Most of my friends were taken aback when asked to recall moments when they felt happy at Yale — whatever that meant, if anything. The answers varied from winning IM pingpong to tailgates with their residential college. Most were community-centered: having someone to ride exercise bikes with at the gym, group applause for a revealing tale at a storytelling event, bumping into friends at parties. There was another common denominator among my friends’ answers: They were most often non-academic and unstructured, occurring neither in the classroom nor in extracurricular settings.
Personal meanings of happiness, my peers revealed, are a survey in scope. For some, insignificant moments were paradoxically rendered significant in retrospect. For others, happiness involves a deliberate vision about how the seemingly disparate components of their lives correspond with one another. This second conception, which looks at the big picture rather than the little things, is centered on finding meaningful order in one’s life.
But if happiness can mean such different things to different people, perhaps Yale is off-target in marketing itself as the“happy Ivy” and pitching happiness as the ultimate goal for a Yale experience. Some of my friends felt pressure to provide scripted answers to university inquiries about well-being, from freshman fireside chats to university-wide surveys. Even if well-intentioned, such efforts seem wooden, incapable of engaging with the actual issue. Informal discussions among close friends, expectedly, provide a more honest snapshot of how people feel. But it’s still a weird question to ask or answer: “Are you happy?”
And maybe it’s not always the right question. A healthier and more productive goal might be to learn how both happiness and sadness are integral to the human condition. My friends and I couldn’t resolve the relationship between happiness and mental health; one friend suggested that happiness here often becomes a substitute for mental health, when it might be more honest to say “There are things that worry me, but I am still OK.”
As confused as my friends and I might be about happiness, we could agree on wanting more of an emotional and personal education from Yale. Peter Salovey may have championed emotional intelligence years ago, but it is still lacking in many of our professors’ teaching methods. One of my friends thought that classrooms would benefit from the professor checking in for a minute: “This is a rough week, how is everyone doing?” Classrooms should be part of our lives, not insulated from them.
“We were talking about ‘King Lear,’” a friend of mine recalled of a recent class. “I like it as a work of art but, why I really like ‘King Lear’ has nothing to do with that. It’s the same way I appreciate music theory or the physics of a building. But the Eiffel Tower isn’t just something that is physically astonishing. It’s the magnificence I feel when I look up at it … Professors need to be able to articulate that mysterious awe, that magic about literature, science, music…” He trailed off.
Even if we aren’t sure exactly what happiness means, we need professors, to the best of their ability, to really teach us about ‘King Lear,’ the Eiffel Tower and ourselves. Yale classrooms have too long demanded a separation of students’ emotional and intellectual lives, but the “mysterious awe” my friend described doesn’t fall neatly into either of those categories. We want answers from our professors, so we can learn to feel that awe ourselves, but too often we just get more questions. Students have deans and masters to approach with questions about how to guide their lives, at the cost of professors not understanding what it means to be a Yale student. As a result, it’s hard to connect.
Everyone agreed that Yale has offered them a place of newfound acceptance. A home. But this comfort does not undermine the sincerity of concerns about what happiness here means. It’s a difficult, if not impossible, question to answer. Which is perhaps why “mysterious awe” is a good place to start.
“I’m Rachel,” I say to the man who is here to evaluate me, extending my hand, trying to put on my best sane face. Problem is, no one ever told me what that looks like.
He eyes me for a moment, then takes my hand.
I run him through the story, trying to emphasize my efforts to be honest and to get help.
I say, “So as soon as I cut, I texted my FroCo for support.”
“But you admit that you willfully harmed yourself?” he says, like he’s just won something.
“Well … yes.” Because obviously I admit it. I’m not a liar. If I were a liar, I would never have gotten myself into this mess. Fuck me for not being a liar.
And so, when I say “yes” to the ‘I admit cutting myself’ part, he nods his head and closes his eyes like someone has just given him a bonbon.
I tell him when I come back to Yale, I will get a therapist on campus and keep working with the one I have at home. I will stop cutting.
“Well the question may not be what will you do at Yale, but if you are returning to Yale. It may well be safer for you to go home. We’re not so concerned about your studies as we are your safety,” he says.
“I’m sorry,” I say. “What makes you think I will be safer away from school, away from my support system?” School was my stimulation, my passion and my reason for getting up in the morning.
“Well the truth is,” he says, “we don’t necessarily think you’ll be safer at home. But we just can’t have you here.”
* * *
On the night of Jan. 27, 2013, I slashed open my right thigh six times with a Swiss Army knife. I then spent four hours thinking about how good it would feel to jump off the fifth floor of Vanderbilt Hall. On Jan. 28, I put on a pretty dress and went to class. Before lunch, my cuts had stained it brown.
That night I texted my Freshman Counselor to tell her what had happened, just as I had done all the other times I felt suicidal and had cut myself. When I went to her suite, I showed her the gashes.
We went to Yale Health Urgent Care, at around 11:00 p.m., where a doctor bandaged my leg. A psychiatrist appeared. I told her that I had experienced suicidal thoughts the night before, but that the cuts had not been a suicide attempt. I told them that I was no longer suicidal.
At midnight, I was strapped to a stretcher under the ashen ceiling of an ambulance, on my way to Yale-New Haven Hospital. There I was taken to the locked ward of the ER — guarded by officers with guns — stripped of all my belongings, including my pants (they had a drawstring), and shunted into a cubicle containing nothing but a bed. I was here for my own good, they told me.
For 24 hours I had nothing to do but listen to the rattling gasping sound coming from the person two beds down, and to a schizophrenic person declare, every hour or so, that he had soiled himself. I was asked to recite the presidents of the United States, in reverse order, as part of a psychiatric evaluation. For more than a day I was not permitted to make a phone call. For more than a day no one had any idea where I was — not even my parents.
When a bed opened up in the actual Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital, I was transported, again in an ambulance, and introduced to the place I would spend the next week of my life. Upon arrival, I was taken into a small room with two female staff members, forced to take off my underwear, spread my legs, then hop up and down to make sure nothing was hidden “up there.”
My Freshman Counselor had brought me some extra clothes and a course packet for my travel writing class, so that I would have something to read. The course packet was confiscated. Why? Because I might cut myself with the plastic binding — you know — the kind you get from Tyco. I might commit suicide with that, they said. “You’re a cutter,” they told me.
For a week, I was not allowed to set foot outside. I was not allowed to stretch my hamstrings or calves or any other body part. I was not allowed to pace my confines. I was not allowed to drink caffeine. I was not permitted to take ibuprofen for my caffeine withdrawal headache. I did not get to take a shower until my third day. Phone usage was restricted and phone calls were closely monitored. I was threatened, by a nurse, with the possibility of having my wrists and ankles tied to my bed, and witnessed this threat be carried out on others. Whoever built the hospital had termed this ward, “Liberty Village.”
There was little “treatment” in the hospital. Mostly, we watched television, played Pictionary and Connect Four and sat. I was interviewed by various clinicians a few times a day; I saw my assigned psychiatrist only three times, for half an hour or so, over the course of seven days. This limited treatment was fairly standard for all patients, but it soon became clear that it would have little effect on my situation.
The milieu counselors, nurses and doctors in Yale-New Haven Psychiatric Hospital have absolutely no input when it comes to deciding who gets to stay at Yale and who is forced to leave. In talking to the nurses, doctors and fellow Yale students I encountered in the hospital, I understood that job to belong to Dr. Eric Millman and to chief of Yale Psychiatry, Dr. Lorraine Siggins — two people who work for the University, rather than the hospital.
I have shared with you my memorable exchange with a senior psychiatrist at Yale Mental Health who came to evaluate me. It was this exchange that led me to keep an extensive and thorough journal during my time in the hospital.
But Dr. Siggins is the one who makes a ruling: Does Johnny stay at Yale or does he go? And in my talks, a consensus emerged: Dr. Siggins does not always — and by some accounts, rarely — make contact with the student in question. (A Yale senior who was in the hospital with me was not granted a meeting with Dr. Siggins but was still forced to leave Yale.) Neither the staff members I spoke with nor a fellow Yalie who had prior experience in the hospital knew of any Yale student admitted to the hospital who had been allowed to stay at Yale.
My interview left me terrified of the possibility of leaving school. I called my parents, and they promptly put themselves on Dr. Siggins’ radar, meeting with her twice and securing me a personal interview. All I remember was that my mind was totally blank when I spoke to her, because I was so focused on making her believe that I was “okay.” This, of course, is totally futile when you’re sitting on a cot in a mental hospital.
She called me three days later to tell me that I would have to go home. That meant that I was forced to formally withdraw from the college, with no guarantee of return. As soon as her decision came down, I was eligible for release into my parents’ custody. Upon my release from the hospital (also not a function of my recovery — but as a result of my expulsion from the College I was even more depressed when I left than when I was admitted, my Yale ID was confiscated, as was my room key. I was given one evening to pack up my entire life.
My college dean told me I was not even allowed to spend the night in my room in Vanderbilt Hall. I fell asleep on the futon in my suite’s common room at four a.m., breaking the rules, but exhausted and unable to continue putting my things in boxes, dismantling the reality of my college life. I had a chance to say goodbye to a few friends — most of whom I would not hear from during my time away. 18 hours after I walked out of the hospital doors, I was on a plane, headed back to North Carolina in a storm of tears.
I did what they said was necessary to be a candidate for readmission: therapy, more therapy, two college courses, more therapy. And I healed. Mostly.
I filled out the paper application for readmission: the usual demographic crap, a three-page personal statement, a transcript of my summer classes, two letters of recommendation, a profile from a therapist and a check for $50. I flew to New Haven for my three interviews — with the dean of my residential college, Dean Pamela George (chair of readmission) and Dr. Siggins.
As a side note, I might mention that Dr. Siggins was 45 minutes late to my interview. Dean George called me an hour before the scheduled time to cancel, forcing me to interview the following day, two hours before my return flight took off. I answered every question with as much positivity as I could sell. I said: I do not cut, I do not think of killing myself. I am great. Two weeks later, I was readmitted.
Every morning of my year away from Yale, I woke to the sight of the “Yale” pennant on my bedroom wall — the one they send to accepted freshmen in the big, glorious “Welcome to Yale” packet. “You’re in!” it says. “You’re a treasured asset to our University!” it says. “Come to Bulldog Days and feel the love because we love you and we care about you and we don’t want you to go to any other school because you’re the shit!” it says.
Thinking back to that welcome packet, there is a conspicuous omission: *We love you and want you and will provide for you and protect you, as long as you don’t get sick.*
* * *
I return to a different Yale, though it is I who have changed. After a year spent focusing solely on my health and well-being, I find myself, though not perfectly balanced, resting closer to my ideal center. And, after a year of watching and analyzing every one of my inner ticks, I see external things that were invisible to me before.
I see that Yale is a fundamentally unhealthy place in one important way. The problem is, everyone is “okay.” I have known friends who have suffered the deaths of siblings, who have been victims of sexual assault or who have fought life-threatening illness, all while navigating their sexuality, while taking five-and-a-half credits, while chairing more organizations and running to more meetings than they can keep track of. I have known friends to do all of this and still profess, at every opportunity, to be “okay,” “fine,” “great.”
To say something else, to be — in our own minds and in the minds of others — something else, is for some reason not acceptable at Yale. None of us are completely okay. But the pressure to conform to being perfectly functional and happy is a burden that we should neither want nor bear.
Where does it come from? For most students at Yale, I think the pressure is subconscious, upheld through day-to-day conversation: My classes are amazing. My extracurriculars are dope. My internship this summer is baller. Life is awesome. Are you awesome? No one wants to deviate.
But I think the source is not, in fact, the students. Those of us who have admitted, at some point or another, that we are legitimately not okay, have learned that there are real and devastating consequences of telling the truth. Because Yale does not want people who are not okay. Yale does not want people who are struggling, who are fighting. Yale, out of concern for its own image, wants them to leave. And Yale makes them.
With just three weeks left in the semester, it’s getting harder to draw a crowd anywhere except a library — but on Tuesday night, LC 101 was overflowing with students. People were sitting on the stairs, standing in the back, crowding in the front. And many were even turned away.
It’s difficult to determine which part of the event hosted by Vita Bella! Magazine — the only on-campus publication dedicated to the celebration of happiness and beauty — was more responsible for attracting such a mass: the all-star, student-beloved panel composed of philosophy professor Shelley Kagan, psychology professor Laurie Santos and math Professor Michael Frame, or the topic of why Yale students should not be afraid of life after college.
“We’re basically terrified that we’re not doing something right,” said Vita Bella! Editor in Chief Shira Telushkin ’14 in her introductory remarks. She added (while standing on a chair next to the panelists, prompting Kagan to joke, “don’t jump!”) that she wants to combat the idea that “if you’re happy you’re oblivious.”
It was unclear whether the panelists fully agreed with Telushkin. At one point, Kagan even said, “You know what, you are not all going to be fine.” Santos also quipped that about 50 percent of happiness is based on a factor not in our control — genetics and other cognitive habits. We have to work hard to get there.
When I told some people I was going to the event, almost all of them responded by saying their Vita Bella! emails went directly to spam — and it isn’t so hard to understand why. Thinking about our lives as nothing but butterflies and rainbows, love and beauty or only in terms of happiness feels like an insult to intelligence and self-awareness. The antithesis of being honest.
Yet the event’s optimistic nature should not be dismissed. Anxiety is very present on campus, so perhaps there was a need for a forum like this. Professors, sharing their life experiences, were open and thoughtful in their responses to the audience’s questions. Frame’s words were especially touching: He was diagnosed with an incurable cancer four years ago, and is now also suffering from symptoms likely related to Alzheimer’s. He was sincere about his adversities, such as being depressed when he struggles to do math problems that were once very simple for him, but also remarkably upbeat, friendly and funny in describing his struggles.
If you didn’t go to the event, and are interested in ways to improve your happiness or want to be reassured about life after Yale, here’s one of the event’s highlights:
Kagan spent college thinking he wanted to be a rabbi, but got rejected from rabbinical school. In the year after graduation, he decided to try out philosophy instead. Moral? Don’t think you have to have it all plotted out now.
Ultimately, some of the things that you think are going to matter really won’t make a huge difference — so if you’re panicking about jobs, who you’re going to marry, if you want to get married, where you want to live, well, according to the panel’s resident statistician Laurie Santos, satisfaction in those areas actually make up a mere 10% of your feelings of happiness. Santos suggested three things that you can do to be happier: First, be grateful for the things in your life, second, spend money on someone else and third, go for the experiences and not the newest gadget.
Frame continued the encouraging words, and, though it may seem somewhat trite, he emphasized that the ride is more important than the destination, reflecting on having to let go of three manuscripts he’s been working on because of his health. But along the way, he said, he learned some new math, new physics and made some good friends.
So if you’re worried about your GPA or what you’re going to do with a life, take a breath and let life take its course — or go down one of the more traditional routes and get a pet, as advised by the professors. And if you’re a big Frame fan, make it a cat.