Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, A Review, Part 3

Every Love Story is a Ghost StoryI, for one, do need DFW’s stories and his story. If nothing else, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a book for writers…or, more accurately, for those who Want To Write. Or perhaps I can only speak personally: DFW’s struggles with writing – that is, struggles to write – scare and heal me, both because they are so familiar to me. There are many other ways I relate to DFW, though I fear how arrogant or off-base that looks in ‘print,’ and I don’t want to draw false parallels or claim for myself what is not the case or what DFW might have been referring to when he told David Lipsky who was interviewing him for The Rolling Stone in 1996, “I’m not so sure you want to be me.” The point is that I am trying to name where I feel seen, even if it is by a man who I will never meet because he died almost eight years ago.

I believe DFW died as a result of his “care,” much like the iatrogenic decline of The Eagles’ leader Glenn Frey earlier this year. This is what I mean by challenging the narrative. I want to challenge the broadly accepted idea that mental illness is an individual-sick-brain problem when there’s no evidence it is and lots that it’s not. I want to challenge this pervasive claim, in the face of suicide, that “we will never understand” it. This broad-brush statement appears in almost every article I’ve read on dealing with the grief of losing someone to suicide. While it can be true in certain instances that we can’t know the motivations behind a suicide, claiming that we can’t ever know can be confusing. Both people I know who have died by suicide left behind notes detailing their reasons and explaining their feelings and state of mind. To claim that I “will never understand why” feels not only dismissive of the words they left behind but also of my ability to trust and understand these words as an accurate reflection of why my friends ended their lives.

“You will never understand” can potentially be comforting, but it seems to me that it more often leaves the topic of suicide shrouded in mystery. We are naturally afraid of what we do not know, but in the case of suicide, such mystery fuels not only stigma but the abdication of responsibility to take action. The number of suicides increases every year – a human being kills themselves every 13 minutes in this country. If there were a mysterious illness making the rounds that took that high a toll on human life, we would marshall resource upon resource to figure out its cause and attempt to develop a cure, not claim defeat and settle for “we’ll never know.” We cannot know in every instance why people end their own lives, but to claim we can’t ever know is unfair and irresponsible. It does seem, though, to get us off the hook of listening, reaching out and continuing to try to understand those who know “a despair that is wholly incompatible with human life,” to quote the man of the hour.

That said, it is appropriate to also point out that it, at least to me, is unclear what DFW himself thought of his lifelong battles with the experiences we typically call mental illness. But when he told his wife a few months before he died that he felt his psychiatrists were throwing darts at a dartboard, the metaphor is apt not just for its image of randomness but for its hint at the pain our psychiatric system inflicts on those under its care. I’ve been called names I won’t repeat here by saying stuff like this before, so brace yourselves: Psychiatry is increasingly authoritarian and controlling, equating treatment with mere compliance and reliant on outdated or inaccurate models (the biomedical/chemical-imbalance one, mainly) because it cares more about insurance premiums and Big Pharma’s bottom line than the flourishing of human life.

Psych med withdrawal is often mistaken for symptoms “returning,” and withdrawal is a sign of chemical addiction. Some think these medications are basically just a slo-mo lobotomy and that whatever “help” they give you comes at great, though often delayed, neurological cost. According to a new study, antidepressants themselves may cause suicide more often than whatever we think ‘depression’ is. I’m sorry, but if your drug causes the very symptoms you’re trying to treat, you’re doing it wrong, unless you have a different motive than the one you’re advertising to a particularly vulnerable segment of the human population. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is dangerous; Dr. Peter Breggin writes, “Lobotomy, ECT and psychiatric drugs all share the common factor that they “work” by damaging the brain and suppressing brain function.”

DFW was on a powerful antidepressant for almost 20 years. When he started having hypertensive issues at age 45, he tried to taper off it under the care of a physician. When his doctors mistook withdrawal for the return of his depression, they gave him a 12-round course of electro-convulsive therapy (the second course of ECT in his life), Yes, they still did that in 2008, and they still do it now, against patients’ wills no less. I don’t care how smart you are, you can’t think your way out of brain damage. Now, there was obviously a problem before – DFW struggled with fragile mental health for his entire adult life (the anxiety since he was a kid) and the whole reason he was put on meds was because he attempted suicide when he was in his 20s. But when Jonathan Franzen said (at DFW’s memorial service in Oct. 2008), “If you think diagnosis suffices, if you’re satisfied with ‘depression’ as an explanation for this, then you don’t need his stories,” that was closest anyone has come to challenging the prevailing narrative regarding mental illness. Don’t you think any story of the life of the guy who remade the novel and challenged our ideas/expectations of fiction, story and life in America should make some attempt to do the same regarding the unfathomable tragedy that was his own?

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