The Purpose of Paranoia (February 2005)

Saturday, 02 April 2011 12:19

Saga Magazine
February 2005

The Purpose of Paranoia

Dorothy Rowe

Last November I was speaker at the Anarchist Book Fair in London. Three nights before I had been speaking at the Royal Society for the Arts. These were two very different audiences, but with both, as ever, there was a queue of people wanting to speak to me after my talk. Some of these people simply wanted to tell me that they had found my books helpful which, as you can imagine, is enormously heartening, but there were also several people who wanted to ask me something quite personal about themselves. This is always difficult for me as we are never in a private situation. The person usually introduces the subject haltingly, often in a way which takes me a while to understand. It slowly dawns on me that I am being asked something huge, something which, if I were presented with it in the privacy of my study, would cause me to pause, consider, and answer slowly and carefully. Yet here I am presented with one of life's greatest problems in a totally personal form and in a public space. I stumble through some kind of answer, and afterwards ponder, worry, and work out what I ought to have said.

The people in the RSA queue who asked me difficult questions talked about the kinds of trauma which I have encountered, either personally or through my clients, and so I was able to make some reasonably sensible suggestions about what might be done, but a man at the Anarchist Book Fair asked me something which at first seemed to be right outside my experience and expertise.

English was not his first language, and I had to concentrate hard to understand what he was saying. He was asking me about a friend. Often, when a questioner asks me about a friend I suspect that the person is actually asking about himself, but here the man's friend was a woman. Like him she was a refugee from Saddam's Iraq. She had been given refugee status, so I assumed that terrible things had happened to her. He spoke of her intense suffering as a refugee and of her passionate concern about her country, and then of her success in completing a university degree after coming to England. What troubled him was that at the point in her life when she was at last free from political persecution, when she had right of residence in a safe, stable country, and she had achieved academic success she began to slip into a state of paranoia. She had always discussed political matters with her friends in a very intelligent and knowledgeable way, but now she brought to such discussions her conviction that she was under constant CIA supervision and her every deed and thought was being recorded by them.

I know about paranoia but I don't know directly about living in a police state and about being tortured. I spoke to him about the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and about those psychiatrists and psychologists who have specialised in working with refugees, but I knew that paranoid people are likely to see such professionals as agents of the persecuting power. The man's mention of the CIA aroused the interest of those waiting to speak to me and they pressed closer to listen. We decided to end our conversation, but not before I said something about how paranoia was a defence which we can use to hold ourselves together when we feel ourselves falling apart. A young woman who had been listening to our conversation now asked me to explain what I meant by this.

I tried to explain briefly that whenever we discover that something which had given meaning, purpose and structure to our life has suddenly disappeared we feel our very sense of being a person shattering, crumbling, even disappearing. It is utterly terrifying. This can happen when a person loses the job on which he had built his identity, or lost the family which defined his life's purpose. It is common for people in such situations to blame themselves for the disaster that has befallen them, and thus become depressed. However, when a person has grown up in a situation where his family are the victims of political persecution, where his every action and thought have to take into account the constant danger he is in, then his ideas about persecution and the defences against persecution can become central to his understanding of himself. If he escapes from this persecution to a place of safety but loses family and friends along the way he can find himself falling apart in a world where he feels himself to be completely alone. To hold himself together he can reconstitute the ideas of persecution and defence in a way which is part fantasy, part reality. These ideas will give a structure and purpose to his life and will also assure him that he is not entirely alone. The great benefit of paranoia is that someone, somewhere is thinking of you.

I don't know whether any of this applies to the woman from Iraq. I could know that only by talking to her. But I have met many paranoid people and have seen how these people actually valued their paranoia. They might not be happy but they are sure that their life has significance.

When the crowd around me had dispersed I moved to another part of the room to record an interview for an anarchist internet radio station (number of listeners: 10). As I waited for the recording equipment to be set up the man from Iraq approached me and asked how best he could help his friend. 'Just continue to do what you're doing,' I replied. 'Be her friend. Don't tell her her ideas are wrong but help her keep them in some kind of proportion so that she doesn't get too frightened.' Afterwards I thought, 'That's really the answer for all our problems. Make sure that you've got a good friend!'

Dorothy Rowe Beyond Fear second edition, HarperCollins

To visit the web site for
the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture
click this link