On an August night in 2019, Elijah McClain was walking home alone from the convenience store when a bystander on the street called 911, reporting that he “looked suspicious.” Elijah was stopped by the police and never made it home. As he pleaded for compassion and understanding, some of his last words were: “I’m an introvert. I’m just different.”
My story begins a little over three years ago when, as a student at Columbia University, I believe that I was a victim of racial and criminal profiling on campus. These incidents occurred frequently, and although I never suffered physical brutality, they cumulatively eroded my sense of identity and my certainty that how I am perceived on the outside matches who I am on the inside. Trying to raise my voice about the profiling eventually led to harassment and surveillance by law enforcement, and what made it harder to bear is that nobody would listen to or believe me. Today I am a shell of my former self, but I am still here and recovering.
This essay is dedicated to Elijah McClain and all those who identify as different and have been punished for it.
An Education in Intimidation
Prior to arriving at Columbia as a second-B.A. candidate, I was a promising Ph.D. student in the Department of Political Science at Stony Brook University. I had left that program after raising concerns over a cheating ring organized by some of the upper-level grad students. Although the cheating was arguably not of a serious nature—the students were merely sharing past exams on the sly—the culture of secrecy and the subversive way the ring leaders recruited students seemed contrary to the transparency that was foundational to my then-rosy view of academic culture. When I asked the Ombud for advice, she told me to seek psychological counseling. I didn’t receive much support from the department, who turned a blind eye to the bullying I experienced from other students, so I decided to leave. I’ve never spoken publicly about this before, as I respect the department and still have a good relationship with my former advisor, but in telling my story, it’s important that I acknowledge the events that have deeply affected me and brought me to where I am today.
Disillusioned but not defeated, I decided to use my GI Bill benefits to change fields and pursue a second B.A. in environmental biology at Columbia. A bit whimsical by nature, I was optimistic and thought I could make a fresh start. But a few days into my first semester on campus, I had a strange encounter with a public-safety officer. I had entered the building where one of my classes was being held and was using the restroom, which was to the immediate right of the street entrance. I was the only person in the restroom when I went in, but as I was washing my hands, I looked up into the mirror and noticed a public-safety officer standing behind me with his arms crossed and a severe look on his face. Was I not supposed to be in here? I wondered to myself. A little shaken, I went to my class without saying anything and didn’t think anything more of it.
There would be similar interactions with public-safety officers throughout the rest of the year, and I began to imagine all sorts of reasons why this was happening. I wondered if Stony Brook had flagged me as a whistleblower and passed that information on to the administration at Columbia. I worried whether, as an introvert and someone who also identified as mentally ill, people thought I was a potential shooter. I decided to stop carrying my military-style backpack to school, wondering if this memento from my four years of service in the U.S. Army made me seem suspicious. When nothing changed, I stopped carrying my laptop to school as well, as it is an old, hulking 2010 model from the era when 17-inch desktop replacements were the thing. Could it have been mistaken for a weapon?
The incidents didn’t stop.
Looking back on my pathetic and futile attempts not to draw attention to myself, I’m reminded of news stories about city kids caught in the crossfires of rival gangs during the 1990s. They could be shot while walking down the street simply for wearing the wrong colors. The situation got so dire that kids started wearing clown costumes in order to send the clearest, most reliable signals that they didn’t belong to a gang. From this story, I recognized the ridiculousness of my own situation, but I felt powerless to change it, as there was nothing I could do to look “normal.” Yet I wasn’t about to revert to my teenage self and dye my hair purple again as a proud declaration and acceptance of my inability to belong. Instead, I became increasingly withdrawn. I stopped going to classes.
Learning to Navigate the World
Cynics and folk psychologists alike will wonder at this point in the story, “Well, where did these negative thoughts come from?” Perhaps from an inner self-loathing or anger at the world? Well, no.
When I was 17, I almost flunked my senior year in high school. I was depressed and anxious and would frequently miss class because of oversleeping. Exasperated, my mom finally set me up with a cognitive-behavioral therapist who specialized in treating anxiety disorders. When I finally received my diagnosis of Social Anxiety Disorder, I felt relief that there was a name for whatever it was I had. I began to understand that a lot of my anxiety stemmed from childhood experiences with racial discrimination and microaggressions. For example, people would unexpectedly yell at me to “go back to China” as I passed them on the street (even though I’m of Korean descent). I learned over many years to cope with my social anxiety by respecting my boundaries, avoiding certain places and situations where people were likely to be hostile and intolerant.
But I also realized that by moving cautiously through the world, I could push myself just enough to achieve new goals. Two years after graduating with my first B.A., I enlisted in the Army as a combat medic. Although I was initially a fish out of water (very much an understatement), I finished my four years of service with honor and a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan under my belt. I knew there was a lot I could accomplish still, and despite the struggles and setbacks in my life, I liked the person I had become.
The Hardest Year of My Life
Following my first year at Columbia, on a late August day, my life changed forever when my cat, Klimky, was diagnosed with a form of stomach cancer. She rapidly declined after that visit to the veterinarian. About two weeks later, the veterinarian suggested I bring her in for a steroid injection, but at the office she insisted that Klimky be euthanized immediately, even though I kept saying that I was uncomfortable and wasn’t ready to make that decision. When I said I wanted to come back another day, she said “No. I don’t think that’s a good idea.” She wouldn’t relent, and I was coerced into making the worst decision of my life. Intellectually, I know it can be hard to be assertive over those in positions of authority, especially when we are at our most vulnerable, but to this day, I feel that I let Klimky down, as I promised I would always protect her. At 15 years of age, she had always been my best friend and my source of strength and motivation for most of my adult life.
After Klimky died, I began to see the world differently. I viewed it as a mostly bad place where people abuse their power and authority and where the weak and vulnerable are preyed upon, and I desperately wanted to escape this hell. I started thinking about plans to kill myself, but I knew I needed help to stay alive for a bit longer, if only to take care of my other cat, Ilia, who had hyperthyroidism and just a few more years to live.
I checked in at the campus counseling center, and the first psychologist I met with immediately advised me to take a medical leave, telling me how much people like me hurt the community. I was vulnerable, but I recognized the strong-arm tactics, having been coerced just a few days earlier at the vet’s. I knew that taking classes would help me to survive, as studying is one of my passions. So I requested to see a different therapist and kept regular psychotherapy and psychiatric appointments for the remainder of the semester.
I made it through, but I never forgot the soul-crushing feeling when they tried to make me disappear, as if to keep society safe from “people like me.” I think about the other students, younger and more impressionable, who go to the counseling center thinking they will get help, only to be told that they are the problem. There have been many such students over the years, and some have never come back.
Becoming Boo Radley
Despite my distress, I was never disruptive in any of my classes and my behavior never gave any cause for people to consider me a threat. Self-conscious of the fact that the administration wanted me disappeared, I tried to be invisible as much as possible. I once asked my academic advisor if my quietness disturbed my professors, and he confirmed that none of them had ever raised any concerns. Still, the incidents with campus security continued, including one time when a public-safety officer followed me in the elevator up to counseling services, leaving only after I checked in at the front desk. I never told my therapist about the profiling on campus because I knew he wouldn’t believe me. Moreover, I knew the clinicians would likely think I was paranoid–i.e., psychotic.
At this point, I should mention that my story is different from many here in that although I have a long history of mental health struggles, my parents are both practicing medical doctors. My father is a psychiatrist, and both he and my mother are extremely distrustful of our healthcare system. They raised me to develop a deep respect for and skepticism about pharmaceuticals. So it was my parents who often prescribed my medication, and just enough to help me get through the worst days.
In this context, my psychiatrist at the campus counseling center initially respected my decision not to take any medication, although we ended up trying several SSRIs, none of which I found helpful. Over the next several months, the #MeToo movement built momentum, and I felt empowered by other people standing up to systems of oppression and abuse. I decided that I didn’t need to accept the harassment from public safety anymore and went to see someone at the Ombuds office to complain. After a lengthy conversation, they told me that “I was the only one who ever reported this kind of thing.” Realizing that the administration wasn’t going to be helpful, I decided to submit my story to the school newspaper, but they only stonewalled about publishing it and eventually stopped responding to my emails.
After the death of my other cat, Ilia, just over a year ago, I made two successive suicide attempts. Without getting into details, it’s enough to say that it’s a miracle I survived. I called my father, who was at work at the time, and asked him to come home. He knew from my voice that something was wrong and returned immediately. I told him what had happened, and agreed to go to the hospital.
I was admitted to an inpatient unit in Westchester, where I stayed for more than five weeks. During this time, the doctors couldn’t determine whether to diagnose me as borderline or psychotic. They initially tried to put me on lithium, which I only agreed to take because they said there was a small chance that it could kill me. When I couldn’t tolerate the nausea the lithium caused, they tried several antipsychotics, which my body also rejected. One antipsychotic made my brain feel like it was being twisted and run through a wringer. After the drugs failed, they recommended ECT, which I refused because I didn’t want to lose the memories of my cats. I told my hospital psychiatrist that I felt like Boo Radley in the novel To Kill a Mockingbird expecting a sympathetic response. Instead, I remember him sneering, “Well, it’s interesting you say that since he ended up doing some bad things.”
While I was in the hospital, I learned that back on campus, a black student had reported being followed by public-safety officers and then assaulted when he refused to show his ID upon entering a building. Other students of color started to come forward with similar experiences. The hospital finally determined that I was non-compliant and there was nothing they could do for me, so they discharged me with a diagnosis of major depressive disorder, undetermined personality disorder, and delusional disorder. About two weeks later, I made another suicide attempt by attempting to overdose on fentanyl, which I had acquired from one of my roommates at the hospital, who was a drug dealer. I voluntarily admitted myself to another hospital in the city, and when I told one of the psychiatrists—a resident who couldn’t have been over 30—about being followed on campus, he replied reassuringly, “Well, we know that happens.” He was Asian.
Mental Illness as Dissent
After my second discharge, with the support of my treatment team, I decided to return to Columbia. However, I now started having frequent encounters with the NYPD. One time, I was leaving a therapist’s appointment on campus and heading back to my apartment when suddenly, a police officer started running up to me from behind, stomping the ground with heavy footsteps as if he wanted me to hear him approaching, trying to provoke a flight response. Since I didn’t react, however, he stopped running just a few feet in front of me and then walked away on the empty street. Further down the block, a police car waiting at the corner turned away.
According to Jim van Os, a world-renowned professor of psychiatry, 30 percent of the population during their lifetime will experience psychosis, which he defines as distortions in our interpretations of random events that can cause us to see threats and attach meaning to stimuli that are otherwise neutral. Given this perspective, it’s arguable that I was experiencing psychosis even though the events I describe are real. I certainly became paranoid. But then, what is the proper and normal response to being profiled and surveilled?
These days, I often discuss with my therapist my anxiety about people’s perceptions that “the mentally ill” are violent. The media and its pundits almost always describe perpetrators of mass shootings using code words: “quiet,” “shy,” “loner”—words that describe me—if not explicitly attributing them to clinically meaningless labels of “mental illness.” In an editorial published by Columbia’s student newspaper, the authors accused students in mental distress of bringing down the rest of the community, implying that we need to be isolated. This argument is eerily similar to those in favor of using force to quash dissent, labeling protesters as divisive and a threat to civility. Is it a coincidence that people with mental-illness labels are often the most vocal opponents of systemic discrimination, harassment, and other abuse?
Being Different Is Not a Crime
It’s important during this time of national reckoning that we center the voices and experiences of Black and Indigenous people. In telling my story, as an Asian American, I’m not trying to detract our focus from the extreme pain and suffering in the Black and Indigenous communities. Although I’ve never experienced the levels of systemic racism and brutality that they have endured for too long in our nation, the events of the past three years have helped me develop more than an intellectual understanding of the racial terror inflicted upon them. I now understand at a visceral level how the constant surveillance, profiling, and gaslighting can damage the psyche and make one feel less than human—although we shouldn’t need to be victims ourselves in order to be partners in the fight against racial injustice.
It’s remarkable to reflect how I came away from my military deployment relatively unscathed, but now suffer with post-traumatic stress from my experience on a college campus. In retrospect, I can understand, without condoning, why I was being profiled. On campus, I tried to mitigate my social anxiety by avoiding crowded spaces and taking the most circuitous routes to classes by, for example, going around the main college walk and using back or side entrances. Paradoxically, in trying to remain invisible, I probably drew unwanted attention to myself. Earlier this year, I filed a complaint with the NYC Commission on Human Rights, but after apologizing for what I had been through, the attorney simply told me that law enforcement are within their legal rights to target people who look suspicious.
Elijah McClain was viewed as a “potentially bad person” because he was wearing a ski mask and dancing while walking home alone at night. There is a growing tendency in society to view all forms of atypical behavior as threatening, as pathology, as mental illness. Civil rights advocates have noted that the real effect of policies like stop-and-frisk and “see something, say something” campaigns are not to reduce crime, but to increase the targeting of marginalized individuals, which sends a clear message that certain groups are not welcome in the community.
Our fast, technology-driven society increasingly demands that everyone conform to an ever more rigid, narrow standard of normality. This tendency towards authoritarianism is exacerbated by the prevalent misconception that every deviation from normal has a quick medical fix. These days, discussion of mental illness regularly centers the pain and suffering of the families and communities affected by people with mental illness labels rather than the individuals who live with that struggle. But just as abolitionists ask us to focus criminal-justice reform at the level of societal accountability, so too must psychiatry remove the undue burden on neurodivergent individuals whose needs are not being met and whose voices are not being heard.
Elijah McClain’s cries for compassion and understanding were not in vain and can no longer be ignored.