The following includes emotionally sensitive content for anyone else who may experience intense paranoia. I do not claim to be a health care provider nor do I have any medical expertise.
cw: sexual abuse, physical abuse.
Stress / paranoia monster drawn on a sticky note by John Keen. Keen is inspired by childhood nightmares, literature, & folklore.
I’m sitting in a cafe at an hour I wouldn’t usually be awake, maybe it’s 6 in the morning, maybe it’s 11 at night.
I never wear headphones while walking in public. I try and keep my hands free of carrying too many objects. I sit with my back up against walls so I can see everything around me.
I get off of work at 8 p.m., one night I may sit at the bar and have a glass of wine before going home, one night I might go straight home holding my keys between my fingers the entire way there, one night I might go to Walmart and walk around with my hands in my pockets, my keys still laced between my fingers. Just in case someone has memorized my work schedule, just in case someone saw me getting into my car, I drive for 40 more minutes in random directions before pulling into my driveway.
I check and double check that my doors are locked, that my windows are locked, that my closets and showers and cabinets are void of anybody. I hear voices and sounds downstairs. I hear clicks, I hear knocks. I get up out of bed and check the doors just one more time. I have paranoid personality disorder.
John Keen, creating works that feel bigger than I am, creating images that speak to my fears yet comfort me at the same time.
A clinical definition of paranoia is:
“Paranoia involves intense anxious or fearful feelings and thoughts often related to persecution, threat, or conspiracy. Paranoia occurs in many mental disorders, but is most often present in psychotic disorders. Paranoia can become delusions, when irrational thoughts and beliefs become so fixed that nothing (including contrary evidence) can convince a person that what they think or feel is not true. When a person has paranoia or delusions, but no other symptoms (like hearing or seeing things that aren’t there) they might have what is called delusional disorder. Because only thoughts are impacted, a person with delusional disorder can usually work and function in everyday life, however, their lives may be limited and isolated.”
Some of my earliest memories of being a paranoid child were often times brushed off as me being a wallflower or an introvert. When other kids would jump right into playing a game or running off into the wild with blatant disregard, I chose to stay back for a moment, collecting thoughts and images, essentially taking inventory of my surroundings. I wouldn’t jump into something too fast, I always contemplated my safety, my well-being, my survival first. This isn’t to say I didn’t have fun as a child, I definitely did. Though my disposition well-outweighed my years. My parents were always complimented on how “polite” and “grown-up” I was, even at the ripe young age of 5. I was always complimented on my ability to hold conversations with adults, on my capacity to listen, on my intelligence. Essentially on how well-behaved I was. I’m not sure I was as well-behaved as I remember strangers telling me, as much as I was watching the way their hands moved, as much as I was listening to intonation in their voices, as much as I was aware of the where I was in proximity to someone safe, or a safe getaway. When I look back now, much of this quiet demeanor as a kid was my paranoia and my response to a world that terrified me.
I am very similar to this child today. I intake my surroundings like my life depends on it, and it does. I have never been to a therapist for any delusions, hallucinations, or paranoia. I have had this strong opinion that in my past that there was nothing a therapist could do to help rid me of these experiences. And I’m not sure I would trust the person if they tried; too much of my survival relies on my awareness. And too many of my hallucinations have been made manifest in otherworldly spirits, ghosts, the paranormal.
I intake my surroundings like my life depends on it, and it does. When I say this, I mean it. There have been moments in my life that my heightened awareness has kept me and the ones I love from immediate harm, imminent death, rape, murder.
Am I crazy or was it crazy making? Am I validated in my fears or am I overreacting? Do / did my family, friends, loved ones, undermine so many of my experiences that I never got a chance to work through my emotions?
More John Keen, sticky note artist.
As a queer person of color, I have very real reasons to fear the world around me. I have very real reasons to adore the hell out of it as well, but that isn’t typically the voice speaking to me when I’m trying to save myself from what seems like life or death situations.
Without going into too much detail, I have experienced sexual abuse and trauma.
I have experienced physical abuse void of sexual abuse.
I have been on the receiving end of verbal homophobia turned physically violent which in turn becomes emotional violence.
I am within the greater experience of institutionalized racism.
I am within the greater experience of classist racism.
Because of these experiences, I have a very real desire to keep myself safe from all of these outside forces attempting to eradicate me. These are the very real and evident experiences that I believe have contributed to why I am the way that I am. But it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.
I’m at home watching Finding Dory, it’s my day off, it’s 2p.m. I hear a car pass by the house. I hear another car pass by the house. I hear another car pass, but in my mind, it’s the same car. It’s the same person. They can see inside the one window to my house that is open. My coat is hanging up on the wall in direct sight of the passing car. That person knows what my coat looks like. That person is memorizing the way I dress, so they know what I look like when I walk to work, memorizing the time I leave the house, when my partner is gone. That person in the car is plotting to break into my house maybe tonight, maybe right now while no one is home, maybe in one year when they know my guard is down. That person is plotting to murder me. I’ve missed 45 minutes of the movie, suspended in time, frozen in fear of so much glass around me. Why do all of the windows have to be made out of glass? Why does my front door only have one simple lock? Why are there so many cupboards and corners? Do my neighbors notice the car? Do my neighbors know the person in the car? Are my neighbors in on it, too? I start the movie over, I eat a snack, I drink some water, I’m okay for the hour and a half of the movie and I cry. I’m not sure for what reason.
This is a typical moment in life for me. Common, typical, but not every day. Some days are better than others. Some days it’s aliens. It’s the never-knowing what other life forms are surrounding us and I am comforted by this thought. Some days it’s spirits, meeting and getting to know them, setting my boundaries with them, being respected, and I am comforted by this thought.
I still read short horror stories. I still watch Unsolved Mysteries. I still listen to true crime podcasts. I still engulf myself in conspiracy theories. I still allow myself to be consumed by horror movies, and art designed to evoke terrified emotions. Why? My parents used to take my sisters and I to Hollywood Video when we were kids. We were allowed two different movies between the three of us. When it was my turn to pick (or G and I would pair up and get one and let R get her own), we would always turn to the horror section. I watched so many horror flicks as a child I probably went through their entire collection. But why was I drawn to these things? I was an anxious child to begin with. Why go as far to make myself even more anxious? Because horror films and stories and art create a different kind of anxiety. It’s more or less outside of myself, it’s giving me a real reason to be scared, because the cinematic panic has left me with a connection to the story, and less of a connection to my actual life. I find extreme comfort in overcoming an awakened terror if I watch a horror movie before going to bed or resting for the night. This is a slippery slope. I might get so caught up, or too desperately want to connect the story to my life outside of stories that the lines are blurred, and I can’t tell which is true and which is fiction. Was something following me last night or was it part of a story I read ten years ago? (This usually happens with true crime stories, or true crime creative non-fiction.)
I am still learning more about this jumble of crazy that is my brain. I’m still actively doing things to grow and grasp what is happening. I’m still attempting to let people in, creating moments with true vulnerability. But every day is a new challenge or the same challenge. I was thinking of ways my friends and loved ones can help me in every day conversation, things to say, things to do, things to be aware of. I often times feel like I’m being judged negatively, like what I say seems so outta this world, so grandiose, so theatrical! that I am hard to believe. I don’t always need to be believed, but I often times need a form of validation for what I am experiencing or else I recluse even when I try not to.
So, here are some examples of things anyone can do around and towards friends that may have paranoid personality disorder. I’m not a doctor, I don’t claim to be a health care provider.
- Never say, “You are overreacting.” Just don’t, it’s a good solid plan for everyone.
- Avoid arguing with the person. It’s nice to be heard, but don’t argue. For example, if I mention I feel like that person in the car doing circles around my block is coming to get me, don’t get combative or just straight up say it’s not true.
- Avoid affirming the paranoia. I remember sometime last year, there was a crew of four people who pulled up in front of my house and started taking photos. They stayed parked there for at least 10 minutes, and I must have been feeling bold because I went outside with a shovel to turn my compost and said to them, “What are you taking pictures of?” In my mind, they now had a clear visual of my face but I also had a shovel, so I felt safer. They said they were taking pictures of butterflies and drove away. I told a few friends about it immediately and not one of them argued with me, but they definitely avoided affirming my wild thoughts about what the people’s intentions were. One of my friends used humor, “Go out there with a spray bottle and start spraying them!” Another friend asked me if my partner was home with me and made sure I felt safe. Another validated my emotions, expressing that it was an unnerving situation, but that I was safe and they would come over if they needed me. These are all great ways of avoiding affirmation.
- Ask more questions. Sometimes it feels good to talk about it, especially in the heat of the moment.
- Change scenery. A lot of the time, the paranoia is directly linked with my surroundings. Example: A friend of mine once asked me to go to a Crystal Castles show with them. (I didn’t go.) Alice Glass is a goddamn inspiration in so many ways, her style???? Bitchhhh. There’s one track that puts me in complete and utter chaos mode, and every time I hear it, I feel as if I’m going to die. Maybe it’s connected to an experience in my past and the song was playing in the background, who knows. But every time I hear it, I ask to have it turned off. Sometimes, if it’s too dark and I start to have a panic attack or I see something or someone following me, I force myself to go somewhere better lit, or around more people who I trust.
- Give positive affirmations. Even though they don’t always work, it’s nice to have verbal reminders, and physical reminders that things are okay. I like these examples: “Even though I feel scared, I’m not really in any danger.” Or, “Hallucinations are scary. Disassociation is scary. Paranoia is scary. Anxiety is scary. Delusions are scary. Mental illness is really fucking scary, and I’m proud of you just for living it.” I’m in the midst of creating affirming messages for my home, because of being so reclusive, I don’t hear friends voices as much as I’d like to. (Baby steps.)
- Create (or support) healthy habits. Basically we all need good rest, food, water, etc. But just the other day a friend asked me to go to a yoga class with them. Just being in public is often times a stressor, but if I’m with a person I love and trust, doing something with my body, moving, creating healthy circulation, breathing, and making a habit out of things like that (class or not), it will be better in the long run. Creating a habit is pretty hard for me, especially if they are habits that require ritual times. If I want to do a yoga class, or go out running, or go for a hike, I refuse to go at the same time of day every day. Creating a strict schedule but avoiding strict timelines is hard, it’s something I’m still trying to work on.
- Prepare for crisis situations. I still don’t know what the fuck this looks like but I read on it. Friends of mine do a crisis plan, and that seems to help. But if I already know what’s on the plan, and I already know what is coming, I have adapted my mind to what I know is coming and it doesn’t help. So, I’m finding new ways to create these type of plans.
I’m not asking friends and family to do these types of things for me. I’m not even really sure if I’m bringing complete awareness to this. This is one of the first times I’ve ever really publicly shared this part of myself and I feel scatterbrained. I’m not sure if it’s helping. Because at this point it’s public information now.
But I want to disrupt the public’s belief about paranoid individuals. We may be out of touch with reality often times. We may not always trust the words you say to us. We are always on our guard, it makes our muscles tense, and our brains tired. We sleep a lot or not at all. We thrive with schedules deviant of the norm. We are obsessed with our safety. Sometimes we use drugs and alcohol heavily, sometimes not at all. What better way to make sure you’re aware all hours of the day if you’re: constantly awake and blasted for it, or constantly sober for it? We’re intricate. We don’t always know what is real and what is not. But we’re learning. I’m learning. And I want to be better. I want my muscles to relax. I want my family and friends to feel comfortable with me. I want to breathe easy.
I just heard a phone ring that wasn’t mine. It was in close proximity to me. Is someone on a walk outside my window, or are they hiding in my bushes? I’m walking to work soon. It’s late morning but people are kidnapped in broad daylight all the time. I remember my ancestors. I am safe with the help of them. I never walk with headphones in. I try and keep my hands free of carrying too many objects. I’m safe.
All artwork featured is by John Keen. Every time I see his work, I feel a deep connection with the way it feels to experience paranoia.