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My Year of Stress and Isolation: Reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation in Spring 2020

By Mary DeCarlo

“______ makes me happy,” read a homework assignment I was given as a kindergartener. (Fill in the blank and draw a picture.) I drew a rectangle with four legs and a smiling, horizontal stick figure. “Sleeping makes me happy,” I wrote. This was around the time my mother handed down her child-sized record player to me. While looking through the collection of vinyl I found one titled “Lazy Mary” about a girl who never wants to get out of bed. Once discovered, this became a sort of theme song, and the anecdote about my kindergarten confession was told by my family to all. All this to say, I would have been drawn to Ottessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation at any time, but I read it in the spring of 2020: a time when stress and anxiety first began to take from me the thing I cherished most, my sleep. Anxiety began keeping me awake with fears of what bad news the next day might bring. I’d wake up screaming, nightmares becoming a guarantee. 

In March 2020, I was still waking up without fear. There were moments when I was awake without being aware. Seconds of the day when I wasn’t thinking about illness or death counts. Now there is no dawning horror, this is just the way it is. I am aware of it even in dreams. I began reading My Year of Rest and Relaxation in May of 2020, when everyone was still baking bread and doing puzzles. Like the protagonist, I turned to steaming hot baths for comfort. Night after night I’d pour in Epsom salt, bubbles, or fizzing bombs. I’d sit there reading for as long as I needed to feel some semblance of humanity again. Push my feet into the tile, add more scalding water, and sweat until I’d get so disoriented I’d need to call for assistance to get out. 

Having worked in museums across New York City and being a drama school graduate, I am well-acquainted with the personalities Moshfegh puts on display. In the book, an artist named Ping Xi taxidermies dogs for an art show. There are rumors that he freezes the dogs first to kill them. I remembered how I felt sitting in the audience as a fellow student manipulated dead guinea pigs as if they were alive, their bodies appearing to scamper across the room only to be “killed” in increasingly violent ways. Finally they were chucked into a microwave, their sizzling corpses served on a platter before us. This was done as a provocation, a way to see what we, as the audience, might do to stop it. We did nothing, comforting ourselves that our complacency was due to knowing this had all been approved by an advisor and was for a grade. In the fall of 2020, I watched human death tolls click higher and higher, the talking heads said the best thing I could do was to keep staying home, keep doing nothing.

I related to the narrator in superficial ways. I, too, only left my house to go to the bodega or, on special occasions, the pharmacy. I, too, consumed unholy amounts of pizza and fell asleep to the sounds of the television, the laugh track of Seinfeld transformed into my lullaby. What I most recognized was the exhaustion and the disgust with all the things we’re supposed to care about (what jeans are popular now and how am I supposed to part my hair?) and the disappointment in how the world continues to bark on despite the thickness of grief we all are moving through. Meeting deadlines, doing laundry, joining the Zoom—compartmentalizing every news alert and obit. I saw the privilege and the selfishness of the narrator’s retreat from the world, but I also saw the appeal. I recognized the attempt at self-preservation being done in a destructive way—sometimes it’s that or nothing. 

Stewing in my dirty bath water I noticed all the things I didn’t miss about the outside world: materialistic obsessions embodied by Reva (the narrator’s image-obsessed best friend), exploitative art that exists to shock rather than to heal (the work displayed at the gallery where the narrator works), and cheap relationships based on using people rather than nurturing them (shown most clearly in Trevor, the on-again, off-again guy the narrator has affairs with). More than anything I recognized the frustration with looking on the bright side, the uniquely American way any tragedy can be sold with a silver lining. My Year of Rest and Relaxation ends with 9/11, the narrator believing she can see Reva jumping from the World Trade Center on news footage from the day. I wonder if one day a commemorative COVID-19 shot glass will be sold in a gift shop at Elmhurst Hospital. 

On New Year’s Day of 2021, I lost my sense of taste and smell. In January, I’d wake to the sensation someone had slipped a plastic bag over my head. In February, I couldn’t climb two flights of stairs without losing my breath. In March, I could walk around a small lake. In April, I got vaccinated. In May, I was able to start walking the big hill around my parent’s house, every day finding the uphill portion a little easier. I thought back to the narrator’s struggles to reemerge from her sleep, the ways in which she feels reborn, and the new eyes she sees the world through. I’m jealous. I want to feel reborn, too, but I don’t. I’m still mourning the parts of me that were lost. I still don’t have my strength back, and my sense of smell is still funky. Reentering society, my goals are humble: to be more thoughtful, to show more appreciation for the people I love, and to be more forgiving to myself. I am grateful for slow progress and, one day, I want to get my sleep back.

Mary DeCarlo is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been seen in HAD, Capsule Stories Isolation Edition, and Variety Pack. Her plays have been performed in New York City at Dixon Place, wild project, Hudson Guild, and others. She has an MA in text and performance from RADA and Birkbeck University of London. You can find her lurking on Twitter at @merrymarymare or check out her website

Headshot of Mary DeCarlo
Mary DeCarlo

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