I can’t point to any one event that resulted in my decision to go into hibernation. Initially, I just wanted some downers to drown out my thoughts and judgments, since the constant barrage made it hard not to hate everyone and everything. I thought life would be more tolerable if my brain were slower to condemn the world around me. I started seeing Dr. Tuttle in January 2000. It started off very innocently: I was plagued with misery, anxiety, a wish to escape the prison of my mind and body. Dr. Tuttle confirmed that this was nothing unusual. She wasn’t a good doctor. I had found her name in the phone book.
“You’ve caught me at a good moment,” she said the first time I called. “I just finished rinsing the dishes. Where did you find my number?”
“In the Yellow Pages.”
I liked to think that I’d picked Dr. Tuttle at random, that there was something fated about our relationship, divine in some way, but in truth, she’d been the only psychiatrist to answer the phone at eleven at night on a Tuesday. I’d left a dozen messages on answering machines by the time Dr. Tuttle picked up.
“The biggest threats to brains nowadays are all the microwave ovens,” Dr. Tuttle explained on the phone that night. “Microwaves, radio waves. Now there are cell phone towers blasting us with who knows what kind of frequencies. But that’s not my science. I deal in treating mental illness. Do you work for the police?” she asked me.
“No, I work for an art dealer, at a gallery in Chelsea.”
“Are you FBI?”
“I just have to ask these questions. Are you DEA? FDA? NICB? NHCAA? Are you a private investigator hired by any private or governmental entity? Do you work for a medical insurance company? Are you a drug dealer? Drug addict? Are you a clinician? A med student? Getting pills for an abusive boyfriend or employer? NASA?”
“I think I have insomnia. That’s my main issue.”
“You’re probably addicted to caffeine, too, am I right?”
“I don’t know.”
“You better keep drinking it. If you quit now, you’ll just go crazy. Real insomniacs suffer hallucinations and lost time and usually have poor memory. It can make life very confusing. Does that sound like you?”
“Sometimes I feel dead,” I told her, “and I hate everybody. Does that count?”
“Oh, that counts. That certainly counts. I’m sure I can help you. But I do ask new patients to come in for a fifteen-minute consultation to make sure we’ll make a good fit. Gratis. And I recommend you get into the habit of writing notes to remind yourself of our appointments. I have a twenty-four-hour cancellation policy. You know Post-its? Get yourself some Post-its. I’ll have some agreements for you to sign, some contracts. Now write this down.”
Dr. Tuttle told me to come in the next day at nine A.M.
Her home office was in an apartment building on Thirteenth Street near Union Square. The waiting room was a dark, wood-paneled parlor full of fake Victorian furniture, cat toys, pots of potpourri, purple candles, wreaths of dead purple flowers, and stacks of old National Geographic magazines. The bathroom was crowded with fake plants and peacock feathers. On the sink, next to a huge bar of cracked lilac soap, was a wooden bowl of peanuts in an abalone shell. That baffled me. She hid all her personal toiletries in a large wicker basket in the cabinet under the sink. She used several antifungal powders, a prescription steroid cream, shampoo and soap and lotions that smelled like lavender and violet. Fennel toothpaste. Her mouthwash was prescription. When I tried it, it tasted like the ocean.
The first time I met Dr. Tuttle, she wore a foam neck brace because of a “taxi accident” and was holding an obese tabby, whom she introduced as “my eldest.” She pointed out the tiny yellow envelopes in the waiting room. “When you come in, write your name on an envelope and fold your check inside. Payments go in here,” she said, knocking on the wooden box on the desk in her office. It was the kind of box they have in churches for accepting donations for candles. The fainting couch in her office was covered in cat fur and piled on one end with little antique dolls with chipped porcelain faces. On her desk were half-eaten granola bars and stacked Tupperware containers of grapes and cut-up melon, a mammoth old computer, more National Geographic magazines.
“What brings you here?” she asked. “Depression?” She’d already pulled out her prescription pad.
My plan was to lie. I’d given it careful consideration. I told her I’d been having trouble sleeping for the past six months, and then complained of despair and nervousness in social situations. But as I was reciting my practiced speech, I realized it was somewhat true. I wasn’t an insomniac, but I was miserable. Complaining to Dr. Tuttle was strangely liberating.
“I want downers, that much I know,” I said frankly. “And I want something that’ll put a damper on my need for company. I’m at the end of my rope,” I said. “I’m an orphan, on top of it all. I probably have PTSD. My mother killed herself.”
“How?” Dr. Tuttle asked.
“Slit her wrists,” I lied.
“Good to know.”
Her hair was red and frizzy. The foam brace she wore around her neck had what looked like coffee and food stains on it, and it squished the skin on her neck up toward her chin. Her face was like a bloodhound’s, folded and drooping, her sunken eyes hidden under very small wire-framed glasses with Coke-bottle lenses. I never got a good look at Dr. Tuttle’s eyes. I suspect that they were crazy eyes, black and shiny, like a crow’s. The pen she used was long and purple and had a purple feather at the end of it.
“Both my parents died when I was in college,” I went on. “Just a few years ago.”
She seemed to study me for a moment, her expression blank and breathless. Then she turned back to her little prescription pad.
“I’m very good with insurance companies,” she said matter-of-factly. “I know how to play into their little games. Are you sleeping at all?”
“Barely,” I said.
“I figured. Sleep is key. Most people need upwards of fourteen hours or so. The modern age has forced us to live unnatural lives. Busy, busy, busy. Go, go, go. You probably work too much.” She scribbled for a while on her pad. “Mirth,” Dr. Tuttle said. “I like it better than joy. Happiness isn’t a word I like to use in here. It’s very arresting, happiness. You should know that I’m someone who appreciates the subtleties of human experience. Being well rested is a precondition, of course. Do you know what mirth means? M-I-R-T-H?”
“Yeah. Like The House of Mirth,” I said.
“A sad story,” said Dr. Tuttle.
“I haven’t read it.”
“Better you don’t.”
“I read The Age of Innocence.”
“So you’re educated.”
“I went to Columbia.”
“That’s good for me to know, but not much use to you in your condition. Education is directly proportional to anxiety, as you’ve probably learned, having gone to Columbia. How’s your food intake? Is it steady? Any dietary restrictions? When you walked in here, I thought of Farrah Fawcett and Faye Dunaway. Any relation? I’d say you’re what, twenty pounds below an ideal Quetelet index?”
“I think my appetite would come back if I could sleep,” I said. It was a lie. I was already sleeping upwards of twelve hours, from eight to eight. I was hoping to get pills to help me sleep straight through the weekends.
“Daily meditation has been shown to cure insomnia in rats. I’m not a religious person, but you could try visiting a church or synagogue to ask for advice on inner peace. The Quakers seem like reasonable people. But be wary of cults. They’re often just traps to enslave young women. Are you sexually active?”
“Not really,” I told her.
“Do you live near any nuclear plants? Any high-voltage equipment?”
“I live on the Upper East Side.”
“Take the subway?”
At this point, I took the subway each day to work.
“A lot of psychic diseases get passed around in confined public spaces. I sense your mind is too porous. Do you have any hobbies?”
“I watch movies.”
“That’s a fun one.”
“How’d they get the rats to meditate?” I asked her.
“You’ve seen rodents breed in captivity? The parents eat their babies. Now, we can’t demonize them. They do it out of compassion. For the good of the species. Any allergies?”
With that, Dr. Tuttle put her pen down and stared off into space, deep in thought, it seemed.
“Some rats,” she said after a while, “probably deserve to be demonized. Certain individual rats.” She picked her pen back up with a flourish of the purple feather. “The moment we start making generalizations, we give up our right to self-govern. I hope you follow me. Rats are very loyal to the planet. Try these,” she said, handing me a sheath of prescriptions. “Don’t fill them all at once. We need to stagger them so as not to raise any red flags.” She got up stiffly and opened a wooden cabinet full of samples, flicked sample packets of pills out onto the desk. “I’ll give you a paper bag for discretion,” she said. “Fill the lithium and Haldol prescriptions first. It’s good to get your case going with a bang. That way later on, if we need to try out some wackier stuff, your insurance company won’t be surprised.”
I can’t blame Dr. Tuttle for her terrible advice. I elected to be her patient, after all. She gave me everything I asked for, and I appreciated her for that. I’m sure there were others like her out there, but the ease with which I’d found her, and the immediate relief that her prescriptions provided, made me feel that I’d discovered a pharmaceutical shaman, a magus, a sorcerer, a sage. Sometimes I wondered if Dr. Tuttle were even real. If she were a figment of my imagination, I’d find it funny that I’d chosen her over someone who looked more like one of my heroes—Whoopi Goldberg, for example.
“Dial 9-1-1 if anything bad happens,” Dr. Tuttle told me. “Use reason when you feel you can. There’s no way to know how these medications will affect you.”
At the beginning of this, I’d look up any new pills she gave me on the Internet to try to learn how much I was likely to sleep on any given day. But reading up on a drug sapped its magic. It made the sleep seem trite, just another mechanical function of the body, like sneezing or shitting or bending at the joint. The “side effects and warnings” on the Internet were discouraging, and anxieties over them amplified the volume of my thoughts, which was the exact opposite of what I hoped the pills would do. So I filled prescriptions for things like Neuroproxin, Maxiphenphen, Valdignore, and Silencior and threw them into the mix now and then, but mostly I took sleeping aids in large doses, and supplemented them with Seconols or Nembutals when I was irritable, Valiums or Libriums when I suspected that I was sad, and Placidyls or Noctecs or Miltowns when I suspected I was lonely.
Within a few weeks, I’d accumulated an impressive library of psychopharmaceuticals. Each label bore the sign of the sleepy eye, the skull and crossbones. “Do not take this if you become pregnant.” “Take with food or milk.” “Store in a dry place.” “May cause drowsiness.” “May cause dizziness.” “Do not take aspirin.” “Do not crush.” “Do not chew.” Any normal person would have worried about what the drugs would do to her health. I wasn’t completely naive about the potential dangers. My father had been eaten alive by cancer. I’d seen my mother in the hospital full of tubes, brain dead. I’d lost a childhood friend to liver failure after she took acetaminophen on top of DayQuil in high school. Life was fragile and fleeting and one had to be cautious, sure, but I would risk death if it meant I could sleep all day and become a whole new person. And I figured I was smart enough to know in advance if the pills were going to kill me. I’d start having premonition nightmares before that happened, before my heart failed or my brain exploded or hemorrhaged or pushed me out my seventh-story window. I trusted that everything was going to work out fine as long as I could sleep all day.
I’d moved into my apartment on East Eighty-fourth Street in 1996, a year after I graduated from Columbia. By summer 2000, I still hadn’t had a single conversation with any of my neighbors—almost four years of complete silence in the elevator, each awkward ride a performance of hypnotized spaceout. My neighbors were mostly fortysomething married people without children. Everyone was well-groomed, professional. A lot of camel-hair coats and black leather briefcases. Burberry scarves and pearl earrings. There were a few loudmouthed single women my age I saw from time to time gabbing on their cell phones and walking their teacup poodles. They reminded me of Reva, but they had more money and less self-loathing, I would guess. This was Yorkville, the Upper East Side. People were uptight. When I shuffled through the lobby in my pajamas and slippers on my way to the bodega, I felt like I was committing a crime, but I didn’t care. The only other slovenly people around were elderly Jews with rent-controlled apartments. But I was tall and thin and blond and pretty and young. Even at my worst, I knew I still looked good.
My building was eight stories high, concrete with burgundy awnings, an anonymous facade on a block otherwise lined with pristine townhouses, each with its own placard warning people not to let their dogs piss on their stoops because it would damage the brownstone. “Let us honor those who came before us, as well as those who will follow,” one sign read.
From My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh. Reprinted by arrangement of Penguin Press, part of the Penguin Random House company. Copyright (c) 2018 by Ottessa Moshfegh.