Dalai’s note: My son, Dalai, Jr., wrote this essay for his Freshman writing class. I thought my readers might like it.
From Rock Bottom to the Summit
The guide, Matt, mumbles something to us about a decent view around the corner as we shoulder our packs. While the rest of us are still gulping water, he takes off down the trail, leaving us stumbling through ankle-twisting sand under the relentless Outback sun. I lean forward as the trail slopes sharply upward and the ground becomes solid rock and the sun slowly disappears. We are in a narrow crevice surrounded on either side by high red rock walls. Up ahead, I see a spot of daylight breaking through the shade, but I put my head down and continue to fight up the slope, the heavy pack pressing hard on my already bruised shoulders and hips.
Seven months earlier, I sit in my sophomore US History Class, staring blankly down at the failing essay on my desk, my second of the month. I don’t understand how it continues to happen. My teacher tells me in my report card I am “lazy and complacent.” Maybe he’s right. All I want to do is sleep. I can barely keep my eyes open long enough to do my homework, let alone study for tests. I hear my parents late at night whisper in hushed tones as they try to make sense of how their once history-loving, straight-A student can now barely scrape a B- at a high school notorious for its watered-down grading.
“It’s because he never learned how to write properly,” my mother, the English major, insists. “He was never taught how to organize an argument and put it down on paper.”
“No, it’s the teacher. He’s taken an open dislike to the kid since the first day of school. He had Dolly, and now he expects Dalai, Jr. to be exactly like her,” my father says. Dolly, my sister, had been in the same class six years before and has a work ethic of a Tiger Mom.
“No, they’re both wrong,” I tell the psychiatrist my parents insisted I see. Looking out the window into the gray winter rain falling on his Zen garden, I continue. “The teacher is right. I am lazy and definitely not worth the effort of teaching. All I do is sleep, and when I’m awake, I’m so tired that I get nothing done anyway. I try to study the night before a test, but no matter what I do, I always find myself face down on the book as the sun rises.”
My therapist, who I only address by his surname, lets his me talk on and on without response. However, when he does have something to say, his statement leaves me speechless for a while. This cold, dreary day in November is no exception. Listening to me prattle on in my self-indulgent wallowing, he finally holds up a hand and stops me. “What if the problem wasn’t you, or at least the part of you that you’re blaming?”
I’m puzzled. Of course it’s me. I am the one who is lazy. I am the one who has no work ethic. I am the one who is earning the poor grades and not doing anything about it. How can he suggest that the problem is anything but my total uselessness?
“You said your Crohn’s disease is in remission. From what I remember from medical school, though, extreme fatigue is often a precursor to Crohn’s flares. What if this isn’t your fault, but your colon’s?”
Naturally, I reject this idea. Weeks of thinking myself an idiot have worked me into a depression that refuses to let me believe anything other than the most defeatist explanations. But as I leave the session and get in the car, I can’t stop thinking about this alternative suggestion. Staring vacantly out the window, watching the white lines of the highway fly by me, I admit to myself that I had been experiencing pretty vicious stomach aches for the past month or so. One was so bad that I had to come home from my class trip with Outward Bound. As we near home, my mom breaks the silence in the car and asks me if I learned anything interesting with the therapist. I briefly explain the Crohn’s suggestion, but offhandedly dismiss it, saying that I haven’t really been that sick. She corrects me, reminding me of my upcoming endoscopy with my gastroenterologist, “There’s no way he would put you through all that if thought you weren’t flaring.”
Since this sound logic is coming from my mother, my teenage ears filter out most of it as inherently wrong. After all, like every teenager, I think my parents are clueless about the real world. And so I let the rest of the semester pass, scraping a B or above in all my classes, though mostly through sheer luck, since most of my studying ends with me asleep at my desk.
“Normally, the inside of the large intestine is about two inches in diameter, so it should be as big around as the face of a large wristwatch. Yours, on the other hand, is scarred so badly that a pencil wouldn’t fit through.” My gastroenterologist shows me the morning’s endoscopic photos of my colon, and I can clearly see that where my cecum should be wide open, it is tight and inflamed.
Suddenly, everything snaps into focus. My teacher is wrong. My parents are wrong. I am wrong. The problem is not me, my inexperience, or my teachers. Is a lazy, unmotivated student going to push himself to even attempt to study even though he knows that there is a huge chance his work will go to waste as his body fights him at every turn? No! He would have given up long before and simply let his grades go. Instead, I had struggled for every point, worked for every B- that could have just as easily been a C. In that moment, I am suddenly free of the leaden thoughts that had filled my head for the past two months.
Three months later, I am in the hospital, waking up from the surgery to remove the stricture in my colon. As soon as I open my eyes, I insist on stretching my legs and going for a walk. The nurses initially object, but eventually reluctantly agree to let me shuffle down the hall, leaning on my IV stand as a makeshift cane. After a few passes, I am absolutely exhausted. Gingerly hoisting myself back into bed, I fall back against my pillow, my body aching. But as my eyes droop, I weakly smile with the knowledge that I now rule my body, not the other way around.
Upon my return to school, I dive into my work to repair my GPA from the previous semester. I finish the year with A’s in every subject, though my teacher never acknowledges a change. Somewhere between the books, I find time to join a competitive rock climbing team, begin work on my Eagle Scout project, and make the decision to go on a summer expedition to Australia with a teen-oriented outfitter.
Watching the sweat drip down my face and pockmark the thin layer of dust on the rock, I feel like I did in that hospital hallway, fighting for every step. Suddenly, I am standing in the sun again. Looking up, I see that I am 100 yards away from the edge of a high cliff, looking out over a massive gorge. We all throw our packs down and stride to the precipice and stare out at the red crags, jagged as if roughly hewn by a novice sculptor. The roar of the deep blue river echoing in our ears, we gape with our mouths open as we desperately try to capture that moment of discovery and freedom forever. Eventually though, we have to move on, so we shoulder our packs and continue down the path.
Today, when I am sitting at my desk working a particularly frustrating Chemistry problem set or trudging through a marathon of Biology reading, I sometimes find my eyes wandering up to the collection of posters on my wall. My gaze rests on the picture I snapped almost three years ago at the edge of that cliff. A smile tugs at the corner of my mouth as I remember the fleeting exhilaration of standing at that spot, and I dive back into my work, climbing towards the next ridge.