Pushed To The Edge: From Student to Exile

Content Warning: This piece includes language and content that some readers may find triggering or upsetting.

This past fall, I was hospitalized for self-harm. I was held
for 72 hours against my will without justification—the legal maximum.
At the hospital, I was restrained in painful positions with leather straps,
diagnosed with bipolar I disorder in 30 seconds (though I have never had a
manic episode in my life), and threatened with having my legal hold extended if
I did not take medication for a disorder I patently did not have.

I imagined that going back to school would be a relief.

I was wrong. Upon my release from the hospital, I was banned
from campus, under penalty of being escorted out by Campus Safety. In order to
be readmitted, I was required to meet with Monsour Counseling and Psychological Services psychologists, and with
Deans Jan Collins-Eaglin and Miriam Feldblum. I was not permitted to sleep in
my room even for the night between my appointments. When I was finally
permitted to resume classes, I was banned from living in the residence halls
and from even setting foot in them without being accompanied by Campus Safety.
The housing fees I had already paid were not refunded. I was also told that I
would not be allowed to remain in class unless I regularly saw a therapist—although, of course, I would have to foot the bill.

In the weeks following, I received multiple emails
“reminding” me that withdrawing from school was always an option, and a letter
from Associate Dean of Students Chris Waugh indicating that the incident was under investigation. (He told
me there was a charge sheet, but to date, I have not seen it.) Over the course
of the last few months, I realized that at least a few of my professors have
been reporting on my behavior to the administration, and one of my thesis
advisers would no longer work with me.

Some nights, I still wake up in a cold sweat, replaying this
series of events in my head. I think about how that afternoon, I had played
arcade games with my darling baby cousin at her sixth birthday party. I think
about how I had been nominated by the school for a Marshall Scholarship; how I
was writing an experimental neuroscience thesis, researching a philosophy
thesis, and helping out in another lab, too; how I had aspirations to be a
science writer or a bioethicist.

I was happy. I loved the life that I had crafted for myself—rushing to Seaver with my lab coat splotched with oil paints, arguing endlessly
about ethical dilemmas in Game of Thrones at midnight, juggling a fantastically
hectic schedule that left me exhausted in all the right ways.

I don’t fit the mold of what most people tend to think a
“crazy” person looks like—I tend toward dispassionate reason over fervent
displays of emotion, I can count all the reckless nights I’ve had in my life on
one hand, and I’m about the last person who could be accused of skirting my
academic and personal obligations. Nevertheless, I have periodically self-harmed
since I was 13—sometimes not for years at a time, sometimes as often as
once per week. There have been moments when I have been gripped with an overwhelming
instinct for destruction that demands every wall be torn to its inner beams and
every bone in my body be broken.

And then I
would go back to writing my lab report.

These two aspects of my life are not contradictory. The
loose sense of self that caused uncertainty and anxiety was the same that
brought me the joy of slipping into different skins. The harsh standards that
gnawed away at my self-esteem are the same that honed my arguments in
philosophy seminars or 2 a.m. dorm hall conversations. The characteristics that most would have me excise are more often than not part and parcel of the student, the friend, and the person they have come to know.

Before Campus Safety came to knock down my door that night, I
called my parents. I tried so hard, I told them. I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry.

I asked
Dean Feldblum what precluded me from being able to live on campus. She replied
that it was because I was a danger to myself and others. Never mind that I’d
never committed violence against another person in my life. Never mind that if self-harm were really an exclusionary criterion for living in the residence halls, room draw would be much less crowded.

The irony was bitter. For the last three and a half years,
Feldblum and other members of the administration knew me, worked with me, and
maybe even liked me. But the moment the administration realized the full
horror of what I was, I was no longer considered fit to be a part of this

The administration would like to believe that there is a
bright line between those who are “functional” and those who aren’t—and that
they are relieved of their obligation to treat those like me with empathy, with
recognition of our common humanity, and with the same respect as
they would any other student.

When hospitalization results in residential suspension, when
displaying signs of mental illness results in threats of disciplinary action,
when having issues with self-harm means that I cannot be allowed to live with
the sane folk, it’s easy to understand why few students are open about their
struggles with mental health. Through their policy of punishing students who
dare demonstrate signs of mental distress, the administration effectively
pushes students like me further into the shadows.

When the administration cut me off from the comfort of
living with those who care about me, and from being a part of the community
where I felt at home, they demonstrated that the well-being of students was
never their priority. When the decision to ban me from living on campus was
made before I even spoke to anyone at Monsour, the administration’s claims that
this choice was made for my own good rang false. Instead of giving students
like me the resources and opportunity to live the healthiest, happiest lives we
can, they make pariahs of us. They force us to live, as I do these days, in
constant fear that we will be penalized for yet-undisclosed charges, that we
will be placed on a forced medical leave and not permitted to graduate, that
our peers will realize what we really are and cease to treat us as they once

The pain caused by the administration’s actions—the
isolation I feel from those I once called my peers, the breathless fear incited
by the very sight of Campus Safety, and the loss of faith that institutions
like Pomona will ever offer me support and acceptance instead of
retribution—has been more hurtful than any pain my mental peculiarities have
ever caused me. But what’s worse, this policy will affect more than just me.

Although the pervasive silence surrounding mental health
issues may make it seem this way at times, although the administration may pretend
otherwise, I am not alone. I am not the first and I will not be the last to
suffer at the hands of a policy that passes down retribution instead of support, and an administration that stigmatizes mental health issues while preaching
diversity. We deserve better.

Yi Li PO ’14 is majoring in philosophy and neuroscience.

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