I was 17 years old and a freshman in college, and I witnessed something that to this day I don’t fully understand. I’m sure there is much more to this story than I’ll be able to tell you, so I apologize in advance.
Among my fellow freshmen was a girl whom I’ll call T. To be brutally honest, she scared me. She was clearly quite severely mentally ill. I’m not just saying I could sense this, or that something was not quite right with her. I mean she was obviously and completely not there. Not even partially. Everyone knew it.
She ran everywhere she went, head down, arms kind of forward, panting, seemingly terrified. She had puppets. Quite often she’d only talk through them. I remember that one was a witch that had a creepy voice that made the hair on the back of my neck stand at attention.
She’d put on impromptu puppet shows which were incoherent cries for help. I’m fairly sure that she heard voices. But at the very least she was trying to communicate in the only way she knew how.
She should have been institutionalized, and yet there she was, with us, at a high-end private college in the Appalachian Mountains.
Even a rank amateur could tell that this girl was schizophrenic, or, uh, something, and there is no way on earth she could have possibly kept up with her studies. Any writing assignments must have been bizarre in the extreme. There couldn’t have been a question in any professor’s mind that there was a problem. T needed help.
The girl that had the misfortune of being T‘s roommate begged to be reassigned elsewhere, anywhere, but the administration refused, which is another big part of the mystery as far as I’m concerned. That girl spent the entire school year hopping from dorm room to dorm room, sleeping on our floors, essentially homeless. No one could have possibly felt safe sharing a room with T. How could you turn out the lights and sleep comfortably with someone whose only substantive relationships were her puppets? For Pete’s sake, I got the willies just passing T in the hallway.
I used to watch her running agitatedly across campus, completely disconnected from reality, and wonder why her parents had sent her there. They must have been rich. No way could she possibly have gotten scholarships. They had to have known she had a mental illness. There was no hiding it. What could they possibly hope to accomplish by foisting her off on academia? She needed help, and this wasn’t helping her.
Finally one day I couldn’t take it anymore, and I went to the Dean of Students. I told her all I knew and all I had observed about T. I could tell none of this was coming as a big surprise to her. There were only 500 students at the entire school. She knew what was up. I was hoping that someone in a position of authority would do something about this situation, but all I got from this woman was that there was nothing that could be done. I was in shock, but I didn’t know what else to do, so I’m ashamed to admit that I gave up on the whole thing right then and there.
But I would watch T, from a safe distance, running to and fro, and it always made me sad.
At the end of my freshman year I transferred from that school for unrelated reasons. I have no idea what became of T. Did she return the following year? Did she graduate? Did she ever get the help she needed? Where is she now? I don’t know.
But looking back from an adult perspective I can’t help but think that T was the victim of an institution-wide form of neglect. Obviously her parents had influence or she’d have never been there in the first place. But they didn’t care about her. Every one of her professors looked the other way as well. The administration chose to do nothing but take that tuition, which is rather sickening in retrospect.
And the girl in the center of this storm of indifference? She was just left to battle her demons by herself. And what a terrifying and lonely place that must be, emotionally and mentally speaking.
It’s so easy to just look the other way and assume that someone else will handle difficult situations. But when every adult, every single one, stands by and does nothing when a child is suffering, as far as I’m concerned that’s criminal behavior.
This, of all the stories that make up my life experience, is the one which cries out for the closure which I know I’ll never get.
T, if you’re out there, I want you to know that someone cared. I wish I could have helped you. I really do.
8/22/13 Perhaps a little bit of closure after all! I just heard from T’s former roommate. She did want me to specify that these are vague recollections and not hard facts, but this is what she said:
“Hey, I read your story. I hadn’t thought about all that in a long time! I really only lived with her a few weeks. Then I went to the Dean of Students and asked if I could move to the room next door with M (who’s roommate didn’t show up). She grudgingly said yes. So I did. I lived with M the rest of the four years. I don’t remember if T came back the next year or not, but I don’t think so. I just can’t remember. Last I knew she was at a farm for mentally disabled people. I think she’s been there a long time. Hope that helps!”
(Image credit: puppetsbypost.com)