Tag Archive: personal essay

  1. When the Enemy Surrounds You

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    In terms of layout, the house was as bizarre as any I’d ever seen. Its hillside location meant that one entered through the top floor/garage, only to go down into the rest of the house. It had previously been rented out to multiple families at once, so the house had been broken up into self-contained sections. A door with a dead bolt would spring up in the middle of a hallway; there was not one, but two laundry rooms. Additionally, the previous owners had been unceremoniously evicted, and had taken the window provided by their 30-day notice to spray paint every mirror in the house with obscene phrases written in a drippy blood red. The writing was on the wall, literally.

    The house would be the site of a different kind of education. This was fitting, as my official education was the reason we had moved. I had been accepted to a high school in Oakland that couldn’t be matched by any of the local schools in San Francisco. We decided to buy a fixer-upper near the school, move in, flip it and use the profits for my tuition. For this to work, we couldn’t pay for contractors. My father and I would be renovating and remodeling the entire house ourselves. He was an experienced builder who had tamed entire bungalow complexes by the time he was sixteen. I was his apprentice. The whole time, my parents told me not to worry about the upheaval, not to worry about my dad’s newly elongated commute, or my mom’s newly strained relationship with her friends, who used to be just down the block. My school and the house were all that mattered.

    The rooms all had pockmarked ceilings that I swear to God changed in pattern every time you looked at them. The pockmarks also created a strange, vertigo-like effect where the ceilings appeared to pulsate slightly. When I woke up in the night, I had to remember not to open my eyes or I would spend hours half-awake and mesmerized by the ceiling’s seemingly organic movements.

    The house was surrounded on all sides by a thin forest. Deer wandered through our yard in the early morning, eating everything in sight. The roses we had planted as one of our first projects lasted fewer than 24 hours. Squirrels loved the house for its wild, convoluted railings, which jutted out at odd, geometric angles, which for the squirrels made little highways. All day, every day, their scurrying could be heard. One early morning, my mother woke up to find two squirrels on our front porch. Their throats had been torn out by some wild animal. She waited for me to get up and take them to the garbage (my mother is squeamish), but by the time I was awake, the bodies were gone.

    The entire east wing of the house, another self-contained unit, was filled with wall-to-wall carpeting and had a massive loft. Tearing up the carpet by hand, my parents and I were shocked to find that the only thing holding it to the floor was a series of small staples, another unorthodox home décor decision taken by the previous owners. I was supposed to climb the loft and take out the carpeting that had been stapled up there as well, but the platform groaned so ferociously that I instantly changed my mind. The whole house seemed to rumble in fury as I descended to the floor.

    Some days after we began work on the house, a conversation with the neighbors revealed that the previous occupants had been a sex cult. I wish I was kidding. Suddenly the pervasive wall-to-wall shag carpeting took on an uncomfortable new significance. I started wearing shoes at all times and changing socks while sitting on my raised bed. My mother and I began waking up with our bodies covered in tiny red bumps. I became convinced that we had contacted an STD from the rug. Dad blamed gnats. Work, however, continued.

    My great-grandfather, his wife and their family once walked into the New Mexico wilderness and built a house. The floors had been dirt and the walls barely resisted water. He would spend weeks at a time out in the plains, tending to his herd of sheep. He slept under the stars and hunted his food and once defended his family against a rabid coyote. This man had tamed nature and called it home. I imagined him, sepia-toned, gliding through this new house, frowning at what still remained to be done with the place. Qué lástima. Qué lástima.

    After a few months in Oakland, we had stripped several rooms down to the studs. The dirty conditions and constant sweat made my face a mess of blackheads and acne. A downstairs television room was revealed to have no insulation, explaining its bizarre temperature differential with the rest of the house. The pipes in my parents’ upstairs bathroom were so rusted that running one’s hand along their surfaces left a thick red coating resembling war paint. I had torn my parents away from home, and the house I had led them to was in full-blown rebellion.

    In Oakland, I lived in the only bedroom on the bottom floor. My room was massive. Truly, people came to my house and remarked on the sheer square footage of my room and its sheer square squareness. As one friend put it, “I’ve never seen a room so big, and so square.” They also commented on the tiny, mysterious door in the corner. Someday I would have to pass through it, but I preferred not to think about that. An extra large Home Depot rug covered the immediate area around my bed and desk, still leaving about three quarters of the wood floor uncovered. I had the closets of the type most people only dream about. Two of my room’s four walls were entirely hollow, closets hidden behind floor-to-ceiling sliding mirrors. I filled up about a third of one of them, another daily reminder of my inability to inhabit the house. Similarly, my minimalist taste in decoration resulted in swaths of endless negative space.  The mirrors created an eerie parallelism in the already somewhat surreally empty and symmetrical room. I had to deliberately position myself away from them if I didn’t want to see my increasingly acne-scarred reflection at all times.

    It had been six months since move-in, and we had been making progress on our renovations. Then it started to rain, and continued to do so for days. Since we needed the porches for work (you can’t cut a closet door down to size in the closet), our various projects ground to a halt. Worse, we were trapped in the house. The entire building seemed to constrict around us. The swirly ceilings became more insistently animate. The floor-to-ceiling windows that dominated almost every space cast the shadows of trickling raindrops across the rooms. Kaleidoscopic silhouettes played across the walls, as though the house was crying.

    At some point during all this, we noticed that our various wooden decks were collecting a lot of standing water. As my mother and I, clad in full-body rain suits, swept the decks with push brooms, we could see that the wood had already started to rot. Pulling up some of the paneling to check the structural supports underneath, we could smell the decay before we saw it. One beam had a nest of maggots living in it. As they fell out of the wood like fresh popcorn I recoiled in horror. My great-grandfather had shot a rabid coyote on his front porch; baby insects made me scream. But eventually I noticed they weren’t moving. They had all drowned.

    A week later, my mother was demolishing a patch of drywall in her bedroom when she hit a randomly placed bit of springy mesh embedded in the wall. Her hammer flew back into her forehead, knocking her to the floor and shooting a small, Pollock-ian spray of blood across the wall. She lay dazed for half an hour before my Dad found her.

    I was not crazy. I was not overreacting. The house was trying to kill my family and I was the pied piper who had led them to die.

    Soon the day I had avoided thinking about arrived. I had to squeeze my way through the tiny hatch in the corner of my room (I was the only one who fit) and into the neighboring open space. I would have preferred not to know what I was sleeping next to. Outfitting myself with a headlamp and toolbox, I kept telling myself that my task was easy, that it was just to check that the door hid nothing horrible, like mold or termites or a sex dungeon. Squeezing through the door, using my hands and knees to push myself into the open space, I felt dirt beneath my fingertips. The air tasted stale and the darkness felt cavernous. As my headlamp illuminated small shafts of air in the room, I saw a tree, surrounded on all sides by pitch black. It was a small tree, about my height, growing inside our house, next to my room. It was the heart of the house, the source of its life force. I had found the veins that made the ceilings move. I remembered the dead squirrels and my father’s commute and my acne and my mother’s head, bleeding, and my great-grandfather defending his home against the wild. I seized the tree by its roots, and tore it out of the ground. After that, the house stopped fighting us and I began to call it home.

  2. “We Just Can’t Have You Here”

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    “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 this, I refuse to be okay.

     

  3. The Impact Player

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    “Man up! Run the six shift!” Muffled shouts from the Kiphuth Exhibition Pool meandered around the maze of basement hallways, becoming clearer with each step as I emerged from the locker room onto the pool deck. I arrived late to our first club water polo practice of the year, struck by the familiar smell of sterile chlorine that wafted through the arena. Through the choppy commotion and sea of raised arms in the pool, I found my attention directed at an unfamiliar face, our newest addition to the team.

    He couldn’t have been less than 30. A strong jawline and youthful blond curls, browned and wisped by the pool water, seemed incongruous with his weathered cheeks. As I reached for my toes in a sore hamstring stretch, I heard an excited call for the ball in a South African accent. Milliseconds later, the booming thump of the hard yellow projectile striking the tarp at the back of the goal.

    Several kicks to the groin and mouthfuls of chlorine later, I introduced myself to Saul Kornik as we warmed down on the pool deck. At first I thought he was a graduate student. After all, two of our starting players, Thomas Lazzarini MED ’18 and goalie Paull Randt SOM ’14, have represented Yale Water Polo for more than six years. He informed me that he was a World Fellow. I nodded, surprised and impressed. I hadn’t met a World Fellow before, and certainly not in a Speedo.

     

    My teammates and I shared a nervous optimism about Saul early on. He explained that he’d played with top amateur and club teams in Cape Town and London. Some of his former teammates now even play professionally in Europe.

    Still, we were apprehensive about whether his commitment would last through the season. Would he show up for two hours of practice a night, Monday through Friday, for 10 straight weeks? Would he willingly play alongside those of us who hadn’t touched a water polo ball until freshman year of college?

    It was like Christmas came three months early. Saul arrived at almost every practice at 8 p.m. on the dot, and often helped remove lane lines and install metal goals on the pool before practice.

    He quickly took on a dual role on the team, with the attitude and energy of an equal, and the gameplay experience of a leader.

    “As soon as I jump into the pool I’m no longer a World Fellow,” he would say, “but a water polo player.”

    Of the many aspects of his character that surfaced during practice — moments of boyish mischievousness, hints of pre-Yale adventures, flashes of self-annoyance at a poor shot — his will to improve the lives of others stood out.

    One time during a lull in practice, demonstrating to freshman Marios Tringides ’17 where to shift positions in our set-offense, Saul was struck by a curious revelation.

    “Marios says to me, ‘Man, how do you know all these things?’” Saul later recounted, his cheeks dimpled in amusement. “I looked at him … and I said, ‘You know what Marios? I think I’ve been playing water polo for as long as you’ve been alive.’”

    We became so engrossed by Saul’s water polo prowess that it wasn’t until Cyrus Nguyen ’15 emailed the team a video interview about his burgeoning nonprofit startup, the Johannesburg-based Africa Health Placements, that we discovered an even more impressive side to him.

    Later, Saul explained the basic model to us while drying his hair with a towel: A human resources solution to integrate foreign-qualified doctors and health care workers in rural South Africa, in order to address the region’s massive public health care demand and alarming shortage of qualified physicians. His efforts have touched over 10 million lives and gained support from powerful aid agencies such as USAID.

    “I don’t think that the work I’m doing is really changing the world, but I think it’s making an impact on people’s lives,” he said. “If we can set an example for how things should be done, maybe with profit instead measured in terms of social welfare or welfare of the planet, I think that’s a much more important part of the business.”

    In the communal showers one evening, we learned how Saul balanced running his charitable business in South Africa and engaging with Yale and New Haven as a World Fellow.

    His 18-hour days began and ended at his apartment on Chapel Street, and consisted of a full course load of undergraduate and professional classes, meetings with students and faculty members, Master’s Teas and special lectures centered on Africa Health Placements. It didn’t help that the CEO was provisionally anchored thousands of miles from Cape Town; on occasion he was forced to respond to certain business crises in the early morning hours.

     

    Pass after pass, practice after practice, the season’s sinusoidal ups-and-downs embedded Saul in our team. In the locker room, we would form semicircles around him as he recalled alluring anecdotes from his travels in characteristically nonchalant tones. Our respect for his badassery was as if we were huddling around the water polo god’s human incarnate, or the grandfather of the village as he told stories in the glow of the fire, the setting lit instead by a shoddy light fixture.

    Of all the experiences he shared, perhaps the most memorable story was about the time he participated in an extreme survival program, enduring 30 days on an uninhabited island. Participants could only bring what they could fit in a five-liter bag, and the initial group of 10 people dwindled down to two over the span of four long weeks. He was the hunter for the cohort, and would swim out in the bay for four hours each day to catch handfuls of fish for their sustenance. He lost 13 kilograms from his already trim frame.

    The island also awarded Saul with an invaluable but hard-earned lens through which to view his mental state. He intentionally isolated himself, sleeping in a tree 20 minutes down the beach, in a setting devoid of any artificial stimulation. Boredom quickly set in; the sudden departure from normalcy made him irritable and frustrated. Then, on the 10th or 11th day, his outlook inexplicably changed.

    “I started feeling this really deep sense of peace. I recognized my thoughts as being separate to myself. I started being able to question, ‘Do I really view the world like that?’”

     

    Saul recounted this experience to me at a corner table in Cafe Romeo on Orange Street in late November, several weeks after the water polo season had ended.

    He had arrived a few minutes late after a brisk walk over from a previous meeting. I felt a momentary revelation that Saul, taking off his beanie and smoothing his hair at the entrance, looked like the archetypal Yalie: navigating an impossibly busy schedule and holding it together with a smile. Worlds away from the desert island he had been describing.

    Amidst the ambient buzz of the busy cafe, I struggled to imagine the mental tranquility he described. My previous few attempts at meditation, spearheaded by my yoga-inclined mother, lasted for a grand total of perhaps 10 minutes. Nevertheless, the contrasts between this vivid memory and the realities of our current environment were apparent to the both of us.

    “If what I’m describing is the one extreme, I’d say the opposite extreme is Yale,” he said with a laugh.

    Saul went on to explain the obsession with accomplishment that he felt captivated so many Yale students. His words rang familiar, echoing concerns surrounding the campus’s mental health support networks.

    Saul traced his observations to two underlying cultural pressures: the circular groupthink induced by hundreds of high-octane high achievers in close quarters, and the ensuing mania for productivity that overwhelms much-needed mental quiet.

    Over the course of just three months on campus, Saul had to continually challenge himself to live out his own personal values, recognizing how his identity began to blend in with the collective character. This was a challenge amid the din of campus life.

    “You need the awareness that comes with stillness that doesn’t happen in a place like this,” he emphasized.

    Yet, Saul was mindful of asserting too one-dimensional a cultural diagnosis. While exhausting, his experiences fielding Yale’s constant bombardment of stimuli had their positives too.

    “I struggle to say ‘no,’ I really do,” he said about the opportunities to meet a mélange of people on campus. “I’m feeling like this even just after three months.”

    Saul’s bottom-line was that Yale, overheated with enthusiasm, needed to develop a culture of independent reflection. His reasoning seemed compelling enough: a heightened understanding of one’s moods and values extends from prolonged mental tranquility.

    From his perspective, having fielded more than a decade of professional twists and turns, we should all be taking a dose or two of the proverbial chill pill. He welcomed the opportunity to tell undergraduates, “You’re not that important,” a phrase that had a notable cooling effect.

    “The reality is that no one here, no single human being is that important,” he continued. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done and we all need to pull together to do it. I get a strong sense that students here at Yale have a desire to do that.”

    Over an hour and a half had passed in a stream of fluid conversation. Saul turned to greet his next meeting partner who entered the cafe, a School of Management professor seemingly eager to discuss the economics of running an NGO.

    I thanked Saul for his time. He raised his beanie and half-finished coffee to move to another table, shifting effortlessly into more technical discussion. But, as I rose from my chair, he shifted back.

    “Oh, and Charles -— see you at water polo scrimmage tonight?” he asked with a grin.

    Correction, February 25: A previous version of the article stated that the World Fellows Program is administered by the Jackson Institute, and that Africa Health Placements is based in Cape Town. In fact, the World Fellows Program is administered by the Yale President’s Office, and Africa Health Placements is based in Johannesburg.