When did you last feel ‘alive’?
It was October 2, 2020, after dinner. Somehow, I was convinced that it would be a fantastic idea to bike all the way down College Street, holding a cup of boiling hot coffee in my left hand.
“I do it all the time. Look!” Rena circled her bike around me while sipping on her coffee, encouraging me to take the leap of faith.
Rena is that friend who, after your epic bike fall, would always arrive first. She’d be dialing PubSafe’s hotline for help while at the same time making a snow angel, right next to the spot where you ate dirt.
I nodded at her, ceremoniously.
20 seconds later — right in front of Munroe, my bike tripped over my fragile self-esteem.
I quickly looked down, but oops — my left hand was choking the hell out of the paper cup… not the brake.
And then, I flew off the bike, landing face down on the concrete.
When I opened my eyes again, I found myself at Voter, but my bike had practically flown all the way to Shaw’s.
I stood up. For a second, I couldn’t hear, feel or see anything. All I could do was call Rena (who had already safely arrived at Davis with her coffee) and inform her that, oops, I spilled the coffee, and by the way, broke my front tooth as well.
“I’m coming. Just a sec. How are you feeling?” she asked.
How am I feeling? Um … good question. I could taste my dignity and my front tooth shattered in my mouth. I could hear God listening to my heartbeats in his Airpods.
I’m actually feeling … quite …. alive.
“I’m feeling so alive!” I didn’t know it was possible to feel this alive at a place like Middlebury. And yet here I was, feeling more alive than ever.
* * *
Technically speaking, I’ve always known that I was alive. Sometimes though, it becomes hard to remember that. My day-to-day — and that of those around me — is so congested with Zoom classes, homework, extracurriculars and partying.
For the past two years, what Middlebury has taught me is that workload and alcohol can actually accomplish the same goal — that is, to numb yourself from the fact that you are in a “toxic relationship” with Middlebury. I hope I can say that I’m alone in this, but I’m afraid the truth is that many of us here are “alone” together in this same unbreakable cycle of this toxic relationship.
It all starts with your first semester: you brave through cascades of classes, clubs and parties, hoping for some good time and good friends along the way. But all the people you end up meeting look so cool, so smart, so occupied, so strong-and-independent, and so … utterly uninterested in you.
Rather than being seen, heard, valued and loved, you are only abused through and through by endless deadlines, peer pressure, beauty standards and the lack of genuine human connections. Whenever you are awake, you are reminded that you are not seen, not wanted and not appreciated. If this is the feeling of being alive, then you’d rather not feel so alive. You don’t dare to feel so alive.
To refrain from being caged in this feeling, you detour around self-confrontation and embark on another journey to brave the homework and alcohol.
But I bet there must still have been a moment or two, where the workload overload and the alcohol hangover simply could not overlap. Maybe it starts in the morning: you roll out of your bed, you look in the mirror, but no matter what you try you just can’t seem to convince the person in your mirror that they are enough. Or, perhaps it was at night: under a streetlight, on the way back to your room from Davis, you try but you simply cannot prove to your shadow that you are someone worth following.
The work and the alcohol have failed you, completely.
You know you are alive (technically), but it just does not feel true.
* * *
Throughout 2019 and 2020, professors Robert W. Moeller and Martin Seehuus in the Psychology Department conducted extensive research to explore the transitions of young adolescents into adulthood to specifically address their susceptibility to mental health issues during this vulnerable phase. Experiments were then carried out to demystify whether “loneliness mediated the relationship between anxiety and depression and social expressiveness, sensitivity, and control.”
After close scrutiny of the mediation models, the irony slapped me right across the face: we have long been conditioned to think the aftermath of social rejection is intense and immediate “emotional upset,” including sadness, anxiety, stress, and depression; however, based on scientific research and my very own heartaches, the initial response to social exclusion is instead marked by “an emotional numbness or lack of feelings.”
In other words, this is analogous to being alive without feeling alive.
Similar to the temporary pain insensitivity I experienced after my epic bike fall, emotional numbness is what consumes many of us here at Middlebury College — those of us who are trapped in the tortured tango of half-assed intimacy, tiptoeing to the tune of the beauty standards, masculine mystique, mundane materialism, hustle culture and hookup culture. Even in a regular year pre-Covid, being a student at Middlebury (where people are perhaps willingly subjected to imposter syndrome, parental expectations, social norms, etc.) can be a pain in the ass. With the current Covid-19 restrictions, we are only repeatedly reminded that the more things have changed, the more they stay the same.
As an international student living in the U.S. since the age of sixteen, I have tried to tame this inner bogeyman of mine that repeatedly whispers into my ears, telling me, “Hey, you are not seen; you are not not wanted; you are not enough.” It has haunted me and trapped me into feeling more alone than I actually am. And it has left me wondering whether I — as a stranger to the snowfall and the higher education of Middlebury — am the most noticeable and the most invisible at the same time. More often, though, I caught myself being puppeteered by this inner demon, falling victim to the temptation of numbing myself — not wanting to fight, but to flee — and not daring to confront myself that I am alive without feeling like it.
For the past five years, there were indeed flashes of moments where I thought I had killed that inner demon: when I graduated from United World College and embarked on the world-traveling Semester at Sea cruise ship, I thought I was finally going to be “cool” (ugh, what a childish construct). When I dragged my musical instrument (which is taller than myself) to busk in a Brooklyn metro station that smelled like rats and pee, I thought I was finally seen. When I was suddenly invited to perform in Carnegie Hall on a day when I only made 2.5$ (metro fare is 3.5$) when busking, I thought I was finally valued. And finally, when — after creating my YouTube channel (which, let’s be frank, has only 15 genuine subscribers) — my social media was flooded with creepy dudes’ “Hello, wink” messages, I thought I was finally desired.
I thought those would be the moments when I would find myself most alive, but after a flash of not being truly seen but rather being garishly exposed, I was again left alone, in the middle of the night, staring into the chasm of darkness (actually, just my ceiling), at the bottom of which there was that dormant inner demon waking up from a cozy nap, staring back up at me with its sleepy eyes.
Who could have known that it would take one random bike accident on a random school day — when God playfully pressed the pause button in my random little life — to wake me up to the fact that I had been alive all along.
When I stubbed my toes into my bookshelf and screamed enough four-letter words to make my mom cry, I felt alive; when I biked around Addison County, listened to the winds and moo-ed to the cows along the way, I felt alive; when I emailed all of my Zoom friend crushes to see if I could be their friend, and then nervously waited next to my phone, I felt alive; when I looked into somebody’s eyes and told them I wanted them in my life (even though I was, and still am, so stubbornly proud), I felt alive; when I made an elegant exit from a nasty heartbreak, where I mustered all the strength that was left and thanked them for a great journey before quitting, I felt alive; when I finally freed myself from the burden of likability and shrugged my shoulder to the haters, I felt alive; when I tried to make my grandma smile (who can barely hear me anymore) by making weird faces throughout our entire weekly video call, I felt alive; when I hugged my friends and whispered to them “oh my, we need to work on this, you hug like you’re trying to escape,” I felt alive; and, when I fell off my bike with a cup of coffee in my hand, I felt alive… What I’m learning is that I have been alive all along.
Kexin Tang is a member of the class of 2022.5.