Philosophical Notes: Do you live in `The Real World'?

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The Independent Culture
DURING THE course of my work as a Mental Health Advocate, I get asked some challenging questions. Queries regarding whether I have communed with God or know about the conspiracies that surround the enforced detention of a particular individual are common. "Do you live in `The Real World'?" was however, rather too philosophical in nature to allow me the luxury of not thinking more carefully than usual before answering.

Logically, the short response to this question would have to be "yes". I do not currently suffer from any delusion that causes me to believe I might be living amongst aliens, nor do I imagine myself to be Elvis.

Whether or not this qualifies me for permanent and unchanging residency in "The Real World" is a moot point. For all I know tomorrow I could unwittingly start behaving in a very bizarre fashion - whatever that is - and be consequently perceived by others as quite strange. Alternatively, I could just simply do something that I believe to be quite normal but which others find unacceptably odd.

What others may think and, more importantly, whether or not they may act upon those thoughts is pertinent here. After all, you don't have to be that weird for people to use the "mad" word in some seriousness.

In my book Belshazzar's Daughter, the principal officer in charge of the murder inquiry at the heart of the piece at one point consults with a medium to gain insight into the case. This is viewed both by his colleagues and his wife with doubt and some fear.

"What," the officer's wife asks him, "would our friends think if they knew?" Doubtless she fears they might construe this act as evidence that her husband was "losing it", teetering around the dangerous rim that encompasses all that is not real, all that could be mad.

It is a genuine and universal concern. The fictional characters I am alluding to here are Turkish and yet the connection between "losing it" and such products of "madness" as stigma, poverty and incarceration are just as real for them as they are for us.

Moving just slightly away from the tight, socially agreed parameters of something we call "The Real World" is a dangerous act. My policeman does therefore put himself at risk when he dips his toe over the edge of "The Real World" and into the unknown. After all, could this not be the start of something sinister? Could this deviation signal the coming of insanity?

Nearly everyone that I meet during the course of my work has already crossed over this barrier. The fear in both their own minds and those of significant others has become a reality and now they are trapped both by the "unusualness" that is so often also a torment and by the mores of a world which deems such things unacceptable. Most of them long to "come back" - get well, get out, find where the real world is and live within it.

Part of my job as an Advocate is to facilitate this process, in a practical sense. By providing clients with information regarding the law, welfare benefits etc, and also supporting then through these processes, I can to some extent broker understanding between them and those who are needed by them. What I cannot do however, is point clients in the direction of "The Real World', mainly because I don't know where it is.

Perhaps I may move closer to this concept if I think about the edges of madness as being present within the fear reactions of others, But then perhaps not. Sometimes, as my policeman discovered, it is necessary to "go mad" in order to gain insights.

That my clients have not, unlike him, managed to "return" is unfortunate. But return to where? I don't know, I am wary about using terms like "The Real World" now - as should you be too.

Barbara Nadel is the author of `Belshazzar's Daughter' (Headline, pounds 17.99)