Remembering David Foster Wallace
You may have heard that writer David Foster Wallace committed suicide in September. The author of several critically acclaimed (although “rapturously acclaimed” might be more accurate) books and essays hanged himself in his home at the age of 46. Apparently he had suffered from severe depression for over two decades. Antidepressants, two hospitalizations and even a series of electroshock treatments, the depression treatment of last resort, had not alleviated the depression and anxiety.
I have to confess that I didn’t know anything about David Foster Wallace or his writing before reading about his suicide. Despite a Bachelor of Arts in literature, I’m not much of a straight fiction writer, preferring genre fiction (mysteries, sci-fi and fantasy, thrillers, etc.). But once I started reading about him, three things clearly and poignantly stood out in the stories people told about him: he was funny, sweet and self-effacing.
One story, told by his mother to Salon magazine in their article The last days of David Foster Wallace, actually made me think of my own son, who is very sweet and thoughtful, even at age 5:
"When David was 5, his mother recalls, he decided that he had two careers to look forward to. He would be a professional football player, for one. In the off-season, while the other players were recuperating or doing whatever it is that pro football players do when they’re not running or passing or slamming their bodies into each other, he would be a neurosurgeon. His mother has no idea how, at 5, her son might have heard about neurosurgeons or what they were or did, but he had. The first day of his medical career, he promised his mom, he would take out all of her frayed nerves and fix them. “Somehow he knew about neurosurgeons,” she says, “and he knew that my nerves needed fixing.”
On my forum for people with depression, a member who knew him as a friend wrote about how he seemed genuinely surprised when he saw her reading his novel Infinite Jest (that she had bought with the bookstore gift certificate he had given her). So the impression that I formed is that the world has lost someone who not only enriched many lives with his writing, but someone who was able to connect to other people, either in person or through his work.
In the articles and accompanying comments I read online about Wallace’s death, the consternation and shock was evident. People were searching for an answer to the “why?” question that always accompanies a suicide. It became clear fairly quickly who understood why Wallace killed himself, because they’ve experienced that unique despair themselves and who (fortunately for them) have no clue. One commenter talked about Wallace “snapping.” Yes, some people kill themselves on impulse, so you could classify it as “snapping” in that it’s a sudden decision. But that does not seem to have been the case for Wallace. His depression was a terminal disease, one that had been present for years, and which he had sought to conquer with every treatment available, even electroshock, which is considered the treatment of last resort.
I know that you may be saying to yourself that you would never give up like Wallace did. Even if it’s not against the tenets of your religion, suicide is unthinkable. You’re throwing something away, you’re giving up, it’s a permanent solution to a temporary problem. I understand that, because I used to think the same way, and I realize that belief was very judgmental, given that I had no understanding of the situation. This mind-set of mine existed until my dysthymia (long-term, low-level depression) had started to veer off into major depression.
The pain of major depression is indescribable. This may sound silly if you haven’t experienced it, but it is almost a physical pain. William Styron, who was an infinitely more eloquent writer than I, in Darkness Visible described its “suffocating quality, the feeling of being trapped in an overheated room”. What an exquisitely accurate description. And imagine how desperate you would be to get out of that overheated room after thirty minutes. Imagine fifty or sixty years of that type of torture. I knew that I could not live that way for the next few decades, or even the next few years.
When we’re in physical pain, we do everything we can to alleviate it. When it overwhelms us or wears us out, or both, even the most stubborn of us who absolutely abhors painkillers (as I, currently suffering from a kidney stone, will attest) will break down and take something to get some kind of relief. But what happens if nothing helps? In some cases, individuals with terminal diseases will choose to terminate their own lives, and very few people think less of them for it.
Although I never came close to suicide before my depression was diagnosed, I can completely empathize with Wallace’s decision. What drove me to finally start taking antidepressants, even though I hated medication, was looking down the future decades and realizing that I wouldn’t make it. Strictly speaking, I wasn’t suicidal, but I think ultimately I would have arrived there. My antidepressant treatment was immediately successful. I was lucky. When I hear of someone who committed suicide, I always think, “That could have been me.”
Now, I want to emphasize two things. One is that David Foster Wallace was in a small minority. Most people (80% or more) can be helped by one form of depression treatment or the other, or a combination. The second thing I want to emphasize is that Wallace did try to beat his depression with every tool out there. He survived for two decades in varying degrees of depression.
For some people, the minority of people whose depression cannot be alleviated or eliminated by medication, talk therapy or even shock therapy, suicide is often the only way out. For these people, depression can be a terminal illness. Even Wallace’s family don’t blame him, according tothe Salon article . Their reaction is much the same as the family of someone with an incurable disease. He hung on as long as he could, but he was in constant pain.
So, David Foster Wallace, rest in peace. I know that you are finding it for the first time in decades. I wish that things could have been different for you. I wish that nature and bad luck hadn’t given you that wonky chemistry that wouldn’t respond to treatment, and I hope that people who think you gave up never have to find out the hard way how painful depression can be.
Deborah Gray wrote about depression as a Patient Expert for HealthCentral. She lived with undiagnosed clinical depression, both major episodes and dysthymia, from childhood through young adulthood. She was finally diagnosed at age 27, and since that time, her depression has been successfully managed with medication and psychotherapy.