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13 August 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:33pm

I spent so long wearing pain like a badge of honour. But what if happiness was simple?

By Kitty Drake

The first time my mother tried Prozac, it was so fabulous, it felt like God. After 32 years of living with undiagnosed bipolar disorder, the idea that pain could end just like that was simple in a way that felt almost biblical. She spread the good news: she talked about campaigning to have Prozac mainlined through the tap water supply. But Prozac wasn’t God, and so it didn’t last: three years later she was ill again, trying different medication. What did last, though, was that she no longer believed in the inevitability of pain. The real revelation of Prozac was that you didn’t have to experience suffering, as though it was some noble truth. You didn’t have to grope around in the darkness for an epiphany that would propel you out of it. The radical thing about recovery was that it could be about inaction. You could give up. You could rest.

In My Year Of Rest And Relaxation – a novel about a woman who drugs herself so that she might go to sleep for a year – Ottessa Moshfegh takes the principle of inaction to mad, fairy-story extremes. Our protagonist, who remains nameless, decides not to strive toward self-improvement like her sad “gym rat” best friend Reva, and instead chooses to hibernate, drugging herself to sleep and barely leaving her New York apartment. Early on, she tells us she has a plan: resurrection. “When I’d slept enough, I’d be okay. I’d be renewed, reborn… My past life would be but a dream, and I could start over without regrets, bolstered by the bliss and serenity that I would have accumulated in my year of rest and relaxation.” The most ridiculous thing about this plan is that it actually works. On June 1, 2001, she awakes, in yogi pose, to the chirp of birdsong, a whole new person: “Pain is not the only touchstone for growth, I said to myself. My sleep had worked. I was soft and calm and I felt things.”

Critics were a bit baffled by this ending. The New Yorker described the narrator’s fresh perspective on life as “deeply insane”; The London Review of Books called it “anodyne cliché”. It is confusing: Moshfegh’s writing is so funny, you can never be quite sure if she’s serious or not. To read her is to lurch between tragedy and comedy: the only vaguely fond thing the narrator has to say about her emotionally abusive boyfriend, for example, is that he “probably masturbates to Britney Spears”.

But to me, the most daring, galling thing about this ending is that it’s not parody. The narrator really has stopped hating herself and everyone else, and part of the shock of that, is the book suddenly stops being funny. Her big takeaway – “pain is not the only touchstone for growth” – is almost embarrassing in its sincerity. When I first read that line it made me feel vulnerable in the way I used to when my mum talked about Prozac. If happiness comes that way, without “work”, and without “struggle”, how can you trust it? I worry that her stability is a temporary mask that could evaporate at any moment, so I live my life by the logic of the gym rat – in my head, the more something hurts, the more real it is.

All feeling – love, hate, even joy – is seen as somehow more meaningful if it’s threaded with the potentiality for pain. Masochistic urges are particularly strong on the internet, where for the last few years, the most efficient way to express your love for a celebrity has been to beg them to step on your neck. Tweets (in their thousands upon thousands) measure devotion in terms of readiness to die: “My dream in life is for Cate Blanchett to choke me to death”; “I want Natalie Dormer to hit me with a hammer”; “PRINCE HARRY STYLES PLEASE RUN ME OVER , PUNCH ME IN THE FACE OR BOTH..” Writing about the phenomenon in the New Yorker, Jia Tolentino analysed the rise of the half-ironic millenial death-wish as a reaction to certain environmental collapse and political disaster – a kind of guilt about feeling pleasure, or staying alive at all when the whole world is torpedoing towards disaster. We are so twisted up by guilt, being choked to death is the only way we can imagine sensation strong enough to cut through. It might be the only way we can imagine peace.

To me, the impulse behind wanting a celebrity to run you over and wanting to sleep for a year is the same. Brandy Jensen, author of the hit-me-with-a-hammer tweet, explained herself in the Cut: “I think there’s something about how the ideal resolution of a crush is to be completely obliterated by it and suffer no longer under the terrible demands of desire.” This is a Christian fantasy of transcendence through self-harm: dying and living again in a new way: hallowed and content, feeling enough, but never too much. What’s so liberating about Moshfegh’s vision of rebirth is that it doesn’t require being hit on the head with a hammer to get there. Her narrator short-cuts the whole religious hangover of suffering as a route to grace. She chooses, instead, to sleep through it.

There is a moment at the very end of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, another novel about an unconventional search for meaning, that features antidepressants. Heti’s narrator, who may or may not be Heti herself, has experienced anxiety and depression all her life. When she tries medication for the first time, it’s such a profound relief it feels anticlimactic. All those years she had been trying to solve herself by just living through it: “leaning on epiphanies to make me feel better, the feeling would last for ten minutes, or a day, but it wouldn’t really change anything.” The solution is so simple, she almost can’t end the novel:

I fear I don’t have the right to speak anymore, given the drugs… What kind of a story is it when a person goes down, down, down – but instead of breaking through and seeing the truth and ascending, they go down, then they take drugs, and then they go up? I don’t know what kind of story that is.

I’ve spent so long wearing pain like it’s some kind of badge of honour. I have avoided medication because I do still think of struggle as somehow truthful. Maybe I think it makes me seem interesting, like I have something to say. Anxiety and self-hate and denial is so intrinsic to my idea of productivity and attainment, that trying to live without it is unimaginable. I think I’ve based my personality around being abject: my mum’s happiness feels less real to me than the idea of Cate Blanchett stepping on my neck. But what I love about My Year Of Rest And Relaxation is Moshfegh’s insistence that pain is not meaningful. It’s dull.

Early on in the novel, the narrator quits her fancy job at a Manhattan art gallery in spectacular fashion. She’s been napping in a storage cupboard on her lunch-breaks, but now she wants to nap full time. On her way out, disgusted by a pretentious exhibition of taxidermied dogs, she takes a shit on the floor, shoving the soiled Kleenex in the mouth of a stuffed poodle. The audaciousness of just actually being happy is thrilling and inconceivable to me in a way that feels a bit like that: like taking a really amazing shit on the floor.

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