Smiling Through It: Honoring David Foster Wallace

Today was soggy and gray. The perfect fall-day prototype. A full-house day at Starbucks, and a day in general that demanded hot drinks and some type of brisk exercise. In one way---a very romantic, potentially productive day. On the other hand, this was also a day when, with only a little inclination, it would not be difficult to give into gloomy feelings or even existential despair.

Before hearing about David Foster Wallace's death earlier this month, he wasn’t on my radar. But after reading about him in the New York Times twice in one week, I find myself pondering the nature of the depression that led to his suicide. He enjoyed early fame (at age 24). As a writer, he reaped the benefits of his massive talent combined with the ability to produce. His prolific output was aided by hyper-intense, anxiety-laden discipline. Photos of Wallace evoke a sense of tender familiarity. Already he was somewhat iconic---a troubled, sensitive, admittedly depressed creative person, whose literary genius produced a strong body of nonfiction essays, reportage, and fiction, including Infinite Jest. For the record, Infinite Jest is out of stock just about everywhere. It is more than 1,000 pages of intensely rendered humor, sadness, insight, and intelligently considered contemplation of the blithe pursuit of entertainment and passive pleasure in the United States...Maybe he read Jerry Mander's Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television along the way.

David was burdened with intense depression and a sense of longing and sadness that seemed to have no center, no readily identifiable cause. For a long time, medication worked for him, until he stopped taking it. He found some of the side effects unsettling, but probably not as much as the depression that came back with a vengeance when he tried to function without drugs on board.

The lesson: Even experiencing the success of our wildest dreams won’t save us from feeling what we’re inclined to feel. I honor David today. I would have liked to drink coffee with him. I would have asked him how many cups a day he liked to drink. I would have asked him if it made him feel better, if its energizing effects helped fuel his writing. I also would have admitted to him that coffee lifts me up when I feel like I’m slipping.

Interestingly, researchers who looked at the medical records of 86,000 women over a 10-year period found that women who drank 2 to 3 cups of coffee a day were 66% less likely to commit suicide, compared with non-coffee drinkers. Even more surprising---they were also less likely to have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Certainly, I would not tell a friend to substitute coffee for prescribed medication, but I would say, “Coffee often makes people feel much, much better.” And it’s not just the utility of it, it’s the comfort of the smell, the ritual, and the coffee-love itself.


Pamela said…
Hi Nicole - I love coffee! I have figured out how not to drink too much of it (just like I've figured out how to not watch TV all of the time). It took some work, but now I enjoy a Starbucks decaf-latte to relax and chat with friends, and once in a while order a caffeinated cup of yummy comfort when I need that jolt. I do believe we drink too much caffeine in our society, from sodas to coffee, and that takes a toll. A thoughtful use of caffeine would do us all some good. I'm enjoying reading your blog so far - keep up the good work!
Anonymous said…
I'm a failure; he's dead. He's a success; I see no end in sight. DFW had the luxury of suicide. What is some unsung schmuck with no claim to fame or penny to his name supposed to do? Geniuses are rich, wildly successful, famous and popular with women; have large happy families and unlimited potential. Said schmuck hasn't a chance in hell and no future. Why am I alive and DFW dead? Because he had the luxury of suicide in the den of paid-for manse in the blossoming fields of New England. I got jack; no roof, no floor, no shoes; I haven't even got the pavement.

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