A letter from David Foster Wallace, maybe

From wallace-l, the David Foster Wallace mailing list, this anonymous account from an alumnus of Granada House, a drug and alcohol rehab center in Allston. DFW is believed to be the author.

An Ex-Resident’s Story

I was referred to Granada House in November 1989. “Referred” is a very
polite way to put it. I was a patient in a rehab attached to a well-known
mental hospital in Boston, and a psychiatrist in this rehab had established
some credibility with me, and he opined that (1) unless I signed up for
long-term treatment someplace, I wasn’t going to be able to stay off drugs
and alcohol; and that (2) if I couldn’t find a way to stay off drugs and
alcohol, I was going to be dead by 30. I was 27. This was not my first
in-patient rehab, nor was it my first mental hospital.

Because certain myths about both addiction and halfway houses die hard, I’ll
give you a little bio. I was raised in a solid, loving, two-parent family.
None of my close relatives have substance problems. I have never been in
jail or arrested–I’ve never even had a speeding ticket. In 1989, I already
had a BA and one graduate degree and was in Boston to get another. And I
was, at age 27, a late-stage alcoholic and drug addict. I had been in
detoxes and rehabs; I had been in locked wards in psych facilities; I had
had at least one serious suicide attempt, a course of ECT, and so on. The
diagnosis of my family, friends, and teachers was that I was bright and
talented but had “emotional problems.” I alone knew how deeply these
problems were connected to alcohol and drugs, which I’d been using heavily
since age fifteen. Every single one of my mental-health crises had followed
a period of heavy bingeing on marijuana, tranquilizers, and alcohol. I had
first vowed to quit at age nineteen; the longest I’d ever gone without any
sort of substance was three months. I was convinced that this was because I
was weak, or because I really did have intractable mental problems which
only drugs and alcohol gave me any relief from.

I therefore spent most of the 1980s on the horns of a dilemma that many
addicts and alcoholics understand very well. On the one hand, I knew that
drugs and alcohol controlled me, ran my life, and were killing me. On the
other, I loved them–I mean really loved them, as in the sort of love where
you’ll do anything, tell yourself any sort of lie to keep from having to let
the beloved go. For most of the late 80s, my method for “quitting” drugs was
to switch for a period from just drugs to just alcohol. Then I’d switch back
to drugs in order to “quit” drinking. The idea of months or* *years without
any chemicals at all was unimaginable. This was my basic situation. I both
wanted help and didn’t. And I made it hard for anyone to help me: I could go
to a psychiatrist one day in tears and desperation and then two days later
be fencing with her over the fine points of Jungian theory; I could argue
with drug counselors over the difference between a crass pragmatic lie and
an “aesthetic” lie told for its beauty alone; I could flummox 12-Step
sponsors over certain obvious paradoxes inherent in the concept of denial.
And so forth.

Six months in Granada House helped me immeasurably. I still wince at some of
the hyperbole and melodrama that are used in recovery-speak, but the fact of
the matter is that my experience at Granada House helped me, starting with
the fact that the staff admitted me despite the obnoxious condescension with
which I spoke of them, the House, and the l2-Step programs of recovery they
tried to enable. They were patient, but they were not pushovers. They
enforced a structure and discipline about recovery that I was not capable of
on my own: mandatory counseling, mandatory AA or NA meetings, mandatory
employment, curfew, chores, etc. Not to mention required reading of AA/NA
literature whether I found it literarily distinguished or not. Granada House
also provided my first experience of an actual recovering community: there
were over twenty newly recovering residents, and the paid staff–almost all
of whom were in recovery–and the unpaid volunteers, and the dozens of House
alumni who seemed always to be around in the kitchen and living room and
offices. I made friends, and enemies, and enemies who then became friends. I
was, for six months, literally immersed in recovery. At the time, it seemed
crowded and claustrophobic and loud, and I resented the lack of “privacy,”
just as I resented the radical simplicity of l2-Step programs’ advice to
newcomers: go to a l2-Step meeting every day, make one such meeting your
home group, get a sponsor and tell him the truth, get active with some kind
of job in your home group, pray for help whether you believe in God or not,
etc. The whole thing seemed uncomfortable and undignified and dumb. Now,
from the perspective of almost fourteen years sober, it looks like precisely
what I needed. In Granada House, I was surrounded by recovering human beings
in all their variety and sameness and neurosis and compassion, and I was
kept busy, and I was made bluntly and continually aware of the fact that I
had a potentially fatal disease that could be arrested only by doing some
very simple, strange-looking things. I was denied the chance to sit
chain-smoking in private and drive myself crazy with abstract questions
about stuff that didn’t matter nearly as much as simply not putting
chemicals into my body.

This is not to say that the staff and volunteers at Granada House didn’t
listen. The House was structured and disciplined, but it was not
authoritarian. One of the kindest and most helpful things the House staff
did for me was to sit down and listen–to complaints, cravings, questions,
confessions, rants, resentments, terrors, and insights both real and
imagined–because a lot of my early recovery consisted of learning to say
aloud the stuff about drugs and alcohol and recovery I was thinking, instead
of keeping it twisting and writhing around inside my head. People at Granada
House listened to me for hours, and did so with neither the clinical
disinterest of doctors nor the hand-wringing credulity of relatives. They
listened because, in the last analysis, they really understood me: they had
been on the fence of both wanting to get sober and not, of loving the very
thing that was killing you, of being able to imagine life neither with drugs
and alcohol nor without them. They also recognized bullshit, and
manipulation, and meaningless intellectualization as a way of evading
terrible truths–and on many days the most helpful thing they did was to
laugh at me and make fun of my dodges (which were, I realize now,
pathetically easy for a fellow addict to spot), and to advise me just not to
use chemicals today because tomorrow might very well look different. Advice
like this sounds too simplistic to be helpful, but it was crucial: I had
gotten through a great many days sober before I realized that one day is all
I really had to get through.

Finally, because all the staff and ex-residents were members of AA and NA,
my relationships with them helped ease me into active membership in l2-Step
fellowships, which is pretty much the only proven method for maintaining
long-term sobriety. Now, in 2003, I no longer live in Boston, but I am an
active, committed member of AA in my new community.

I am also a productive member of that community. Citizens or government
agencies that are considering financial support of Granada House might be
interested in the following breakdown. From 1983 to 1989 I paid almost no
taxes, cost two different health insurance companies almost $100,000 in
treatments, institutionalizations, and psychiatric care, cost myself and my
parents another $70,000-$80,000 when insurance ran out, and cost two
different states thousands of dollars when my own support ran out and I had
to declare myself indigent. In 1990 and 1991, I paid no real taxes but also
didn’t cost anyone anything. From 1992 to present, I have cost family,
government, and charitable institutions nothing, have paid well over
$325,000 in federal, state, and municipal taxes, and have donated a least
another $100,000 to various charities. I don’t know what it cost to put me
through Granada House for six months (I myself paid $20 a week in rent,
though this was sliding-scale because I was broke), but by even the coldest
type of cost-accounting, it appears to me that it was worth it for everyone.

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13 thoughts on “A letter from David Foster Wallace, maybe

  1. Em says:

    Thanks for posting this.

  2. Austin says:

    Just so I know – how sure are we that this was by DFW? I know very little about DFW’s biography – would help me out to get a handle on what was going on there.

  3. JSE says:

    I don’t know how sure to be. The obsessives at waste-l checked that all dates and circumstances are compatible with it being him, and it does, at least to my ear, _sound_ like him, intentionally writing in a subdued style. But I wouldn’t call it proved.

  4. Lisa anonymous says:

    I wish this was LONGER! Great piece.

  5. Damon says:

    I really hope this is/was DFW who wrote this. Not really certain why. Confirmation would be……..

  6. P. Tallon says:

    This was either written by DFW himself, or else it was written by someone who was painstakingly imitating his authorial voice for no observable reason.( “Citizens or government agencies that are considering financial support of Granada House might be
    interested in the following breakdown.”)

  7. Anne Hedonia says:

    From the voice (and story, of course), this is certainly (and disappointingly) Wallace. As someone who has dealt with addiction, mental illness, and therefore the mental health industry for myself and much of my family, this is frankly painful, embarrassing to read, and vulgarly reactionary. Everyday life as a person on earth SUCKS. All this horrible cultural shit we’re subjected to, these horrible selves who are forced onto us by the culture, and of course the practicalities of not starving under capitalism make everyday life a fucking nightmare. For someone to actually think of substance abuse or suicide as treatable problems within themselves while not acknowledging the dystopia of every sober waking moment is for them to announce to the world their faith in banal reformist idealist tripe.

  8. Sleepy TP says:

    Anne- Though I share your view that AA is “banal reformist idealist tripe,” (having dealt with addiction and mental illness myself), I don’t think An Ex Resident’s story necessarily shows that DFW ever lost sight of America’s increasingly dystopic consumer culture. Judging by the 2003 interview, it would seem that Wallace viewed addiction to be an extension of corporate capitalist logic. (i.e. “I want to feel a certain way for x amount of time, I will exchange $ for this substance”).

    I’d imagine that he felt this way about addiction for at least part of his time being addicted. Now factor in the aforementioned addict’s “dilemma” (Loving something that you know is killing you) and probably even the Fraudulence paradox from “Good Old Neon”; a maddening double-bind results, such that no amount of logic will get you anywhere. I think the fact that AA actually helped (albeit temporarily) is a testament to the power of banal platitudes.

  9. […] link to because the matter is long settled to everyone’s satisfaction.   Next was a post sharing an anonymous account of treatment at a halfway house which is believed to be by David….  In fact, of the 10 most popular posts, 7 are about math, 2 are about David Foster Wallace, and […]

  10. […] durante su vida acudió varias veces a grupos de apoyo (escribió sus experiencias en un centro una candorosa carta anónima que le atribuyen, donde confiesa que su record de abstinencia de drogas fue de tres meses […]

  11. The above essay reads as if David Foster Wallace had written it (e.g., the “x and x and x” construction), though I wonder if Dave the SNOOT, in the sentence “I was, for six months, literally immersed in recovery[,]” would have actually misused “literally” as an intensifier.

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