Fiction book needs plausible pseudo-science...
March 16, 2008 9:11 AM   Subscribe

I am working on a book plot that relies on some members of a family developing depression and erratic behavior. I need ideas for an environmental cause of such behavior inside their home.

So in the plot concept, two members of a family of four are afflicted with depression and erratic behavior to different degrees. For one of them, it manifests as more or less justifiable depression due to events around him, but which is not recognized by others as mental illness. For the other, it manifests as a deeper depression with reclusiveness and wearing strange clothing around the house, to the extent that people assume she really needs medical help.

I want the underlying cause for both to be environmental (and reversible after several days / weeks of non-exposure) within the family home, but which is only realized after a number of lengthy excursions from the house.

Note also that other family members are not affected, even though they share the exact same living quarters.

I need a (mostly) plausible environmental cause which might in reality affect some people but not others, and which can cause the said effect in a few months, or preferably just a few weeks.

In terms of plausibility, I'm looking for something the average GP wouldn't think of at first, but not quite at the House level of investigation. This being fiction, it doesn't have to actually really stack up, but if it did, so much the better. It should also not require highly convoluted scientific explanations -- it has to be reasonably accessible to intelligent readers.

Any ideas?
posted by blue_wardrobe to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Not sure if it will work for you or not, but postpartum depression is very common and can be extreme.
posted by wsg at 9:16 AM on March 16, 2008

Response by poster: @wsg: thanks, but to clarify, it must be something that will affect males and females alike; will affect some people but not others; will go away after lack of exposure; will come back again with further exposure.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 9:20 AM on March 16, 2008

Response by poster: (Person 1 is a teenage boy; Person 2 is his mother; father and daughter are unaffected.)
posted by blue_wardrobe at 9:21 AM on March 16, 2008

posted by Leon at 9:22 AM on March 16, 2008

That was weird. Link, I command you to appear!
posted by Leon at 9:22 AM on March 16, 2008

It might be a stretch, and you'll have to tweak your story somewhat, but how about Wilson's Disease? It's got all the psych symptoms you're looking for (kind of, but it's fiction), family genetics may increase susceptibility, and it's got a treatment.

I'd read about the illness at emedicine and research all the possible dementia symptoms you want to make it sound even more plausible
posted by ruwan at 9:31 AM on March 16, 2008

Maybe low level carbon monoxide poisoning from a furnace or water heater? It's plausible to affect one person more than others depending on placement of the appliances and bedrooms, etc.

From the link: The earliest symptoms, especially from low level exposures, are often non-specific and readily confused with other illnesses, typically flu-like viral syndromes, depression, chronic fatigue syndrome, and migraine or other headaches. This often makes the diagnosis of carbon monoxide poisoning difficult. If suspected, the diagnosis can be confirmed by measurement of blood carboxyhemoglobin.

One of the major concerns following CO poisoning is the severe neurological manifestations that may occur days or even weeks after an acute poisoning. Common problems encountered are difficulty with higher intellectual functions and short-term memory, dementia, irritability, gait disturbance, speech disturbances, parkinson-like syndromes, cortical blindness, and depression.

posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 9:36 AM on March 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

What about carbon monoxide poisoning? Had a faulty heater in my house and it happened to my family. Resulted in lots of lethargy and unclear thinking. Astute heating guy found it and made us leave the house immediately. We were back to normal within a few days.
posted by Zebtron at 9:39 AM on March 16, 2008 [1 favorite]

Being vitamin D deficient can cause depression. It varies in the family because some party all night and sleep in late and miss getting sunshine. Others compensate by drinking a lot of vitamin d fortified milk. Some don't drink milk because of fad dieting. One wears a bathing suit around the house in winter in an unconscious attempt to expose more skin to light.

Lack of vitamin d also causes muscle twitching and rickets.

Vitamin D malnutrition may also be linked to an increased susceptibility to several chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, tuberculosis, cancer, periodontal disease, multiple sclerosis, chronic pain, depression, schizophrenia, seasonal affective disorder, and several autoimmune diseases including type 1 diabetes (see role in immunomodulation). - wikipedia
posted by cda at 9:41 AM on March 16, 2008

Mold. I spent about three years milling about in depression, and I partially blame the mold which was in my apartment at the time. If you're even slightly allergic to it, you get pervasive, low-level sinus headaches and a general sense of uncomfortable confusion. Everything has a slight smell and it just keeps on spreading - sometimes invisibly.

Dittoing as well Vitamin D deficiency. It's also a problem which can be exacerbated by depression - depressed people can eat poorly and don't often frolic in the sun.

Spinning off of the carbon monoxide suggestion - I've been in a few places which have a slight methane smell. Maybe (hopefully!) not a proper gas leak, but that...smell. It's not pleasant.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:49 AM on March 16, 2008

Best answer: The CO poisoning is perfect for your plot. It happened to some friends of ours, and only the mother of a family of five was affected. For a depth of verisimilitude no one will ever appreciate, have her dress obsessively only in shades of yellow.
posted by jamjam at 10:08 AM on March 16, 2008


Here's a list of physical illnesses and deficiencies that can give rise to / present the symptoms of depression.
posted by mumkin at 10:17 AM on March 16, 2008

Oh, and said hypothyroidism would be attributable to the family using some kind of all-natural non-iodized salt at home, so that only when eating in the wider world does your character get a sufficiency of iodine. Perhaps the other characters share a love for a commercially-processed salty snack that affords them a sustaining dose of iodine.
posted by mumkin at 10:44 AM on March 16, 2008

I came here to say Carbon Monoxide poisoning as well.
posted by Benjy at 10:49 AM on March 16, 2008

Already suggested, but a gas leak is one that I know people who have gone somewhat off-kilter because of.
posted by parmanparman at 10:55 AM on March 16, 2008

Maybe lead poisoning? Symptoms include sluggishness, memory loss, weakness, moodiness, etc. This can also affect certain family members and not others -- I knew a man whose wife developed lead poisoning because for many months she consumed orange juice that she had prepared and stored in an ornamental pitcher that they finally discovered had a lead-based glaze. They'd picked the pitcher up on vacation and never considered the risk. The wife developed some advanced memory loss and erratic behavior, but the man never drank orange juice, so he was fine. It took them a couple months to figure it out after the symptoms set in.
posted by mochapickle at 11:11 AM on March 16, 2008

Response by poster: @jamjam: right idea - I was thinking of a wedding dress and the occasional beach bikini top (over the top of the wedding dress). But very cool.

@mochapickle: nice idea - I need more along this line - I don't know how quickly lead poisoning symptoms can rise, disappear, rise again and disappear again... which is what I really need.

These are all great ideas - please keep them coming.
posted by blue_wardrobe at 11:40 AM on March 16, 2008

An entirely fictional idea:

Perhaps a particular (high pitched?) tone is present in the house. This specific note, perhaps generated by harmonics in the air conditioning system, pushes the 'depression button' in these two characters. Change out the A/C to fix the problem.
posted by MotorNeuron at 11:42 AM on March 16, 2008

Response by poster: @MotorNeuron: also good. I think infrasound might be more likely...?
posted by blue_wardrobe at 11:57 AM on March 16, 2008

Yusho Disease results from PCB contamination. As the Wikipedia article referenced by the link describes, contaminated cooking oil has been to blame on several occasions. The early symptoms involve skin lesions, so that could lead to a set of red herring diagnoses. Later symptoms fit depression better.
posted by carmicha at 12:02 PM on March 16, 2008

How about SAD? Maybe the most strongly affected people are the ones whose bedrooms face in a direction that doesn't get any sun, or don't go outside for some reason?
posted by bink at 12:38 PM on March 16, 2008

I dunno, I like a good ergot poisoning every once in a while. Eating contaminated cereal or grains (it can affect grains other than rye), something Dad grew in the backyard maybe and ground himself, put in the ole Tupperware and wa-lah, whoever eats it gets whacked out. If someone only has it once (say Mom sneaks it into the meatloaf), they will be less affected. The one who eats it a lot will be hallucinating. The ones who don't eat it, nothing.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 1:47 PM on March 16, 2008

Response by poster: @Marie Mon Dieu: Perhaps a mercury poisoning, looking like ergot? Like in Pont-Saint-Esprit in 1951?

How possible, and viable would that be in terms of producing depression-like symptoms, with maybe a little bit of paranoia and psychosis thrown in?
posted by blue_wardrobe at 2:40 PM on March 16, 2008

Scopolamine, which can be absorbed through the skin by people handling one of the nightshade plants (e.g., jimson weed and others), induces delusions so profound that sufferers are believed to be suffering psychotic breaks. It's also been used to induce sleepyness and as truth serum. Perhaps the victims tend a houseplant or enjoy gardening? By the way, criminal use of this drug is on the rise, especially in South America, because the targets become compliant and then suffer amnesia about what they've done (e.g., open the safe for the bad guy).

As an aside, it might be another wrinkle for one of your victims to suffer the environmentally-induced depression and the other one to mimic the same effects in an all-in-the-family case of hysteria.

You may also find this blog on "poison, medicine and things that grow" to be useful.
posted by carmicha at 3:23 PM on March 16, 2008

Fluorescent lighting. The type of tubes that have a barely noticeable flicker and make that incessant hum. Perhaps the whole house is lit this way?
posted by popcassady at 5:33 PM on March 16, 2008

Seconding mold, and adding allergies to mites/mildew/dust/etc. I have that BAD and it gets worse when I'm at home in Malaysia because it's so dust-ridden.
posted by divabat at 6:29 PM on March 16, 2008

Nthing carbon monoxide poisoning. In addition to the symptoms listed so far, it's also culprit behind many so-called "haunted" houses because it causes hallucinations and feelings of dread.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:25 PM on March 16, 2008

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