Skip main navigation

New offer! Get 30% off one whole year of Unlimited learning. Subscribe for just £249.99 £174.99. New subscribers only. T&Cs apply

Find out more

Don Gately reflects on recovery

Don Gately reflects on how AA works in this extract from 'Infinite Jest'.
picture of a road through a forest with road to recovery written on the tarmac

In this extract, the narrator explores the process of rehabilitation from addiction through the eyes of Don Gately, one of the novel‘s primary characters. Don Gately is a former thief and Demerol addict, and current counsellor in residence at Ennet House. ‘Map’ is a synonym for ‘head’ in the world of the novel.

Everybody, but everybody Comes In dead-eyed and puke-white, and with their face hanging down around their knees, and with a well-thumbed firearm-and-ordinance mail-order catalogue kept safe and available at home, map-wise, for when this last desperate resort of hugs and clichés, turns out to be just happy horseshit, for you. You are not unique, they’ll say: this initial hopelessness unites every soul in this broad, cold salad-bar’d hall. They are like Hindenburg-survivors. Every meeting is a reunion, once you’ve been in for a while.

And then the palsied newcomers who totter in desperate and miserable enough to Hang In and keep coming and start feebly to scratch beneath the unlikely insipid surface of the thing, Don Gately’s found, then get united by a second common experience. The shocking discovery that the thing actually does seem to work. Does keep you Substance-free. It’s improbable and shocking. When Gately finally snapped to the fact, one day about four months into his Ennet House residency, that quite a few days seemed to have gone by without his playing with the usual idea of slipping over to Unit #7 and getting loaded in some nonuremic way the courts couldn’t prove, that several days had gone without his even thinking of oral narcotics or a tightly rolled duBois or a cold foamer on a hot day … when he realised that the various Substances he didn’t used to be able to go a day without absorbing hadn’t even like occurred to him in almost a week, Gately hadn’t felt so much grateful or joyful as just plain shocked. The idea that AA might actually somehow work unnerved him. He suspected some sort of trap. Some new sort of trap. At this stage he and the other Ennet residents who were still there and starting to snap to the fact that AA might work began to sit around together late at night going batshit together because it seemed to be impossible to figure out just how AA worked. It did, yes, tentatively seem maybe actually to be working, but Gately couldn’t for the life of him figure out how just sitting on haemorrhoid-hostile folding chairs every night, looking at nose-pores and listening to clichés could work. Nobody’s ever been able to figure AA out, is another binding commonality. And the folks with serious time in AA are infuriating about questions starting with How. You ask the scary old guys How AA Works and they smile their chilly smiles and say Just Fine. It just works, is all; end of story. The newcomers who abandon common sense and resolve to Hang In and keep coming and then find their cages all of a sudden open, mysteriously, after a while, share this sense of deep shock and possible trap; about newer Boston AAs with like six months clean you can see this look of glazed suspicion instead of beatific glee, an expression like that of bug-eyed natives confronted suddenly with a Zippo lighter. And so this unites them, nervously, this tentative assemblage of possible glimmers of something like hope, this grudging move toward maybe acknowledging that this unromantic, unhip, clichéd AA thing – so unlikely and unpromising, so much the inverse of what they’d come too much to love – might really be able to keep the lover’s toothy maw at bay. The process is the neat reverse of what brought you down and In here: Substances that out being so magically great, so much the interior jigsaw’s missing piece, that at the start you just know, deep in your gut, that they’ll never let you down; you just know it. But they do. And then this goofy slapdash anarchic system of low-rent gatherings and corny slogans and saccharin grins and hideous coffee is so lame you just know there’s no way it could ever possibly work except for the utterest morons … and then Gately seems to find out AA turns out to be the very loyal friend he thought he’d had and then lost, when you Came In. And so you Hang In and stay sober and straight, and out of sheer hand-burned-on-hot-stove terror you heed the improbable-sounding warnings not to stop pounding out the nightly meetings even after the Substance-cravings have left and you feel like you’ve got a grip on the thing at last and can now go it alone, you still don’t try to go it alone, you heed the improbably warngins because by now you have no faith in your sense of what’s really improbable and what isn’t, since AA seems, improbably enough, to be working, and with no faith in your own senses you’re confused, flummoxed, and when people with AA time strongly advise you to keep coming you nod robotically and keep coming, and you sweep floors and scrub out ashtrays and fill stained steel urns with hideous coffee, and you keep getting ritually down on your big knees every morning and night asking for help from a sky that still seems a burnished shield against all who would ask aid of it – how can you pray to a ‘God’ you believe only morons believe in, still? – but the old guys say it doesn’t yet matter what you believe or don’t believe, Just Do It they say, and like a shock-trained organism without any kind of independent human will you do exactly like you’re told, you keep coming and coming, nightly, and now you take pains not to get booted out of the squalid halfway house you’d at first tried so hard to get discharged from, and you Hang In and Hang In, meeting after meeting, warm day after cold day … ; and not only does the urge to get high stay more or less away, but more general life-quality-type things – just as improbably promised, at first, when you’d Come In – things seem to get progressively somehow better, inside, for a while, then worse, then even better, then for a while worse in a way that’s still somehow better, realer, you feel weirdly unblinded, which is good, even though a lot of the things you now see about yourself and how you’ve lived are horrible to have to see – and by this time the whole thing’s so improbable and unparsable that you’re so flummoxed you’re convinced you’re maybe brain-damaged, still, at this point, from all the years of Substances, and you figure you’d better Hang In in this Boston AA where older guys who seem to be less damaged – or at least less flummoxed by their damage – will tell you in terse simple imperative clauses exactly what to do, and where and when to do it (though never How or Why); and at this point you’ve started to have an almost classic sort of Blind Faith in the older guys, a Blind Faith in them born not of zealotry or even belief but just of a chilled conviction that you have no faith whatsoever left in yourself;* and now if the older guys say Jump you ask them to hold their hand at the desired height, and now they’ve got you, and you’re free.

*A conviction common to all who Hang In with AA, after a while, and abstracted in the slogan ‘My Best Thinking Got Me Here.’

This article is from the free online

David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now