Today would have been David Foster Wallace’s forty-ninth birthday, a day worth commemorating on this site. With Wallace’s suicide, I began asking the questions that eventually became this forum. Today, I’d like to dedicate DefineFunctioning to his memory.
Wallace dealt with depression for the length of his adult life. He fiercely hid his diagnosis, and today I regard him as the utmost example of this world’s (mis)understanding of the high-functioning mentally ill. He gave us literature unlike what we’d read before. His was a once-in-a-generation voice. He was a genius and had a MacArthur Fellowship to prove it. Since my first reading of Infinite Jest, I’ve read everything he published in his short life. He showed me what this language could be. He gave me and many more thought-provoking joy. He took his life in September 2008. I wept and wondered.
I began to wonder what it really means to be “high-functioning.” Perhaps because it was the death of a semantic phenomenon, I began to wonder about the definition of the words themselves. To be high-functioning does not mean to be better, cured, fixed, or even in remission. It doesn’t mean to have figured out how to live with one’s illness. In many ways, the high-functioning internalize their illness differently and sometimes more severely. Trapped in a Cartesian vortex, the high-functioning’s ability to reflect may only damage the efficacy of treatment. “I think [with a broken brain], therefore I am [what?]” The will to trust the one thing I know — my brain and its thoughts — turns on me. And without that trust, I devolve into desperate anomie.
Almost daily, I redefine what it means for me to function. Almost daily, I reject yesterday’s definition. Almost daily, I wonder again if the high-functioning are, in fact, defined by a will to think just to spite the brokenness of the mind. Almost daily, I reconsider that we are no different save for how others think of us.
It is impossible to choose a single passage that might mean enough to encapsulate the work and its author. I wear a pin on my bag that reads “Te occidere possunt sed te edere non possunt nefas est.” I occasionally tweet that line in defiance against adversity. Still, it’s worth it to try. So, in honor of DFW’s birthday, I offer you this from pages 12 and 13 of a game-changing book over 1,000 pages long:
“‘But it transcends the mechanics. I’m not a machine. I feel and believe. I have opinions.’ … ‘I’m not just a creatus, manufactured, conditioned, bred for a function.’
I open my eyes. ‘Please don’t think I don’t care.'”
“‘There is nothing wrong,’ I say slowly to the floor. ‘I’m in here.’
I’m raised by the crutches of my underarms, shaken toward what he must see as calm by a purple-faced Director: ‘Get a grip, son!’
DeLint at the big man’s arm: ‘Stop it!’
‘I am not what you see and hear.’
Distant sirens. A crude half nelson. Forms at the door. A young Hispanic woman holds her palm against her mouth, looking.
‘I’m not,’ I say.”