Harriet Walker: 'Paranoia is a very female thing'

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The Independent Online

I read an article the other day which claimed that "paranoia is the new depression" among young women. As if they were things to be tried on inside the changing-rooms of our brains.

Now, I am a paranoid person. I am so paranoid that my paranoia has its own bundles of insecurities to deal with, quite apart from my regular set of worries. While my head is thinking "No, I'm sure I switched the oven off," my heart is screaming, "You didn't, you didn't – and everyone hates you."

I am paranoid that everyone I meet is cross with me for some undisclosed reason. I am paranoid that my left eye is a bit more open than the right. I am paranoid that my voice is a bit too loud and, well, voicey. I am paranoid that my every action will result in some cataclysmic event, whether it's filing my nails or sending a tweet.

I am paranoid about being stupid, clumsy, too posh, not posh enough, boring and that I can't carry a tune (a killer at sparsely attended birthday parties when the cake comes out). I worry about being more drunk than everyone else, although this only really applies in the evening, I should add – if I was drunk all day too, I doubt I'd worry what anyone else was doing. It takes hold of me during a hangover, this particular anxiety, and clubs me around the head with dim memories of the previous night, all of which seem to involve me gargling away like an old sot, talking about myself while everyone else looks at their feet.

I am paranoid about the fact that I can't cook and that I hate cooking, and that this makes me a Bad Woman. I get worried that my female friends, who can cook and seem to enjoy it, won't take me seriously and that no one will marry me. Speaking of which, I'm also paranoid that I'm too strident, a nag, a scold and that I snore, all of which would seem to compound the eternal spinsterhood that lies ahead.

Of late, I have been paranoid about the fact that I have a limp, thanks to my breaking my leg before Christmas, which means I've been compensating for it by explaining that I have a limp before anyone I meet has time to notice. But then I become paranoid that they'll think that having a limp is all I have to talk about – or worse, that I have assumed they'll be interested to learn that I was too much of a klutz to walk in heels without falling and shattering my bones.

I tell you all this to disparage myself and make light of it. Paranoia, like shyness, is often thought a failing of the meek, whereas it is actually deeply selfish, to the point of pathological arrogance. Being this paranoid surely leads me into psycho territory. The big question that hangs over it all is: DO YOU REALLY THINK ANYONE ELSE HAS THE TIME TO NOTICE? This is what I have started to tell myself when I feel as though someone is looking at me oddly and must have noticed my infinitesimally lazy eye, limp or third head.

And it works. It fits into my life with my other favourite self-motivational phrase: JUST GET ON WITH IT, YOU STUPID ARSE. Paranoia is just another way of bigging yourself up, when you think about it. It works on the assumption that your every move is being monitored by someone who thinks you're worth noticing. And while I often like to pretend I'm starring in the film of my own life, I'm pragmatic enough to admit that very few people would pay to come and see it.

But since I read that article, I have (as any self-respecting paranoiac does) found myself returning to its premise again and again, wondering whether paranoia really is a scourge of young women up and down the country.

I'm constantly amazed by the way women beat themselves up over daft and tiny things, and how they hold such critical mirrors up to themselves. At how they cringe for days on end after a casual remark is taken in the wrong way. Perhaps it's because we're more sociable and more emotionally switched on than men. Or perhaps it's because we're all in competition with each other.

Whatever the evolutionary root, paranoia is a very female thing. Its hazy and abstract nature, its ability to colour any day, event or mood a shade of drizzle grey, is simply not something a man would let get in his way.

I emailed a friend about it, typing into the subject line – gingerly, of course, in case the sky fell on my head as I did so – "Do you think I'm paranoid?". She replied immediately with a list of things she was also paranoid about. It included the line, "Being weird but not in a good way," and ended with, "Being irritating because of all of the above."

Oddly enough, it dispelled many of my anxieties.