It’s Okay to Not be Okay at HLS

My partner Hil has a mantra that she often tells herself: “It is okay to not be okay.” I’ve always avoided applying that to my own life, no matter how supportive I am of the idea. But this year, I am working to embrace that fully.

The summer before my 1L year, I flew out of my friend’s wedding in Madison, Wisconsin because I had called 911 on my mother. She had called me saying that she wanted to die and had gone over to the neighbor’s house to write a will.

Frantic, I called the first number that came to mind and told them my mother was trying to kill herself. I asked if they could try to get an ambulance that’s under our insurance, but they only made false reassurances.

My mother would later tell me that I made a big mistake. That we didn’t have enough money for the ambulance, and that Chinese people often say that they want to die without being serious — a generalization for which there is no evidence. That I should have believed her when she begged me to cancel the call. I still don’t know if I did the right thing that day. At the hospital, the staff asked questions about whether my brother was adequately taken care of, because my mother lived alone in the house with him, and he had long and messy hair. That only upset my mother more.

I’ve told that story to only a few people. Part of my healing process is recognizing that others at Harvard Law School have gone through the same or similar situations as I have. I think it is important to tell it in the hopes that I will reach just one other person.

My classmates often tell me when I walk into a room, “You look so happy!” or “You have so much energy!” Twenty-five years into my life, I have become an expert at bouncing back, regardless of the last terrible thing that happened. The reality was my 1L year was a struggle with my mother to choose the life I wanted. I am queer. I want to be a public defender to represent those accused of crimes.

Whether it was my mother’s actual beliefs about my lifestyle, or her mental illness, her words came at me like daggers. And she would call often. My brother and my father in China were mediators, but at the core, it was my mother and I.

There were more than a few weekends that I sat crying in WCC, whether with friends or in a secluded hallway. When I told myself to bounce back, I actually wanted someone to ask me if I were okay. Maybe they would notice the little change in my mood, or the slight droop in my lips. Most times, it didn’t happen, but when it did, I crumbled and broke down crying in front of that friend. In that time, those walks, those conversations, and those hugs were invaluable to me.

I went to a therapist, because that’s what HLS faculty and administration said would be beneficial to me. I think therapy is one way to cope, but it doesn’t fix the circumstances that you’re living in. When Will Zhang passed away last year, I was lost for weeks. I didn’t know Will, but it felt close to home because I constantly fear my family dying or hurting themselves.

We forgot too soon. I don’t want to forget that a 1L died last year. I don’t want to forget that when we put up posters affirming the humanity of trans people, HLS ordered them taken down before the first students could get to campus. I don’t want to forget that two years ago, someone put black tape over the portraits of Black professors in WCC.

There are so many ways that HLS encourages a façade of okayness: professors who do not accommodate mental illness, strict and seemingly immutable deadlines, the push into individual mental health services rather than group healing.

I often hear the phrase, “We are so privileged at HLS.” That phrase also makes me cry, because I know that I and others struggle to afford this place, both financially and emotionally. I understand the premise that our very acceptance into this institution elevates our societal status and power. But I don’t always feel lucky to have that.

I and others have been pushing for a community space for queer/trans people and people of color — a space for beauty and love and safety. This space is especially needed because when Reclaim Harvard tried to convert Belinda Hall into that space, their posters were ripped down, and the Dean of Students office now constantly polices the hall.

So, here are my goals this year to make HLS a better place: Give more hugs. Take your classmates’ answers to heart when you ask them, “how are you?” Encourage long answers. If they say, “fine,” say, “tell me more.” And if you can’t do everything and be perfect, that’s okay. You don’t need to be 100% productive all the damn time. Take more mental health days. Love yourself.

I truly believe some of the most incredible people are at HLS. I also truly believe that HLS should take more responsibility for making an affirming space for queer/trans people and people of color. Traditionally, this role has been wholly taken on by affinity group organizations like BLSA, APALSA, La Alianza, and Lambda. As a result, students from those communities spend a large portion of their time making space for other students while consistently facing challenges in administration regarding more diverse faculty hiring, pronoun usage and trans-inclusive healthcare, and cultural competency training for faculty.

Thank you to my partner Hil for standing by my side. Thank you to my roommate Alexandra for fighting HLS administration to validate her not-okayness and being incredibly vulnerable in that process. Thank you to my countless friends who supported me in my 1L year. My life is a continual giving back process, and this article is for you and all other students whom these words might touch.

Jianing Xie is a 2L.