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Are Twitter trolls mentally ill? A disproportionate amount of bad online behaviour stems from psychological issues

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was trolled. (Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images for Dior)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was trolled. (Photo by Francois Durand/Getty Images for Dior)


June 23, 2021   6 mins

There’s a thing in the ethics of psychology called the Goldwater Rule. It states, in essence, that mental health professionals should not diagnose people from afar. It arose in the 1964 US presidential election, after the magazine Fact published an article quoting various psychiatrists saying that Barry Goldwater, the Republican candidate, was “psychologically unfit” to be president.

Reasonably and inevitably enough, Goldwater then sued the heck out of Fact. The American Psychiatric Association then made it a principle of their code of ethics that “it is unethical for a psychiatrist to offer a professional opinion unless he or she has conducted an examination and has been granted proper authorisation for such a statement”. In the UK, the Royal College of Psychiatrists “strongly supports” the rule.

I’m not a mental health professional. Nonetheless I think it’s a broadly useful principle to live by, especially if — as I do — you write a lot about mental health. Suggesting that some political opponent or other is mentally ill is often easier than wondering why a sane person in command of their faculties might believe something you disagree with.

But there’s an opposite mistake to the one the Goldwater Rule guards against: acting as though mental health issues have no relevance to our political and cultural lives.

Last week, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published a blog post called “It Is Obscene”. It referred to her experiences since she did an interview with Channel 4, in which she said that “trans women are trans women” — that is, she did not say that she thought that trans women are women, without caveats, although she has been a longtime campaigner on LGBT issues. Two young writers who she knew personally, she said, had accused her publicly of transphobia. One had called for people to “pick up machetes” to defend trans people from the “harm” she caused. 

For Adichie, this was a story about the “sanctimony” and “emotional aridity” of the online Left, and the “ideological orthodoxy” which requires people to denounce their friends and toe unwavering political lines in order to remain part of a “chosen puritan class”. I think this is undoubtedly part of the story, but not the whole.

Adichie did not identify the writers; I will follow her lead, although it was not difficult to identify them from her text. But one of them had publicly declared a few months earlier that they have “dissociative identity disorder”, DID. That is: they have multiple personalities within one body; they refer to themselves as a “system” of personalities rather than a single person.

This is where I bump up somewhat against the Goldwater Rule. DID is a personality disorder which often presents with, or is confused with, another disorder called borderline personality disorder (BPD). About 70% of DID patients are also diagnosed with BPD, and the two conditions are often considered part of the same spectrum. The diagnostic criteria for BPD include “identity disturbance with markedly or persistently unstable self-image or sense of self,” and “severe dissociative symptoms”. Goldwater notwithstanding, I think it’s OK to draw lessons across from one to the other; diagnoses of the various kinds of personality disorder are very fuzzy — often people are in several categories, or don’t fit neatly into any of them. Both BPD and DID are marked by extreme emotional volatility and a lack of a stable sense of self.

This is a marvellous, sympathetic piece on BPD; the metaphor it uses is that people with BPD are cognitively “lighter” than neurotypical people. That is: if you are heavy, it takes a lot to move you. So when something quite nice happens to a neurotypical person, it makes them slightly happier: the wind only moves them a little bit. When something quite unpleasant happens, it makes them slightly sadder.

But if you are cognitively light, then the same events will move you much further. A small victory will make you thrill with joy; a small problem can make you suicidal (and BPD patients have a tragically high suicide risk in their younger years). It also applies to people’s opinions of others: “Either a relationship is perfect and that person is wonderful, or the relationship is doomed and that person is terrible,” as the NHS page on BPD puts it. This is called “splitting”, and again, it’s easy to think of it as someone being light, rather than heavy: being blown on the wind of events.

People with these conditions feel emotions much more strongly. But they also have difficulty forming a strong self-image, and often take on very visible identities, such as being a Goth or a fan of a particular band, dyeing their hair or getting tattoos, in order to give themselves something solid to cling to.

This piece written by a BPD patient discusses how she would change her entire personality, and with it her wardrobe, with each new relationship or phase in her life: “In my ‘Premier League’ days, it’d be athletic and gym gear; when dating a hipster, I mimicked their use of rings and hats. My wardrobe was like the skin of a chameleon, physically embodying the changes in my personality.” This one talks about “waking up and trying to be a new person every day. Go vegan, go goth, go hipster, go glamour, cut your hair, change your makeup, gain weight, lose weight, and never feel quite there.”

I think this helps make sense of a lot of what was going on with the subject of Adichie’s essay. That person had been a worshipper of Adichie’s: later, they considered Adichie a transphobe and a bigot. A neurotypical person might have been disappointed that their hero was using what they considered insensitive language about trans people, but for someone whose emotions are more easily blown around, it made their opinion swing from 180° from love to hate. The relationship is perfect and the person is wonderful; then, the person is terrible and the relationship is doomed.

The identity aspect makes sense as well. In one Twitter post the author called for people to “pick up machetes to protect us from the harm transphobes like Adichie & Rowling seek to perpetuate”. Those machetes are presumably metaphorical, albeit an astonishingly vivid metaphor, but in other posts they abhor the “violence” of Adichie’s (to me mild-seeming) language towards trans women. This looks like straightforward hypocrisy, but to someone who struggles to form a coherent self-identity, and then finds one with the trans community, any criticism of that identity might well feel like a violent attack on the very core of one’s being.

The Adichie incident is a recent and high-profile one, but I think a disproportionate percentage of the problems with online discourse stem from similar problems. I won’t link to or identify any individuals — they would not benefit from it, and nor would anyone else — but I repeatedly see analogous situations, often from people who in other tweets openly declare their diagnosis.

I want to be very clear about some things I’m not saying. I’m not saying that all online bad behaviour is because of mental health issues or personality disorders: lots of people are just dickheads, and there’s no need to pathologise them. And I’m not saying that all or even most people with BPD or similar disorders end up attacking people online. And — while this example is lifted from the trans activism/gender-critical forever war — I’m certainly not saying that all trans people have personality disorders or that being trans is a mental illness. 

But one of the cries of our age is to be more sympathetic and understanding of mental health conditions. The trouble is, I find that when people say things like that, they are often thinking of the more acceptable manifestations of mental ill health; people being depressed or anxious, staying home and making cute posts about being introverts.

Sometimes, though, mental health issues cause people to behave badly and cause harm to others, in ways that are not cute or sympathetic or easily understandable. An old friend with a personality disorder once wanted to write about this, on Mental Health Awareness Day: that we’re all keen to be Aware of Mental Health when it means someone being anxious or unhappy. But when it’s about psychotic episodes — or even less sympathetic disorders, such as psychopathy or narcissistic personality disorder — we’re less keen. My friend never wrote the post, but I think it’s true.

For instance: Freddie de Boer, a brilliant and insightful writer on many issues, suffers from bipolar disorder. During a manic period he falsely accused a man of rape and sexual harassment of women, causing enormous harm to himself and the man accused. He holds himself accountable for it and does not blame his illness, but it is nonetheless the case that his mental health issues caused him and others much pain.

Or Johann Hari, a journalist who was fired from the Independent after using fake “sockpuppet” accounts to libel other writers as homophobes and racists and antisemites. He was suffering from depression and addiction at the time. Again, it is not absolving him of responsibility to say that his mental health issues were a factor in the disastrous decisions he took.

I don’t know what my proposed solution is here. But I do think there is a failure — an understandable failure, a failure born of a desire not to offend or stigmatise, but a failure nonetheless — to address the reality of how mental health issues interact with our online discourse. Online, it’s easy to find causes to join, to give you identity; it’s easy to find people who’ll cheer you on, even if whatever they’re cheering you on to do is self-destructive, or damaging to others — calling for people to “pick up machetes” to attack women, for instance, even if it is a metaphor.

In the case of BPD, apparently, the prognosis is generally a good one: we all grow more emotionally stable over the course of our lives (as children, we are very emotionally volatile, and settle down with age) and by middle age, most people with BPD are leading healthy and happy lives. One study followed up patients 27 years after diagnosis and found that 92% of them no longer met the diagnostic criteria.

But we shouldn’t pretend that these issues aren’t a factor in the sometimes toxic online environment. Puritan attitudes, ideological dogma, hypocrisy and cant are all part of it as well, but, Goldwater Rule notwithstanding, we’re missing a part of the story of online discourse if we don’t find a way of addressing, sensitively and without stigma, the role of mental health.


Tom Chivers is a science writer. His second book, How to Read Numbers, is out now.

TomChivers

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Jon Redman
Jon Redman
2 years ago

But the trouble with trans people is that somehow, for fear of offending them, they have been put in charge of their own treatment. They have been allowed to decide that they’re not mentally ill. They insist that the view of the world with which their psychosis has saddled them be affirmed and upheld at every turn. And at any suggestion otherwise, they mobilise a few thousand online Marxists to ruin the life of anyone tactless enough to disagree with their estimation of themselves.
I can’t think of any other mental health condition where this approach is taken. If I think I’m Napoleon I am not provided with a palace, a throne, armies to command and a retinue of marshals. If I think I’m Admiral Nelson, nobody would propose surgery to remove one of my eyes and arms. The treatment would consist not of surgical mutilation to reinforce my psychosis; it would involve sympathetically getting me to face actual reality, with some drugs to calm me down.
Why are they a special case? Who let this happen?

Ben Hekster
Ben Hekster
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

Simple: because it’s not really about the ‘trans’ people at all. They are just the pawns utilized and sacrificed by the Left. It’s about creating wedge issues that can be used to divide the general population and impose more and more confusing and demoralizing rules. It’s about getting us all used to submission.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ben Hekster
Guy Holme
Guy Holme
2 years ago
Reply to  Ben Hekster

Ben, well put. Thanks.

Ludo Roessen
Ludo Roessen
2 years ago
Reply to  Ben Hekster

Spot on!

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago
Reply to  Ben Hekster

Indeed. Most trans people never asked to be harnessed to extreme politics and an organised attack upon established norms, and they are not the problem.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

On the whole I agree with you. But I think you have to be careful with the words ‘mentally ill’ or ‘mental problem. Forgetting trans people for a moment, the idea of ‘mental problems’ has in itself become a woke thing.

If I have a problem with people I work with, if I am inconsiderate to other people, if I cause problems in a workplace and the management decides to discipline me – then I just say that the organisation is giving me mental problems, it isn’t my fault it’s the fault of the system; then just watch everybody back off and try to be nice to me. This happens every day. Bad behaviour is more and more using the excuse of ‘mental problems’.

Just suppose that 50% of the trans people are just playing along, trying to get attention. All would have to be treated equally and all would be assigned to psychiatrists. Suppose the psychiatrists couldn’t cope and get mental problems. Where would we be?

Last edited 2 years ago by Chris Wheatley
Dan Croitoru
Dan Croitoru
2 years ago
Reply to  Jon Redman

In critical theory there is no such thing as essential traits or universal rights. Only asserted identity. So when they say BLM they mean “Black Lives Matter More” and when they say “trans women are women” they mean “trans women are better than just women”

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
2 years ago

Abandoning or removing Twitter would be a start. I know Tom is being sympathetic here but these actions, hate filled pile-ones might lead another susceptible person to take their life.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

‘couldn’t agree more. At this point in time, one wonders if there are ANY advantages to ‘social media’, particularly Facebook & Twitter. It seems appropriate that Congress is now entertaining anti-trust legislation to slew these dysfunctional outlets. Let the games begin.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Raiment

I think Twitter is a waste of space. I was on it briefly, and once made a slightly critical and perfectly reasonable/rational remark about someone being islamophobic. My own brother abused me! In a private conversation, fair enough – and I’d have abused him back. In a public space it was grotesque.

Graham Stull
Graham Stull
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Don’t let it bother you, David. I know he’s family but your brother is well known as a crude, donut-fuelled, Duff-guzzling caveman. And the way he strangles your precocious nephew Bart is bordering on child abuse.

Chris Wheatley
Chris Wheatley
2 years ago

Let’s face it – millions of people in this country are now mentally ill. Crime causes mental illness; being insulted on Twitter is another issue as is the act of insulting people. Going to work in a repetitive job causes mental illness and just getting up at the same time every day is the start of slide downhill.
The country needs hundreds of thousands of new psychiatrists so that every person can have a life advisor from the age of six years. In their weekly appointments children will be able to discuss the fact that parents are making them mentally ill by not providing enough ice cream. All prospective parents will need courses with psychologists before they even think of having children.
The persons who will suffer the most, unfortunately, will be the psychiatrists themselves, who will only be able to work for 5 years before burn-out. They will need permanent life advisors on a one-to-one basis when they retire at 26 years on a full pension.

Cathy Carron
Cathy Carron
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

In years past, the saying was, “it’s time for a war to start”. Wars discipline behavior & chasten the soul, no?!

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

Well they’re certainly a reality check!

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago
Reply to  Cathy Carron

There’s a bullet with your pronoun on it , as the old soldiers used to say

Last edited 2 years ago by George Glashan
Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago
Reply to  Chris Wheatley

The triviality of the multitude of social justice issues and their microaggressions creating presumed victimhood are reminiscent of the fierce debates about the nature of God which consumed Christianity, and led to riots in the streets of the late Roman Empire – all while their civilisation was being deconstructed by mercenary armies run amok.

George Glashan
George Glashan
2 years ago

good time to start a mercenary army?

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
2 years ago

If social media companies were forced to verify the identity of their users the vast bulk of the vile filth on their platforms would disappear over night.

Antonino Ioviero
Antonino Ioviero
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

Intriguing.

Unherd could do an analysis on this using their own data.

Unherd’s comment sections seems to force people to use their own names rather than pseudonyms. Is the discussion more civil?

Alternatively, does paying even a small subscription discourage trolling? That seems to be the thinking of lawyer Robert Barnes and why he has set up his own Locals.com community.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

I believe one should have to pay to belong to FB, even a nominal amount. This will immediate stop a whole lot of trolling.

Charlie Dibsdale
Charlie Dibsdale
2 years ago

Not so sure, I may curb bots, but would a better solution be taking away the anonymity of social media. If you said something totally outrageous, you would have to be personally responsible for it. This is not asking for being banned, which would threaten free speech, but I think it is reasonable to be prepared to defend what you say.

Norman Powers
Norman Powers
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

Why? Facebook tried that and it didn’t seem to have any effect.

Philip Stott
Philip Stott
2 years ago
Reply to  Norman Powers

I think Facebook just verifies your email address. Anyone can create as many Gmail accounts as they like.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  Philip Stott

“vast bulk of the vile filth on their platforms would disappear over night.”

Because the wrong thinkers would be killed or terrorized into silence. Good idea.

hayden eastwood
hayden eastwood
2 years ago

Thank you Tom, you never disappoint.
I think part of the trouble is that many people who claim to have mental illnesses think that it means they are victims and that, therefore, people should comply with their world view or wants, much like other victim groups demand. It’s rather ironic that an unfit mind should be increasingly seen as reason to listen to it.
I also think that the idea of mental illnesses often obscures the complexity needed to understand people fully, because labels are simplistic and are only really useful to categorise extreme cases. Labels also often excuse bad behaviour by assuming that the person is some how les possessed of free will than others, which is a philosophically difficult line to follow.

Douglas McNeish
Douglas McNeish
2 years ago

“Less possessed of free will than others” is precisely the disability which the progressive self-appointed saviours of the oppressed – of whatever category – project onto those they want to manipulate for their political ends. This is the principal weapon of neo-Marxists who delight in deconstructing western civilisation.

Joe Wein
Joe Wein
2 years ago

Your piece is astonishingly perceptive. Having had (sadly) experience in relationship with a woman suffering from BPD, I can easily see that disorders like it, could migrate easily online.
In fact, online is a far easier place for splitting, since the real world tends to present consequences, and even someone with a personality disorder is not immune to them. But the the pretend world, the online world, offers a wonderful blank page onto which one can project whatever one imagines and behave however one wishes.

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

I think at least part of the answer to this problem is that people should be held accountable for their actions on-line as well as in real life. In appropriate circumstances there should be criminal prosecution for inciting violence or property damage, and there should certainly be civil sanctions for defamation and otherwise tarnishing a person’s reputation. Too many people think they can go on line and spout whatever hateful and destructive nonsense they like without fear of repercussions. That has to stop.

Lesley van Reenen
Lesley van Reenen
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

Be careful what you wish for
.. this is not simple, as there is already far too much online censorship. What societal good has ever come from censorship.

A Spetzari
A Spetzari
2 years ago

Nail on head. It’s why left, right, centre are all struggling to come up with any meaningful policy to try and control/mitigate social media.
Well, some on the more extreme left allied with Big Tech are doing their own thing – but that is another story…

Last edited 2 years ago by A Spetzari
David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

Not censorship – accountability. Who are you, and did you say this? Can we sue you if you’re being defamatory? Or section you if being mad?

Charlie Dibsdale
Charlie Dibsdale
2 years ago
Reply to  David Simpson

Spot on

Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

There has just been a case in France: a young woman spoke her mind about Islam online and recived a lot of hate messages and death threats. The authors of the most violent messages were tracked down and have just been sentenced though rather too lightly for many observers.

Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
2 years ago
Reply to  J Bryant

“people should be held accountable for their actions on-line”

YES! Make ‘Thought Crime’ either impossible, or have very serious consequences. Gulag for wrong thinkers!

See, the problem does not exist for the sheep and group think, indoctrinated, cowed, vacuous, because they do not see the ROT at the heart of the System. But the heart of the system is rotted to the core, and smart people see that, but would have to just STFU if you were in charge.

I suppose you like the Chinese system? The Iranian? North Korea? Where any public wrong words and it is all over for you.

SOCIAL CREDIT SCORE!!! That is the very next stage of your thinking, why judge on one post = collate all of them, with how you behave at work, in school, and EVERYWHERE, and then give a score. Go full hog, bring on total monitoring of everything, it will stop trolls, and people who have truths to say which contravene ‘established truth’ will shut up as they should, right?.

David Simpson
David Simpson
2 years ago

I do think a fundamental problem with a lot of this is the use of avatars and anonymity – even people with mental health issues may think twice about going off on one if everyone can see who they are and what their real name is. I have “issues” but I try not to let them dictate my behaviour on line – I lose it occasionally when drunk, but I’m still identifiable, and I accept responsibility for my stupidity, along with everything else. And I would apologise, if that was appropriate.

Jane Watson
Jane Watson
2 years ago

As a psychotherapist I became aware of the dangers of ‘online discourse’ and social media from day one; children bullied online and women vicitimised by men they met on dating sites. I began to say to the latter ‘not everyone on there is a psychopath, but all the psychopaths will be there’. It’s glib, and unfair to the majority (I know people happily married to partners they met online) but predators do exist.
Personality disorders (PDs) are surprisingly common, but diagnosis and classifications are highly controversial (especially so for DID, referred to in this article). Having a diagnosis of a PD will usually mean the individual has presented, as an adult, with a mental health problem; but not everyone with a PD would be considered mentally ill. Behavioural problems, difficulties maintaining relationships and/or employment, substance abuse and erratic mood swings are all more common for those with PDs, but it is not uncommon for problems to be hidden from the outside world and only fully manifest in private.
The private becomes public online, and many people who have disordered personalities or mental health difficulties can become socially isolated (sometimes deliberately). These people are now able to form ‘communities’ online that would never have existed in the ‘real world’. This may explain many current trends. We have groups that encourage self-harm, anorexia and even suicide, and ‘incels’, who blame women for their lack of social skills. Malcontents radicalise each other and promote violence against individuals, groups, even institutions.
I have seen, usually at the request of family members, young people who never leave their rooms but spend all night online to ‘friends’ thousands of miles away. They may have joined online communities that share bizarre fantasies and take the individual further away from ‘normal’ and into more paranoid and sometimes dangerous thinking. Some groups actively encourage members to adopt fantasy identities, not uncommonly of the opposite sex or even furry animals.
Another factor may be hypergraphia, a compulsion to write. In the years before smartphones I occasionally had clients turn up at appointments with a dozen sheets of A4, the stream of their consciousness since we last met. I used to have a query box on my website, inviting contact from potential clients, but had to remove it after a month as it became a magnet for people all over the world to tell me their life stories. Some of this compulsive activity is likely being displaced onto social media. The anonymity offered by some forums potentially allows one individual to have multiple identities on the same and different sites.
I don’t know what the solution is either, but it must keep the moderators busy.

Last edited 2 years ago by Jane Watson
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
Margaret Tudeau-Clayton
2 years ago
Reply to  Jane Watson

Scary stuff Jane. Thanks for sharing this experience.

Gareth Llewellyn
Gareth Llewellyn
2 years ago

Some of us have recognized this phenomenon early in the Hate Season, and I applaud Mr. Chiver’s balanced approach. That said, I have observed poor self-esteem in many on the left who seem to meet the diagnostic criteria of BPD. After that, the social media and MSM have morphed it somehow into a cult.

stephen archer
stephen archer
2 years ago

Having worked with information technology since the early 70’s I am astounded at the dramatic and rapid effects technology progress is having on society and the world at large. With social media, the one-to-all forms of dialogue coupled with the anonimity and giving anyone however extreme or unstable a platform for spreading their views and prejuidices is frightening. This is changing society and our world in disturbing ways, causing bigotry, intolerance, mental health issues, dependence on electronic devices for living, the youth and future generations being shepherded and having their intellectual development replaced by vast electronic infrastructures doing the thinking for them. This cancer is continually percolating its way up to the leaders and governments of the world. We cannot either afford to waste valuable energy resources becoming more scarce in the future for unessential and wasteful services such as social media, Bitcoin mining, etc.
I sometimes wonder how we managed our lives in the 80’s and 90’s and although I love having the technology available now for all the amazing things it’s lead to, it’s just that the development and utilisation/manipulation of technology is totally out of control and AI will just magnify this situation tenfold or a hundredfold. When AI systems start setting up accounts on social media and spreading their views and influence then we are nearing an Armageddon moment. The technology is available and there are doubtless technology giants working towards this.

Last edited 2 years ago by stephen archer
Dan Gleeballs
Dan Gleeballs
2 years ago

Deleted

Last edited 2 years ago by Dan Gleeballs
mike otter
mike otter
2 years ago

Better than this article – read John Cleese and Robin Skynner on why lefties are wackos. Its as true then as now, and sent up brilliantly in Life of Brian. For ordinary centrists and the moderate right you don’t have to be mad to think that way but it may either help or hinder, but for anyone left of about Ted Heath severe mental illness is pretty much compulsory. I for one am glad to see them suffer – justice is still justice when its harsh. My concern is for their victims, the poor, vulnerable and genuinley mentally ill who are derided as stupid and worthless by the left from its edges to its mainstream.

William Cameron
William Cameron
2 years ago

Very interesting

David Uzzaman
David Uzzaman
2 years ago

I’m sure some of the terrible behaviour online is caused by people with mental health issues but there is also quite a lot which is due to the lack of social censure. There are people who threaten and abuse passers by on the street but they are rare. Many otherwise quite and well behaved folk turn into monsters behind the wheel of a car. The internet has emboldened many more with the added problem of anonymity. I’ve occasionally typed gratuitously offensive lines but always managed to resist the urge to send by thinking, would I actually use those words face to face.

John Riordan
John Riordan
2 years ago

“I’m certainly not saying that all trans people have personality disorders or that being trans is a mental illness. ”
Very possibly not.

I would say, however, that trans activists who expect in apparent seriousness that the rest of the world must redefine established gender norms in order that their own politics may be accommodated, are almost certainly lunatics.

Andrew Raiment
Andrew Raiment
2 years ago

Dl

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Raiment