Harvard and Your Head

Reality is more often what we think we say than what we say we think

"OCCASIONALLY I get the feeling I want to go back, because I'll never find anything so wonderful again.... You can do just anything. You've got the built-in excuse 'I'm crazy.' You can sleep all day, you can do anything you want...."

Among people who consider themselves sensitive, or philosophical, or earnest, it is fashionable to say the world is screwed up-more screwed up than they are. But few of these individuals are desperate enough-or have the courage-to make their belief real by acting at odds with the world. Those who do are called psychotic.

For the 12 to 50 Harvard and Radcliffe students who leave each year to go to mental hospitals, the trip to the other side is more often a slow, sad spiral than a sudden leap. In recent interviews, nine students who have been at McLean Hospital, a large, private, Harvard-staffed institution in Belmont, talked about freaking out-why they went, where they went, and what they found.

The kind of behavior that gets people put in mental hospitals is called sick or irrational. But conversations with these students suggest that given the interaction of genetic predisposition, personal history and the circumstances of the surroundings, "sick" actions are entirely logical. The sickness lies in the interpretation. The alienated student who cannot conform is branded with a stigma that pushes him further and further out until he reaches the hospital.

For the three Cliffies and six Harvard students who were interviewed, there were two beginnings to the way out. Some tried to shore up their crumbling insides by throwing themselves into activities or regimenting themselves mercilessly. One said, "The lack of structure that confronts most freshmen tends to make a lot of them feel pretty lousy, and in my case I overcompensated by doing a great many things. I built my own structure but it was a house of cards." Another got compulsive about his work. He couldn't go to sleep until he had laid out his notebooks, sharpened his pencils, and filled his fountain pens.


A corollary to this attitude was aggressive audacity. Offensiveness, wild hilarity, exhibitionism-one student ran naked up and down his hall. He said he consciously took on exaggerated roles, trying to find a way to break through to people. His last call for help, he says, was slashing his wrists in Graham Blaine's office. Dr. Blaine calmly sent him downstairs for sutures. The next day he was in the hospital.

The others plunged into a kind of mental ??. A Cliffie described ?? that another and in that another...." A student who characterized himself as very ?? he was becoming less and less talkative. Another student spent hours writing in his journal.

They developed an idiosyncratic way of perceiving, interpreting their surroundings so subjectively that their reactions or lack of reaction mystified onlookers. "A friend of mine failed a course he had worked his guts out on," one boy recounted. "When I heard, I roared with laughter and the people around me were shocked. They thought I was being spiteful, but really I was happy because now my friend would have to be closer to me. He had been forced to realize-as I already had-that however hard you try, it doesn't make any difference." A Cliffie said, "I wrapped myself in a cocoon and shut out the world-not because I wasn't aware of what was outside, but because it didn't count."

Their greatest problem was a lack of communication. One student said he stripped himself bare of all conventional courtesies, refusing to participate in the "trivial conversations, the crap that fills up everyone's day." He could not bring himself to make efforts to fill silences. His roommates were objects on the periphery of his consciousness.

Another student-the only one of the nine who said he had taken LSD "fairly frequently-talked at length about what made him retreat to drugs. Planes of talk range from functional, housekeeping exchanges through gossip, banter, ideological disputes, to metaphysical discussions, he said, and it is not difficult for two people to fix themselves at the same point on this scale of conversation levels. But there is another dimension to communication, where mutuality is almost impossible to achieve, he said. That is intimacy, an "ultimate intimacy not obtained by shared confessions of guilts, ambitions, Oedipus complexes, or secrets," but a mental unification analogous to sexual intercourse, a joining of thought processes so total that the listener could just as easily be the speaker. In short one gets inside the other's head.

Barred from that fashion of minds, he went on people retreat wholly into themselves or into a makeshift substitute like the frenetic sensuality of the plastic hippie or the cool of the hip intellectual. The hippie's stripped down jargon- "I dig her;" "it's a groove;" "I'm up right" -thwarts emotional expression by stylizing it, he said. "Did you ever try ending a relationship by saving 'I've got to split the scene?" The mocking wit of the hip intellectual may be worse, he said, for it skirts around honest feelings without admitting their existence. "You find it impossible to tell these cool, ??, smart people that you're unhappy." he said. By the end of freshman year, he could not speak to his roommates. "I refused to wear wire-rimmed glasses but I became an ????.

ESTRANGE ??? actions of ???? dents became overwhelmingly ?? Even those who continued to present a normal facade to friends felt increasingly isolated. Two of the Cliffies interviewed said they dated a lot. One said, "I went out so much that other girls were jealous of me. But they didn't know how lonely I was. Once I thought of myself lying asleep and I laughed. I thought, 'Poor girl, nobody cares about you and you're not even awake enough to care about yourself,'"

But people do begin to care when students make suicidal attempts. One boy said, "I went into an exam and signed a blue book and walked out. That was a sort of academic suicide gesture.... Word got back to my proctor and he said are things really bad and I said yes. He sent me to the Health Services."

ABOUT 600 undergraduates visit psychiatrists at the health services each year. Many of these are given psychological tests, but the tests are not always effective in pointing out which students are most in need of help. Eight of the students interviewed went to the health services; five were tested; only two of these tested were said to need psychiatric help. But one of those initially discharged with a clean hill of health-who later spent over a year in hospitals and saw 11 psychiatrists-said he "withheld a great deal" on the tests and in talking to his doctor.

For most of the students, some dramatic incident precipitated going to the hospital-a Cliffie screamed at her roommates for ten minutes, another student refused to take his exams, a third begged his roommate to hold his hand so he could go to sleep. By the time they got to MCLean, their feelings were violent enough that their perceptions of the hospital could not be objective. In describing it in the interviews, several said that the place was minor compared to the experiences they had.

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