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Mitski, Trauma and the Politics of Early Onset Psychosis

Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

When I was 20 years old, I was obsessed with this boy.

Not, like, figuratively so obsessed. I mean literally, clinically obsessed. We had linked up through Tumblr; I’ll call him Seamus. Seamus was a year younger than me and lived about five hours away; when we first messaged each other, he lamented because he had just been in my city a few weeks earlier. We slowly struck up a friendship both from direct messages and from the reblog culture of gay Tumblr, our reblogs punctuated with idiomatically expressive hashtags like #stop or #screaming. After a few months of correspondence, I told him I wanted to come visit him, and he invited me up. We spent the better part of a long weekend walking around his city, shopping, looking at winter attractions and talking about Tumblr-famous people as well as our favorite pop stars.

I couldn’t tell you what it was about Seamus that I liked. English wasn’t his first language, but he spoke it fluently enough to have a charmingly introverted personality. We had similar interests; I was less than a budding writer at the time, and I was amazed he had had a short story published in a local anthology. Mostly, I just remember how he made me feel: safe. We sat in a French brewery together drinking light craft beer, taking advantage of his city’s lower drinking age and it was something innocent — the way the light caught his beer glass, or his hair — that made me feel overwhelmingly comforted and cherished.

I left him after a completely platonic weekend and returned to my reality where I lived: working less than full-time, taking time off of school ostensibly to pursue the creative field and, more proximally, to cope with the death of my aunt the semester before, and in a relationship — with someone slightly older — that definitely did not make me feel safe, comforted and/or cherished. This relationship hit on the same emotional nerves as my relationship with my mother, and sexually, well —  he had assaulted me the first night we hung out, but I didn’t have the language to call it assault until years later.

An attempt at breaking up with my boyfriend was unsuccessful, and he kept pursuing me. In a panic one Friday afternoon at my office, I confronted the possibility of him showing up at my home and couldn’t face it. No later than 4 p.m., I scoured Facebook for a rideshare to Seamus’s city and found one leaving at 6 p.m. Without having packed an overnight bag or a change of clothes, I met a young professional and another ridesharer in the parking lot of Panera Bread at 6 p.m., and sent Seamus a text message, simply saying: I’m coming back.

When I arrived in Seamus’s city the next morning, he was seemingly happy to see me. I found a cheap room in a purportedly-haunted hostel and set up shop for an undetermined amount of time. We hung out whenever he could find the time between studying and working. At some point, we became intimate. We didn’t have sex, but I spent the night with him before leaving. Those feelings of safety were still very present, even overwhelming. After eight irreverent days, I only went back to my city so as not to completely lose the part-time job I had managed to retain at my estranged university.

I told my few friends about this star-crossed exchange. No one seemed worried. My ex-boyfriend was still pursuing me, and I didn’t know peace from him the whole spring. No one seemed worried about that either. In a state of external apathy, all I could focus on was Seamus. I read every text post on his blog, interpreting them for messages meant for me. I kvelled over his selfies. We Skyped once or twice after my trip. Even after his messages seemed to drop off, I wasn’t worried. I was convinced he was being coy, keeping me for a special surprise.

It took one more trip to Seamus’s city for me to understand he wasn’t interested in me like that. Nothing much happened on that trip. I stayed in a bedstay for most of that trip, working on somewhat incomprehensible writing, taking runs and walks by the river, hyping myself for when I’d be able to invite Seamus to my room and return the energy of cherishing. When we met, we walked by the museum we visited during my first visit. In retrospect, it was hard for him to follow my line of conversation because I wasn’t making any sense. Nothing further happened between us during that trip. I was called away two days after our meeting since my grandmother had had a bad fall in my hometown. As my life moved forward into the summer, with an internship in New York and online classes to get me back on track for my senior year, Seamus became less urgent, and I no longer felt the need to message him.

In August of that year, I had my first psychotic break in the form of hallucinations. I went to the hospital that same day, and they put me on Risperdal, which I still take to this day.

On August 12, 2019, allegations came forward on Tumblr that indie singer turned voice-of-a-generation Mitski had sexually assaulted and trafficked a youth in the early 2010s. The posts were made by a user who identified themselves as an 18-year-old named Amber. With the greasy wheels of cancel culture very much in motion in 2019 — and with Tumblr having previously served as a vehicle for the disturbing allegations against indie music peer PWR BTTM — people were quick to affirm the alleged victim in their frenzied callout of the singer, the abbreviated name of 28-year-old Mitski Miyawaki. The allegations stated that during Mitski’s time as a student at SUNY Purchase, the victim, then aged between 11 and 14, was directly assaulted by the singer on two occasions, when visiting the school and after a performance the singer had staged.

But quickly after the allegations were made, they were called into question. Vague statements were made by users who were not clearly affiliated with the original poster (OP) which stated that the OP was known to experience delusions and/or a psychotic diagnosis. Users entered a back-and-forth, the extremes being “unconditionally believe survivors when they make accusations” and “this person is completely delusional and cheapening the words of actual survivors.”

The singer recently deleted her Twitter and Instagram pages in June, and had expressed at that time that her upcoming show in September in Central Park would be her last “indefinitely.” However, she reactivated her Twitter on August 13 to respond. In a long image post, she called the allegations “completely false in every respect.” She also addressed the response of fans to the OP, stating: “I hope those of you on the internet treat them with kindness and compassion, and I truly hope they find the help they need.”

What I can’t say is to what extent the OP’s allegations are true or what basis they have in reality. 

What I can say is that young adults who are experiencing delusions and other psychotic symptoms, during the period of “early onset psychosis,” generally have few resources available to them, whether clinical or peer-to-peer. What I can say is that this specific type of attachment-driven psychosis, or “erotomania,” is something that more people than can be ascertained experience. What I can say is that I once suffered from erotomania as part of my early onset psychosis, and what I needed in that moment was help and grounding, not grandstanding and demonization.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-V) has its own definition for delusions that is used in clinical practice. My definition of delusions from personal experience is this: believing urgently that something is true, regardless of the logical consequences of that belief or any evidence to its not being true. My delusion at the age of 20 was that Seamus loved me. The manifestation of that delusion meant that even if Seamus didn’t reply to my messages or tell me so much as hello, that my belief that he loved me still was true and informed everything he did say and/or do — even if that action was nothing, or ignoring me. A person who is experiencing a delusion is not inherently drawn to action around that delusion. A person who is experiencing a delusion simply does not understand that what is happening is not actually happening. 

Delusions, and especially erotomanic delusions, are powerful forces. Consider this account from a 2015 paper published by Mary V. Seeman on women who experienced erotomania:

“E. was a new immigrant to Canada, a single 35-year-old librarian with a history of depression, currently untreated, who lived alone. Home from work one day (which happened to be her birthday) with a high fever, she opened the newspaper and saw a photograph of Pierre Trudeau, then Prime Minister of Canada. He was smiling directly at her and she was sure he was sending her a message. The message was that he loved her. Her destiny, she realized, was to be First Lady of Canada. E. watched the television news daily after that. Trudeau was constantly in the news, and she could always tell by his eyes that he was speaking directly to her. She no longer felt like an outsider in Canada because the Prime Minister of the country loved her.”

Seeman remarks that the combination of E’s immigration stress with the strain on her body from the fever — and the sentimentality of her birthday — may have allowed the neurosis of the delusion to take root. But the underlying feeling appeals to a primal need for safety and affection: says Seeman, “The erotomanic delusion, feeling that one is loved and cherished, comes with powerful secondary gain that gives zest and meaning to life.” In E’s case, this feeling became so powerful that it was impossible to separate it from her sense of self. Seeman glumly notes in the article. “E… killed herself when she understood, after being treated with antipsychotic medication, that Prime Minister Trudeau did not, after all, love her.”

I mourn for E. I also look upon myself with a wretched fear. It’s true that I was similarly set up for erotomania to take root. The loss of my aunt and my bad breakup, in combination with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from child sexual abuse and persistent anxiety, were certainly causes that a clinician would identify as contributing to the onset of my particular delusion. But how far would I have gone?

Trauma is, by far, a significant risk factor of the onset of psychotic symptoms. The CDC-Kaiser Permanente Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) Study measured the rate of incidence of traumatic experiences in childhood and appraised participants for what difficulties they encumbered in their adult life. The study found that incidence of mental illness, and particularly schizophrenia, increased proportional to how many adverse experiences a participant had encountered in childhood.

I don’t know for sure what happened to Amber. But I am positive that something did happen. I am positive that she was abused and/or trafficked. I don’t know when it happened. But the stress of seeing the current allegations against Jeff Epstein, and being confronted with the very real reminders that child sexual abuse and trafficking happens unchecked in our society, would be enough for Amber to distill her nebulous trauma into a crystallized delusion.

As far as what happened with Seamus, it resolved itself with distance and time. When he came to my part of the world the year after our incident, we met up for dinner and all was placid between us. Two years ago, I started working as a peer-to-peer worker in a mental health program, specifically with young adults who experience psychosis. Someone I work with has an intense case of erotomania that has lasted years. It was working with this person that led me to my own realizations. I wrote Seamus a long note that put everything into context and apologized for making him feel unsafe during that period of time. I don’t expect we’ll ever really be friends or talking regularly again, but his occasional comments on and reblogs of my posts assures me that he’s forgiven me in the way that feels good to him. 

But my apology isn’t enough, especially in the face of what erotomania can lead people to do. One musician that brought Seamus and I together is Björk, an Icelandic singer-songwriter who has had a career lasting over 30 years. A particularly grim incident in Björk’s long career was the suicide of Ricardo López. López has been described in the media as a “stalker,” and his actions were certainly malicious in nature: seemingly aggravated by Björk’s relationship with musician Goldie, López attempted to kill Björk by mailing a bomb to her and then killing himself in order to ensure their eternal presence in the afterlife. López’s actions, gruesome as they are, are inextricably from patriarchy and the perceived disposability of Björk’s life that persuades men across the world to violently abuse and even kill women. But this type of irrational and unhinged belief is consistent with erotomania; the distinction for López was that he was empowered, even morbidly so, to take action on his delusion.

Mitski’s response seems to have reassured her fanbase and the Twitterverse of both her own innocence and the need for compassion to the OP. But any institutional response to this phenomenon has to be nuanced, well-informed and attuned to the vulnerability facing young adults during early onset psychosis.

The answer has to come in the form of treatment, both clinical and peer-to-peer, specifically around the issue of psychosis. Some states, like Massachusetts, have particularly invested in the treatment of psychosis in young adults. But even then, the lack of knowledge among many providers about how to adequately treat young adults with psychosis contributes to a system-wide failure of this demographic. The extreme cases of psychosis that you might see where you live — persons muttering to themselves pushing shopping carts, or having incomprehensible conversations out loud in the park or on the train — started from someone or some institution failing them somewhere down the line.

If Amber’s allegations against Mitski were to be true, she would need support as a survivor. If Amber’s allegations against Mitski were to not be true, and she is in fact experiencing psychosis, she would undoubtedly still benefit from the same supports. And I don’t just mean medication or institutionalization, but long-term coordinated specialty care and access to peer support to help her process and unpack what she’s currently experiencing.

People who experience psychosis are not monsters. More importantly, we’re not irredeemable. We need a particular form of treatment and support, and an enduring compassion into both our proximal experiences and the things that led us to them. We’re more scared of stigma, policing and institutionalization than you need to be about us. But you should be angry — angry at the healthcare system and mental health professionals for not doing enough to help us. For every unwitting Seamus, there are multiple young adult peers who have no idea how to process what’s happening to them, let alone how to find support.

As it pertains to Amber, we have a saying in the peer world: “I haven’t been in your shoes, but I’ve been in the shoe store.” As we move towards resolution, be mindful of times when you’ve been in the shoe store about anything, whether mental health related or not — and how much it would hurt if, when you walked in with holes in your sneakers, you were instead scolded for tracking in mud, had your shoes confiscated and forcibly removed from the shoe store.

If you or a loved one is struggling with unusual and/or extreme beliefs and thoughts, know that there are resources available.

Screenshot via Mitski – Nobody (Official Video)

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