Why I Left Yale: Mental Illness & Higher Education

mental health & illness

One of the most spectacular failures of my life came out of being ill.

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder the summer before I was to begin at Yale as a member of the Class of 2005. My psychiatrist determined that I would begin treatment once I arrived there — across the country. Alone. 18 years old.

I saw it as a chance for a fresh start. It was a time in my life when I was reckless and didn’t care much about what happened to me. When I was still reeling from the abusive boyfriend, the sexual assault, the boundary-crossing relationships with both men and women. When I didn’t know how to say no to people, or how to ask for what I wanted. You know, 18-year-old problems.

I received poor care from the psychiatrist that I was assigned to at Mental Hygiene. That was what it was called: Mental Hygiene. Like my brain needed to be scrubbed clean, which it did. Some of my new friends knew that I was going to Mental Hygiene. One of them, a girl from an Asian American performance group I was a member of, told me in an elevator, “Don’t ever, ever tell them if you want to kill yourself.”

“Yeah,” someone else chimed in. “Never. Unless you want to end up in the hospital.”

I said I wouldn’t. (Think about this piece of advice: never tell anyone that YOU WANT TO KILL YOURSELF.)

“They have a bad rap,” the girl said. “I know two people who’ve ended up in the hospital because of that.”

In the spring I became manic, and then I became depressed. Despite the sage words of my fellow Asian American performance artists, I went to Urgent Care. I ended up in the psychiatric hospital, and as we began to discuss my discharge, Yale administration told me that I would have to leave unless one or more of my parents, who were living and working in California at the time, moved out to Connecticut. Said parent(s) and I would have to live in an apartment off-campus.

I couldn’t bear the thought of leaving. I define myself through overachievement. There was no way that bipolar disorder was going to keep me from going to my Evolutionary Biology class, so my mother — whom I didn’t have a good relationship with, at the time — and I moved into a small apartment near campus.

I was still very ill. I specifically recall lying on the floor of the kitchen, sobbing and screaming, while my mother frantically called my (new) psychiatrist. But leave? Never.

I became terribly ill again my sophomore year, was hospitalized, and then the gauntlet came down: I had to leave. While I sat, stone-faced, in the dining area of the WS2 unit, the Yale administrator told me that someone would have to confiscate my student ID, someone would have to pack up my things for me. In a year, after proving that I could survive through classes taken elsewhere, they would consider allowing me to return.

Grief doesn’t begin to describe it. They wanted me on a plane back to California the next day. They wanted me out of the hospital, out of New Haven. My dad — bless his heart, he’d come from China to be with me and to deal with the bureaucracy — booked a hotel room for Chris and me to be together for one last night; he didn’t tell the school. (In the hotel room, the school called. Were we in New York? They were checking on us. Yes, my dad lied.)

That was the beginning of the end of my time at Yale University.

My husband, whom I met when I was a freshman, graduated from Yale in 2003. I feel a mix of shame, jealousy, and bitterness every time I look at his diploma, which hangs in his work office (the diploma is good decor for the parents he works with; Chris is blessed with boyish good looks). I went with him to his five-year reunion in 2008 because after leaving Yale in 2003, I had never returned to New Haven, nor seen most of our mutual friends.

So much of it hadn’t changed. The air was the same — that stifling, heavy air that reminded me of trudging across Cross-Campus with my backpack. The Educated Burgher served the same unnaturally chocolatey milkshakes. The bells still rang. Those bells in Harkness Tower. My heart broke every time I heard the bells.

I attended the reunion as Chris’ guest. I wrote beneath my name, “Jonathan Edwards, ’05,” because I didn’t want to be thought of as an unknown guest, a silent partner. I used to belong here, I wanted to tell everyone.

I was still obviously grieving.

By the time I went to the reunion in 2008, my mental health had improved tremendously. I’d finally found a mixture of medications that needed to be adjusted up and down occasionally, but that fundamentally worked to keep me stable. And as I drank wine at the events, and looked around at all of the people who had graduated five years before, and possessed that diploma that I wanted so badly, I wondered if it was true that I didn’t belong there, at the reunion of the school where I’d placed all of my dreams of escape and intellect and hope when I was 18 and stuck in my small, suffocating hometown.

Our mutual friend J. was there. He’d snuck into the reunion because he didn’t want to pay. The whole thing, he told me, made him sick. He hated that people recognized him and wanted to talk to him. He hated having to make small talk with those people. He smoked furiously and looked miserable.

“I was so depressed here,” he said. “This place. It’s just such an awful place.”

And he had a diploma.

Learning is one of my favorite things in the world. It’s my jam. But institutionalized learning happened at a time in my life when I wasn’t okay enough to do it — by which I mean, the learning. Middle school? Ha. High school? Hell in a handbasket. College? ‘Nuff said. Graduate school? Better, but no dice.

Sometimes I ask myself if any of my time at Yale was worth it, and I think about bells and Chris and the exhilaration of the first day of my linguistics class, when I asked more questions than anyone else, and answered more questions than anyone else, too. It wasn’t the right time for me, or my ailing brain; the school wasn’t equipped to deal with the problems that I was having, and I don’t know if, with liability and suicides on campus, schools will ever have the right solution in hand to help their walking wounded.

But I don’t hate myself for that so-called failure anymore. I wasn’t the only one who failed, then.


How to Assess a College’s Mental Health Offerings (NYTimes)
More Mental Illness Among College Students (PsychCentral)

NOTE: The last few weeks’ comments have disappeared, due to some conflicts between Disqus and TypePad. I’ve now switched to TypePad Connect for my commenting system, which should work. My apologies for the mishap.

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