Infinite Jest, Week 12 (845-911)

Almost a year and a half ago I got shoulder surgery to remove my PVNS, and I spent three or four days in the hospital hooked up to a morphine drip, mostly delirious or in pain or both. Because the first month is most important for future mobility, when I was discharged the doctor prescribed some pretty simple physical therapy for me to do at home— just body weight bicep curls, as high as I could go, and as many as I could do. The first time I tried them was my 2nd day out of the hospital, standing in the bathroom supporting myself on the edge of the sink, and holy shit those bicep curls were the hardest thing I’ve ever done with my body. I did maybe five of them before I started hyperventilating and my vision started blurring, and I walked back to bed heaving and sobbing. When I finally laid down (the worst 10 steps of my life), I couldn’t stop shaking and I was literally crying for juice (cranberry, btw, which I really developed a newfound appreciation for that day) because I felt like I was going to pass out.

That is the worst physical pain I have ever felt in my life.

In my sophomore year of college, I struggled with depression and I spent most of my time either crying or feeling numb. One particular night, I was sitting and crying in my friends’ room and I couldn’t move or say anything except repeat “no.” I kept trying to get off the floor and stop crying, literally pull myself together, but I felt like I was simultaneously disassociating into the air and melting into the floor. That night, and I am eternally grateful for them for that, my friends “seemed to be the piece of string by which I hung suspended over hell itself (650).”

That is the worst emotional pain I have ever felt in my life.

But despite feeling impossible both times, I endured them, and Gately experiences something similar in page 859-861, when Joelle visits him in the hospital and tells him about quitting crack.

‘And I’d bunker up all white-knuckled and stay straight. And count the days. I was proud of each day I stayed off. Each day seemed evidence of something, and I counted them. I’d add them up. Line them up end to end. You know?’ Gately knows very well but doesn’t nod, lets her do this on just her own steam. She says ‘And soon it would get… improbable. As if each day was a car Knievel had to clear. One car, two cars. By the time I’d get up to say like maybe about 14 cars, it would begin to seem like this staggering number. Jumping over 14 cars. And the rest of the year, looking ahead, hundreds and hundreds of cars, me in the air trying to clear them.’ She left her head alone and cocked it. ‘Who could do it? How did I ever think anyone could do it that way?’

‘And yet it wasn’t til that poor new pipe-fellow from home pointed at me and hauled me up there and I said it that I realized,’ Joelle said. ‘I don’t have to do it that way. I get to choose how to do it, and they’ll help me stick to the choice. I don’t think I’d realized before that I could- I can really do this. I can do this for one endless day. I can. Don.’

The look he was giving her was meant to like validate her breakthrough and say yes yes she could, she could as long as she continued to choose to… He could do the dextral pain the same way: Abiding. No one single instant of it was unendurable. Here was a second right here: he endured it. What was undealable-with was the thought of all the instants all lined up and stretching ahead, glittering.

Everything unendurable was in the head, was the head not Abiding in the Present but hopping the wall and doing a recon and then returning with unendurable news then somehow believed.

I recovered from my surgery and my depression, but some things you must abide for a lifetime because life can’t be separated from “life’s endless war against the self you cannot live without (84),” which I agree seems impossibly hard and kind of unfair until you realize (like Don does here) that you don’t have to do that, because you can abide moment to moment for a lifetime.

Later on in the book, when Don is remembering past memories of Demerol and drug abuse, he describes himself as “lying there, working on Abiding and not-Entertaining.” That is what I think IJ is about— choosing to abide instead of entertain.

Some other quotes I enjoyed:

  • On crying while depressed:
    I’d felt for almost a week as if I needed to cry for some reason but the tears were somehow stopping just millimeters behind my eyes and staying there. And so on.

  • On real empathy:
    Joelle seems not even to be pretending not to notice.

  • On the difficulty of abiding:
    Gately wants to tell Ferocious Francis how he’s discovered how no one second of even unnarcotized post-trauma-infection-pain is unendurable. That he can Abide if he must. He wants to share his experience with his Crocodile sponsor. And plus, now that somebody he trusts himself to need is here, Gately wants to weep about the pain and tell how bad the pain of it is, how he doesn’t think he can stand it one more second.

  • On synovial pain:
    ‘Synovial inflammation: nasty nasty. The pain of synovial inflammation is compared in the medical literature to renal calculus and ectopic labor.’

  • On devotion:
    It now lately sometimes seemed like a kind of black miracle to me that people could actually care deeply about a subject or pursuit, and could go on caring this way for years on end. Could dedicate their entire lives to it. It seemed admirable and at the same time pathetic. We are all dying to give our lives away to something, maybe. God or Satan, politics or grammar, topology or philately—the object seemed incidental to this will to give oneself away, utterly. To games or needles, to some other person. Something pathetic about it. A flight-from in the form of a plunging-into. Flight from exactly what? These rooms blandly filled with excrement and meat? To what purpose?