Content warning: thoughts of suicide
“My favorite days were the ones that barely registered. I’d catch myself not breathing, slumped on the sofa, staring at an eddy of dust tumbling across the hardwood floor in the draft, and I’d remember that I was alive for a second, then fade back out. Achieving that state took heavy dosages of Seroquel or lithium combined with Xanax, and Ambien or trazodone, and I didn’t want to overuse those prescriptions. There was a fine mathematics for how to mete out sedation.”
— Ottessa Moshfegh, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation”
This past June I read Ottessa Moshfegh’s second novel, “My Year of Rest and Relaxation.” I read it everywhere. I read it in bed, I read it at my desk, I read it on the floor, I read it on the living room couch while my roommate watched the BBC production of “As You Like It.”
I felt the book’s absence whenever I wasn’t reading it, and I read each page carefully and often multiple times because I was afraid of reaching the end. I read it in grocery store and post office and Target lines and in the passenger seat of moving cars. I read it at the park by my apartment while my sister played Animal Crossing on her Nintendo Switch. I even read it, most fittingly, while waiting for a pharmacist to fill my prescriptions, most of which are used at one point by the unnamed narrator of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” in her never-ending quest for the perfect sleep.
The journey undergone by Moshfegh’s narrator in 2000-2001 New York is something of an anti-fever dream. A profoundly depressed WASP — white Anglo-Saxon Protestant — and art history graduate from Columbia University, she decides to sleep as much as possible with the help of a barrage of prescription drugs provided to her by an unethical psychiatrist. Yet for all the constant sedation and episodic blackouts experienced by our heroine, the grimy, textured landscape of her despair is vivid and bright, never obscured by the haze in which she dwells.
Different critics have different ideas about what Moshfegh is critiquing in this gut punch of a novel. What spoke to me the most, though, can be nicely summed up by a blurb on the back of my paperback copy taken from the first line of Jia Tolentino’s review in The New Yorker: “Ottessa Moshfegh is easily the most interesting contemporary American writer on the subject of being alive when being alive feels terrible.”
There’s this joke that we takers of heavy-duty psychiatric medications have: that we can’t panic, self-harm, have suicidal ideations or experience symptoms of psychosis, etc. etc. if we’re heavily sedated, which is essentially the main function of many antipsychotic medications and benzodiazepines. Seroquel, an antipsychotic whose sedative effect the narrator eventually develops a tolerance for — as can be the case with long-term usage — is both the bane of my existence and the reason I’m still alive and kicking. It makes me exhausted beyond functioning at night, but hey, at least I get sleep.
On the one hand, part of me wanted to resist the instinct to connect to this narrator, to this privileged and beautiful blonde woman who lives off of an inheritance, payments from renting out her dead parents’ house and unemployment that she doesn’t actually need. I wanted to resist the instinct to find relatability in her flippant abuse of psychiatry, her ease of access to a pharmacopeia often elusive to those less privileged. I wanted to resolutely not see myself in her efforts to avoid the world, and in that avoidance, find respite.
On the other hand, I obsessively seek out mental health narratives in fiction and more often than not find myself still not sated. It’s fiction that I seek out because of that desire that a lot of us have: to see ourselves and our journeys as worthy of having a place in imaginations, not just in our already tumultuous and material realities.
I wanted to resolutely not see myself in her efforts to avoid the world, and in that avoidance, find respite.
“My Year of Rest and Relaxation” is not a feel-good, recovery-driven mental health narrative, but no one can say that the narrator isn’t suffering from a variety of neuroses and pathological, self-destructive behaviors. In that sense, it is a mental health narrative, even if it’s not exactly providing a good example of relatability. It is that odd experience wherein the character’s journey is so specific that it somehow resonates broadly.
While reading, I frequently had eerie flashbacks to my own “year of rest and relaxation” — roughly October 2018 through December 2019. Unlike the narrator, I didn’t have the privilege of exiting the world almost completely, but I exited wherever I could and avoided everything possible, skipping class most of the time and giving in to the seemingly endless chemical sleep that can come so easily when taking antipsychotics and mood stabilizers, even though I was taking them as prescribed. It scares me sometimes, how little I remember from that time other than the general dreariness before I un-ghosted my psychiatrist and had my medications adjusted for the better.
Still and all, in retrospect, I’ve picked up on a streak of optimism running through one of my bleakest years and the narrator’s bleak year — an ever-persistent mental resolution that someday, somehow, all of the darkness will be gone. A someday I’ll be happier, just not today mentality that ironically functions as part of the motivation behind neurotic, self-destructive behavior. That’s what the narrator thinks: that if she gets enough deep, deep sleep, then all the anger and frustration and general negativity she feels will gradually start to dissipate. To her, it is an inevitability, an oddly comforting thought as she abuses her pills for the sake of sleep. If she just sleeps it off, then someday soon she will wake up not just to herself but to the world, finally ready to engage instead of resist.
The journey to waking up, though, is truly and entirely chaotic. To me, it’s this chaos that renders the idea of avoidance as the easy way out patently misguided and almost laughable. There are few things in life I have found more grating than when my avoidant periods result in only having my consciousness as company. When the world is too loud and so is your brain, sleeping life away doesn’t just feel like the better option. It starts to feel like the only option.
“But I won’t always be like this,” I used to think to myself when I was present enough, “and I’ll make up for it later by being better.” I’ve often claimed (cheesily) that literature is my religion. “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” came to me at a time that felt perfect, a summer that was seeing me slipping back into the pathologies I thought I’d left behind: avoiding human interaction and ignoring everything that was happening in the world, instead rolling over in bed so my back was to the sunlight, closing my eyes and sleeping most of the day.
When the world is too loud and so is your brain, sleeping life away doesn’t just feel like the better option.
Eventually, I felt myself snapping out of that, finally open to actually having full conversations again. Surprise, surprise, but not really: I felt better for it. Once you get into the avoidant mindset, getting out feels impossible. You forget completely — even when days or even hours ago you knew this very well — that going against the instinct to avoid can oftentimes be an antidote to the bad feelings that drew you to avoidance in the first place.
Also easy to forget is that in expending energy to be as avoidant as possible, you’re still expending some kind of energy; you are, ironically, being present for yourself, proactive in a warped kind of way. That energy should go toward other things, better and healthier things, but in the thick of it, that possibility feels like an impossibility.
By the end of “My Year of Rest and Relaxation,” the narrator has put a tremendous amount of time and energy into sleeping and avoiding, resulting in it becoming a full-blown project requiring (ironically) the help of others to fully implement. Her darkest moment yet comes in the form of suicidal ideation that has an oddly light and utilitarian tone; she resolves to kill herself if, at the end of the project, she still hasn’t managed to sleep away the darkness, marking herself with an expiration date.
She never fulfills this resolution, though, because despite it seeming like nothing good should come out of her avoidance, she does end up waking up to herself and the world. It was an ending that surprised me and left me with those hallmark literary aftershocks that come about when you’ve read something you know you’re going to be thinking about for a long, long time. After everything, all that chaos — all that, and she ends up better.
This is not to say that the novel condones self-destructive behaviors. It’s fiction, and no one should look to “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” as a blueprint for dealing with depression and suicidal ideation, which feels like far from being the point of the book. But it is valuable, I think, in its presentation of that self-destruction, a picture not so far from reality for a lot of people who are “alive when being alive feels terrible.” For all that avoiders are good at avoiding, what becomes impossible to avoid is the self-destruction that comes out of avoidance. Then the inevitable happens, and it does, as they say, Get Better.
I found something comforting about “My Year of Rest and Relaxation” because (ironically) it reminded me of the lack of control that comes with living with mental illness; this lack of control can be a curse, and yet sometimes it’s the very thing that swings us back into functionality. You can’t completely control when you’re depressed, and you can’t completely control when you’re happy. You’re not always doomed just because it feels like you should be right now. No one should strive to be avoidant, but when you’re already in it, there’s little to be done without explicit outside intervention. And once you’re out of it — and you will always, always come out of it — that period of darkness becomes (cheesily) a lesson learned, a sort of key for understanding that you are better now and that the seemingly elusive someday has come.
If it takes a “year of rest and relaxation” to get there, so be it.
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide or self-harm or just needs to talk, here are some resources:
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Crisis Text Line: Text HOME to 741-741
TrevorLifeline, TrevorChat and TrevorText (LGBTQ+ crisis support): 1-866-488-7386
Text “Trevor” to 1-202-304-1200
Trans Lifeline: US: (877) 565-8860