Harm masquerading as help: Isolation, Abuse and Crisis in Grad School by Tina Lasisi

TW: Abuse

I learnt from a really young age that if I did well at school, people would be proud of me. I read a lot, I would be able to tell my teachers things they didn’t expect me to know, sometimes even things they didn’t know. It seemed that if I impressed them enough, it could make them forget the things they disliked about me. 

I always got in trouble for talking in class or being hyperactive. I was always either slightly late or 30 minutes early to things because I just could not keep track of time for some reason. I would often forget assignments were due (especially if they were boring), and end up doing them the night before (on a few occasions, even in the hour before). But the things I did hand in, were good. I did well on exams and I participated in (and won) quite a few of the speaking/writing/debate competitions my school sent me off to. 

I still have an essay somewhere at my parent’s house from the time I got detention for not handing in my English homework in high school. I entitled it “The Importance of Doing Your English Homework” and the first few sentences read: 

“I feel it is my duty to express the severe consequences of underestimating the importance of doing your English homework. I must admit that I am guilty of the aforementioned atrocity. The shame, the disappointment, the titanic amount of written homework I have to hand in: these are all the repercussions of my irresponsible behavior.” 

What can I say? It seems I always had a bit of a flair for the dramatic. At the end of the essay, my English teacher noted: “You love every minute of the writing, don’t you? It’s always a good read.” 

That’s why I keep it.

Over a decade later, I feel the same is still true: as long as I do good work, people will be proud of me. The trouble is, I wasn’t always able to do good work. Or any work for that matter. 

During my undergrad, I was diagnosed with depression and then, in my second year of grad school, ADHD. This explained a lot. It didn’t matter how early I started something, I would always be working up until the very last minute. I would have to lock myself up for days and avoid people, to make sure that I didn’t accidentally lose track of time and forget about work. But, somehow, I managed. 

I found that I really liked Biological Anthropology. I found a mentor who helped me do a great undergraduate research project that eventually turned into a PhD research project. I was lucky that I found a research topic that, seemingly, no one else was looking at.

I learnt that an academic career was an incredible option for me, given all my struggles. You can focus (almost) exclusively on topics you like, and, even with inconsistent bursts of productivity, you can do pretty well, as long as you’re a decent writer. 

So I did pretty well.

Ironically, the further I got in my academic career, the more it felt like my value as a person was inextricably linked to my performance. The stakes kept mounting and the more I succeeded, the more it felt like failure would be utterly devastating. 

I had always managed. Somehow. No matter how overwhelmed or tired I was. I had managed to push through. But two years ago, I was in a situation that I could not push through, no matter how hard I tried. 

I was trying to leave an abusive relationship. 

Like all such relationships, I thought it started out well. In hindsight, I can see the red flags. I can see that it was not okay for me to feel like I had to collect data to prove to my abuser that it was unfair to let me do the majority of the housework. That I shouldn’t have had to explain why I was allowed to spend my own money however I wanted. I can see how having fits of jealous rage when I spent time with others was a way to control me. I can see how never taking “no” for an answer was an unsurprising precursor to not letting me leave him. 

On its own, something like this is hard enough to deal with. But I was also trying to finish my PhD that year. 

I had told my therapist that I was struggling. That I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t deal with having to move for the fifth time in 5 years. I was upset that any semblance of structure I had built up was gone. I was exhausted. I told my therapist that I was starting to have intrusive thoughts of suicide. She gave me a card with the crisis hotline.

My abuser only ramped up on the gaslighting and refused to acknowledge that our relationship had ended. He made me feel like I was at fault. That I was abandoning him. He talked me out of a “break-up” and into a relationship “break”. 

Things escalated between me and my abuser and it ended with me being hospitalized against my will.

The Hospital

I was actually hospitalized twice within the space of 12 hours. The first time I was brought in by my abuser to treat an injury I’d suffered because of him when he locked me in a room. The second time I was brought in because he fulfilled his threat to tell people I was a danger to myself if I did not “calm down” and stop trying to leave his apartment.

I was visibly upset and terrified because I had just managed to escape someone who had assaulted me, held me down and locked me in a room with him for hours. But to onlookers, I was a “scary” Black woman who was “hysterical” and if a white man said I was hurting him and a danger to myself, there would clearly be no need for any further input from me.

The last thing I remember was a police officer walking towards me and then “asking me” to sit in the back of the car. It was the last thing I remembered because when I got to the hospital they gave me sedatives on top of a huge dose of sedatives I had already taken myself. I was only able to piece together what happened in February of 2020 when I received the $15,000+ bill for this event. According to the medical notes, they said that I was behaving erratically and that’s why they gave me sedatives (multiple times). I was forced to sign papers for my voluntary hospitalization because they told me explicitly that if I didn’t, it would be an involuntary hospitalization and that I wouldn’t be able to decide when to leave.

After my first night, once all the sedatives had worn off, I was ready to leave and the doctors were ready to discharge me because I seemed fine. But then my abuser came to the hospital, as did colleagues who I thought were my friends. Instead of supporting me or asking me what happened, they insinuated I had done horrible things (without ever explaining what they were). One of them even yelled at me that I was selfish for being suicidal. They convinced me that I had lost my mind and that I couldn’t trust my own recollection of events. Even more disturbingly, they convinced the doctors to hold me for longer. When I started crying, they said they didn’t understand why I was upset.

I was put on strong bipolar medication that caused terrible side effects, even though I had never shown any symptoms of bipolar and even though whoever scribbled on my medical chart said they didn’t think bipolar disorder was my issue. Among the medical notes, they said that I had admitted to being suicidal and that I appeared to be “sensitive to rejection.” But rather than help me, they facilitated my further abuse. When I told them I had no family in the country, they still insisted that I had to have “family counselling” during my stay or they would not discharge me. So, I had no choice but to give the names of my abuser and his supporters–tragically, they were the closest thing I had to family in State College at the time.

I did not fight it. I knew that compliance was the only way out. But even though this pacifying behavior allowed me out, my abuser and his enablers took this as an opportunity to spin this narrative into evidence of me admitting fault. Even though I was the one who ended up in the hospital twice, he was the victim. None of the “friends” who visited me in the hospital checked in with me after the second day. None of them came to see me when I was released. It was one of my advisors, who picked me up and drove me home when I was free to go.

The Aftermath

Somehow, I managed to keep my head above water. Even though I had no one in the area, I opened up about my situation to new and old friends who lived out-of-state and overseas. They sent me care packages, made themselves available for calls whenever I was feeling down, and they listened and believed my story. I started going to a local support group for survivors of domestic violence and was linked with an amazing advocate. 

All I wanted to do was finish my PhD and leave. But this became almost impossible. Even though my abuser was not in the same department as me, my co-workers, who I thought were my friends and support system, went out of their way to help him continue his abuse. I still am puzzled as to why. Most of my abusers’ enablers were white women. White women who, on social media and their CVs, claim all kinds of activism and allyship. Here they had the perfect opportunity to show that they would “believe survivors” or that they truly thought that “Black Lives Matter” and that they really cared about mental health.

Even if not for the sake of aligning their actions with their words, surely it would have been easier to ignore the person they did not know or interact with than another student in their department? None of them were present during any of the incidents, so why take his word over mine? Maybe because they just thought my abuser was *that* charming. Maybe they just couldn’t resist an opportunity to make sure I knew my place. After all, academia breeds a toxic kind of environment where people see success as a zero sum game where they must succeed at the expense of others (1).

After I left the hospital, my abuser did everything he could to make our separation as difficult as possible. With no one else to turn to, I called the local domestic violence shelter and, luckily, they had a lot of experience with the kind of stalking and harassment survivors face after leaving their abuser and they were able to help me manage the situation.

But “manage” is a relative term here. Things were so bad that I couldn’t be in the department without panicking. I had nightmares on a frequent basis, I was too scared to go to the grocery store, I couldn’t focus on my work. My advisors suggested I take a year off. But as an international student, that was not an option for me. With no family in the country, where was I supposed to go? I couldn’t get another job, that was illegal on my visa. So I had no choice but to push through. I had to deal with the trauma, the medical bills, the police reports, the investigations, mostly without friends or family by my side. My lab manager was the only local friend who supported me unconditionally through these events. If it weren’t for all these people, I’m sure my abuser and his enablers would have gotten what they wanted: the satisfaction of making me feel like I was nothing without them.

Why am I sharing this?

If my experience has taught me anything, it’s that we cannot discuss interpersonal violence, institutional violence, and mental health as independent issues with independent solutions. We need to bring to light stories that reflect just how deeply interconnected these issues are if we are sincere about our desire to address the harm that is being caused.  

I decided to share my story for a number of reasons. First, because I am still relatively privileged and am alive to tell my story. I am a Black woman who is light skinned, biracial, and cis-gender. At 5’7″ and 140lbs, my abuser and his enablers were able to paint me as the aggressor in a situation where I was sedated and up against someone who was larger than me and had done combat sports his entire life. If I am threatening, imagine what they do to people who have to deal with fatphobia, transphobia and colorism on top of everything? The racialized misogyny that Black women face is pervasive and often goes unacknowledged by superficial feminist and “anti-racist” analysis (2)

My privilege also includes having advisors who continued to fund my assistantship despite the fact that I couldn’t keep up the same level of productivity. I could have very easily fallen through the cracks and many people do. Especially at institutions rife with anti-Black racism at every level (3,4). I am sharing my story because there are many people who still cannot safely share theirs and what happened to me should give you an idea of how much some people go through without ever saying a word.

The second reason I decided to write this is because of the stories that kept me going while I was struggling through these events. I kept feeling like I was behind and could never catch up. I was made to feel ashamed of what I went through, like no one would believe me or want to work with me.

If you are going through something like this, I want you to know that you do not deserve this and that there are people out there who will support you and believe you. The people who are doing this to you want you to doubt yourself. Know that they are doubling down, not because they are sure they’re right, but because they are cowards and would rather silence you than be held accountable.

If I can give you one piece of advice, it’s to find people who have no vested interest in your silence or in your abuser(s). This means that turning towards people in your department or your university might not be the best idea. Find external support first. Local domestic violence shelters have hotlines and staff that are trained to advocate for you when you are dealing with the police, the hospital, and even your university. It’s sad to say, but a significant part of my suffering was caused by those in positions of authority who I trusted to help me.

I still struggle with my symptoms. I still have nightmares. I can’t walk on campus without having a panic attack. Some days, I still question whether I have the stamina to keep going. I wonder whether there is any point in trying to continue in research when I haven’t truly been consistently productive in almost two years. I wonder whether I’ll ever be functional enough again to be part of society, let alone academia. I wonder if anyone will be proud of me for trying, even if I fail. 

But then I remember that despite all of this, I am still here, and that, this time, I am not alone.

Tina Lasisi

Author bio: Tina Lasisi is a biological anthropologist who studies the evolution of human hair variation. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher working on developing educational materials on human genetic and phenotypic variation. She has a Standard Poodle named Winston whose main job is to remind her to take breaks and bring comfort to anyone who is blessed to be in his presence. 


1.     Mitchell K. Identifying White Mediocrity and Know-Your-Place Aggression: A Form of Self-Care. African American Review. 2018;51(4):253–62.

2.     James A, Tynes B. What in the Misogynoir?! (transcript) [Internet]. Zora’s Daughters. 2020 [cited 2021 Jul 15]. Available from: https://zorasdaughters.com/episodes/what-in-the-misogynoir/

3.     Anderson N. Black professors push a major university to diversify and confront racism. The Washington Post [Internet]. 2021 Jun 16 [cited 2021 Sep 12]; Available from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2021/06/16/penn-state-black-faculty-racism/

4.     BlackAtPennState (@black_at_pennstate) [Internet]. Instagram. [cited 2021 Sep 12]. Available from: https://www.instagram.com/black_at_pennstate/?hl=en