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Contractual Obligations, Or, Swearing on Infinite Jest

August 20, 2009

Spoiler Line: No spoilers

Photo by Flickr user ~Aphrodite, used under a Creative Commons license

This is the story of how last night, c. 9 PM, I pretty much Gave In to my inner tramadol demon. It went down like this:

Starting around Sunday evening, when I got back from a long, tiresome (and sober) weekend, I experienced a familiar tramadol-jonesing that went along the lines of “Boy, it sure would be nice to unwind with some Vitamin T right now.” No biggie, right? Typical craving stuff.

This time, however, it went from a basic craving to an elaborate and exhaustive process of rationalization. I started wandering down a dark twisted spider-hole of equivocation, the details of which I’ll spare you. But it ended at this: I was convinced that there would be nothing wrong with re-entering into a relationship with tramadol, provided that the relationship was strictly governed by an iron-clad written contract meant to enforce moderation and restraint. The contract, as I envisioned it, would stipulate that I would indulge in tramadol no more than once a week, and no more than 100 mgs. at a time. I couched my thoughts in a lot of over-intellectualized bullshit about things like ebb and flow and tension and release, and how it’s only natural and human to partake in a little edge-bevelling from time to time, under tightly-controlled circumstances.

My spider and I talked this over for several days in excruciating detail.

In my kitchen, there’s a small, odd-looking drawer under the counter. It looks like something you’d see in an apothecary shop or a hobbit-house or something. It contains various multi-vitamins and supplements and also happens to be the drawer I used to keep the tramadol in. I don’t think I need to tell you that because of this fact, this drawer has always had and always will have a certain numinous aura attached to it, for me. The only thing remotely pharmacological in there now is a bottle of fioricet, which is a low-octane barbituate that my partner has a legit prescription from an actual doctor for, and which my partner has occasional recourse to when experiencing one of those tornado-in-the-eyeball headaches that Hal talks about in Infinite Jest.

This fioricet stuff has never rung any addictive bells for me — it pretty much feels like a burlier version of benadryl. But here’s the thing. I’m in the midst of a multi-day arachnoid dialogue in which I’m ironing out the terms and clauses of this hypothetical tramadol contract, which contract I feel is necessary because I feel I’ve got some psychic edges that could really use an occasional beveling. And while there’s no tramadol in the magic hobbit-drawer, there does happen to be another edge-beveling substance that comes in a white-capped orange bottle.

Furtively, secretly, without telling my partner, I help myself to a fioricet on Tuesday night.

Another one on Wednesday night. Also in secret.

But look, the fioricet doesn’t do shit for me. It’s not what I’m after. It’s working as kind of a stop-gap measure while my spider and I hammer out contractual terms (which we’ve been busy at, believe you me). During this period I experience some quibbles, some qualms. I’m a little conflicted by it but I’ve convinced myself that I’m thinking and acting rationally, that I have, in fact, lit upon a laudably pragmatic middle-ground between total enslavement and Puritanical abstinence. In all honesty, I didn’t put up much of a fight at all.

At this point it’s Wednesday night. Yesterday. The original contract, as envisioned on Sunday night, would have taken effect after I return from overseas at the end of September. But by Wednesday, the contract has been amended to become active this Friday. I decided Friday would be a good day for it because I have edges that need beveling, and Wednesday night is the latest I can order the drugs and be sure that the nice Fedex lady brings them to my door in a conspicuously-rattling package before the weekend. Funny how these things have a way of escalating.

My own personal goose is roasting nicely and I’m cookin’ up some fixins to serve on the side. In my head, I’m drafting the blog post that will explain to you all my new contractual arrangement and I’m trying to arrive at a happy medium between contrition and resoluteness. The draft begins like this:

“This is going to be difficult for all of us.”


Before I can order the drugs, thereby basically signing the contract with my spider, in blood, I need to run this by my partner. Note that I don’t want to run this by my partner. No sir. But we share bank accounts and credit cards and all that shit, and fioricet-incidents aside I’m generally not a fan of secrecy in our partnership. Also, I’m looking for even the slightest glimmer of like, benediction from my partner. I want my partner to agree, just a little bit, a little teeny-tiny bit, that yes there are edges in life that need to be beveled and that I’m making a rational decision to resume a course of pragmatic, rational and controlled edge-beveling whose moderation is guaranteed by contract.

After a lot of hemming and hawing and passive-aggressively forcing my partner to draw this all out of me (because it’s not like I want to come right out and say all this), instead of benediction what I get (although in not quite so many words), is this:

“Are you out of your fucking mind?”

Obviously not the response I’d been hoping for. This is at around 9:30 last night. A long process of inter-partner hashing-shit-out begins. Again, I’ll spare the details.

What happened last night, kind of magically, is that through careful talking and consideration and reasoning my partner was able to dispel the madness that had descended upon me Sunday night. I became able, finally, to take that crucial step outside of my equivocations and intellectualized horseshit, so that I was no longer trapped within those thoughts but observing them as they truly were from a position outside of them. I would not have been able to do this by myself. As I mentioned in the first line of this post, I had given in. I was at the precipice, ready to leap, and it took somebody else — a power completely external to me — to pull me back.

I fessed up to the purloined fioricet (it’s now gone, out of the house and in a secure location unknown to me). And as it turns out a contract was drawn up last night, on the back of a spare piece of paper. This contract is between me and my partner, and not me and my spider. I’m going to reproduce the text of it here because quite frankly, the more witnesses the better. Note that in the course of conversation last night certain metaphysical edicts were made w/r/t tramadol. Some of these edicts made their way into the contract and may not seem to make sense. The important thing is they’re crystal-clear to me.

Important Contract !!!

There will be no contracts re: controlled re-entry into a relationship with tramadol. In fact, there will be no re-entry into any relationship with tramadol no matter how much you try to rationalize it to yourself, you asshole. You are done. For all intents and purposes, tramadol does not exist. It is like sex with unicorns. For all eternity!

Signed the 19th of August, 2009

Once we drew this up, my partner made me go get my copy of Infinite Jest. My partner then made me put one hand on Infinite Jest and the other up in the air, and recite the contract and swear to uphold it. The contract was then folded up neatly and placed between pages 834 and 835 of Volume III of the Oxford English Dictionary (2nd. ed.), which is where you will find the entry for CONTRACT.

The sense of release I felt, when all of this was done, is basically indescribable. Wallace, in I think the Kenyon address, talks about a lost infinite thing that many of us spend our entire lives searching for. For a good long while after the events of last night, I felt the way I imagine I’d feel if I ever found it.

As of this morning I am 40 days tramadol-free and counting.

To my partner: thank you.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. August 20, 2009 10:27 am

    Phew, that was a close one, glad you made it through the day without feeding the spider. Have you ever entertained the idea of going to a meeting?

  2. August 20, 2009 10:31 am

    Wow, what a story. Thanks for sharing (and congratulations on having a great partner who helped keep you from giving in). Yesterday marks a month off booze for me. I routinely go off it for a month or two at a time, so it’s no great milestone. But I’m starting occasionally to have that “well I’m clearly not an alcoholic because I’ve made it this far without any trouble, so it’d probably be safe to have just one drink” feeling that always winds up a couple of weeks later having expanded rather a lot in scope and become something closer to a need than a want. This post for me is kind of like that external prod that’ll keep me (for a little while longer, at least) from rationalizing myself into having a drink. Thanks for that.

  3. August 20, 2009 11:09 am

    Painfully recognizable. Well and honestly told. How critical that someone else is at certain junctures. And the glimpse of the lost infinite thing they can give you.

  4. cs white permalink
    August 20, 2009 11:21 am

    I’m tearing up reading this because I’m happy for you. Happy that you found your way to talk to your partner about all this, happy that your partner found the right words for you and thrilled that you felt that sense of release!

  5. August 20, 2009 1:49 pm

    Eric: I’ve entertained the idea (nice pun there:), but still feel pretty ambivalent about it. Absolutely no dig against NA/AA whatever — it’s just — part of me just does not want to do that.

    Daryl: Congrats on the month off! That escalation thing is a bitch, isn’t it? I seriously get the same way and I’m often very conflicted about it. One on hand plenty of users escalate without even realizing it and they live their lives that way. Maybe this is just one mode of living in contemporary society? I dunno. But it fucks me up, this need for an “unwinding.” If you can’t consume without escalating, does that mean you need to Go In somewhere, as Eric suggests? Maybe it does? I dunno man. I’m glad you’ve made it a month and I’m rooting for you to make it a month and a day.

    WP & CS: Yes, the presence of another person is critical, absolutely critical. Part of the implicit hypothesis behind this blog was that a book like IJ can be used as a catalyst for sobriety. Last night I found out that, for me at least, me and the book alone don’t cut it — there are times when I’ll need someone else.

  6. obviously anonymous permalink
    August 20, 2009 1:52 pm

    this is what makes meetings so good. i’ve found it’s amazing what happens when you have to explain your plans, rationalizations, and so on to 20 people armed with a combination of knowing how to live, and knowing exactly what you’re feeling.

    swearing on IJ is pretty funny. ‘came to believe David Foster Wallace could restore us to sanity…’

  7. Jean permalink
    August 20, 2009 2:53 pm

    I totally teared up with this. Blessings to you and your partner. I think David would be proud of you, and your post just made Infinite Summer all the more meaningful to me.

  8. TW Andrews permalink
    August 20, 2009 3:32 pm

    Spoiler follows:

    Wow. The contract you described sounds a *lot* like Joelle’s description of why she couldn’t ever manage to give up freebasing previous to enrollment in NA.

  9. August 20, 2009 4:54 pm

    You brought me to real tears. It is surreal that as I read this, I’m listening to the end of a one hour DFW piece and I am just now listening to his voice and the excerpt from the Kenyon address. That you care enough about your partner, the you wrote the contract and that you swore on IJ…and for what it’s worth coming from another stranger, obviously anonymous is right.

    • August 20, 2009 10:29 pm

      Thanks Lisa — I’ve seen that DFW piece make the rounds on #infsum and now it’s officially on my to-do. There’s an uncanny immediacy about hearing the actual voice of an author who you’re only used to hearing in your head. I had that experience today listening to a recording of Virginia Woolf. All I could keep thinking was that she sounds like Professor McGonagall in the Harry Potter movies. You’d think hearing the sound of a human voice would make that person seem closer to you, but in this case, at least, it made Woolf seem even farther away in time and culture.

      • August 20, 2009 10:53 pm

        One of my favorite recordings is of Yeats doing “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” Carl Sandburg is fun to listen to too. And there’s a scratchy old recording of Browning that sounds like he’s calling a horse race.

        Wallace in interviews and in occasional readings he’s done is really wonderful to listen to. There’s a fair amount of stuff out there, if you’re interested. I think he read the audio book of Consider the Lobster too, though I’m not positive about that.

      • August 21, 2009 1:53 am

        The recording of Virgina Woolf made her more real to me in one respect, but as you said, did make her seem more remote in time and culture. I think we’re very fortunate that there are so many videos and audio recordings of DFW. A few years ago I bought the audio book of Consider the Lobster to listen to on a cross country drive (I had to then get the “real” book because there are only four essays on the audio version) and I think hearing him read his own work — especially the essays — is particularly revealing. There is a certain compassion and almost a shyness that comes through when you watch him or listen to him that I’m not sure would be as apparent on the page alone. I’m sure you’ve seen the Charlie Rose interview that’s on YouTube (I think). That one also seems to expose something about DFW that for all his brilliance is also fragile and touching.

      • August 26, 2009 12:30 am

        Daryl, the Consider the Lobster audiobook was in the clearance bin at Borders last weekend. It’s only a few of the essays, and it is predicated by the most painfully awkward and typically Wallace intro you’ll ever hear. I’ll post about it when I get a chance.

  10. Slyfield permalink
    August 20, 2009 10:02 pm

    This is a great post and congrats on your strength of will. I sometimes wonder, reading this blog, if you are not actually Wallace himself, reincarnate in digital anonymity. I jest, but really the writing here is just fantastic. It does reek of frequent and dense recent readings of Infinite Jest, but that is surely intended (i.e.: “w/r/t”), and your approximation is strikingly faithful and near in tone to the original. Lastly, I have been reading Jorge Luis Borges’s Labyrinths recently, a book which features a DFW blurb right at the top of the back cover, and came across a parable toward the end which pretty much features that “infinite thing” phrase word for word. Now this isn’t to take credit from Wallace, but the bluntness of the allusion took me by surprise. If you have the time, I’d like to hear your thoughts on this sort of thing in Wallace’s work.

  11. August 20, 2009 10:26 pm

    Thanks, Sly — your praise is too much, really. I knew once I decided to blog about IJ this summer that Wallace’s voice would infect my own. Rather than fight it I just decided to roll with it for the time being — there’s been enough on my plate this summer without spending oodles of brainpower trying to come up with a different way of saying things like “w/r/t”, &c.

    I’ve not read Labyrinths; in fact I haven’t read any Borges, which is a shame and something I’d like to fix once I.S. is over. Was Labyrinth written before or after Wallace’s Kenyon address in ’05? You probably are familiar with this already but this is what Wallace said, with some context:

    “The really important kind of freedom involves attention, and awareness, and discipline, and effort, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them, over and over, in myriad petty little unsexy ways, every day. That is real freedom. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default-setting, the “rat race” — the constant gnawing sense of having had and lost some infinite thing.”

    I actually talk a little bit about this ‘infinite thing’ in the post I just did on the Bernini statue that appears all over the place in IJ. My take is basically that the statue serves as a metaphorical stand-in for the types of meaningful transcendence sought by IJ’s characters in so many different ways — whether via drugs, sex, religion, what-have-you. In IJ, at least, this infinite thing that they’re after stands far apart — both from the characters and the reader — only accessible via multiple intermediaries. It’s sort of like the concept of a limit in calculus — something you can always get closer to but never actually arrive at.

  12. Joan permalink
    August 25, 2009 1:04 pm

    I had to circle back around to this to leave a comment – you brought me to tears too! I love the contract and swearing on IJ. I can only second the comments already made – thank you for sharing so openly and I’m so glad you didn’t take that pill. Your posts are wonderful and are adding greatly to my enjoyment of both IJ and IS!

  13. August 26, 2009 12:31 am

    Wow this post is amazing. After the first few lines I was waiting for you to narrate how you fell off and are back on the wagon. I *love* the “you asshole” in the contract. That’s a partner to have at the low points, man.

  14. August 29, 2009 10:55 pm

    I first read IJ in 1998 (it is without question my favourite book of all-time) and wanted to do IS, but I cannot devote the time during baseball season. I hope to read it again this winter, then go right into The Pale King! I am, however, following various blogs during the summer read and yours may be the best. Your initial addict post at IS was amazing and this one tops it. My hat is tipped to you for your honesty and willingness to share what sure seem like very extreme private thoughts. Stay strong and keep reading!

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