Dec 12

Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas (2010)

“Britta-Bot: programmed badly, wires with fraying ends. Functioning mad and sadly, no faith in herself, or friends…”—Abed’s farewell song to Britta


My favorite Christmas special growing up was A Garfield Christmas (1987). Sure, I remember watching and enjoying the classics, from Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964) to How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), but something about the Garfield special had me coming back every holiday time. Thinking back, I believe it was its heart. I have not seen the special in a long time, and for all I know it is not as good as I remember. Still, there is one scene I remember finding particularly moving: toward the end of the story, as the family sings yuletide songs around the piano, Garfield finds Grandma sitting on her rocking chair by the window in the next room. He nestles himself atop her lap, listening as she reminisces about her deceased husband. There was something sad, yet hopeful about this moment, something that somehow captured the Christmas spirit for me. Ever since I can remember, I have always experienced Christmas as a short repose from reality, a light in the middle of dark and snowy winter. And so, I have always preferred my Christmas entertainment to acknowledge this bittersweet contrast. A Garfield Christmas fit the bill: while most holiday specials tended to romanticize the period, here was one that, sure, still did this, but with nuance.

I am an adult now, but remain a sucker for Christmas specials. One of the best specials to hit the airwaves in recent years comes to us, not so surprisingly, from one of the best comedies on television today: Community, created by Dan Harmon. As its name suggests, Community is a show about belonging and wanting to be accepted for who and as we are. It is also about taking the biggest risk of them all, caring for another. The best and most memorable episodes have often been the thematic ones: take, for example, Advanced Dungeons and Dragons from Season 2, or Remedial Chaos Theory from Season 3. The strength of Community’s thematic episodes is that they not only put all conventions aside to allow having the most fun possible with the selected theme, but also harness what the show is about in service of that theme. In short, no matter how far-fetched an episode gets, it never compromises the show’s integrity; that is, the episode’s “wacky” theme never gets precedence over the show’s overarching theme, relationships. Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, Season 2’s Christmas episode, is no exception.

Abed (Daniel Pudi) awakes one morning to discover that the entire world is now rendered in stop-motion animation. This day in his life, he decides, will evoke the Christmas specials of old. Understandably, his classmates and friends, Jeff (Joel McHale), Britta (Gillian Jacobs), Troy (Donald Glover), Annie (Alison Brie), Shirley (Yvette Nicole Brown) and Pierce (Chevy Chase), are worried for him. They enlist the services of psychology professor Dr. Duncan (John Oliver), who suggests an impromptu session of group therapy, in order to bring Abed back to reality. (Contrary to traditional group therapy, the group is here composed of only one client, the rest “therapists.”) The group chooses to indulge Abed in his fantasy, within which they are swiftly transported to Planet Abed, in search of… the Meaning of Christmas. The journey is fraught with dangers and revelations. Also, one by one à la Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, members of the search party are left behind for not displaying the right spirit of discovery. Both amusing and interspersed with genuine moments of emotion, Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas is particularly engaging television. Mostly, it is smart and thoughtful, avoiding any ridicule of its story’s protagonist and his unusual experiences.

One of the things I like most about Community is how much the writers respect their characters. While they have endowed them with a number of vulnerabilities, they nonetheless care for them very much, and wish them the best. Take Abed for example. He has trouble interpreting emotion and relating to others in ways that are socially acceptable. (The irony of it all is that his friends are often equally inept at relationships, simply in more standard ways.) Lacking certain abilities in the social realm, Abed compensates using well-developed abilities in other domains: he knows film and television incredibly well, and uses this knowledge to make sense of the “real” world. The medically minded will attempt to diagnose Abed, fueled by the wholehearted belief that whichever diagnosis they (oh so carefully) settle on will surely explain, and help them understand, why he behaves the way he does. Conversely, the show typically avoids medicalizing Abed’s behavior. Sure, he is weird (even he admits this), but he is not sick.

We often believe that because we have diagnosed someone as suffering from a given mental illness, we have explained their presenting problem. Because disease and symptoms are one and the same in psychiatry (Greenberg, 2010), however, to diagnose someone with a mental illness is merely to append a label to their problematic behavior. It is a linguistic, not a medical act. Psychologist Gary Greenberg notes: “To say that a person who suffers from sadness and lethargy and sleeplessness and the loss of appetite and interest is depressed is merely to give his suffering a new title” (p. 64). Similarly, psychiatrist Thomas Szasz remarked: “[When] a psychiatrist declares that an old woman in a nursing home has a bipolar illness, or that a young man who has dropped out of college has schizophrenia, a lay person thinks the doctor has made a diagnosis and does not realize that, in fact, he has merely renamed these persons” (1994, p. 30). To say that a person who reports unusual experiences is schizophrenic, then, is, in terms of explanatory power, akin to saying that someone who loves their country and is willing to sacrifice themselves for it is patriotic. Indeed, to call someone patriotic, or schizophrenic, or “OCD,” is merely to describe their behavior, not to explain it. Yet, we still proclaim, for example, “You know what I just realized: I think Nancy has Borderline Personality Disorder,” swelling with pride as if we had just discovered something meaningful and new about her (namely, the cause behind Nancy’s exasperating behavior). Of course, there is nothing wrong in categorizing people. Categorization can help us begin to understand someone, and can be an especially effective communicative device, especially in clinical settings. The danger lies in thinking we have understood (and communicated) more about a person than we really have, in thinking we have explained (to ourselves or others) their behavior, when we have only described it. (The confusion probably arises from complex behaviors being reduced to a single word or phrase, often including the term “disorder,” which gives us the impression we are dealing with a separate entity.)

Of course, people have reasons for behaving the way they do, and these reasons are probably discoverable. It is simply explanatorily fruitless, because it is redundant, to turn a given behavior into a condition that does nothing more than to describe what that behavior is, and then to postulate that condition as the original cause of that behavior. To actually explain someone’s behavior, to legitimately say we understand it, we must look past the behavior (and any descriptive labels) at variables that are not already subsumed under it. Otherwise, the discussion is entirely circular, and thus entirely meaningless.

In Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas, Abed involuntarily creates around him a fantasy world. One might limit oneself to saying he simply suffered from Brief Psychotic Disorder. As outlined above, this is equivalent to restating the “problem.” From a psychological perspective, this is also shamelessly shallow. It is completely missing the “point” of the experience, labeling it from afar with no real attempt at understanding it. Indeed, should we bother to actually understand the psychotic’s* experience, perhaps we would be less inclined to characterize it as pathological in the first place. This is the message R. D. Laing famously attempted to convey, to the irritation of his psychiatric brethren, during his career (see, for example, The Divided Self, 1959, and The Politics of Experience, 1967). Laing worked under the assumption that if we force ourselves to look past the psychotic’s strange and perplexing behavior, into its underlying phenomenological structure, that behavior will suddenly become comprehensible to us, and, in the process, less “crazy” or “sick” in appearance. This is all well and nice, but how should we understand the psychotic’s behavior? (It is worth noting at this point that while Professor Duncan largely avoids medicalizing Abed’s behavior, and attempts to identify the life events that brought it about, he unfortunately treats him as an object of study, a potentially lucrative case study.)

In his book Madness Explained: Psychosis and Human Nature (2005), psychologist Richard Bentall denounces current conceptualizations of psychosis. The Kraepelinian (nosological) approach to understanding experiences like delusions and hallucinations**, he believes, denies the humanity that is inherent to them. Indeed, experiences described as “psychotic” are every bit as part of the human experience as other, less extreme, behaviors. They are, in a matter of speaking, hyperbolic manifestations of mental challenges we all face. Psychologist-philosopher William James once observed: “[The] elementary mechanisms of our life are presumably so uniform that what is shown to be true in a marked degree of some persons is probably true in some degree of all, and may in a few be true in an extraordinarily high degree” (p. 257, 2002/1902). Indeed, the tendency exists in us all to believe in unusual things or perceive things other people do not; it is simply more developed in some than in others. Most importantly, we can appeal to the very same psychological mechanisms to explain all degrees of this tendency. Given this, there is no need to consider one set of tendency variations “healthy,” the other “pathological.” It is thus also misleading to postulate one single set of rules (usually a psychological process like volition) to explain the former, and another (usually a biological process like aberrant brain anatomy or chemistry) to explain the latter.

Unusual, if not downright bizarre mental events, Bentall asserts, are not biological anomalies, as many presently think them to be, but revealing occurrences that testify as to the unfolding of complex, but universal psychological processes. Because contemporary psychiatrists insist on discounting the inherent psychological meaning that permeates so-called psychotic episodes, Bentall proposes in his book a new way of thinking about such “fringe” experiences—one that is intent on emphasizing psychological meaning, as opposed to excising it. (Of course, to do this, Bentall resorts not to esoteric psycho-dynamically oriented tactics, but to a grounded evidence-based approach.) In re-conceptualizing the experiences of those diagnosed as “psychotic” as characteristically human (in that they are subject to the same forces all our experiences are), Bentall is able to cut through and diffuse their apparent incomprehensibility. To quote James again: “[Phenomena] are best understood when placed within their series, studied in their germ and in their over-ripe decay, and compared with their exaggerated and degenerated kindred” (p. 416, 2002/1902). In re-humanizing the psychotic, Bentall also manages to remind us what it means to be human. Laing certainly felt like we had something to learn from the psychotically prone: “Schizophrenics,” he came to realize, “have more to teach psychiatrists about the inner world than psychiatrists their patients” (1967, p. 91).

Like many breaks from reality, be they hallucinations or delusions, Abed’s Christmas fantasy is provoked by a stressful, personally taxing event in his life. Certainly, Abed did not decide to deal with this incident in an imaginative fashion. Indeed, saying that his fanciful break from reality is due to him being a creative person implies some sort of intent on his part that is simply absent—we are talking, after all, about Abed’s uncontrollable Christmas. (Conceptualizing odd behaviors as creative also unnecessarily romanticizes them.) In spite of this, we can safely say that Abed reacted to (what we find out to be) abandonment and disenchantment in a way that, while perhaps not voluntarily caused, still bears his imprint—the mark of his own essence, or what various biological, environmental, and psychological processes have made him. Abed’s reaction is not sick, simply idiosyncratic—just in the same manner all our reactions to inner and outer turmoil are.

The psychologists and psychology students among you have, at this point, probably noticed how Abed’s journey through Planet Abed closely parallels Laing’s (1967) understanding of the psychotic experience. The psychiatrist, who was notoriously prone to idealizing madness, characterized this type of experience as a transformative journey in, through, and out of some remote inner land. This is where I, like many others, depart from Laing, preferring a more parsimonious approach (like that provided by Bentall) to the understanding of those experiences reported by psychotic individuals.

When Jeff, Britta, Troy, Annie, Shirley and Pierce realize there is very little that is arbitrary about Abed’s experience, they finally stop focusing on its outward unusualness, and start focusing instead on its personal significance. In doing so, they come to realize his fantasy happens to bear a not-so-unusual, universal quality: indeed, Abed’s Christmas construction is dually permeated with the hopeful expectation that our affection for our friends and family will always be reciprocated, and the crushing disappointment that ensues when we find out this is not necessarily the case. In the end, Jeff, Britta, Troy, Annie, Shirley and Pierce, through their newfound understanding of Abed’s predicament, are able to offer him what he truly needs: not a cold reality-check, but genuine empathy and support (which, incidentally, serve to jolt Abed back to our reality).

As a psychologist in training who works with clients reporting recurring unusual experiences, I would like to make one technical remark regarding the otherwise flawless Community Christmas special. In it, Abed’s friends choose to participate in his fantasy: first, to try to save him from himself, then to try to save him from Professor Duncan. This is not recommended when actually trying to help someone who tends to sever ties with agreed-upon reality. Because we can never be certain of what is real and what is not, and everything is technically possible, one should of course never discount any experience, however “out there” it may be. Since a given person’s unusual experiences are often similar in (thematic, emotional, etc.) quality, one should nonetheless encourage him or her to consider more qualitatively varied ways of experiencing the world, which is likely not “built” to accommodate one lonely perspective. Of course, the writers did well to focus on entertainment—that is their job, after all—and disregard this therapeutic rule.

As the Community Christmas special demonstrates, though, reality-checks are perhaps not what individuals in the midst of psychosis really need. Are those of us working with such clients, then, wrong to dedicate the therapeutic hour to “thinking properly”? We saw earlier how most human behavior (even quite bewildering behavior) can be understood in terms of several, non-pathological forces, one of them being psychology. Psychotherapy, of course, focuses on a person’s psychology, in the hopes this will be enough to either change or produce new behavior. But since psychology amounts to more than cognition, perhaps only talking “thoughts” is indeed a mishandling of the therapeutic hour.

Because the psychotic and the psychologist disagree as to the nature of reality, the psychologist’s reflex in therapy with the psychotic is to reduce the chasm between fantasy and reality by talking about fantasy and reality. Indeed, cognitive-behavioral therapy for psychosis amounts to nothing more than an epistemological discussion on reality and how to best ascertain it. This type of discussion, while intellectually relevant, more often than not entails a struggle, as therapist and client attempt to demonstrate to one another that their way of seeing the world is the correct one. I wonder, though: when we try to think the chasm between fantasy and reality shut, are we foregoing a more worthwhile discussion, one that might perhaps serve to feel the chasm shut?

Laing maintained: “Comprehension as an effort to reach and grasp him, while remaining within our own world and judging him by our own categories whereby he inevitably falls short, is not what the schizophrenic either wants or requires. We have to recognize all the time his distinctiveness and differentness, his separateness and loneliness and despair” (1959, p. 38). Laing here dismisses, among other therapeutic techniques, the “reality-check.” According to him, we are wrong to confront the psychotic’s unwillingness to accept our view of reality, because this is, first, unfair, and, second, this neglects other, more relevant aspects of his experience. Instead, an ideal psychotherapy for psychosis should base itself not on our own terms, but on terms we and the psychotic share in common; it should take the client where he is, as opposed to forcibly dragging him to where we are. In order to achieve this, an ideal psychotherapy for psychosis should focus on facets of the psychotic’s experience other than that of the external world (i.e., the subject of contention). Emotionally focused work represents one possible option—and an appropriate one at that, given psychosis has been described by some as a crisis that is intrinsically emotional in nature (Romme & Escher, 2012). Whereas there are presumably “right” or “wrong” beliefs, there are no such things as “right” or “wrong” emotions. No “right” or “wrong.” Nothing for therapist and client to fight over. No risk of losing face. Emotions, then, provide therapist and client with a level playing field. They also, unfortunately, represent an often-neglected facet of experience in many modern therapies.

Writing about delusions specifically, Škodlar, Henriksen, Sass, Nelson, and Parnas (2012) implore:  “[It] is crucial […] to consider the larger subjective context in which delusions occur and are experienced; otherwise an essential quality of consciousness—its meaningful unity—is ignored” (p. 5). Delusional beliefs, the authors point out, are not simply experienced as beliefs, but within a larger experiential context that also includes, most notably, emotions. Given this, any “psychotherapy for delusions” deserving of its name should technically acknowledge and tend to all phenomenological components of the delusional mindset. Traditional cognitive-behavioral therapy, with its limited focus on cognitions, presently falls short of achieving this. Škodlar et al. therefore encourage the psychotherapeutic community to develop more holistic strategies to alleviate psychosis, strategies that take into account the person’s entire subjective experience.

Let us imagine we find out, over the course of therapy, that a client’s seemingly erroneous beliefs about the world stems not from an “epistemic desire to know,” but from a mostly emotional position, that this person is not only intellectually, but also emotionally invested in his beliefs. In this situation, might it not be more helpful to engage with him in an emotional discussion drawing attention to the emotional underpinnings of his beliefs, as opposed to an intellectual discussion treating these beliefs as purely epistemic statements about the world? I believe so. Of course, since emotionally-held beliefs can still be accurate, such an emotional exploration of beliefs would not serve specifically to change beliefs, simply to a) eliminate the emotional charge associated with a given belief, whether accurate or inaccurate, so as to reorient attention away from the belief, and allow the believing individual to start attending to other matters and living a less narrow existence, and perhaps even to b) start attending (with some of that newly freed attention) to the evidence, which may or may not lead to a change in beliefs. As these objectives of an emotionally attuned therapy for delusional psychosis indicate, I am not here dismissing the value of teaching critical thinking skills. I am merely expressing doubts regarding their usefulness as a first-line tool for “treating” the delusional mindset.  In theoretical terms, this means beginning the therapeutic journey with an experiential orientation, and then phasing in cognitive-behavioral elements with time.

We have so far focused on delusional ideas rather than perceptions. Would talking “emotions” also help “treat” hallucinations? There is preliminary evidence this could be the case. According to Chouinard and Miller (1999), “[an] ‘‘hallucination’’ can […] be defined as the amplification of a thought to the point where it seems no longer like a thought, but more like a subjective response to a real stimulus” (p. 109). (Note that the authors widen the definition of a thought to include mental images.) A fascinating study by García-Montes, Peérez-Álvarez, and Fidalgo (2003) further demonstrated that individuals who suppress self-discrepant thoughts are more likely to experience hallucinations than those who mindfully acknowledge their presence and continue attending to other matters. Given the apparent link between hallucinations and “normal” thoughts, it is tempting to suggest therapy with a cognitive bent to either wholly eliminate or simply weaken the experiential intensity of hallucinations. Indeed, this is exactly the conclusion García-Montes et al. come to in their article. If we accept that “emotion and thought are highly integrated into conscious experience” (Greenberg, 2002, p. 26), however, the assumption that hallucinations can best be dealt with via strictly cognitive means effectively becomes faulty. In the same way Škodlar et al. (2012) suggest “we consider the larger subjective context in which delusions occur” (p. 5) and stop attending in therapy only to the cognitive face of unusual beliefs, perhaps so should we consider the larger subjective context in which hallucinations occur and avoid attending in therapy only to the cognitive face of unshared sensory experiences. (Indeed, perhaps the time has come for Beyond Cognition Therapy [BCT] for psychosis, where the therapist would act something like Greenberg’s “emotion coach”; p. 55.)

Abed’s Uncontrollable Christmas attempts to answer the oft-posed question: what is the meaning of Christmas? It is thus only fitting that the episode also happens to explore (however unintentionally) the meaning of experience in general. Abed and his friends conclude that Christmas is whatever the hell we want it to be, and that no one (not even Christians) have a patent on what exactly its meaning is. (As expressed earlier, I tend to view Christmas as a safe “place” from which to observe and contend with the more difficult aspects of our existence.) While holidays can mean whatever those who choose to celebrate them want them to, however, unusual experiences such as delusions and hallucinations only mean one thing: they are of the persons experiencing them. They are not the clinical products of brain circuitry gone awry—nor are they, for that matter, superior ways of experiencing the world. Put simply: they are extensions of these individuals’ inner being, reflections of our very nature. Indeed, whereas the external worlds perceived by ourselves and the psychotic could not be more different, our internal worlds could not be more alike. Jeff, Britta, Troy, Annie, Shirley and Pierce eventually come to appreciate this, as many actual professionals in so-called “mental health” did before them. Perhaps the rest of us would do well to finally follow suit.


* Mental health professionals typically object to the use of terms like “psychotics” to describe individuals who are (in this case) psychotic, preferring the more laborious “individuals suffering from psychosis” instead. The latter expression, however, erroneously implies that psychosis (or any so-called mental illness) is something that we have, instead of something that we do. Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz wrote: “Bodily illness is something the patient has, whereas mental illness is really something he is or does” (1973, p. 87; italics in original). Laing (1959) earlier expressed a similar sentiment regarding psychosis specifically: “No one has schizophrenia, like having a cold. The patient has not “got” schizophrenia. He is schizophrenic” (p. 34; italics in original). (Interestingly, the French language accommodates this perspective: French speakers, for example, say “Il fait une dépression,” as opposed to “He has depression.”) For this reason, I willfully make use of terms like “psychotics.” That being said, I certainly do not mean to imply there is no more to those individuals I refer to in this way than the socially and/or personally problematic behaviors they exhibit. I simply prefer to call individuals who exhibit psychotic behavior “psychotics” because this correctly implies that they are psychotic (i.e., doing psychosis, in the same way depressives do depression).

** While I prefer the relatively judgment-free terms “break from agreed-upon reality,” “unshared sensory experience” and “unusual belief” to the trivializing terms “psychosis,” “hallucination” and “delusion,” I here privilege the latter, being less of a mouthful!


Bentall, R. (2005). Madness explained: Psychosis and human nature. Toronto, ON: Penguin Books.

Chouinard, G., & Miller, R. (1999). A Rating Scale for Psychotic Symptoms (RSPS) Part I: Theoretical principles and subscale 1: Perception symptoms (illusions and hallucinations). Schizophrenia Research, 38, 101–122.

García-Montes, J. M., Peérez-Álvarez, M., & Fidalgo, A. M. (2003). Influence of the suppression of self-discrepant thoughts on the vividness of perception of auditory illusions. Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy, 31, 33–44.

Greenberg, G. (2010). Manufacturing Depression: The secret history of a modern disease. Toronto, ON: Simon and Schuster.

Greenberg, L. S. (2002). Emotion-focused therapy: Coaching clients to work through their feelings. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

James, W. (2002). Varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. Toronto, ON: Modern Library. (Original work published 1902)

Laing, R. D. (1959). The divided self: An existential study in sanity and madness. Toronto, ON: Penguin Books.

Laing, R. D. (1967). The politics of experience & The bird of paradise. Toronto, ON: Penguin Books.

Romme, M., & Escher, S. (Eds.). (2012). Psychosis as a personal crisis: An experience-based approach. New York, NY: Routledge.

Škodlar, B., Henriksen, M. G., Sass, L. A., Nelson, B., & Parnas, J. (2012, October 3). Cognitive-behavioral therapy for schizophrenia: A critical evaluation of its theoretical framework from a clinical-phenomenological perspective. Psychopathology. Retrieved December 1, 2012, from here.

Szasz, T. (1973). The second sin. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.

Szasz, T. (1994). A lexicon of lunacy: Metaphoric malady, moral responsibility, and psychiatry. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Note: Abed’s uncontrollable Christmas is available on iTunes.

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