Infinite Tragedy

David Foster Wallace — photo by Marion Ettinger

I learned this morning that author David Foster Wallace hanged himself on Saturday. He was 46, and his wife found him. I didn’t know David personally, and I can’t say I thought everything he wrote was successful, but even his failures were magnificent, brave and worthy. I aspire to as much.

I have no idea if Mr. Wallace was an alcoholic/addict himself. Some say he was, some say he wasn’t. I say it’s none of my business. However, I do know he was a tremendously insightful chronicler of addiction. Just read his door-stopper book, Infinite Jest, if you don’t believe me.

So of course, his death has me thinking about my alcoholism. Addiction is a disease which I, and many other members of my family suffer. As many of you know, neither of my brothers were able to get clean and sober, and both hanged themselves.

Certainly alcoholism, depression and suicide are ugly room mates, feeding off each other’s plates, and never cleaning up the wreckage they leave behind them.

Most people who have this disease never get sober, and of those who do, even fewer stay sober. But the real mystery is why some of us make it and some don’t. Why do some of us reach out for help and then take the hand that reaches back with all the desperation of the drowning? Why are some of us willing to do whatever it takes, and others just aren’t?

I’m not about to say there’s only one way to get sober. There was only one way for me (God knows I tried other ways, LOTS of other ways), and when I found the way that worked for me, I stuck to it. But what works for me might not work for you, or your sister, or your husband. But the good news is there are any number of places to go to for help these days. Not so long ago, your only option as an addict/alcoholic was a mental institution, a jail, or the mortuary slab. We’re damn lucky now that we’re not alone. So whether it’s a meeting of folks in a church basement, or a rehab center, a sweat lodge, or your rabbi’s living room, there are lots of places where you can seek help. The key is to want to go, to need to go to be willing to go, and to take the advice of people who’ve been right where you are now, who know exactly what you’re feeling, and have who have successfully stayed away from the booze/drugs for a long time.

I remember, a number of years ago, an Ojibway elder I knew, called Aunt Betty who used to talk about alcohol a lot. She said, “They don’t call it spirits for nothing.” She said that when you drink (or do drugs) you’re sending a beacon out into the universe, and that beacon inevitably catches the attention of spirits you DO NOT want knowing where you live.

Now, once these spirits have found you — they’ve found you forever. You can keep them out of your house by not drinking anymore, but they’re there, right outside the door, scratching to get back in, checking all the window-latches. Put that bottle up to your lips again (or the needle back into your vein) and flip-click-flap there they are in the middle of the living room floor, cackling their damn heads off.

So for the past 13 years, thank God, and one day at a time, the little bastards have stayed outside, although I still hear them scritching from time to time.

It breaks my heart, though, when I hear of someone who’s still suffering. If that’s you, trust me, you’re not alone, and there is a solution out there. Here’s some good news — you never have to feel this crappy again. And believe me, if I can get sober — anybody can do it. Honest.

Copyright 2008 Lauren B. Davis For permissions:

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