Mental Health Monday–Loner Style

Amanda (writer and blogger–A Fortnight of Mustard) asks:

My character is a loner. He’s afraid to get close to people. He wasn’t neglected as a kid, but he’s lost most people close to him in [an epic tragedy]. Is this attachment disorder?

GREAT question, Amanda!

Attachment Disorder means there is a failure to form normal attachments to others. It is often associated with early experiences of neglect and abuse by primary care givers (ex. parents), or abrupt separation from caregivers between the ages of 6 months and 3 years, or frequent change in caregivers, or lack of a caregivers response to the child’s efforts to communicate.

An example of an attachment disorder is Reactive Attachment Disorder. This is evidenced by a toddler who fails to stay near familiar adults in a new environment or failure to be comforted by a familiar person OR by a six year old who displays excessive friendliness and inappropriate approaches to strangers.

Attachment theory posits that infants will attach to a caregiver as a means to protect itself from danger or as a means of survival. (This is an evolutionary theory.) This is not the same as love and affection, although those behaviors are needed to create a strong bond. 😉

Each person has his or her own Attachment style (or pattern of relating to others) based on early childhood caregiving experiences. The styles include: secure, anxious-ambivalent, anxious-avoidant, and disorganized. These styles are not in and of themselves disorders, but can lead to problems with relating to others, based on how prevalent the style is and which type.

I’m sure my dear friend Sarah Fine, who is a child psychologist, writer, and blogger (The Strangest Situation), can give a much better explanation of all the jargon I just threw at you.

I included the above discussion to state that it doesn’t appear your character has an Attachment Disorder because he wasn’t abused and he was normal before this traumatic incident.

However, there are several other things that could be going on, which I’ll touch on now.

Someone who goes through a severe trauma is susceptible to developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. To be diagnosed with PTSD, the person has to be exposed to something that is PERCEIVED as life-threatening. They can develop flashbacks, nightmares, hypervigilance (ex. looking for any potential foe wherever they are, sitting in a corner to watch the exits, planning an exit strategy wherever they are, checking over their shoulder every few seconds), hyperarousal (ex. startle response–jumping when the phone rings), numbing of emotions, and avoidance (of talking about the situation, avoidance of others, avoidance of any stimulating situations).

Amanda, your character displays avoidance and perhaps numbing of emotions. He lost several people close to him and so it would seem that he’s at risk of having PTSD. I don’t know if he has intrusive, recurrent memories (flashbacks) or nightmares of the incident or if he has hyperarousal, so it’s difficult to do a formal diagnosis.

Additionally, you mentioned he is (or can be) reckless and go headlong into dangerous situations. So, it could be that though he is traumatized by what happened, he is also desensitized to horrific experiences. Interestingly, soldiers who are exposed to combat become more effective in that environment than in a civilian environment. They have in a way become adapted to staying in the hyperaroused state (for survival) and then can’t handle things when the danger is gone.

Finally, loss is one of the most difficult things a person can experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if your character also experiences significant bereavement, grief, or even depression secondary to loss. This can last years. AND it would be advantageous, in a way, to avoid getting close to others because then he wouldn’t have to face the agony or terror of losing someone else.

I hope this was helpful!

Keep your questions coming, folks! And check out Lydia Kang’s Medical Monday while you’re at it. Remember these posts are for writing purposes ONLY and are NOT intended to be medical diagnosis, treatment, or advice.


17 comments on “Mental Health Monday–Loner Style

  1. Sarah says:

    Excellent analysis, Laura, and I completely agree. Attachment disorders, by definition, originate in childhood as a result of “pathogenic” caregiving. And the insecure attachment styles you listed are those for children–there are corresponding adult attachment styles, and maybe I will do a post on those in the near future! Anyway, I think in this case, PTSD and bereavement represent the best explanation for how this character is responding in the aftermath of a major loss/trauma. Awesome post 🙂

  2. Sheri Larsen says:

    Wow! Who knew ‘attachment’ could be so complicated. Great explanation!

  3. This was a lot of very interesting information, Laura! so glad I was able to catch your post this week!

  4. Fascinating! Hm. I think you’ve given a new twist to some of my character’s behavior, since he lost his family to plague three years ago. I need to ponder his reactions. Thanks!

  5. Lynn Rush says:

    Totally helpful. Great info here. Love these mental health Mondays. You are helping us take our characters deeper and deeper!!! 🙂

  6. Thank you so much! That was amazingly helpful in understanding Rick, the character in question. 🙂 I have a better grip on what’s going on with him emotionally and where to take him from here. I appreciate your help soooo much! 🙂

  7. Linda Gray says:

    It all makes so much sense. Thank you. I wrote a character who had many of the symptoms you’ve described, but never thought to give her a specific diagnosis. PTSD seems to cover a lot of territory that needs to be understood and responded to with compassion.

  8. love your insight into the human mind.

  9. I prefer to sit with my back to a wall and with exits in view. Hmmm.

  10. Mike Offutt says:

    I feel like you are playing mind games with me. Oh wait…your a psychiatrist. /hugs

    Great rundown on attachment disorder.

  11. Ciara Knight says:

    This is fascinating. I’ve worked in the VA in the PTSD clinic and I’ll I can say is it can be a life-altering illness. I’d instantly feel for any character sufering from PTSD. Great post.

  12. lenny says:

    hi dr laura! wow! for sure that a lot of stuff to think about. i gotta read all that again so i could understand it. its good knowing about that psycho stuff so you could know more about how to deal out with a character.
    …hugs from lenny

  13. julie f says:

    Oooo, I am revising today and that was totally what I needed to delve into my mc a little more. Thanks for such a great examination of this!

  14. I love the psychological Q&As. I knew about PTSD, but I’d never heard of the other terms until now.

  15. Lydia K says:

    This post rocks! Need to bookmark this…wait. Actually your whole blog is a reference for me on all things psychiatric!

  16. Leigh Moore says:

    Hey, that’s both a cool question and a cool answer. Very thought-provoking and rabbit-hole sending… :o) These are fun. I love you guys’s medical posts. I’m w/Dr. K.

  17. Vicki Tremper says:

    This was a hyper-useful post! I’ve seen PTSD first-hand, as well, and written about it, but never considered the attachment issues. Well done and thanks!

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