When I was 27, I spent six months sleeping in a quaint Parisian apartment. When I was 25, I spent a summer sleeping on a tatami mat in Tokyo. At 32, I spent a month sleeping under a thatched roof in the jungles of Tulum. For at least part of the two years I lived in Tucson, I spent 14+ hours a day sleeping. This sounds like a dream sequence from a movie, and rather luxurious at that. Would it still sound luxurious if I told you I had slept excessively in less exotic places? Like for three months on my mom’s sofa? Or six months in my own bedroom surrounded by piles of sheets and blankets saturated in dog urine? I remember driving to university and hardly being able to keep my eyes open; I remember parking in the underground before class and reclining my seat, stealing as many minutes of sleep as time would allow before dragging my heavy body across campus and through the hallways; I remember sleeping between classes facedown on a grassy knoll, curled up on benches; I remember all the times I would fall asleep for 2 or 3 hours in the aquatic centre, breathing in the comforting smell of chlorine and lulled into a temporary coma by the rhythmic lapping and gentle splashing of muscular young bodies. This drives the point home I think. Although I was lucky enough to sleep in jungles and romantic urban landscapes, these places were lost on me. A tropical paradise or international destination was not necessary. My depression did not discriminate. In those moments, I couldn’t tell the smell of beach from the smell of animal waste. It didn’t matter where I was, so much as that I could escape into the deliciousness of sleep, escape from the utter flatness of life that threatened to consume me if I allowed myself to feel it for too long.
The diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders fifth edition, alternatively known as the DSM5, posits a list of nine symptoms, five of which must be endorsed in order for a person to qualify for a diagnosis of Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). Criteria Four: Hypersomnia or insomnia nearly every day.
Even though I was depressed, even though I would eventually be diagnosed with MDD and registered as having a permanent disability, why bother with Tokyo, Paris, Tulum you might ask? Why not be satisfied with rotting away on my regular old mattress if withdrawal from the world, and not engagement with the world, was the object of my desire? It is difficult to understand the logic of depression when one is no longer in a depressed state. The image of a Russian matryoshka doll comes to mind. I imagine my insistent need to sleep as the desire to escape and my preference for doing so in faraway places as another layer of escape, a smaller deeper more delicate layer within this larger doll. To be in a foreign country is an escape from everyday life, to fall into sleep is an escape from consciousness. It was as if I wanted to whittle my desire to withdraw from the world down to its most perfect version, to refine my retreat from the world into a most faraway thing.
There is a reason people call depression deep. A deep depression, my deepest depression, the depths of depression. More than anything this is how depression has been for me. Not sad, not painful, not agonizing, rarely scary, only sometimes hopeless, but always deep. That feeling of depth is visceral. Like sitting at the bottom of a well or being stuck down a rabbit hole. It can be dream-like and spiralling.
At its most profound depths, I have only been able to sleep. I have been awed and impressed at my body’s capacity for continual sleep, and it is hard at these times to imagine that it is not driven by some biologically based necessity. A hibernation of sorts. At these times, my body accumulates sleep like the ant in the fable with the grasshopper, storing up grain for the coming winter. Like the bird at the end of my street who builds her nest with sticks and dryer lint and a pistachio green slipper, I greedily snatch up sleep and store it away inside myself. I am angry and resentful of anyone who stands between me and another 45 minutes of sleep.
But there are always many days during these long periods of sadness and sleep, when the fever dream lifts long enough to make thinking possible. I may not have been able to leave my bed at these times, but I am able to resist the magnetism of the mattress-the temptation to rest my cheek gently on a cool pillow and retreat from the world-long enough to do something. It is at these times that I have given myself an education.
I have read books, so many different books; in English, French, and Spanish. I have taught myself Portguese and Farsi. I have pushed myself to read long books and authors I hated, like James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon. Far more often I have discovered writers whose words have changed my life like Virginia Woolf, Rilke, Alice Munro. I have found voices that have inspired me to write, changed the way I write: Mary Karr, Susan Sontag, Eula Biss, Lorrie Moore, Junot Diaz, Vivian Gornick, Vladmir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Anne Fadiman, Pablo Neruda, Elisabeth Gilbert, Cheryl Strayed, Kay Redfield Jamison, Anne Patchett, Lucy Grealy, Karl Ove Knausgaard, There are way way too many to name, so I’ll arbitrarily stop here. I have learned more in bed than I ever have in school. This is true to an obscene degree. I know it isn’t the usual way, but I think I have become a writer in bed.
Also, and not insignificantly, the bed at the bottom of the well is the place I fell in love with my dog. I get it, this sounds funny, but my relationship with my dog has changed my relationship to animals and has changed the way I understand love. If I hadn’t spent so many months in bed, I would have loved my dog, but I think I would have missed out on the bond we share today. Sure, I would have come home from work, taken her to the park, slept with her on my pillow. I would have loved her for sure. But this in my mind, is a far cry from having her by my side in France, in Germany, in Arizona, in Vancouver. Wherever I went, she went too. She was the one who allowed me to tolerate all the solitude and the vast stretching expanse of time of a single day. But then again, in that light, I guess I have never really been alone.
I often feel very sad, and sometimes resentful too, of all the time (it has been years) that I have spent cocooned in bed. I am aware that the education I have given myself there is of a narrow variety and that traditionally the cornerstone of the writer’s craft is a wealth of experiences in the world, not in bed. I worry about everything I have missed and the holes are frequently obvious.
On the other hand, sometimes I also notice, that I know myself in a way that is different than the way others know themselves. Or that I have a tolerance of solitude that is not common in my peers. While my moods may hinge of the arbitrary winds of the Gods, I have also noticed that I am unmolested by some of the ordinary things that seem to bother others. So many months in bed, sleeping and reading and writing and thinking has nurtured my mind and has helped to make a habit of curiosity and learning. Curiosity and learning are a habit and perhaps the greatest gift life has offered me thus far.
Maybe it sounds like I’m bragging or reframing a wasted life in a positive light, and maybe there is truth to both these claims, but nevertheless this is the way I see things. At times my years in bed have felt like a waste, but I also know that they have been a privilege. Not everyone has the luxury of lying in bed for three months, even when they are depressed. I feel lucky for this and lucky for the fruits of this time.