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Abnormal Fixations

Inveterate stalkers are in the compelling grip of obsessive fantasies, say psychiatrists

Abnormal Fixations
Illustration by Saahil
Abnormal Fixations
outlookindia.com
2016-09-30T16:24:50+0530

Types Of Stalkers

  • According to NCRB, the average stalker’s age is between 18 and 30 years
  • So, a stalker can be a friend or someone you are friendly with, a former or present boyfriend, a family member, or a complete stranger
  • A stalker may be someone obsessed with you whom you don’t know at all
  • Some stalkers are sure that you like them, even love them, although you may not even know they exist
  • Some stalkers take their crime to the extreme. One perverse manifestation is acid attacks.

***

Why can’t someone take ‘no’ for an answer? That’s easily the first question anybody who hears about a stalking incident would ask. But it isn’t an easy one to answer clinically, by most accounts. The simple explanation, as psychologists will tell you, is that stalking is often a manifestation of a strong fantasy that gets stronger with time.

Rather, the question that most experts would point out to is: what about the victims? “Our first goal needs to be make the victim safe,” says Samir Parikh, director at the department of mental health and beh­avioural sciences at Fortis Healthcare in Delhi. Many victims, mostly women, he has treated suffered from trauma, depressive features and anxiety which led to the fear of going out, not being able to lead a normal life and more importantly, helplessness. Among them were a woman who had to quit her job, a college student who dropped out because a fellow student was tracking her and a married woman who was being followed by her neighbour.

“Here is a person who is preoccupied about an individual, starts giving a whole meaning to this relationship which is only in his head, does not respect that person’s privacy and expects a response, and leaves everything around his own life to be able to follow this—there are way too many pathologies happening here and our focus still needs to be on the victim. It’s very difficult for us to even put ourselves in the victim’s shoes. That’s why the angle to understand stalking needs to start from the victim,” says Parikh. The second aspect, Parikh reckons, is to improve the rate of conviction and punishment, resulting in social deterrent.

Rarely do stalkers come into contact with mental healthcare professionals, says Prof H. Chandrashekar, who heads the department of psychiatry at Bangalore Medical College and Research Institute. He recalls meeting a young man who came to him with symptoms of anxiety, depression and substance abuse and then gradually opened up about how he wasn’t able to resist the impulse of following a colleague at work, who, it appears, had given him a clear ‘no’. “We had to call his parents and caution him about legal implications,” says Chandrashekar. Another incident he narrates is a case of erotomania as psychiatrists call it. It was about a student who pursued a collegemate despite his parents being informed and him being reprimanded. A police complaint too had been filed and the victim eventually moved to another city. “It was very difficult. He always felt she loved him,” says Chandrashekar.

How much of this is actually not related to mental disorders? Again, it appears a difficult one to answer. “No doubt, the ent­ertainment media has had its own role to play. For years, we have glorified the stalker as though that is one form of love...you know, you leave everything and keep after the beloved....” says Parikh. “Somebody who is harming society has to be seen on those lines and there is no point hiding behind the mask of a mental illness. And, I’m saying this with all sense of responsibility. Yes, there might be a person who is suffering from a serious ailment and that ailment makes a person do that. That’s a separate issue.”

Rajat Mitra, a criminal psychologist based in Delhi, says it is possible a stalker can be talked out of this obsession before it’s too late, but there’s no way to know, for it’s essentially a solitary and secret pursuit. It’s after a threshold is crossed, Mitra explains, that a stalker becomes very dangerous. As he puts it, when the object of obsession bec­omes central to the mind of a stalker, who creates a new self-image that’s intertwined with the obsession.

Psychiatrists explain that they often come across patients who sometimes can exhibit a stalking behaviour, especially when a relationship breaks up—either because the partner goes into denial, often a very likely response to bad news, or because the message is ambiguous. It is possible people with personality difficulties may go through a brief phase of stalking—calling on the phone or trying to establish contact. But if the message is very clear, they sometimes go through a period of distress for a few weeks, and then they get over it and are able to move on, says one medical professional.

Ironically, psychiatrists sometimes do face similar situations themselves when patients become too attached to them, although this doesn’t amount to stalking in the conventional sense. In medical lingo, its known as ‘transferance’. A female psychiatrist, who didn’t want to be named, narrated to Outlook her experience with a young student, also female, whom she had earlier treated, who kept contacting her even when she moved out of town and was referred to another doctor. With hindsight, she says there probably were signs of this early on, when the student attempted suicide when she came to the hospital and was told the particular doctor was unavailable that day. But at that time, it wasn’t evident. It was only later, when she moved to another town but still insisted on coming back to get admitted, that the doctor became aware of the undue attachment.

“I would get many text messages in a day. It started with multiple non-sexual messages,” the psychiatrist says. Then, embarrassingly, she started receiving some sexually explicit messages. Finally, fearing for her husband and child, she had to notify the police about these intrusions.

“If you really look at it, she was not like a continuous stalker...this particular girl, I think, it was really to do with her episodes of mental illness,” said the doctor. “When she was well, in between episodes, she was fine and there was absolutely no question of trying to contact me. It was whenever she was unwell that she would come to us. The gist of it is that as part of a mental illness, they can go through an episode of stalking whoever is emotionally available at that time. For her, it was me at that time.” Transference, however, is something psy­­chiatrists are familiar with. But pathological stalking, at least from an Indian context, it appears, is  still something that needs closer, deeper attention.


By Ajay Sukumaran in Bangalore

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