Health

Munchausen by Proxy TikTok Is Feeling Great, Thanks for Asking

Young women are using "storytime" and "put a finger down" to talk about their childhood medical abuse and connect with each other.
Katie Way
Brooklyn, United States
November 10, 2020, 5:36pm
Young woman takes selfie with phone in front of her face
Photo by Tara Moore via Getty Images

At a glance, Ren, a 24-year-old who lives in Arizona, has a feed much like any other active TikToker. She participates in trends, does the occasional Q&A, and duets other users who share her interests. Ren’s posts explore subject matter typically discussed in mental health circles on social media, like dealing with narcissists, the importance of setting boundaries, and how to manage anxiety. But her most popular videos draw directly from an extremely unusual experience: growing up with a mother who, according to Ren, forced her daughter to use a wheelchair for two years in order to gain sympathy and attention for her “work” as a caretaker. 

Ren’s frank (and often, darkly funny) discussions of the medical abuse at the hands of a parent she believes had Munchausen syndrome by proxy, are her TikTok raison d’etre. “People don't know just the amount of pure brainwashing that comes with this disorder,” she said. “Kids are conditioned into believing what their parents tell them. Even though it wasn't until I was in sixth grade that my mom put me in the wheelchair, she started programming me to believe I was a sick child when I was very, very young.” 

She told VICE that she’s found the notoriously sharp algorithm and the rise of tight-knit, hyperspecific TikTok niches organized around shared interests and experiences make it especially conducive to sharing personal stories—especially traumatic ones. “I feel like Instagram and Facebook and all those other platforms, you have to put a filter over your life and only project the best of you,” she said. “But once I started noticing how vulnerable people were being on TikTok, and how they were getting support from other users, and how TikTok shows you communities you belong in, I started seeing TikTok as more and more of a safe space.” 

Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSBP) now appears in the DSM-V under the term ‘factitious disorder imposed on another.’ MSBP compels a caretaker, generally a parent, to purposefully sicken the person they’re caring for. Although the condition is believed to be rare—according to the Cleveland Clinic, there are “no reliable statistics” on the number of people who suffer from it, or are victimized by it—it occupies an outsized place in popular culture, thanks to vivid depictions of the condition in true crime dramatizations like The Act and occasional, schlocky Law & Order: SVU episode). These narratives typically revolve around a diabolical parent cloaking their harm under the guise of care, rather than on the child they’re sickening (though Gypsy Rose Blanchard, the MSBP victim and protagonist of The Act, is a notable exception to this rule). Using TikTok, however, gives MSBP survivors narrative autonomy.

TikTok’s appeal in the specific respect of users’ ability to be vulnerable is difficult to separate from the fact that its audience is not as developed as larger platforms like Instagram or Twitter, where Ren feels content is more curated. But the memes that are popular on TikTok do tend to encourage sharing difficult times over bliss, meaning it’s become a central location for trauma-sharing. When Ren noticed a trend of  sharing medical stories using an audio clip from the 2013 Disney Channel Original Teen Beach Movie, she decided to take the plunge and post a video about her experience using a wheelchair at her mom’s behest, then remembering years later and coming to terms with her MSBP experience. 

Other young women have hopped on TikTok’s community-oriented, algorithmically-ruled approach to content, participating in the “put a finger down” trend to describe a parent’s abuse or unravelling their pediatric medical trauma through multi-part “storytime” threads while tagging their posts #munchausenbyproxy or mentioning the syndrome in their captions. (VICE withheld the women's last names as well as links to their TikToks to protect their privacy.) By situating their own experiences in the larger canon of a trend or underneath the umbrella of an audio clip, the unique, unrelatable experience of being sickened by a parent becomes more coherent—and, importantly, easier to find and relate to for other young people trapped in similar circumstances.

Jordyn, a 25-year-old living in Missouri, wrote a song for her mother and posted a video of herself performing it on an acoustic guitar in July with the caption “Letter to alcoholic and abusive mother with Munchausen By Proxy.” “I know that you were very ill, but/In order to stay sane the door must remain shut/Otherwise the life that I’ve created will drift away,” she sings as she strums. Jordyn told VICE that she spent her childhood getting bullied for what other kids called her “fake” medical issues. “I was always told I was faking things, that I was making things up,” she said. “I mean, a lot of it was made up, but I didn't know that!” 

Now, she speaks openly about her own journey to healing and dealing with residual mental health issues in order to help other people who may be struggling in the same way. “There's not even a term for the survivor of Munchausen by proxy at this point,” she said. “If there's no term for it, that means that there's no diagnosis, there's no treatment plan.” As such, Jordyn said she hopes talking about her own experiences online can do something to fill that gap, and help convince doctors and the legal system that MSBP is a serious problem.  

“I definitely worry at times, and sometimes I'll feel regret that I've shared so much, because I can't take it all back,” Jordyn said. “But overall, I'm just grateful. Because if sharing my story helps even one person get help or heal, that's worth it. I really just want people to know that healing is possible.”

Jordyn said that her family and people she knew growing up know about her TikTok account, and have seen her accounts of her experience growing up with a parent with MSBP. While a few people have disputed her account of abuse, others have stepped up and even apologized to her. “My dad believes it happened, but doesn’t want to take ownership of his part in it,” she said. “My mom and sister think I’ve been brainwashed and that I just made it all up. But a lot of other people have reached out, apologizing for bullying me, apologizing for not believing me, or apologized for not noticing anything was wrong.”

Ren said that while she is also looking to help people by sharing her story, the platform has also been incredibly helpful when it comes to working through her own trauma—even though her therapist initially told her not to post about her mother. “He thought it would be contributing to my codependency,” she said. “Because my mom is such an overpowering figure, he thought dedicating a TikTok to her would be really bad for my mental health. But in reality, since I've done it, it's been the exact opposite.”

Ren’s family is not aware of her TikTok presence—and though she strongly prefers to keep it that way, she feels the potential backlash from her mother is worth the risk. “Even though there are still some things left to lose, I feel like I have more to gain,” she said. “I don't think I've ever felt more free since sharing my story.” 

The only downside to the app? When one of her videos blows up and makes its way onto the “For You” pages of people who don’t already follow her, Ren said she sees the same cluster of jokes crop up in her comments section. “” she said. “It’s like ‘Gypsy Rose has entered the chat,’ or ‘Dee Dee Blanchard is typing…’ or ‘Gypsy, is that you?” At first, Ren said she tried to filter out references to the Blanchards, but eventually, she gave up. “I was like, OK, I'll just remove the filter and let people write their stupid comments,” Ren said. “The video will be playing in the background and that'll just add my views.”

Follow Katie Way on Twitter.