I find myself coming back a bit these days to my memories and readings of David Foster Wallace. He told me after Creative Writing class once in 1994 that I had "a cute way of deflecting criticism". Though I brushed it off at the time, I nevertheless see now that there was compliment, critique, and accuracy in his observation. It's my hope, even so, in finally getting around to writing a book myself now, that I'm somehow doing justice to the things he taught me and the things his work continues to teach me—while at once no longer lapsing into my old defense mechanism of avoidance. His careful and honest words of advice or reaction seem to appear in the margins of my book's Word document occasionally. At this point, I notice I can take them in more, no longer retreating to the safety of irreverence.
Had Wallace and I not contemporaneously both suffered from forms of depression—I escaped with my life from its terrible grip, unlike him, tragically—I would still sometimes feel moved to write by an emotional and technical spirit of him in the language I work with. That's simply how I am a fan of his work. For the most part, however, he and I never openly discussed our mental problems with one another, since we were seldom on that level of relating. I confided in him once that I felt "different from other people"—a delusion I was living under—and he called me out on it, replying that it sounded to him like a "weak thing to say". Little more was the extent of our confidence. A graduate student in English Studies—in over my head and still a child, really—I was clueless at the time about a lot of matters, including the severity to which I was feeling and thinking in a damaged way. That was twelve years before I even started to seek therapeutic help. He'd been struggling with his psychological problems for some years already, as I would later come to find out. I didn't even know he had a "penchant for nicotine" like me until I read a 2000 piece of his in which he admitted it. Cigarettes are self-medication like that, a maladaptive coping mechanism, in the psych vernacular.
There are times when part of me wonders what I could have done to help him besides teach him basic calculus and be a mediocre student of his. Probably little, I realize, and the regret subsides. Then, it's a deep melancholy when I think of what was lost when his illness overcame him: his presence in the lives of his loved ones, his brilliance and humor, his unwritten writings. I see myself in a similar situation to the one in which he found himself, which is not to say that I would place myself next to his genius as a thinker/writer/humorist. Few things are as bright as his light was in that regard. Rather, he and I faced some of the same difficulties in private, even as we outwardly struggled to be productive in public.
I was coming to terms with my drug addictions—about to take the last big step on the path to my health—the autumn of his suicide, 2008. That November, I read with a slow-motion shock the history of his illness and the account of his last days while I was living in a rehab center in Jacksonville, Illinois. In that moment, I sensed a new connection to him but also a kind of sadness I'd never felt before or since: a stark separation, as if tragedy had hit close to my heart but I was well enough (for once) to truly be aware of it. I was alive and taking paper notes on Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. He was gone.
Had I known what he was enduring for so long, I might have behaved differently—written him letters, or something—but we can always look back and rearrange our personal history in our heads, if we want. Doing so won't change the past, unfortunately. Rather, what we can do is make use of what we wish had been different before by deciding, moment by moment in the present, to simply do our best to go on living in a good or better way. For me, at least for right now, that means writing almost every day and letting DFW continue to be part of the process. I think he'd be glad.