November 6, 2012

My Tweets Almost Got Me Sent Home From Study Abroad

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What is the issue?

I was studying abroad in Buenos Aires. It was 3 a.m. I was on 30mg of adderall videochatting with someone in California and talking to other people on gchat. I had midterms the next day.

My host-dad came into my room. He told me the assistant student-life director, Carlos, was coming to the house in a taxi, but he didn’t know why.

Twenty minutes later, Carlos was in my room.

Carlos said, “We’ve received a call from New York.”

He paused, and I guessed that either my dad was dead or NYU thought I was dealing drugs. I thought, “If my dad is dead, at least I don’t have to do these essays,” then, “I am a horrible person,” and, “Don’t think that.”

Carlos continued, “A friend of yours called the school’s suicide hotline saying that she was worried that you might hurt yourself because of things you posted on twitter and instagram about xanax and wanting to die.”

“Holy shit,” I said. “I was sure you were going to tell me my dad was dead. He has a medical condition.”

“Oh, wow. No. Sorry,” said Carlos.

“No, those things on the internet are jokes or something… Jesus. I was afraid you were going to tell me he died.”

I told Carlos that I was okay and I was sorry about any confusion. I told everyone online that everything was okay and explained that the school thought I was suicidal. The videochat with the person in California was still open, and she told me she could hear everything that was happening.

“I need you to talk to someone in New York,” said Carlos.

I thought I was going to talk to the anonymous person who had reported me, but when I took the phone it was a professional-sounding therapist.

She said her name was Sarah or Emily. I’m not sure.

I felt embarrassed because I wasn’t sure if she was my normal NYU therapist in New York or even what my normal NYU therapist’s name was.

Carlos waited in the hall while I talked on the phone.

Sarah/Emily told me again that there had been an anonymous tip that I might kill myself and asked whether I was having suicidal thoughts. I said no and explained that I was terrified of dying and that I was just unhappy sometimes but that saying “I wish I was dead” or “Please kill me” expressed how I didn’t want to exist more than how I wanted to die.

I wasn’t sure if she got it.

She asked if it was “more of a philosophical thing.”

I said that seemed accurate and that I felt bad but had honestly never seriously envisioned suicide until this conversation.

Sarah/Emily asked a broad question about why I thought my friend would worry that I was suicidal.

I told Sarah/Emily that I had spent the last week on vacation in Patagonia with four girls. I explained that it had been a very bad vacation for me, because I had unthinkingly decided to go off anti-depressants that week and had broken up with a girl who I was dating long-distance but that she was still going to come visit me in New York in December and I was confused about the nature of our relationship.

I felt like I was rambling.

I told Sarah/Emily that I also just don’t really care about nature so the vacation was extremely difficult for me because we were hiking a lot and I kept telling the girls that everything looked like Oregon. I told Sarah/Emily that I felt like my personality was ugly when I couldn’t appreciate nature or when I couldn’t feel happy about things that were objectively good like a vacation in Patagonia. I explained that to cope with these feelings, I had been tweeting a lot.

I admitted there were some photos on instagram of a beach where I had built sandcastles that said, “WILLIS WANTS TO DIE” and “XANAX JESUS” and “HELP,” and that they had been intended as jokes, because they were captioned things like “I’m at the beach.” but that in this context they obviously weren’t funny. They were just meant to reflect how I don’t care about nature and wasn’t having fun.

I couldn’t figure out how to explain that it was like how when you’re at a shitty event, you put an imaginary gun to your head and blow your imaginary brains out so other people can nod in agreement.

While I talked to Sarah/Emily, I got on my laptop and made both of my twitter accounts private. I went through my tweets and deleted two of the instagram photos.

I kept the one that said “WILLIS WANTS TO DIE,” because it had been ‘favorited’ ten times. I changed my ‘unedited’ twitter handle from @willis_on_drugs to @willisunedited.

I kept talking about how everything was a big misunderstanding and how hard it is to convey tone on the internet. She seemed to understand that.

Sarah/Emily asked me about the xanax and how I was getting it. I said it was prescribed.

She said, “Oh.”

It wasn’t on my medical charts in New York because I got my prescription in Buenos Aires, but I explained that it was from the local NYU psychiatrist.

I didn’t want to talk about my xanax prescription. I felt like they might try to take it away.

Sarah/Emily asked if I had ever abused xanax. I told her that I hadn’t, but that I had been taking the highest dose advised by my psychiatrist most nights because of waves of sadness that I attributed to going off antidepressants.

Sarah/Emily seemed satisfied. She said she just had a few more questions. She asked if I had anyone here I could talk to. I said yeah and felt good about that. I told her that I saw the NYU therapist every Wednesday for about thirty minutes and the NYU psychiatrist every few weeks for an hour.

She expressed relief that I was already seeking treatment and said that she wanted me to see the NYU therapist the next day. I said okay and that I had planned on seeing her anyway. She told me to go see the therapist at eleven and to stay for as long as I needed to. Then she asked if I had ever had “homicidal thoughts.”

I said, “Jesus. No.”

“Have you experienced extreme changes in your sleeping or eating habits?”

“I’ve been dealing with insomnia since I was 13. I don’t know…”

“Okay,” said the therapist. “Have you ever harmed yourself?”

“Never,” I said.

“Okay, well it seems like you’re okay and you’re doing your best to get help despite your situation abroad. I don’t think you need to stay in a hospital tonight.”

“Sweet,” I said.

When we were done talking, I handed the phone back to Carlos who left the room to speak to Sarah/Emily.

While he spoke to her in the hall, I talked to people on gchat and internally debated about whether or not to tweet about what was happening. I decided not to, because that seemed flippant.

Carlos came back and said it seemed like I was okay and that everything that had happened was confidential. He asked me to go see the head of student life at 10:45 before meeting with the therapist at eleven. He said he was glad I was okay.

I awkwardly laughed and said thanks and he did the same kind of thing. He gave me a small chocolate bar. The wrapper was gold and brown and said “Tofi.” I put it in my pocket.

Carlos looked around nervously. I asked if he knew where the door was. He said, “Oh. No.” So I pointed at the door behind him and said, “that’s the door.”

_____

It was probably 4 a.m. when Carlos left. Once he was gone, I got back on my laptop and told everyone on gchat a full account of what had happened.

When I told a friend who was studying abroad in China what happened, she asked, “r they deporting you?” I hadn’t thought about the possibility that I would get sent home. It seemed absurd, because I hadn’t done anything wrong and I wasn’t suicidal. I told her I didn’t think I would get deported.

I ate the chocolate bar that Carlos had given me one piece at a time over the next few hours. It was four cubes of milk chocolate filled with dulce de leche.

I couldn’t sleep because of the combination of adderall and adrenaline, so I lay in bed listening to music until 10:30 a.m. when I left to meet the therapist.

_____

It was approximately 11 a.m. when I went to the counseling office, which doubles as a study lounge. The room is on the second floor and shares a wall with a classroom.

The therapist arrived around 11:15. She sat down and asked, “What happened?”

I sighed and said, “I don’t even know.”

In the classroom next door I could hear a teacher walk in and start giving instructions for a midterm. I realized that the students could probably hear everything I was saying.

She asked me again to tell her how I was doing and what had happened.

“I feel shitty. This whole thing is a misunderstanding,” I said.

I told her what I had posted on the internet and how I wasn’t actually suicidal. Then I told her I was kind of angry about the whole thing, but I had no one to be angry at.

The combination of coming down from adderall and lack of sleep made it hard to open my mouth to pronounce words. I was worried that she wouldn’t be able to understand what I was saying because English was her second language.

I explained that the last two weeks had been hard for me, and that the current week was also bad, but less so than the previous weeks, and that I had been looking at it as a last push on my way to a regular routine and, hopefully, mental stability or happiness.

I said, “I feel like this whole thing represents a step in the wrong direction.” She asked why it felt like a setback if I hadn’t done anything wrong. I told her that I felt bad about doing things that made people worry about me and that the whole thing made it harder for me to feel good about myself.

I said I knew that it wasn’t productive to be angry or to feel like a victim, because I really should be reflecting on what had happened and how to avoid a similar situation in the future. I admitted that it felt good to be angry.

I told her about my vacation and how I had been coping with feeling shitty in real life by spending more time on the internet.

I explained that on twitter, instead of making you feel bad for saying how you feel, people validate you by ‘favoriting’ the things that they relate to but maybe don’t feel comfortable saying.

I said that I was starting to think the way I used the internet wasn’t healthy, because twitter was positively reinforcing my negative emotions.

At the same time, I tried to make it very clear that just because I said something on twitter, that didn’t make it true. “It’s like my twitter is me, but it’s not me at the same time. It’s a slice of my personality that I focus in on,” I said.

The therapist asked why I couldn’t just give my twitter persona a different name, so that I could just say that it was a fictional character. I felt frustrated by the question. I told her that it was fiction in the sense that it wasn’t a full representation of myself, but that it was me at the same time.

I felt embarrassed explaining that twitter served a secondary purpose of marketing me for some kind of future ‘literary career.’

I tried to explain my approach to twitter as a sort of “method acting” where in order for a tweet to be good, I had to feel it. I said that I felt like I had to feel insane or sad in order to tweet insane or sad things.

The therapist didn’t understand the phrase “method acting,” and after trying to translate it to Spanish, I just explained that it is when an actor tries to internalize the emotions of a character in order to give a lifelike performance.

I said it was like when Heath Ledger played The Joker in that Batman movie and he got too deep into the character and ended up killing himself. She said she hadn’t seen that. I realized that was a bad example and moved on.

At some point I said, “the worst part of this whole thing is that I feel like I’m going through this whole process just because NYU is afraid of getting sued.”

I joked that I should report every one of my friends who had ever tweeted “please kill me” or “I want to die” to NYU’s suicide hotline to prove a point.

She admitted that maybe the school didn’t care, but pointed out that it didn’t really matter. She said that what mattered was that people cared about me and were worried about me.

She asked about the xanax. I repeated that I was okay and that this whole thing was a big misunderstanding. I said that I wasn’t abusing the drugs, but that I was worried about addiction, so I was trying to be really self-aware about not becoming dependent.

I explained that on twitter, xanax had become a sort of meme and that tweeting about drugs was a way of representing emotions rather than necessarily describing my actual drug use.

There was a short awkward pause and then she said, “You know, it’s my job as your therapist to ask you some hard questions…”

I said, “I know. Are they just the standard ones? This can’t be any worse than last night.”

She asked me to just tell her the answers to the questions I had been asked last night. I listed them.

She said that was all good, but she needed to ask something else, and I had to be completely honest. She told me that I had a lot of administrators really worried and that she had to write a report that either suggested that I be sent home on medical leave or vouched for my mental health.

She asked me if I thought I could stay in Buenos Aires for the rest of the semester or if I needed to go home.

I said, “Wow. I didn’t know we were even close to this. Yeah, I can definitely stay, and I want to.” She said that was good, but that she needed to be completely certain. She asked if the thought of going home had ever even occurred to me.

I said, “Only when I thought I was going to have to go attend my dad’s funeral.”

“Good. Okay,” she said. She seemed satisfied but nervous.

She told me that she was putting her job on the line by vouching for me, and that if I suicided, it would make her life hell. I promised not to suicide. She said that she had to vouch for my sanity and she wouldn’t be able to work as a therapist if I suicided. I said, “I’m not going to suicide.”

She said she believed me.

I thanked her again and we left the counseling room. TC mark

Willis Plummer

Willis Plummer (b. 1992) has published tweets, poems, and stories through Muumuu House, New Wave Vomit, and Habitat, …

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