In April 2013, when the needle of my college matriculation compass was still wavering, my mother made several phone calls to the counseling centers of the universities where I had been accepted. She kept these phone conversations brief. “Hi, I’m the mother of Paulina Mangubat,” she would say. “She’s been accepted here. I just wanted to make sure that she’ll have access to the resources she needs at your institution.”
I remember the conversation she had with Furman Counseling Center very clearly. “Welcome to New York City!” the receptionist had replied cheerfully. “Everyone and their mothers have a therapist here.”
I’m now a sophomore here at Barnard, so clearly the Furman receptionist’s dreary assessment of New York wasn’t enough to scare my mother—or me, for that matter—away.
My high school years were marked by recurring mental health problems: panic attacks, depression spells, and self-destructive behavior. Throughout high school, I was in and out of psychiatric therapy. By the time I finally graduated, I was running on increased doses of Prozac and Abilify and spent most of my spare time sleeping.
When I first arrived at Barnard, I believed that the issue of my mental health had been completely resolved. I remember sitting on Low Steps with my NSOP group, chatting idly about the political implications of Kanye West’s Yeezus and thinking to myself that it was impossible to feel unhappy in an environment as welcoming and intellectually stimulating as Columbia’s. I decided to lock up all the memories I associated with mental illness into a moldy cellar hidden in the back of my brain.
Listening to my own thoughts quickly became a liability.
During the spring semester of my first year, an unhappy confluence of personal, academic, and extracurricular disasters resulted in a relapse. Suddenly, I found myself being figuratively airlifted into Furman’s care by a concerned friend who had taken note of my erratic sleeping patterns and crying jags.
On the main page of its website, Furman promises to “support the personal and academic success of Barnard women.” I don’t contest the sincerity of Furman’s mission—I’m sure its get-well-soon rhetoric is fueled by good intentions—but I do find its praxis somewhat problematic.
When I finally made my own phone call to Furman as a part of its patient-screening process, I felt very much like my mother, concerned about her depressed eldest child leaving the safety of her nest. As my iPhone grew more and more slippery in my sweaty hand, an indefatigably serene British woman on the other end of the line prompted me with questions about my history of mental illness and experiences with past therapists and medications.
Dredging up all of those locked-away, unlistened-to memories and emotions was like kicking up asbestos. I was alone in my dorm room, replaying scenes from high school in my head; I nearly cried. And the questions just kept coming, the lady’s cadence just as placid as it had been at the beginning of the call. After the woman from Furman finally hung up on me, I stared at the ceiling for a good hour, tracing the cracks in the plaster with my eyes.
When we recount the goriest details of our lives to others—when we kick up our personal asbestos, if you will—it is vital that those who can hear are fully present as listeners. Sure, the patient-screening process is standardized—it has to be, given the sheer number of students who pass through Furman’s doors. Seeking out therapy is not an indication of social or personal failure, and my experiences with mental health issues are not particularly singular or unique.
After all, as a great Furman receptionist once said, “Everyone and their mothers have a therapist here.”
But simply knowing that I wasn’t alone in the grand scheme of things wasn’t enough. In that moment, I wasn’t sure about who exactly was talking to me at the end of the line. For therapy to be effective, I have the believe that I am sharing the scariest parts of myself with someone who actually cares. Having to recite my story into a faceless black box without receiving any sort of closure proved that.
The Rosemary Furman Counseling Center promises to provide reliable, free short-term care to Barnard students, and, to a certain extent, it does just that. From my experience, the counselors have all been professional, kind, and patient. But it’s standardized, nearly mechanical approach to achieving therapeutic efficiency continues to make me feel like I’m just an inconsequential part of the “everyone” who has and needs a therapist.
Where this leaves me, a rising junior, I’m not so sure. For now, I’ll just try listening to myself and the people I love, and dislodging the asbestos with time.
The author is a Barnard College sophomore double majoring in political science and Asian & Middle Eastern cultures (East Asian track). She is a former columnist and current deputy editorial page editor for Spectator. To see other pieces from this Scope, click here.
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