For several years, I blocked out my experience at Yale University as a trauma – my whole college experience was wiped clean from my mind. And by doing so, I’ve blocked out essential and unique parts of myself, too, for years. I experienced what I call a “soul loss” because I was unable to really process the gravity of the blows I received from the mental health services at Yale as a vulnerable, starry-eyed college student — or face the reality of all the stigma, discrimination and maltreatment that was being shoved onto me at the time.
I attended Yale from 2000-2007. Being accepted to Yale was a dream come true for me. I had applied early decision because I just knew that I belonged there. My childhood home was on Yale Avenue, and I seemed to have a mystical connection with the school. I felt like I didn’t have to make a decision because all signs pointed to Yale.
What does it mean to have a “soul loss”? What is it that I suffered? The Shared Wisdom Community writes on Soul Loss:
“Among the indigenous peoples of the world, it is generally understood that traumatic life experiences, when they are serious enough, can result in the fragmentation of our inner, vital essence or soul. Often, these traumatized soul aspects dissociate, resulting in a phenomenon generally known as ‘Soul Loss’.”
In soul loss, dissociated parts (dissociation is like a psychological equivalent to soul loss where we can’t access a part of ourselves) leave the body to carry the pain and shock of the trauma. It’s adaptive. And it leads to blocked memory and feeling incomplete, and maybe even experiencing depression and addiction from this loss, or a feeling of a lack of direction.
I experienced years of soul loss both during and after my experience with mental health services at Yale – especially the fragmentation, the blocked memory, the depression and loss of my vital self. I changed so much that I became a kind of shell of myself. My radicalism, my sharp intellectual capacity, aspects of my creativity, many of my charming eccentricities, healthy emotions such as anger, my fieriness, my gutsiness, did not feel accessible anymore and slowly faded. A feeling of disorganization tied to helplessness also permeated my life, along with a giving up on my sense of agency with my body as the psych drugs took it over. It has been a slow process of hard psychological and spiritual work and therapy to work on regaining these pieces of me. It is also a grief process. I even feel flattened as I write this. So much sadness and loss… And yet, I push on.
I was hospitalized four times at Yale, three times involuntarily, and once voluntarily. I was forced to withdraw from school twice, tied to the hospitalizations. I took a voluntary leave of absence once. I had to reapply a total of five times, because I was not let back in on initial tries. I wish I had never sought student mental health services at Yale.
I entered Yale in the fall of 2000. In the fall of 2001, I was involuntarily hospitalized at Yale for depression and suicidal thoughts. I had visited student mental health services (which was called ‘mental hygiene’ then) because I was spiritually drained from a relationship breakup and an identity crisis, and I couldn’t concentrate. The therapist, who I’d just met, didn’t seem interested in my story, and instead asked about my history with suicidal thoughts and depression – and then pressured me to tell her percentage-wise how likely I was to kill myself. I threw out a high number, dumbfounded and unsure what to say but wanting help. She involuntarily hospitalized me, and I was forced to withdraw from school. The bearer of bad news was the chief psychiatrist who managed to dismiss me in a way that made me feel less than human. My dream of Yale was shattered, and I had no idea what I was going to do. I felt like a falling Alice in Wonderland.
But I returned in spring of 2003. In fall of that year I again went to the hospital, this time voluntarily. I had been helping organize with Yale worker unions and was very emotionally impacted by the strike at Yale, and by how much the people who kept Yale running day to day had to struggle to get a fair wage. I participated in several actions with the workers, including sleep-outs in the cold in front of administrative buildings. It seemed hopeless as the administration would not budge, and this put me in a state of despair and overwhelm and anger towards my school. After entering the hospital, I choose to take a leave of absence that semester.
My experience in 2004 that got me hospitalized still remains dull in my memory, although it’s the most vivid of all the other times described. During that period, I entered into an at times very heady space, and at other times, a place of deep emotion. In my head, new ideas for projects blossomed and blossomed. In every human micro-interaction, because of my philosophies on life, I attempted to balance self-respect and love for myself with respect and love for the other, based on what I could garner from the surface and known history of the person (and taking into account privilege dynamics such as race, gender, socioeconomic class). My heart was so wide open that I was able to engage with conversations from people of all walks of life. Emotionally, I felt I could deeply feel what was happening in art – the layers of feeling that the artist felt while creating, and what was wanting to be conveyed. I was constantly in touch with divine creativity. I created a language to transcribe melodies with drawings. I had mystic experiences of cosmic bliss.
My psychiatrist, perhaps uncomfortable and scared by all my super-fast-paced new ideas, and detecting some slight paranoia which would come up at times, chose to involuntarily hospitalize me without standard grounds for hospitalization. After what felt like a traumatic experience at the hospital I left with dulling prescriptions and little support, and ended up hospitalized again after three weeks of being thrown right back into school. And I got kicked out of Yale once again. I came back after a difficult readmission, and graduated in spring 2007.
The readmission process was demanding. Given the recent tragic suicide of Luchang Wang (who would have been Class of ’17) linked to Yale’s withdrawal policies, it’s clear that Yale needs substantial change in its culture around treatment of mental and emotional distress. As a response to the suicide, Yale is changing some of its withdrawal and readmission policies, but to me, reading about it, the effort seems pacifying and not enough. The standard readmission process that I experienced involved taking two classes at an accredited university and earning at least a B, along with steady paid or volunteer work, recommendations from a clinician and supervisors, etc. In my first interview for readmission (you have to interview with a series of Deans), one of the first questions the Dean asked me was, “So you were thinking of killing yourself?” Which prompted me to cry. I wasn’t let back in that time. When I was finally let back in, one of the Deans lauded me on my straightforward essay. He mentioned that another student had written their readmission essay in a spiral – there was no way she was being let back in, he chuckled.
During my time with mental health services at Yale, I went because I had a naive belief that doctors know what they’re doing, and because I felt pressured to go. My psychiatrist at Yale was barely interested in the content of what was happening in my life, and more on adjusting (usually upping) my cocktails of medications. I remember withstanding being put on Zyprexa and gaining 30 lbs in a month, sleeping a ridiculous 15 hours a day, feeling drugged and lethargic, and asking to be taken off it, with my psychiatrist instead insisting on increasing the dose. I received the old adage and mantra of psychiatry that is still spewed today – that I had a chronic illness and needed to be on Lithium for life. This stuck with me for quite awhile. My ambivalence with Lithium was always present, stronger at times than others. After 14 years of being on it, I tapered off in a few months with the support of my awesome current psychiatrist. I feel like that drug was a chemical straitjacket, and that I was on it for so long because I was conditioned and scared into it, and didn’t have the support and belief that I could come off it until 2015. In my diary, I wrote about Lithium when I was first put on it: “It’s like looking at a tree, and it has no color and is dead.” I had lost my connection to the aliveness and spirit of trees.
Throughout all the turmoil at Yale, I got mostly A’s, A minuses, and just a few B pluses, plus the Withdraw on my transcript when I was kicked out (okay, I got a C second semester of Freshman Organic Chemistry). I remember especially loving my classes on Neuroplasticity, Formation of Modern American Culture, American Photography: From Daguerreotypes to Dian Arbus, Political Violence and Human Rights, and Feminist Perspectives on Literature. Now I can look back fondly, if vaguely, at organizing book drives for people in prison, hygiene kit drives for Iraqi civilians during the Iraq War, a disclosure campaign on Yale’s socially and environmentally harmful global investments, die-ins to expose paramilitary connections with corporations, sit-ins for preserving social services, and so much more activism.
The memories and the associated aspects of me are coming back. Really, what mental health services at Yale did to me was create a deep sense of distrust in myself. The services made me feel like I was an unwell person, and a person who didn’t deserve to be in school. I am in a place now where I have received so much support and validation from family, friends, and colleagues and clinicians that I trust in myself now. My soul parts are returning. The parts of me that were lost, are now being found, and the beautiful people in my life who I had blocked out are coming back into my life as I reach out. I feel like I am in such a state of integration and grace. I am feeling whole and again pursuing my dreams.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.