Monday, July 03, 2006

Paranoid Android

Last week I realised I was beginning to slip into paranoia. This week I read that one in three people in the UK regularly experience paranoid thoughts. This is nonsense.

They offer an example of a paranoid thought:
Greg, 19, student: "If I'm with a friend and someone rings them on their mobile and they tell the caller they're with me, well if the caller then says something I can't hear and the friend I'm with laughs, I always think that the person on the other end of the phone said something horrible about me."

Well, duh. Of course you do. If they laughed and didn’t go on to explain why they had laughed, they positively invited you to think that. Whether or not something horrible was being said about you, your friend has appalling manners and should be abandoned.

We are all concerned about what other people think of us and we know that other people talk about us because we talk about other people. We are social animals; we confuse and fascinate one another. What people say about us behind our backs has to remain a mystery and the possibility that we are being laughed cannot ever be ruled out. We all know this, we all suspect this under certain circumstances and, in the above example, this is a fairly rational hypothesis. Of course, some people will care much more than others, but it wouldn't make them paranoid

Paranoia is defined as a delusional way of thinking; para meaning beyond (noos: mind). Granted, we all use this word to apply to fairly minor niggles, just as we say we feel depressed because it is raining or that it has been manic in the supermarket. However, whilst psychologists need to make a living, using this word to refer to ordinary thought patterns, thus pathologising the entire human race, is somewhat irresponsible.

Crucially, it means that when people are in serious trouble, other people are less likely to understand or appreciate the seriousness of the situation. Plus it supports the idea that all mental distress is an illness which needs to be (and can be) addressed and cured. Mental distress is part of the human situation.

Now I am not a socially confident person at all. Much of the time, I get really very worried about causing offence to people or making people feel uncomfortable in some way shape or form. This is notparanoia; this is low confidence and general social ineptitude – mostly but not entirely the result of chronic illness and the resulting isolation and inexperience. My experiences don't even stretch as far as Social Anxiety Disorder; they don't stop me doing stuff or engaging with other people.

The week before last, one event caused me to feel insecure about other people I care about. This was not paranoia either; that was a fairly normal reaction to a distressing and surprising event. But last week it took on a different shape, I was without my laptop and so with far fewer distractions to take me out of myself and it got very silly, to the point that I was feeling extremely nauseous (which I assume to be psychosomatic as it has since gone away) and becoming somewhat preoccupied with bad thoughts.

It was only a couple of bad days. I have a disease of the nervous system and this boat doesn't take much to rock it. Brief spells of this kind of thing do not qualify me as having a mental illness, but I would use the word paranoia to describe this sort of thing. These sort of experiences I have had myself would include being close to certain that:
  • Something I have said or done in innocence has caused major upset to someone even though there is no reason to suggest this person is upset.
  • People are going to find out, or have already found out, about personal and private things in my life - usually things I would be deeply ashamed about.
  • Something I have said or done has lead or will lead directly to something very bad happening to someone I care about. It was about that level last week.
  • I have supernatural powers which make bad things happen to other people, or bring about major disasters in the world.
  • My thoughts are leaking out of my head for all to see.
I could be more specific, but it would be mortifying. It sounds crazy, but it is. That’s the point. These kind of thoughts are evidence for my having been somewhat unhinged at the time. Fortunately, in my case, like hallucinations and other weird experiences, my equilibrium is rather fragile, but quickly re-establishes itself.

The most extreme example of paranoia I came across in someone else was when I visited my friend, who has Borderline Personality Disorder, after the Soham murder victims had disappeared. Events in Soham had happened to coincide with a bad spell for him. This was before we knew for certain these two little girls were dead, and their faces were on the news all day and on the front of every newspaper.

My friend is not sexually attracted to children and anyway, he is gay. He wouldn’t hurt a fly, lives the other end of the country from Soham and has no independent transport. And yet he said to me; “What if I killed those little girls? What if I did it for some reason or other, but have blocked out the memory?”

That is paranoia. I remember it well because I was stunned. However, part of the problem with such thoughts is they are so scary you keep them to yourself. Once my friend had said this out loud and we had gone through all the ways in which it was absolutely impossible, he was laughing at the silliness of the idea.

Uh, I am about to be kicked off the computer so no time to round up with any sort of conclusion.


Sally said...

Goldfish, I do 'enjoy' - appreciate, expand within the experience of, reading your thoughtful and thought provoking posts.

Part of my psychodynamic training involved role-playing. Once I drew the short straw, and played the borderline psychotic to the sheer amazement of myself and the rest of the team. How did I get into the role? Simple really, it (the possibility of psychosis - unconnectedness) was in there and I was able to access it. In controlled circumstances. I had the control. Freaked everybody out, including myself, but the very competent professional tutor explained how it had been possible. And it was an essential part of the training, to find that bit within one's self, through role playing.

As a counsellor, one has to have been there to be able to accompany other people (clients) to go where they need to go themselves.

I think the point I am trying to make (to myself) is that people who carry the load of experiences that are out of kilter with everyone else's, don't have something extra (negative)within themselves, that others don't have, its that something has happened, chemically, physically, psychologically, that means it isn't under their control.

Control can be regained, or not, most of the time or a bit of the time.

Once I had understood and accepted that, the bit in me that had experienced psychotic behaviour as normal within my family, became much more liveable with, less a fearful thing that could creep up on me and catch me unprepared.

Living with my pre-cognitive dreams was a bit weird while it lasted !

I hope you are restored to your laptop soon, and all that goes with it.

Mary said...

"Well, duh. Of course you do."

Er, no, you don't. A reasonable reaction would be to assume that the person on the other end said something funny.

Anyway, your friends aren't duty-bound to share every detail of their private conversations with other people, with you. What if the laughter was because the conversation was this one:
"Hi, are you with anyone?"
"I'm with the Goldfish, why?"
"Rats, I was hoping you'd be on your own. I need a lift to A&E, I've lost my vibrator up my bottom. Can you think of anyone else with a car STOP LAUGHING YOU GIT!"

Not about you but doesn't warrant sharing, you know?

I think we're treading a definitions line here, between what is "paranoia" and what is "an over-reaction".

Anonymous said...

In one of the Father Brown stories, someone asks the good Father how he manages to empathize so accurately with the murderers. And Father says, it's because I am a murderer myself, in my mind; I experience all the extreme emotions of hatred, cruelty, rage, lust, greed etc, the only difference is I don't act them out.

I remember too, like Sally, various training sessions where we had to act out rôles like the hysterical or aggressive patient. The performances were mesmerising and there were no shortages of volunteers. And often it was the quietest, most unassuming people who were the best at it.

Irrationality and violence and suspicion are in all of us IMHO. The difference between civilised and not, is the ability to control most of it most of the time.

The Goldfish said...

Sally and Charles, You're right; these things don't come from elsewhere (even when they are drug-induced). And really we are capable of a very good level of empathy; we read books and watch films about characters who do extraordinary things which we wouldn't dream of doing in real life, and 'get it' completely.

Trouble is, because we don't talk properly about mental illness, we continue to carry this idea that these experiences are very much like things we experience ordinarily. Folks who are depressed are merely blue. Folks who are experiencing mania are merely high-spirited.

In a sense, this is better that imagining folks with certain experiences are all monstrous loons who ought to be locked up. But it does lead to the continued idea that this is something we all experience, so those who are, for example, incapacited by depression, merely lack moral fibre.

Not entirely sure control is the right word that you have both chosen... but I'll maybe come back to that.

Another dangerous effect is that folks begin to diagnose ordinary distress as illness, which rather than riding out or working through, we medicate. For example, while bereavement can lead into depression, most of the time folks need to go through those things in order to come to terms and move on - if they or people around them think that they're very very unhappy therefore must be sick, then we are interfering with a mechanism which works perfectly well as it is.

Of course counselling is the ultimate intervention because, used properly, it processes this unfinished business as well as everything else.

Sally - belated thanks for your lovely comment last week about love and life and stuff; meant to reply to it but techical problems got in the way and then it seemed too late.

Mary, :-) Fair point, but I think we may have to agree to disagree on a point of etiquette. If I am with a friend and I receive a phone-call, then hope that it is either not a private conversation (having told my caller than I am with the friend, thus establishing the presence of a third party) or I would excuse myself and take it elsewhere for a private conversation.

If the caller did something silly like tell me about their vibrator accident knowing there was another person present, then I hope that I would either attempt to contain my laughter (or the sake of both my friends) or else make up some mildly amusing story to explain my laughter to my bemused friend.

However, must be said that I don't use a mobile phone, so I may not so easily envisage scenarios where this kind of difficulty is unavoidable.

Sally said...

Thanks Goldfish, I hope you know (and I am sorry if it was not clear) that I know that what I can connect with through role play and empathise with, is not a minute one percent of that which other people live and suffer with. Its a mere shadow of the monstrous cloud that others have to deal with every day; all the day and all the night.

spotted elephant said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. When, oh when, will they reclassify mental disorders so that they do not share common names with emotions or moods?

People insist that it's good because it helps mental disorders seem less strange and frightening. I say garbage-people react commonly to mental disorders in one of two ways:
1) Well, I've been depressed, and I just pulled myself out of it. Why don't you?!

2) You freak!

Having people equate disorders with everyday behavior is insulting and trivializing, and just misses the point by a mile. I've experienced growth in my body: my hair grows too fast. That doesn't make me understand what it's like to have cancer. Your comment on pathologizing everything was spot on.

Oops, I didn't mean to go on a rant.

Mary said...

Actually having thought about it, it's entirely possible that I just have a group of friends and family who get themselves into an unusually wide variety of scrapes (sometimes funny, sometimes horrific, sometimes tragic or hospital-dashing or whatever) and there's a certain few of us who really do rely on each other for everything.

The mobile is an important part of my life, as before I got ill I was rarely at home much, but it's also expensive to use, and therefore is rarely used frivolously. I do try to be polite. If I'm with someone then for a lot of calls, I'll look at the caller display and send it to voicemail, or answer it if I know it will be a very short call (particularly one I'm expecting).

However, there's about ten people with whom the first thing I say after "hello" is usually "what's the matter?", the answer to which will lead to me either
(a) saying I'm busy but will call them back.
(b) apologising to the person I'm with and excusing myself to continue the call - not for a chinwag, just to clarify more details of what kind of situation it is.
(c) telling the person I'm with that I need to get to the hospital/my mum's house/wherever ASAP and can they help me.

I agree it's annoying when people just babble on to their mobiles about general rubbish while you sit there and twiddle your thumbs. It's the one downside about them getting cheaper.

I've just realised I've written an off-topic essay about mobile phones, but I think I'll post it anyway and you can delete it if you like.