My then husband had been experimenting with drugs from his teenage years, but it was really alcohol, its easy availability and the fact that his mother was a savage alcoholic, that undid him. He began going to AA meetings, though he was quite capable of going to four of them in a day and still drink.
I did not know what I was up against. I had always thought that the unconditional love I brought from a Christian upbringing could save him. Al-Anon recommended “tough love,” which requires a person to take responsibility for his actions. In the end, my husband’s problems turned out to have more to do with him than with me, but I was certainly at the affect of them for quite a while.
The group meetings of Al-Anon were a revelation to me. The intention was that those who were feeling lonely and frustrated from living with an addict, and often trying to hide or cover this up, speak, showing each other that they were not alone. The patterns they shared emerged from talk at the meetings. I had no idea, for instance, how much I was trying to control the situation, how much I was invested in rescuing my husband, who enjoyed being out of control in order to be saved. Listening to other people’s stories, I was able to discern the pattern of victim, rescuer, persecutor that gets set up when someone’s brain has decided it needs alcohol and will do anything to get it.
The Twelve Steps, Twelve Traditions and the Al-Anon slogans, all of which are also associated with AA meetings, are meant to assist in changing these patterns. I found anonymity, the insistence that none of us know each other’s last names or what status we had in the working world, helped to take the group directly into discussion of intimate dynamics and subverted any attempt to hold yourself above others in the group.
The Twelve Traditions were read at the beginning of each meeting, reminding us that Al-Anon was not a professional group, that it was self-governing and self-supporting. It had no opinions on outside issues and did no promotion. The Twelve Steps involved turning one’s affairs over to a higher authority, as one understood it, making a moral inventory of one’s defects, humbly asking for help and making amends where possible. The program was seen as “work” and slogans were used to help when you found yourself in a compromising situation: “One day at a time,” “Let go and let God,” “Together we can make it,” and the serenity prayer, “God grant me the Serenity to Accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can and Wisdom to know the difference.”
Infinite Jest is a long, complicated work, but Elaine Blair sees its moral center as Don Gately, who is based on Big Craig, a supervisor at the halfway house were David Foster Wallace resided while he overcame his own addictions. He writes: “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 [AA] … then get united by a second common experience. The shocking discovery that the thing actually does seem to work.”
“That clichés contain truth might not seem like a startling observation in itself, but it’s a startling thing for a novelist of the first order to make a point of telling us—especially this particular novelist,” writes Blair. “He is not, of course, celebrating clichés in general; he is issuing a corrective, one meant mainly to address the biases—the fixed ideas—of his own generation of readers: don’t be too quick to dismiss what sounds obvious, familiar, or unsophisticated.”