One wall of our bedroom, the wall closest to my sleeping body, is mostly window, and it’s got just slats to block the light, not drapes. Here’s my view when I wake up most mornings:
I rarely have trouble falling asleep, but if I’m woken—by the need to piss, by a 7am robocall, by the early summer dawn—it can be a struggle to return. I might swallow and feel the passage in my inner ear clear out and open up, or my eyelid, if I open it for too long, will soften and decalcify, and I know it’s the beginning of the end. I know that falling back to sleep shouldn’t be a struggle, but my mind thinks it can accomplish most of what it wants through will and brute intellecting. When I’m woken before I’m ready to, I think Oh no and then I think No no, we’re going to take care of this and before I know it my mind is calculating awake minutes and worrying whether they’re too many in number and I’m the awakest I’ve been.
I sleep with a mask so that I can sleep in, because otherwise I’ll wake with the light. This isn’t bad in these dark and late mornings—though last night Neal and I went to bed at 2 after watching a third bad Christmas movie—but in summer it’s vital. I don’t fall asleep with the mask on. I don’t like it on my face. But at some point in the night as I turn over in bed I see it’s still dark in the room and I grab it off my nightstand, sliding it over my eyes, readying to fight the sun to get a full 7 hours.
This leads me to the moment I’m trying to write about. My mask is wide and dense. The light can’t creep in around its edges. Every morning there’s a point when my mind signals it’s time to get up, when its thoughts are no longer dreamy and imagey and associative but now conscious and about the day ahead. With the mask on, I don’t know if there’s light in the room yet. I don’t know what time it is. So I have to make a decision: do I pry up the mask a little to gauge the light in the room?
There are mornings when my mind sends the get-up signal, and when I do I see it’s 6am. The room is fully dark. Neal is deeply asleep next to me. And I panic: what am I going to do now? And the panic solidifies it: I’m not going back to sleep.
Every time I reach for the mask, to pry it up and check the morning light, I am filled with Election-Day levels of dread and hope. Please let it be light out. I should say that I’m fortunate. More times than not I peer around the mask and it’s light out, and what does that mean for me? It means I’ve had enough sleep, probably. It means I don’t have to struggle to try to fall back asleep, hating my stupid brain and my broken body for failing to do their jobs. It means I don’t have to lie there in the darkness, with nothing to occupy my thoughts, the room around 62°. Outside the bed feels cold and mean, which helps make our bed such a joy. My favorite part of the day is rolling leftward after lights out and holding Neal close, the warmth of him. I love our sheets and our down comforters. We each sleep with our own, Scandinavianly, with no top sheet. Every chilly pre-dawn, my body can be very comfortable in my discomfiting wakefulness, which only makes it harder to do what’s hard to do every morning, and particularly those mornings I’m stuck awake before I have any reason to be: get out of bed.
I’ve had only one dream in 2020 where I caught myself in the outside world without a mask on my face. I don’t remember where I was, a farmer’s market seems the best choice, someplace outside and commercial, but I remember the burning feelings of panic and shame. Otherwise, my dreams have been set in a world different from this one, where masks aren’t needed. I can be reckless there without feeling shitty about it.
The hard thing about virtue is that we no longer seem to be rewarded for any of it. I’ve done everything right every day and this is what my life has become? All the same, I try to remain brave and patient and kind and fair to others the way I shave or put on clean underwear and a pair of pants with a belt. Who is this for?
The key tenet of esteem-building is that it’s always foremost for yourself. “Ask yourself if these negative beliefs about yourself are true. Would you say them to a friend? If you wouldn’t say them to someone else, don’t say them to yourself.” I’d never break a promise to my friend, but it’s easy to have a second martini after having told myself not to have a first. When I start to fill the shaker once again with ice, the feeling I have is forgiveness. Let’s not be so hard on ourselves, say the I I’m trying to be and the I I am. Another hard thing: when I say that, am I being kind to myself, or is it self-betrayal?
Anyway I feel full of virtue these days, and it’s a dumb feeling.
One night, not long ago, I got the idea for a short story:
Title: Why Are You Hitting Yourself? (or Why I Am Hitting Myself)
It’s a story about a depressed person who drinks too much and who’s found not cutting as a means of coping but trying to punch himself in the face. Get really technical and specific about it: right hand versus left hand, the resulting look of bruising and such, the pains that linger physical and emotional. He’s like a connoisseur of it.
The good feeling comes from the pain maybe, but that’s only the tiniest surface of it. There’s the idea of someone hitting him as just punishment. It feels good to be hit by somebody, hit hard, right in the face, where it will show and hurt. Like: it’s the pleasure of being recognized as a shitty horrible person who needs to be corrected by the world, and punished for being so bad at being a person, so the punch in the face is a public service. It’s like chiropractic. “This isn’t going to make you any better but maybe the hurt of it will stop you from getting worse. You should feel good for knowing that it’s right to submit to this pain and hitting in your ugly wrong face.”
It’s not a silent plea for sympathy, it’s a plea to be regarded in not-proud-of-this disgust.
When I read over these notes the following morning, I emailed my therapist to see whether we could schedule an emergency appointment. She was off for the next two weeks, and I didn’t know how I was going to be able to get through those weeks on my own. She saw me first thing Monday morning and urged me to get out of our apartment every day. The only thing I had to do out there was look at something new or different. She asked me what I would do if I could do anything right now, if there wasn’t a pandemic going on.
“Swim laps,” I said. It hit me quickly. My greatest dream right now would be to be given the keys to the gym on campus, where there’s an olympic-size pool, and sit on the edge and pull on my goggles and take a deep breath and launch myself into the water. As soon as the vividness of that image hit me, I felt the weight of its absence and that made me feel worse.
She pointed out I can’t swim right now, but I can exercise. I can walk through the park. Golden Gate Park: it’s right across the street from our building. I have a path I like to take. It shows me a lot of things I can’t see inside, some of it even beautiful. I hate that my life’s been reduced to this, a diet of gruel for a sick man.
The general feeling I have these days is displacement. The I I am, or that I’ve been, is somebody I can see way over yonder, my eyesight failing a little, his contours blurring. (Forget the I I’m trying to be, he’s out of the picture—or perhaps one of the gifts of depression is that it finally unites these two frenemies into the same target.) Every morning is a reminder that I’ve woken into this unwelcome world again, that I’m not dreaming. I don’t want to do anything. I don’t want to get out of bed and walk through the park, but I know I have to, for now. It’s another dumb thing I’m made to do, but it’s working.