The Pale King – Chapter 13

Dear Dave,

In the fall in my AP English Lit classes – which consist of mostly seniors – I have my students write one of their college application essays for a class assignment so that I can give them feedback on their writing and hopefully better their chances of getting into the college of their dreams.  Most colleges’ prompts are pretty formulaic and lend themselves nicely to a standard five-paragraph essay, but on the advice of a veteran teacher I recommend (actually demand would be a better word for it) that they tell a story rather than write an overused five-paragraph essay.  I tell them that stories are more memorable and impactful and more likely to provide that extra edge in the cut-throat arena of college admissions.[1]

Most of these essays cover your standard topics: death of a loved one, moving to a new school, learning a lesson from a community service experience.  But one student, J–, wrote an essay that grabbed my attention right from the start.  He told the story of how, several years prior, he began experiencing a rather peculiar tingling sensation at the base of his skull.  A little research on WebMD had him convinced he had a brain tumor.  Too scared to say anything, he waited to see what would happen; knowing what symptoms he ought to look out for should the “tumor” progress.  Nothing did happen, and after his next annual physical he realized that there was nothing wrong with him.[2]  He concluded the essay reflecting on the lesson he quietly learned about the dangers of over-thinking and overreacting to a situation.

Reading the opening line of §13 reminded me ever so slightly of reading this student’s essay several years ago.

“It was in public high school that this boy learned the terrible power of attention and what you pay attention to.  He learned it in a way whose very ridiculousness was part of what made it so terrible.  And terrible it was” (91).[3]

Like my former student, David Cusk learned the difficult burden of hyper-self-awareness.  For J–, this hyper-awareness took the form of unnecessary anxiety.  For Cusk, this hyper-awareness manifests itself in sudden and severe sweating attacks.  And like the Depressed Person, the fear of an oncoming attack and the hyper-awareness of his surroundings only compound the severity of Cusk’s attacks.

I’ve come to know a little something about fear and anxiety over the last few years.  I’ll just come out and say it: I have anxiety issues.  I tend to internalize and worry about things way more than I should.  Little things, big things; insignificant things, important things.  It doesn’t really matter.  I worry about it all.

And if that’s not enough, I tend to have adverse physical reactions to this often-unnecessary stress.  Including, but not limited to eye twitches, muscle spasms in my back and neck, and migraine headaches.

So my worrying causes these adverse physical responses, which then causes me to worry even more.  What if it’s not just a headache?  What if these pains are from something more serious?  So I worry some more, which only makes the headache or muscle spasms worse, which makes me worry all the more.  It’s a vicious cycle, really.  An ugly, vicious cycle.

I found myself in the midst of one of these downward spirals recently.  I don’t really remember what started it[4] – probably something of very little import – but I found myself stressed out and not feeling well and stressed out about not feeling well.  Then I caught a glance of my right wrist.

“This is Water”[5]

I can’t control my circumstances.  I can’t change what’s going on around me.  But I can choose my response.  I don’t have to let these things get me down.  I don’t have to revert to the “default setting.”  I just keep telling myself:

“This is Water.”

“This is Water.”

“This is Water.”

[1] Unfortunately, in some cases, not even a damn good essay was enough to allow some of my top students rise to the top of the “keep” pile.  It’s often a sad time in early spring when my students with a 4.whatever GPA and stellar resumes get a rejection letter from their first-choice university.  If being valedictorian of a rather competitive prep school doesn’t get you into a top-tier school, then I don’t know what will.

[2] This hypochondriac’s essay was an interesting – if not humorous – counterpart to another student’s essay about how he actually suffered a brain tumor as a child.  His was an inspiring story of faith and perseverance in the midst of a very frightening ordeal.  He’s perfectly fine now, aside from a rather large scar on his scalp.

[3] This opening line is also rather reminiscent of the opening line of “The Depressed Person” from Brief Interviews: “The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component and a contributing factor in its essential horror” (37).

[4] I rarely ever do remember what it is that gives me that little nudge that begins the newest cycle.

[5] Written in – as I told my students after returning from my trip to Antwerp for the “Work in Process” conference – very, very, very permanent marker.


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