During a recent talk therapy session with a wonderful client, we stumbled upon the metaphor of the ‘despair squid’, a narrative device in what is arguably one of the best episodes of the British comedy Red Dwarf: ‘Back to Reality’ (series 5).
The episode, broadcast in 1992, explores what individuals experience as reality; the theme of a despair squid acting like a virtual reality game seems to be the perfect metaphor for the experience of rejection sensitive dysphoria or RSD, first described in 1995.
RSD - emotional dysregulation
It is impossible for the creators to have known about the concept of RSD when the TV episode was written, however Red Dwarf is known for its inclusion of mental health and psychological influences. (For example, in series 1 we meet Lister’s confidence and paranoia in an episode of the same name, and in series 3 in ‘Polymorph’, an alien creature sucks out the negative emotions of its victims.) The series’ co-creators Rob Grant and Doug Naylor had been psychology students, so must have had an interest in this field!
RSD was reportedly first coined by William Dodson, a psychiatrist specialising in Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). He first described RSD as ‘an emotional response to the perceived possibility of rejection, criticism, or failure.’ It is thought that neurodivergent folk, like ADHDers and autistic people, may be more sensitive to rejection or criticism due to difficulties with emotional regulation and self-esteem, and the need to function in a neurotypical world.
The purpose of this article is to explore the fact that, if you are a person in the clutches of RSD, your reality has been highjacked; you’re in a virtual reality game that your mind and body keeps playing.
In ‘Back to Reality’, the crew discover they have been playing a virtual reality game called ‘Better Than Life’ for the past four years, and their memories of the real world have been erased. The despair squid that is preying on them in the game is a ‘gigantic prehistoric leviathan’, according to Kryten, a good descriptor for RSD, because, while it was only named as such in recent times, is likely a long-standing and primal reaction in the nervous system; part of the survival instinct that our human ancestors developed many years ago.
When in the throes of RSD, we’re in emotional dysregulation - our brain can’t properly regulate the signals related to our emotions; our reality is skewed. (RSD can reportedly be treated or managed. Methods include medications, typically prescribed for those with ADHD, that affect specific chemical receptors in the brain cells and help us regulate internal communication. RSD can also be addressed via talk therapy and self-growth, to help us process and manage feelings.)
RSD – a hallucinogenic defence mechanism
In the Back to Reality episode, Kryten explains that the squid attacking the crew produces ‘A hallucinogenic venomous defence mechanism that dysfunctions its prey by inducing despair’.
(A fabulous insight into the writers’ ‘inside knowledge’ around matters of psychology; defence mechanism being unconscious psychological processes that we use to protect ourselves from difficult emotions). 'It’s gonna kill us, eat us or hump us’, muses Lister.
When the characters ‘lose’ the virtual reality game within their hallucination, the game’s artificial intelligence advises that: ‘As with all role playing adventures, you will experience some disorientation when leaving the game’.
RSD – a fragmentation of reality
This is exactly what happens when in the throes of RSD. We experience disorientation and dysphoria as there’s some fragmentation between the reality of what we are experiencing, and the very real-feeling ‘highjacking’ within our body, and the nervous system’s ‘felt memory’ of feeling criticised or rejected.
‘None of us is who we thought we were’ Kryten reports. The Cat is horrified to find out he is in fact the (iconic) Dwayne Dibley, a geek with an anorak, white socks and plastic sandals, a shameful persona who challenges the Cat’s intrinsic sense of value embedded within his stylishness and attractiveness.
All of the characters have taken on video game characters that embody the opposite of their deepest fears or weaknesses.
A key moment in the episode is when the characters, Kryten, Lister, Rimmer and the Cat (or Jake, Sebastian, Billy and Dwayne), feel so hopeless that they feel that taking their own life is the only solution – the despair squid has overpowered them.
‘Kryten, you’re hallucinating, put the gun down,’ instructs Holly, the ship’s computer, who has managed to communicate to Kryten at a higher frequency, and has broken through the virtual reality. ‘The hallucinations attack the things we consider quintessential to our self-esteem,’ explains the all-knowing Kryten. ‘[The result is] despair designed to take you to the edge.’
‘I’m not Dwayne Dibley?’ asks the Cat. ‘No,’ affirms Kryten, as Holly blasts the squid with limpet mines, to obliterate its power.
Our inner, central computer – our ‘Self’
The episode feels like a fantastic metaphor for the idea of our central computer, our inner-Holly, being ultimately in control of how our body reacts ‘in the moment’. In the throes of RSD, our primal reactions convince us we’re being rejected. Past pattens of relating to people, likely developed in our younger lives, i.e. when we were children living with our family of origin, are triggered ‘in the now’ by something that’s been said, or that we feel is implied. Our body, which has held on to the ‘hurt at rejection’ within our nervous system, goes into a virtual reality, and the despair squid, or the RSD, lets its ink flood the body with feelings of fight and flight.
The antidote to the experience is to escape from the video game or the virtual reality; to let our ‘ship’s computer’ (our Self, the ‘us’ that’s our real biological age and can direct our attention and affect our breathing patterns), derail the despair squid.
We can use the breath to regulate the body. The ‘tension release’ breath, breathing in, holding for a comfortable amount of time, and breathing out slowly, is the ideal way to reclaim reality, and bring us back into the present. By utilising the breath in this way, we can learn to ‘buy ourselves time’ to get our ‘Self’ back online, and try to regulate the body. Affirmations (said out loud or inside our heads) around being in control, being enough, being valid and valuable, can help us.
This helps us realise that we are NOT our alter ego that reveals all of the shameful aspects of Self that we believe to be true, that we’re afraid of, that we believe will cause people to reject us, and that we try to defend or cover up.
We are NOT Dwayne Dibley, and the despair squid (RSD) is NOT our current reality!
Red Dwarf available to watch for free on UKTV Play.