For 10 years now, ever since I left behind a bed I’d shared and moved to New Haven and got a cheap Ikea mattress that was devoid of both memory foam and memories, I’ve been falling asleep to sitcoms. The Mary Tyler Moore Show, The Bob Newhart Show, Cheers, 30 Rock, over and over... they blur in and out of my dreams, the repertoire of voices and laugh tracks and transitional musical phrases. My dreams segue to the sound of gentle violins like scenes in The Golden Girls.
It’s always been hard for me to sleep or wake alone. For most of my childhood I shared bedrooms with some or all of my many siblings, and when we were small my nearest sister and I slept with our heads at opposite ends of a twin bed, ignoring the imaginary line our parents drew down the middle of the mattress to keep the peace, and kicking each other, accidentally or on purpose, throughout the night.
Perhaps because I didn’t grow up with much privacy, unlike most people I know, I sleep much better with someone else in the bed. Falling asleep is a reckoning with anxiety—about my middle-aged body or the climate apocalypse—and waking up is a reckoning with existence itself. (What is my reason to get up again? The fact that I have a job to do is enough and not enough at the same time.) Once I’m up and accountable to work or friends I’m swept along by the momentum, but the transitions out of and into waking life feel fraught. I’ve only ever instinctively welcomed consciousness and a new day when I’ve been sleeping and waking up with someone.
During my past decade of singleness I’ve slept on half the bed, and I’ve filled the other half with pillows, books, and a laptop streaming TV. Always sitcoms. Never music (too much feeling) or audiobooks or podcasts (too much thinking) or movies or dramas (too much plot). The light and voices ease me into sleep and then keep my sleep broken and light through the night. It’s not exactly good for me, as I know from every sleep hygiene piece I’ve ever read, but it’s the only way I can brave getting into bed at all.
My bedtime TV ritual, like my thin mattress, was a temporary measure that turned into a way of life. Someday, I told myself, I would have a boyfriend in my bed again. The TV was tiding me over, and then it became a tide, a dependable force that washed across my sheets each night and lapped against me with laughter and lulled me to sleep.
A few years ago I got tired of feeling the slats underneath me through the thin foam, but I wasn’t earning enough money to buy anything better. I loved my low-paid teaching job, but I was always worried about losing it. I was scared to be in my late 30s and still unable to afford rent without roommates. When I inherited another thin mattress from a roommate who moved out, I stacked it on top of the first one like the princess and the pea. I felt simultaneously more comfortable and more precarious: The mattress on top would slip and slide in the night. I would dream about falling and wake up clinging to the edge.
Then, unexpectedly, I sold a book and got offered a much better teaching job in New York. I spent my first months in the city overwhelmed by the transition, subletting a friend’s apartment and clinging even more closely to my familiar self-soothing rituals. But eventually a new feeling of security set in. This summer I finally signed a lease on my first-ever apartment of my own and ordered a real mattress—four layers of foam plus “resilient-yet-gentle” springs. It arrived before any of the rest of my furniture, a lone island of softness on the expanse of wood floor.
In the emptiness and possibility of my apartment, I finally felt ready to try something new. I decided to unmoor myself from my steady habits and attempt to fall asleep in silence. It’s been four months now, and I still dread and delay being absolutely alone, but it turns out I can do it. I can shut my book and switch off the light and feel the breeze from the window and the breeze from the ceiling fan meet and breathe in the air above me. I can let go of myself in the dark and topple deep into the void and then, hours later, I can resurface and reach out and locate myself in the light. What if I can learn to find reassurance not in lit-up screens and 24-hour ambient sound, but in sleepy obedience to the law of gravity, and in an answering pressure all along my body that holds me and holds me up?
After all these years, I’m stretching out in a new bed in a new city feeling more resigned about some things (the aging process, the fate of the oceans), but more hopeful about others (the work I’ll do, the people I’ll love). I cleared some space on the other half of my bed. I might be done with temporary measures.
Briallen Hopper is the author of Hard to Love: Essays and Confessions and the co-editor of the online magazine Killing the Buddha. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, New York Magazine/The Cut, the Paris Review Daily, the Seattle Star, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. She teaches creative nonfiction at Queens College, CUNY, and lives in Elmhurst, Queens.