other people will continually remind them of that fact. The protagonist of your story might be smarting from constantly being called a “miserable prick”, and this might make them even more depressed. It might cause them to withdraw and plot revenge (or even to seek help – who knows?).

The fear of the loss of social bonds can be evoked here. This is a very powerful, primal instinct that almost everyone can relate to. People don’t enjoy interacting with depressed people, and after a while the rejection may lead to the depressed person deciding that those others would be better off without them.

Note that stories featuring depressed characters don’t need to themselves be depressing. In a way, every story about a depressive is a happy one, because any depressive who is still alive must have been able to find some reason to keep going.

This might be the most interesting part of the entire character. After all, it’s objectively not clear why any of us should keep living, given the uncertain prospects for any happiness in front of us. A depressed person might exhibit a stronger will to live or a more beautiful nature than any other person who did not need to struggle through the condition.

Despite this, the reality of the depression experience is that it is one of the most terrifying and deadly of all illnesses, mental or otherwise. The temptation to take the ultimate step to end the suffering is always present, which makes the experience worse than a horror story in several regards.

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This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2017/18.

The Political Paradox at the Heart of Cyberpunk

Science fiction has generally been considered a left-wing preoccupation. Not only is the readership of science fiction stories younger than average, but the nature of science fiction lends itself towards progressivism. Female characters such as Lieutenant Ripley of Alien had great appeal among the generation that had cast off the moral strictures of the 1950s, but a right-wing yang has always existed within the dark yin of the milieu.

The political atmosphere of science fiction reflects an old-school leftism that’s almost entirely different to the identity politics of the social justice warriors who dominate the media of today. The leftism of science fiction was always more libertarian than today’s culture would prefer, and was written without the need to shoehorn a moral lecture into the story.

Philip K Dick wrote his science fiction works, to a large extent, out of inspiration drawn from his hatred of authoritarianism and authoritarian systems. This is why his protagonists, like Bob Childan in Man in The High Castle, were usually everymen who lacked any aristocratic pretenses. Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War depicted a future world in which hedonistic homosexuality was standard practice and a kind of communism had taken over the resource distribution of the planet.

Realistically, it’s hard to imagine a high-tech society that hadn’t also managed to solve the vast majority of its social problems, for the simple reason that if a society has the resources to be high-tech it also has the resources to feed, clothe and house everyone. The essence of cyberpunk, however, is “high tech, low life”; Brave New World is not cyberpunk, and neither is 1984, for the reasons that these works deal with heroic and upstanding characters.

This essence lends itself to a conservative orientation for two reasons.

The first is that it suggests that “the more things change, the more they stay the same,” which is a deeply conservative sentiment. It’s a break with the easy utopias envisioned in atomic era works like Alfred Bester’s The Demolished Man or Aldous Huxley’s The Island. These works portray future societies which, although they have their problems, have generally solved all the major survival challenges (although The Demolished Man has a cyberpunk vibe in that the protagonist is also the antagonist).

In cyberpunk, by contrast, it’s common that society has either collapsed or become dystopic. The America of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash has disintegrated into a patchwork of city states, fiefdoms, armed enclaves and chaos zones, which goes against the common narrative of an easy ascent into becoming a space-faring civilisation common to most earlier science fiction.

Likewise in William Gibson’s Bridge trilogy, where society has rotted out from the inside, meaning that people have been forced to take on a hard edge to their personality and behaviour in order to survive. In Gibson’s stories, crime exists for the same reasons it exists in our own world; greed, fear, stupidity and cruelty cast their shadows on every chapter.

This is a conservative sentiment because it directly opposes the common leftist belief that it’s possible to build a utopia. Cyberpunk works warn us of the terrible possibilities that are likely to result from attempts to build a perfect world – Akira could be considered the modern Frankenstein.

The second reason is that “high tech, low life” reflects a cynical interpretation of human nature. The protagonist of the Altered Carbon series, Lieutenant Kovacs, never gets fooled or manipulated on account of automatically assuming the worst of everyone he encounters. He is particularly cynical, verging on paranoid, and this quality serves him well as it keeps him one step ahead of the criminals trying to kill him. Cyberpunk heroes are often like this – more antihero than good old boy.

Much like the first reason, this low-life element of cyberpunk reminds us that ideas of utopias are just dreams. Life finds a way, and so does crime. This is essentially conservative because it asserts that human nature cannot fundamentally be changed.

Humans have not been intrinsically good at any point in the past, and so there’s no reason to think they should be in the future. Therefore, we can assume that humans (especially young men) will aggressively push the boundaries just as much in times to come. As is the case today, these people will often go too far in asserting their wills, and this can lead to reprisals, and thereby the whole dark side of the human drama that cyberpunk is known for.

It is not the contention of this essay that this paradox detracts from the power of cyberpunk media. To the contrary, cyberpunk draws its power from the tension inherent in the juxtaposition between the desire for order and the desire for freedom.

Many of the protagonists in cyberpunk stories just want to be left alone to enjoy their lives, but violence and trouble finds them anyway, and they have to learn to become hard in order to cope. The protagonist of Metrophage is an everyman who could have been a protagonist in a Philip K Dick story, but instead of the mind-bending confusion of a PKD story he gets dragged into the noir of a cyberpunk one.

This sentiment of escaping an oppressive, totalitarian force is also a common sentiment for many intelligent, free-thinking people nowadays, who just want to be left alone to experiment with consciousness in the form of psychoactive substances without being attacked by law enforcement officers.

In this balance, cyberpunk appeals to a more intelligent kind of reader. The resolution of the cyberpunk paradox might be found in that punk is an expression of rebellion against those same human forces that create political dystopias and faceless corporate juggernauts. In this rebellion it is an affirmation of the human spirit, more libertarian than either left of right, and this is perhaps where cyberpunk gets most of its appeal.

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Vince McLeod is the author of ANZAC cyberpunk work The Verity Key. If you enjoyed reading this essay, you can get a compilation of his and other VJMP essays in the Best VJMP Essays and Articles of 2017 from Amazon for Kindle or Amazon for CreateSpace (for international readers), or TradeMe (for Kiwis).

The Future of Empathy

Empathy has probably evolved to facilitate social interaction in the human species, which is why an absence of it tends to have antisocial consequences

By most measures, the world seems to have become a more empathetic place since the Stone Age. The average person’s chances of meeting a violent end are far lower today than back then, and one’s exposure to grossly traumatic events are also far lower. This has had some interesting effects for a species that may have adapted to a certain level of environmental violence.

In many ways, this increasing empathy is becoming standardised and expected. We are more empathetic than ever before by a number of measures: we share more of our wealth than ever, we commit fewer crimes against each other than ever, we have a much better understanding of mental illness than ever. We debate social issues – like bringing refugees into the country to be supported out of general taxation – that would have been unthinkable even a century ago.

The question arises: where does this process end? In my upcoming cyberpunk novel, The Man With A Thousand Fathers, I explore this point in some detail. It is set in the 2080s, when the science of psychology is much more advanced than what it is today and when the confluence of virtual reality and psychoactive research chemicals has meant that the world on the flipside is often realer than this one.

In the Thailand of the story world, children who are discovered to have defective levels of empathy are put into a virtual reality environment instead of being allowed to go into real life, and then raised with exposure to a set of stimuli specifically calculated to condition them to be more civil. One of the story’s characters, an orphan named Suwat, spends over a decade in such a virtual environment before being released.

It’s entirely possible that such a thing may eventuate, for utilitarian reasons. It’s not difficult to predict the kinds of children who are going to grow up to be criminals. They’re simply the kids that lack empathy for other kids. Any schoolteacher could tell you with high accuracy which children in their class are likely to grow up to cause problems and which children are not.

It’s also not difficult to predict why these kids lack empathy. The vast majority of the time it’s because they themselves aren’t shown empathy at home. Children are not born knowing what’s what; they learn to base their behaviour and moral values on what is demonstrated to them as normal. If a child’s parents don’t show empathy to each other or to that child, that child might well grow up to learn that not showing empathy is normal.

A child who has been exposed to really bad things might even come to learn that empathy is weakness that makes a person vulnerable. They might learn that showing empathy is a signal that one is soft, and that one dare not show it in case it invites aggression and exploitation.

With advancing virtual reality technology, we’re almost at the point where using a virtual environment for therapeutic purposes becomes mainstream. Virtual reality therapy has already shown promise in treating soldiers suffering from PTSD.

Extrapolating from this, it might become possible, if a virtual environment was engineered accurately enough, to use VR therapy to cure a wide range of psychiatric illnesses and disorders.

On the darker side, advancing technology might also make it possible for psychotechnicians to use machines to measure aspects of brain activity that the owner of the brain might not themselves be aware of. It has been possible to detect homosexuality in a subject for decades by exposing them to graphic homosexual images and measuring whether certain parts of the brain spark into life or not, and who knows where this sort of technology might lead.

It might happen that young children are exposed, en masse, to virtual reality examinations in which their brains are tricked into thinking that they’re in situations where empathy is required, and then their levels of empathy are measured. Anyone with too low a level is shipped off to VR therapy in the hope that they can learn to become more co-operative.

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Vince McLeod is the author of ANZAC cyberpunk novel The Verity Key.

If Speculative Fiction Genres Were Psychoactive Drugs

Every genre of speculative fiction has its own signature atmosphere: often a combination of fantastic, awesome, terrifying and bizarre. So do psychoactive drugs – and the two match up. This article looks at which drugs give a vibe that best matches the vibe from a genre of speculative fiction.

High fantasy fiction matches up to cannabis. Lord of the Rings contains a couple of sly allusions to cannabis use, most notably when Saruman admonishes Gandalf for his “love of the halfling’s weed” while explaining how Gandalf missed a clue that he should have noticed. The scene in the film Fellowship of the Ring where Gandalf and Frodo sit above the drunken revellers and smoke some magical substance from a pipe is one familiar to most stoners.

Some of the experiences that Elric has in the Stormbringer series of novels by Michael Moorcock were also very likely to have been cannabis-inspired. There’s something about Elric’s experience of having an extremely powerful ally that couldn’t really be trusted that speaks to the paranoia that sometimes comes with the cannabis experience.

The sword and sorcery style of low fantasy matches up with psilocybin mushrooms. It’s unlikely that Robert E Howard took any magic mushrooms before writing any of the Conan the Cimmerian stories, but the protagonist’s many adventures in dark, subterranean caves and inside fantastic towers and castles are reminiscent of the depth and range of sometimes terrifying personal insight that often comes with mushrooms.

The Forgotten Realms universe of Dungeons and Dragons adventures, with their massive, dark forests full of elves and goblins also relates closely to the vibe of the psilocybin mushrooms experience. The reason why magic mushrooms enthusiasts are encouraged to try taking five grams in silent darkness is because it leads to exploration of a fantastical inner world, and going down into the subterranean to arise wealthier at some later point is a regular theme.

Most of what sells as science fiction could have been inspired by LSD. Stories like The Demolished Man, with a very strong psychological content, harken to the disintegrative effect that psychedelics can have on the personality. The main character of The Demolished Man, somehow between protagonist and antagonist, ends up having his personality completely demolished (and then rebuilt) as punishment for his crimes, reminiscent of how the psychedelic experience can destroy a person and then build them back as something stronger than before.

This sense of twisted psychology comes through also in the writings of Philip K Dick, who had himself tried LSD. Psychedelics might have inspired the plot of Ubik, in which the character Glen Runciter experiences a believable but bizarre reality while his physical body is “on ice” in a cryogenic chamber. Wondering if you’re really dead or alive is the kind of thing that LSD can make happen to you.

The almost schizophrenic belief in a hidden real world outside of this merely simulated one is a mainstay of cyberpunk literature, and is similar to the impressions one gets on DMT or salvia divinorum. For thousands of years, human shamans have been having experiences of dying to the physical world and being reborn to the real one, like Neo did in The Matrix. In that regard, The Matrix is really a retelling of the ancient mystery school teaching of death and resurrection, reclothed in 21st-century technology.

A description of what might be the spirit of the DMT experience is given in the ANZAC cyberpunk novel The Verity Key. In the chapter Mindknife, the protagonist Jonty Gillespie has his perception altered by ingestion of a drug called Cinque Nuevo, which briefly blasts his consciousness out of his physical body and into an entirely external dimension that is occupied by beings that take the form of balls of light, while mechanical constructs that might be metaphors churn around him.

The datura experience is pretty similar to what befell many of the unfortunate researchers in the Cthulhu mythos of H. P. Lovecraft. A disquieting sense of things not being quite as they should be grows into an intense paranoia that leaps at every shadow and from there to total psychological collapse at the raw horror of reality itself. Alien beings that seem to have come to Earth just to torment you is the kind of thing you’re dealing with in either case.

Datura is also the kind of drug that fits the background of weird horror stories such as those in His Master’s Wretched Organ. Talking to grotesquely deformed entities like Mr. Creamfeather and eating tobacco cakes are the sort of horror that, once experienced, leaves a person never quite the same again. The concept of ordeal rituals that leave you wiser for having suffered come to mind here.

Others are arguable. The steampunk of The Rocketeer might suit opium, the boo-yah aggression of Starship Troopers might suit mescaline, and the gritty military noir of the Altered Carbon series might be the old classics of caffeine, nicotine and alcohol.

It might be hard to read any speculative fiction on most of these drugs, because a person on them is more likely to be occupied with the inner theatre of the thoughts in their head than a book in the external world. However, it might be possible to have a richer experience of reading speculative fiction after having tried some of them, because they could open your awareness to realms of thought previously unimagined.

Writing the Schizophrenic

The literary medium offers vast scope for portraying the perceptual and cognitive oddities characteristic of schizophrenia

There are a tremendous number of misconceptions about schizophrenia – a combination of a cultural reluctance to confront the reality of mental illness and prior inaccurate portrayals in popular media. Avoiding these misconceptions and cliches is crucial to creating a believable and engaging schizophrenic character.

Perhaps the most glaring misconception is the belief that having schizophrenia means having multiple personality disorder. Many people still seem to believe that having schizophrenia is like Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which a powerfully suppressed evil nature sometimes breaks through to the surface and takes over the mind of the patient.

It’s certainly possible that a schizophrenic might have powerful struggles with inner demons, but they are not werewolves. A psychopathic alter ego is more characteristic of the psychopath. Powerful mood swings might make the schizophrenic seem like different people, and might make them difficult to deal with, but the characteristic of multiple personality disorder is that the personalities are not aware of each other, and schizophrenics are not afflicted by this.

It’s also not true that a schizophrenic will just babble nonsense all the time. Although psychological disorganisation is characteristic of schizophrenia, and although this disorganisation makes it more difficult to speak and converse coherently, speaking in word salad is more characteristic of an acute state of psychosis. This is a common state for a schizophrenic to fall into, but is different to schizophrenia itself.

Schizophrenics usually spend much more time in non-psychotic states than psychotic ones because it’s extremely difficult to maintain the state of acute agitation necessary to become psychotic. This state requires so much emotion and energy that in practical cases the sufferer either wears themselves out or ends up becoming convinced (or forced) to take medication.

So it’s relatively rare for a schizophrenic to act truly crazy all of the time.

What is characteristic of schizophrenia are what is called positive and negative symptoms. These don’t mean ‘good’ and ‘bad’ symptoms but whether the loss of touch with reality is the result of something being added to the “normal” experience of reality or something being taken away from it.

Dramatic visions, delusions and hallucinations, such as those portrayed in the film A Beautiful Mind, fall under the rubric of positive symptoms. The most common form of positive symptom is that of hearing voices. This is very difficult to imagine for anyone who has not experienced it, but a character who suffers this symptom might think that someone is talking to them when no-one is really there.

Sometimes when a schizophrenic appears to be rambling, they are having a coherent conversation with someone who doesn’t appear to be there. This naturally sounds like rambling to an outside observer although the schizophrenic themselves might believe that they are having a perfectly reasonable conversation with someone right next to them.

Likewise, when a schizophrenic appears to be staring into space, it may be because they believe themselves to be in a part of the Great Fractal that is different to where the outside observer is. Much like in a dream, the material world might not be making much of an impact on the consciousness of the schizophrenic.

This means that writing a story from the perspective of the schizophrenic is likely to be a cross between surreal and terrifying. Because what other people take for granted as firm laws of reality do not seem to apply to the conscious experience of the schizophrenic, it’s very difficult for any other character to understand what the experience of a schizophrenic is like.

It’s also terrifying because having original ideas about the nature of reality brings out some powerful emotional responses in other people. It isn’t easy to have other people profoundly disagree with you about things that you take for granted. Experiences like this might go some way to explaining why a schizophrenic character would also suffer from negative symptoms.

Disengagement with society, flattened emotions and an inability to maintain routines are the characteristic negative symptoms of schizophrenia, and if you can present realistic positive symptoms to your reader then some of these negative symptoms should be easy to believe.

For example, the reader might understand why a schizophrenic character feels the need to disengage with society if they read about how frustrating and frightening is to constantly be told, by everyone that character meets, that reality is actually very different to how that character perceives it.

Likewise, they might understand why schizophrenics have flattened emotions when they read about how a schizophrenic character has to compensate for the apparent fact that many of the things they perceive to exist aren’t really there. There are good reasons to not react strongly to things, even when those things are extremely bizarre or unusual, if one ordinarily sees a series of bizarre things that aren’t really happening.

The experience of being unable to maintain routines is a natural consequence of having an unusual amount of chaos in the mind, and it could be the routines in a character’s life falling to pieces that gives the first sign to those around them that a mental illness is developing.

Generally speaking, schizophrenia is an extremely difficult condition to portray accurately because of its complexity and because the experience of a schizophrenic is often fundamentally different to the experience of other people. Often the schizophrenic character will react reasonably and logically to the impressions that come into their mind and it is how those impressions get there which is the truly strange thing.

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This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2017/18.