Bed

By Lauren Hoffman

Essay

I.

I talked before I walked. My mother says I did this in order to boss around anyone willing to listen. No one was, really, except my older brother. We shared a bedroom then, and I’d sit in my crib, asking, “Bring me? Bring me?” He’d drop in a book, or my blanket, or a handful of Duplo blocks, or all of the nickels from his toy cash register.

I’ve nannied for an intrepid eleven-month-old who taught himself to climb out of his crib and a three-year-old who screamed in rage for the duration of a mandatory forty-five minute nap. I wasn’t that kind of baby. There was no reason to get out.

II.

When I was six, I coveted my brother’s bed. He had Return of the Jedi sheets. I had Disney character sheets, but my chronic childhood nosebleeds left stains that made it look like Mickey had been shived. His bed had drawers underneath with handles that made perfectly aggravating sounds when jerked up and down. Under my bed, there was only floor.

Worst of all: he had bunk beds. I did not.

I wanted bunk beds of my own because they were the key element of my favorite childhood game: mini-blind factory. Mini-blind factory began with one player in each bunk. The one on top wrote down the color and type of blinds they wanted, dropped the slip in a bucket, and lowered it down to the bottom. The player on the bottom either wrote the day they’d fill the order or wrote an order of their own (the corporate-client border was always fuzzy), and then sent the bucket back up.

On paper, it comes across as highly ritualized clerical work. But a six-year-old finds perfection underneath as many security blankets as possible, writing secret messages.

III.

I don’t have hard statistics, but I’d estimate I went to the nurse’s office at least three times a week in middle school. I was never lying or trying to get attention. I got headaches; I never felt well.

I’d take my two ibuprofen, curl up on a bed, and hold still until I fell asleep or the nurse kicked me out once she’d tired of the sound of my boots skidding back and forth on the cot’s paper cover.

When I went to the nurse at my new high school for the first time, she pulled out my file, skimmed it, and then closed it. “Well, hon, there’s a note here from the nurse at your old school, and she says you used to come see her a lot. Do you think maybe you don’t feel sick, and maybe you’d just rather sleep than go to class?”

No, that’s not what I thought at all.

IV.

I don’t usually sleep well in beds that aren’t my own. This is probably because I spend most of my time coming up with new things to worry about. A brain that constantly generates disaster is well equipped to take a single, ill-timed spider bite and translate it into a pervasive fear of bedbugs.

Last fall, my friend Emmy and I took a trip to Disneyland. I was in charge of booking our hotel and I vetted choices ruthlessly, cross-checking multiple online recommendations against multiple bed bug registries.

I finally found a discounted room at a resort hotel so beloved its sole negative review cited how the guests had seen a rat outside (I’m not sure how the hotel was supposed to prevent that from happening in the future). I booked it, and when we were a few miles away, I mentioned that maybe just to be on the safe side I’d sleep in the rental car.

“You’re sleeping inside.”

“Here’s the thing — I sleep inside, I’m going to wrap all of my luggage in Hefty bags, and I’m going to throw away my pajamas when we leave. And I have to go in first, with all of our stuff still in the car, take off all the bedding, check for stains, turn off the lights, turn them on suddenly to see if bugs creep out, and then check the baseboards for stains too.”

“Oh. Okay…we’ll do that then. No big deal.”

I imagine it is tiresome to be my friend.

V.

All of the eloquent ways to describe acute depression are already taken. What’s left to work with is repetitive cliché. Maybe the best I can say is this: the pharmaceutical commercials where the girl with the unwashed hair murmurs that some days, she just can’t get out of bed — there’s no hyperbole there.

When one isn’t a petulant queen or tubercular Victorian, taking to one’s bed loses its glamour. It wasn’t all crisp linens and languid sighs and delicate swoons. It was torpor, and balled-up jersey knit sheets, and the inability to do anything more complex than stare at hour after hour of television with a blanket mashed against my face. Above all, it was the certainty that this — call it a bout, call it an episode, call it turmoil, call it despair — would not pass, not ever. But I thought that if I maybe held perfectly still and closed my eyes, there was the slightest of chances it wouldn’t get worse.

I’d take Tylenol PM in the middle of the afternoon, re-upping on a second dose when I’d wake up at midnight.I was constantly, deliciously sleepy, wrapped in the haze of being just barely awake all the time, sleeping a minimum of sixteen hours every day.I would wake up with a sleep hangover:edges blurred and I stayed groggy and disconnected for hours, parched and headachey, thirsty for more.

The summer when things were at their worst, I took to falling asleep in a good friend’s palatial bed — a rare breach of my one-bed-girl stance. I made constant references to Bed as an entity of Bed’s own. “Does Bed miss me?” “But what does Bed want to watch?”

It’s an affectation I adopted to seem cute and glib, in an effort to disguise the fact that Bed was one of the last safe places left on Earth.

VI.

I spin it as a quirk now. I write Twitter posts about my pillow forts, deliver “I stayed in bed all weekend” in my pitch-perfect I’m-kidding-or-am-I tone. And there are many days when I wake up, make toast, put my hair in a ponytail, and go — days where I don’t live through each vertical moment for the sake of the next horizontal one.

But I cannot shake the feeling that bed is my craft.Bed is what I am better at than anyone else in the world.I am the master of blissful disconnect, of curling up and locking the door and sleeping ‘till tomorrow, knees to chest, still.

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LAUREN HOFFMAN lives and writes in Seattle, Washington. By day, she pretends to know a lot about computers; by night and weekend, she is at work completing a collection of essays titled When You I Feel Because. She holds an MFA in non-fiction writing from The New School and has no cats.

34 responses to “Bed”

  1. Aaron Dietz says:

    Every good description of the concept of “bed” has been rendered out of date.

  2. Julie Polk says:

    Mini-blind factory is the best childhood game I’ve ever heard of. I vote we retire its jersey and hang it from the rafters in tribute. Great piece!

  3. Lovely, lovely piece.

  4. Lisa Rae Cunningham says:

    Lauren, this is so well done. It’s interesting how as the reader, I descend a little deeper with each passage until I understand where you’ve landed me – in bed, depressed. The way you ascend in age as you go deeper in the other direction is profound. There were so many strong lines and images and exchanges. I loved this.

  5. Irene Zion says:

    Lauren,
    I know about this, because I’ve done it myself.
    Shouldn’t you try to get some help?
    You know you’re depressed, and you know you shouldn’t really be in bed all day.
    Try to get some help, or someone to help you get help.
    Your life is passing you by.

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      Irene, thanks for reading. I think one of the complicated things about writing personal/memoir-y essays is that they often represent moments in time. This particular piece, especially my descriptions of grappling with depression, represents moments where things were much worse than they are right this second (although, full disclosure, I’m in bed right now, but in a healthy, well-adjusted, 9-AM-on-a-Sunday-lie-in). Like I say in the last paragraph — there are many days now where the desire to get back in bed is a just temptation and an anomaly, not a reality.

      I don’t feel as though my life is passing me by — it’s just that depression (particularly bipolar depression) is an affliction that waxes and wanes. Some bad days are inevitable, and coping with that is a part of my life, but it’s definitely not the only part. I’m thankful beyond words that I have more good days than bad, and I’m thankful for the combination of medication, therapy, and dear friends that help me keep things that way.

  6. Judy Prince says:

    “. . . days where I don’t live through each vertical moment for the sake of the next horizontal one.” Beautifully put, Lauren.

    Your post was alerting, amusing, thought-provoking and creative. My particular favourite part which exemplifies those adjectives:

    “It was torpor, and balled-up jersey knit sheets, and the inability to do anything more complex than stare at hour after hour of television with a blanket mashed against my face. Above all, it was the certainty that this — call it a bout, call it an episode, call it turmoil, call it despair — would not pass, not ever. But I thought that if I maybe held perfectly still and closed my eyes, there was the slightest of chances it wouldn’t get worse.”

    I’ve never read a better description of the hell which people call “depression”.

    I know only a couple friends who’ve not experienced the feelings. They seem to me to be alien beings, and of course they can’t quite “get” the way people act and feel when they’re down.

    Those I meet who are experiencing the horrid feelings of “depression”, I suggest reading David Burns’ really badly titled but best-ever helpful workbook, _Ten Days to Self-Esteem_. It’s clear, humourous and practical. And it’s totally meant to be written in. That is, there are exercises to do and write down the results. Naturally, I disdained doing them, and on the 2nd page, Burns said he bet the reader hadn’t done the first exercise, so go back and do it. I’d already read a customer review at amazon.com that said you MUST do the exercises or the book will be as useless as all the other books that seek to help folks. Well, I was desperate to be rid of my continuing emotional state, so I filled out the appropriate blanks. Within 15 minutes I “got” the key to depression and how to unlock it. I kept on reading and filling in the blanks, and the bad feelings kept fading. They were nonexistent within a couple weeks.

    It’s been 3 years since then, and I’ve had no recurrent “depressed” feelings.

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      Thank you, Judy — those are some wonderful compliments! I’ve read and used a lot of Burns’ techniques, and I agree that cognitive-behavioral therapy is a truly important tool in coping with depression. I can’t stress enough how important good therapy has been in coping with this disease. However, I strongly believe that in many cases, depression (particularly bipolar depression, which is what I cope with, and that’s another essay for another day) has a truly biological component, and so for me, medication is an important tool as well — I liken it to the way a diabetic needs to control their disease with both diet/lifestyle changes and medication.

      Thank you again for your kind words, and thanks for reading!

      • Judy Prince says:

        Great that you feel cognitive-behavioural therapy is an important tool in coping with depression, Lauren. I’m never sure how well known it is, so I try to spread the word. It’s what I would love to have known years ago.

        And, yes, thank goodness you’re able with appropriate meds, as well, to deal with your bi-polar depression!

        Your writing’s terrific, and I’m eager to read more.

  7. Gloria says:

    Lauren, I went through a bout of severe depression once, years ago, when I first moved to Portland from Albuquerque. I think I slept that entire summer. The way you describe it is absolutely perfect. It is just like that. You really do think you’ll never come out of it. For me, I just sort of did. I don’t know how other people do it.

    This was a really compelling read.

  8. Beth says:

    Wow, I can’t wait wait to read more…

  9. angela says:

    lauren, i really like how the vignettes start off sort of “innocent,” then transform into something darker and more serious.

    and i have to agree: mini-blind factory sounds like the best gave ever. 🙂

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      It’s weird because I keep getting all excited and thinking, “Oh, great, people love mini-blind factory! I can’t wait to tell….” and I’m not sure how that sentence ends? Can’t wait to tell mini-blind factory itself? Or myself, as its founder? I’ve had to settle for just nodding approvingly at the blinds in my apartment throughout the day.

  10. I am forever on the side of any post with the line “Mickey had been shived.” So, yeah, you got me.

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      That line forced me to take a side in the shived versus shivved debate. Ultimately, I’m not sure I followed my heart.

  11. Erika Rae says:

    “I would wake up with a sleep hangover: edges blurred and I stayed groggy and disconnected for hours, parched and headachey, thirsty for more.”

    Wow – what a line. Powerful description.

  12. Simon Smithson says:

    Like others, I’ve been impressed by how you started out more fun and innocent, and then things took a more and more serious turn as the piece went on.

    I noted in your comment to Irene, the way that memoir-y posts catch a moment in time, and, due to the fact that we don’t have time or space to present every facet of our life, the detail of each individual post seems like an overwhelming part of who we are.

    I’m glad you were out of bed long enough to become part of TNB. Welcome aboard!

  13. Joe Daly says:

    The final sentence is a muffled explosion. So true.

    This reminded me of a period many, many years ago, when the first thing that I thought of when I woke up was when I would be able to go back to bed. I had no idea what was going on- I was just listless, rudderless, and ambivalent all day long. I started running to kill time between sleeping and a couple months later I found that I had pulled out of my malaise to a great extent. At least far enough to start making some new friends, and from then I’ve never looked back.

    Here’s hoping you find one or more similar paths. Perhaps writing?

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      Joe, you’re spot on about running — I’ve never felt more consistently capable as I did during the months I was training for a marathon. Thank you for reading!

  14. Emily S. says:

    Amazing piece Lauren! I am proud of you. You forgot to mention your old love of jumping on the bed!

  15. Judy Prince says:

    Lauren, will you consider telling us your brownie recipe?

    And what it’s like to study non-fiction writing at The New School?

    • Judy Prince says:

      Lauren, I got your response (2 of the same one) emailed to me, but can’t find it here, nor can I find your article on the main page anywhere. What has happened?

      • Lauren Hoffman says:

        I wondered about that too (the comment not posting — I can still see my piece on the main page). Strange!

    • Lauren Hoffman says:

      Judy, the brownie recipe I use these days is completely imprecise — things are measured in terms of handfuls instead of cupfuls — but it’s an approximate hybrid of these two recipes: http://tinyurl.com/22ra6g3 and http://tinyurl.com/2cal6wf. (The Dessert Bible is probably my favorite cookbook in the world, incidentally.) I firmly believe that brownies should be fudgy, not cake-y, though that can be a controversial stance. I also bake them in cupcake liners on baking sheet, which gives every brownie a chewy center and crispy edges. Using the baking sheet instead of a muffin tin keeps the brownies flat enough to bake through quickly, without drying out — it’s arguably the most important aspect of my brownie-making.

      I could write a similarly lengthy treatise about the New School’s MFA program, but the short answer is that I had a great experience. The things I appreciated most of all were the supportive faculty (I worked most closely with Susan Cheever, because she was my thesis adviser, and I can’t say enough about how great that was), the way the program was designed schedule-wise so that students could work full time and still have their choice of classes, and the camaraderie among the students — the program encouraged us to go out for drinks after our night classes, and those conversations about life and books and writing were almost as valuable as conversations in the classroom.

      I do think if I had it to do over again, I’d give myself a few more years between college and graduate school, if only because doing that would have given me a broader, more diverse body of things to write about.

      I didn’t mean for this to get encyclopedic! Thanks for asking!

      • Don Mitchell says:

        Lauren, the posting problem was because your comment included two links. A comment with one link appears immediately, but one with two or more is delayed while somebody (I don’t know who) checks out the links to make sure they’re not commercial spam or porn.

  16. Marni Grossman says:

    Lauren- welcome!

    This was so great. Heartbreakingly familiar, but great. It’s funny how you can wake up from 12 hours of sleep exhausted, isn’t it?

  17. Ben Loory says:

    this reminds me of my favorite part of the old man and the sea:

    The wind is our friend, anyway, he thought; Then he added, sometimes. And the great sea with our friends and our enemies. And bed he thought. Bed is my friend. Just bed, he thought. Bed will be a great thing.

  18. Don Mitchell says:

    Lauren — I missed this one the first time around.

    I’ll add to the beds & depression theme. I was severely depressed for a while about a decade ago, and the bed was where I headed when I could. But the BR in the house where I lived with my ex-wife was not a welcoming or pleasant place for me. Even depressed, I craved light and space and spareness of furnishing, and although I felt compelled to get on the bed, the BR seemed to make it all worse.

    I overcame depression, got divorced, etc. etc. but what’s interesting is that my new BR (which I remodeled to my and my new partner’s taste) is open, full of light, huge windows showing trees, there’s a skylight, it’s not cluttered, and is so pleasant that I go in there to lie on the bed and read, or just hang out.

    But even this many years away from fleeing to a bed because of being depressed, I often feel a moment (just a moment!) of near-panic — why am I getting on the bed during the day? Am I depressed again? Of course it takes about 2 seconds to remember that everything is better than it ever has been, nothing is wrong, and this bed is very pleasant place to spend some time.

  19. kristen says:

    I love your Mini-Blind Factory. I miss those kid-games.

    A lovely piece, as well. The ache runs through…

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