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self-injury, self-destructive, therapy, substance abuse

3 Ways Self-Destructive Behaviors are Misrepresented as Tough

In many mystery and suspense novels, there is a well-established convention of portraying the detectives/investigators/agents as consumed by their cases. They wreck their personal lives and physical health. They live and drink alone. They flout the department or agency rules (or maybe even the law) in their quest to catch the killer.  Books with these themes misrepresent the characters and their self-destructive behaviors in 3 major ways:

1-Therapy is an intrusive waste of time or a disciplinary action.

In a recent Kindle First read, It Ends with Her (2018) by Brianna Labuskes , FBI agent Clarke Sinclair suffers nightmares and insomnia.  She is emotionally dysregulated and prone to angry outbursts.  She abuses substances and forgets to eat, while also engaging in more overt self-injury:

“….(she) mentally traced the thin white scars that ran along her inner thighs.  They made her miss the weight of a razor blade in her hands.”

“It made her itchy.  Made her want to pick at the scars on her legs with jagged fingernails, until they opened up and let the pain seep out as the relief created champagne bubbles in her blood.”

Readers are told that she suffered a traumatic loss early in her life. Although it is not stated (initially), it appears that this loss is part of what drives her so powerfully in her career.  Despite the trauma she has suffered and the functional impairment that she displays, she is furious at the suggestion that she would benefit from mental health intervention.

“’Barring me from any other cases until I see a therapist isn’t what’s best for me,’ she said.  What she’d done hadn’t even warranted the extreme punishment.   Did it really matter if some low-life rat had his finger broken during an interrogation?”

This is simply one of a number of mystery novels that perpetuate negative stereotypes of psychotherapy : it is useless, it is for the weak, it is suggested by supervisors as an insulting punishment.

2-Failure to attend to activities of daily living is an indicator of dedication and strength, not of dysregulation.

As noted above, Clarke forgets to eat and frequently does not sleep.  Also, in one particularly evocative scene, a coworker who is polished and professional-looking looks with disdain at the hair that Clarke has not washed for 4 days.  Far from the situation increasing Clarke’s insight into her profound neglect of her basic needs, it fuels her resentment of the coworker.  Interestingly, although the book is generally reviewed positively on Amazon, a number of negative reviews question how an individual who is so clearly impaired could keep her job, much less be portrayed as excelling at it.  Clarke herself notes:

“Maybe happiness wasn’t something everyone could get.  But emotional stability was certainly underrated.”

3- Substance abuse is a logical and almost inevitable response to the stresses of the job.

Throughout the book, Clarke is described in multiple situations drinking to excess or fantasizing about drinking.  She seems unaware that her alcohol consumption is problematic, instead embracing it defiantly:

“But the nightmares had stopped.  Waking up drenched in sweat with the claw marks from her own nails leaving drops of blood on the sheets was no longer a thing.  She’d even walked by an AA meeting.  Yes, she’s kept on walking right back to one of bottles of wine she’d kept in the fridge, but she’s paused to read the flyer at least.”

This novel joins many others in this genre in portraying an agent who is pathologically absorbed by the job.  Instead of showing such an obsession as dysfunctional, though, it is heralded as a sign of commitment.  Most damaging, however, is the depiction of therapy as a punishment.  These sorts of negative portrayals have the power to contribute to attitudinal barriers to care.

3 Ways Self-Destructive Behaviors are Misrepresented as Tough

Kathryn Lawson

Kathryn Lawson, PhD is a clinical psychologist in Peachtree City, Georgia, specializing in the treatment of trauma/PTSD, grief, anxiety and depression among older adolescents and adults. Before transitioning to private practice, she worked for the Bureau of Prisons for 10 years. During that time, she also worked as an adjunct faculty member at a small college, teaching diverse groups of nontraditional students. Her private practice, teaching, and government service have all been guided by a commitment to reaching underserved populations. Dr. Lawson is passionate about issues of stigma and inclusion and how these impact individuals affected by mental illness.

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APA Reference
Lawson, K. (2018). 3 Ways Self-Destructive Behaviors are Misrepresented as Tough. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 24, 2019, from


Last updated: 15 Apr 2018
Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 15 Apr 2018
Published on All rights reserved.