March 6 was one of the darkest days of Brooke Hamilton’s life. There were helicopters overhead, and her red hair made her evil, and she was part of a cult that wouldn’t let her escape.
That was her reality that Thursday afternoon when she took to Twitter and inadvertently live-blogged her psychotic episode. And Twitter users, sensing her distress, reached out to help her and contacted police.
The afternoon started innocuously enough for the 22-year-old, who has schizoaffective disorder. But she was stressed over various personal relationships. She had also left her communications program at McMaster University the day before, and dropped out of her Rotary Club group. She had recently moved back home after having her own place. She spent the morning crying in bed.
“Sorry guys, I forgot to think for myself for a bit. I’m back now. It’s all good,” she tweeted. “But I do think Twitter is a fairly pointless medium.”
It quickly deteriorated.
“I’m bad I’m bad I’m bad,” she said, tweeting the words 17 times in a row. And then, “I cry all day I cry all day I cry all day.”
Over the next three hours, it got worse. In total, she sent about 160 tweets.
“No one knows. I saw the helicopters. I saw the helicopsters. The Black helicopters, They tried to sell me im bad im bad. Im crazy I’m craz,” she tweeted.
Then “I have no control. I have no control. Hat is happening to me. I dont want this I dont want this.”
Her tweets ranged from suicidal (“kill me kill me kill me”) to revealing (“guess what i stopped takin my meds 1 fucking year ago you assholes. im stabl.e im stabe.”)
Hamilton’s tweets got the attention of Joanna St. Jacques, a north Hamilton photographer who has mental illness in her family, as well as professional knowledge of it from her former nursing career. St. Jacques began communicating with others on Twitter via private message, wondering what to do about Hamilton.
'I wasn't OK'
She cancelled her appointments that afternoon to tweet back to Hamilton, trying to get her attention. She complimented her on her red hair. She asked her about her dog. “She needed a distraction from her thoughts,” St. Jacques said.
'The police showed up and said they’d been getting calls from people on Twitter who had seen what I was writing, and they wanted to come by and make sure I was OK. I wasn't' - Brooke Hamilton
Eventually, police tracked down Hamilton and she was admitted to St. Joseph’s, where she received medication and counselling. When her psychosis set in, she said, she was locked in her room with her parents elsewhere in the house, and no one but Twitter users knew the extent of her delusions.
Hamilton is better today. But she was suicidal, she said. Without the Twitter intervention, she may have permanently hurt herself.
“The police showed up and said they’d been getting calls from people on Twitter who had seen what I was writing, and they wanted to come by and make sure I was OK,” she said.
Taking distress seriously on social media
Hamilton is keeping a blog, Queen of the Whirl, about her illness and recovery. She had been off her medication for about a year when the episode happened, she said. She’s back on her medication now, and hopes to return to school in the fall.
In the social media age, Hamilton’s method of reaching out is increasingly common, said Alex Sevigny, a McMaster University communications expert. Sites like Twitter or Facebook often ease the awkwardness of approaching people offline.
“It enables people to share in a space that feels much safer,” he said.
“It’s quite common for young people to reach out via Twitter and explain and express when they’re feeling difficulty.”
Family, friends and mental-health professionals should be aware of the dynamic, and “when you see a friend or family member in distress [on social media], don’t let it go by,” he said.
'There's a person behind every tweet'
“Engage that person the same way you would if you were to see someone in distress in the town square or in a park.”
That was St. Jacques’s philosophy. She’s an active member of the local Twitter community and followed Hamilton a while ago. While checking her Twitter feed, she noticed the nonsensical tweets.
Immediately, St. Jacques worried that she was suicidal, and that “she needed someone to have a dialogue with who could bring her back.”
Social media may seem anonymous, she said, but she cared about Hamilton and tried for days to find out what happened to her.
"There's a person behind every tweet," she said. “When someone isn’t there, you can really miss them."
Still painful to read
The tweets didn’t register with Hamilton at the time. It wasn’t until she returned home after treatment that she saw responses from St. Jacques and others. She and St. Jacques are planning to meet face to face.
The tweets are painful to look at now, Hamilton said, but she’s not erasing them. She’s keeping them as a reminder to herself of what a crisis looks like, and the importance of staying on her treatment plan.
She hopes to raise awareness through her blog, and to create something positive from her public breakdown. She’s also writing fiction as a creative outlet.
“I know that I’m going to get better,” she said. “I know from experience that’s the direction I’m going in now. It’s kind of amazing to see the change from being psychotic to being well."
And with her blog, she said, "I want to get every piece of it in.”