Content Warning: This article contains references to self-harm.
The first time I was hospitalized, I lay in a gurney — “you can go voluntarily or involuntarily” — in an ambulance — “but you have to go.” I was okay, I said, and kept saying. I had a plan to kill myself, but no intention. It was vague, and then it wasn’t, and then it was again. I am okay, I told them. I had no cuts, no bruises. I was intact. The psychiatrist held his hands together, concerned. Inside the ambulance, once the doors had closed, the paramedic asked me, “Did you say too much?”
After a near suicide attempt, the poet John Berryman wrote a poem, which begins: “I didn’t. And I didn’t.” He would die by suicide later that week. But in the ambulance, strapped to a gurney — no cuts, no bruises, intact — I wanted to say: “I didn’t. And I didn’t.” I am sound, I wanted to say.
It was Valentine’s Day 2016. There were chocolates with Henry VIII’s wives printed on them. My then-boyfriend wore a beanie. I had written a poem about feet. The next morning, I went to Yale Mental Health and Counseling for a scheduled appointment with my counselor. I told him about the “plan” I had, vague as it was, and he took me to a psychologist. I repeated my “plan” to her. She led me to a psychiatrist, who, in turn, called an ambulance.
Since I was a Yale student, the psychiatrist told me that he would have to notify my dean and my parents — but that I would be “part of the conversation.” Once I got to the Crisis Intervention Unit (CIU), a mental health worker informed me that my mom was already on the phone — “a little upset.”
Later, my roommate visited me. She brought dried cantaloupe and Crayola markers. We drew portraits of each other, and laughed at our pink and green scribbles. A nurse told us to quiet down. “Remember that this is a hospital,” she said. In the next room, a woman screamed, “GET ME OUT OF HERE. I’LL SUE YOU.”
My ward was known as LV2. There, the patients started a game of Monopoly each morning, and, because there were so many group sessions during the day, never finished it. There were bird calls looped on a machine. Puzzles and coloring. My boyfriend at the time visited LV2 and put his head in my lap. “Why did you have to tell them?”
My mom flew in on her birthday to get me out. I was not forced to withdraw, and finished the semester. A year later — after a bad break-up, the wrong medications and inconsistent care — I was still more unwell than well. I had a conversation with one of my professors, who posed the question: “How will art save your life?” With that question in mind, I left Yale and set out to write 1,000 poems over the course of my withdrawal.
The first time I applied for reinstatement, I was rejected. They cited only that I was not “ready,” refusing to elaborate.
“We don’t want you to come back to Yale and kill yourself,” a psychologist at Yale Mental Health later said to me in my reinstatement interview.
“Me neither,” I replied.
“Great, we’re on the same page.”
By the time I was reinstated at Yale — a year and a half later — I had written 625 poems. Art, and specifically poetry, did not save my life alone. A confluence of many things (poetry, medication, therapy, support from friends and family) saved my life, and continues to save my life.
I returned to Yale this January and bought a pennant that read “Class of 2021” — my new class. I tacked a picture of me from when I had first visited Yale on my wall as a reminder that Yale had been my dream.
As shopping period came to a close, I thought about leaving again. I spent a night in the observation unit at the Yale New Haven Hospital, ate soft graham crackers in little yellow packets and decided that I would leave Yale. I didn’t know if I would come back this time.
I felt that I was not keeping up with my peers. I was dropping classes, turning in assignments far after the deadlines, sending professors long-winded emails about how my “health had deteriorated” and could I please turn in that Wordsworth assignment late — like very late? Like never?
I watched my classmates — who seemed peppy in comparison — go to class, participate in extracurriculars, have coffee dates. I know that not all Yale students are “peppy,” happy Bulldogs, but most find a way to get by. I could have “gotten by” too — but at what cost?
“I slowly enter my gift to myself…” writes novelist Clarice Lispector. I had hoped that I might “enter my gift to myself” more fully, more robustly, at Yale. I kept a gratitude journal, went to therapy, increased my medications. But I realize now that the “gift” I needed to give myself was that of stepping away, saying farewell, to a love — Yale — that had proved too toxic for me.
When I came to Yale in the fall of 2015, I did not know that I would dance under five disco balls, start smoking, get hospitalized. I did not know that I would become a poet, fall in and out of love, sing “shut up kiss me hold me tight” (to be fair, I don’t think that song was out yet). Not much was known then — not much is known now.
Except that I am sick here. No number of disco balls or Angel Olsen songs can make Yale tenable for me right now. Maybe one day, as if Yale were a high school sweetheart, this school and I can get back together. But for now, I slowly and methodically and with great reverence, “enter the gift” of saying goodbye.
Jen Frantz is a sophomore in Timothy Dwight College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .