Oberlin Blogs

Summer, Sign Language, Stress, and Death.

July 31, 2015

El Wilson ’18

I'm going to do an experiment. Normally, it takes me a few hours spread out over about a weekend to crank out one of these posts. Even though I don't do it all in one sitting, my goal is always to write one unified piece. Poop on that strategy. This blog post is being written in incoherent parts. (You'll get the privilege of reading it all at once, though.)

Part One: "How you?" (Wednesday, July 22, 2015)

At the moment, I'm sitting alone in a dorm room at Gallaudet University contemplating how to answer the question "How are you?" at breakfast tomorrow morning. (Dinner tonight is going to consist of a bag of elf-shaped animal crackers from the vending machine.)

Backstory time. I'm currently attending a two-week, American Sign Language (ASL) immersion program. I spend about 4-5 hours a day in my ASL 2 class and the rest of the time attending Deaf events, exploring DC, and doing homework. It's been one of the coolest experiences of my life. Less than twelve hours ago, I was watching CJ Jones (a famous Deaf comedian whose name you don't remember but whose face is recognizable) tell a story about vomit-eating fish.

Now, I'm sitting on my bed listening to some R&B that could pass as emo music contemplating how long 8776 days is.

I was scrolling through Facebook while watching Youtube and playing Candy Crush when I came across a post by a friend I met at the disabled-kid camp I went to growing up. It was the obituary of a boy who went to camp with us. (For the purpose of this post, his name was Jesse.) He had a mental disability and was one of the funniest people I've ever met. He used to quote Family Guy and Eminem lyrics at inopportune moments. He was so tall and lumbering that he could clear a crowd of electric wheelchairs just by stepping towards them.

I don't know what to say to my suite-mates when they get back from dinner, much less sign to them. Part of me just wants to ignore it until I go home on Saturday, but I'm the most genuine person on the planet whether I want to be or not. Attempting to hide how I feel would be pointless. I just don't know what to say or do. I have a deep connection to ASL, but all of my emotions and memories of Jesse are in English.

Jesse wasn't my friend, but he was a consistent presence in my life until I was 16. If I was ever in a bad mood, I would seek him out and watch him until he unknowingly said something hysterical. The only times this failed was if he was crying. Jesse had this odd thing. I don't know what caused it, but it was one of the strangest phenomena I've ever seen. At least a few times a day, Jesse would burst out into tears. He wouldn't actually feel sad. He just randomly would start sobbing. Each episode lasted only a few minutes, and afterwards he would return to his happy demeanor. We were all so used to it that we would just tell him "You're fine" a thousand times and forget about it.

I know today isn't the start of a long grieving process. I'll probably feel crappy for less than a week and then move on. But at the moment, the next few days feel like a very long time. I'm not home. I'm not at Oberlin. I'm alone in a place where everyone else is having a great time communicating in a language that I'm still learning.

So how do I answer the question "How are you?" (or "How you?" as it's said in ASL) tomorrow morning? I know that I feel like I just watched a single light bulb on an otherwise beautiful Christmas tree burn out, but I don't know how to sign light bulb.

Part 2: Stress. (Wednesday, July 29, 2015)

I've spent the last week trying to evaluate my time at Gallaudet. It's been very confusing. On one hand, it was a mind-blowing experience. My ASL has improved by miles, I met amazing people, and I saw parts of Washington DC that I never even knew existed. I stood on the Kennedy Center's balcony and looked across Potomac River to the lit up city. I listened to a Deaf rapper. I even tried Ethiopian food. (It's mushy and therefore easy for my partially paralyzed mouth to chew. I dig it.)

Though, even before Jesse died, it was stressful. Communicating in a language you don't really know mainly with people who also don't really know the language is mentally exhausting. At the end of every day, all I wanted to do was watch Netflix for hours on end. Plus, it's easy to make friendships based on inside jokes and shared experiences, but it's nearly impossible to make deep connections in a foreign language. So, when Jesse died, I felt very alone very quickly.

The last three days of my time at Gallaudet were some of the most stressful of my life. At any given moment, I was extremely happy but ready to burst into tears at any second. On one level, I turned into Jesse. It wasn't as if I was faking happiness. I spent my last night at Gallaudet laughing with a friend, eating real Chinese food on the streets of Chinatown, and watching tourists walk by. Yet, I could have easily cried in between bites of egg roll if I felt the urge. The only difference between Jesse's episodes and my emotions was that I could control my expressions. In fact, I didn't cry after Wednesday night until my mother's birthday party. (I ended up sobbing in my sister's lap. I was a party pooper.)

Oddly enough, I didn't find the experience to be that different than my time at Oberlin. As a psychology major, you learn that there are two types of stress: good stress and bad stress. Both are extremely important to our everyday functioning, and they both have similar effects on our bodies. In fact, they both are equally likely to trigger a depressive episode. For me, I spent my entire first year of college feeling a combination of good and bad stress. I was trying to learn how to be an adult and handle college academics while having the time of my life with my friends and going on millions of adventures (big and small).

Obviously, my feelings during Gallaudet were much more complicated and nuanced. (Death tends to do that to your emotions.) Yet, when I think about going back to Oberlin in a few weeks and dealing with a new job as a student accessibility advocate (more on that in a future post), teaching the ASL exco, taking higher level courses, and managing my existence, I feel that same combination of uncontainable excitement and complete panic that I felt the last few days of Gallaudet (minus the grief).

A lot of people talk about "managing stress" in college. I don't know if that's a productive conversation. I don't really care how much stress I have as long as 1) the good is at least equal to the bad and 2) I'm using that stress to improve my life, the world, or myself.

I know that Jesse is gone. I know that without him the world is a little less funny. I know that he is another name on a growing list of dead summer camp friends. I know that I and many others will miss him. I know he lived for 8776 days. I don't know how many of those days he spent feeling alive (or even if feeling alive is a different experience if you have a mental disability). What I do know is that deep sadness, extreme stress, and unmeasurable joy are all part of feeling alive and that I want to spend every day of my life alive no matter how many days I have to live.

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