Issue Forty-Two - Summer 2023

My Mattress Spies on Me… and No One Cares

By Lisa Friedlander

“We are here to awaken from our illusion of separateness.” Thich Nhat Hanh (1926-2022)

I knew a somnolent position of my body parts existed by which I could fall, slide, or dip into sleep, and stay there for a reasonable seven hours. But I hadn’t found it on the old mattress with its fortress of pillows buttressing my attempts to get every limb and my head comfortable at the same time. Even when, occasionally, I achieved that sensation of releasing all muscular tension in my neck without burying my nose in the pillow too deeply to breathe, I failed to maintain it for more than a few moments. Restless once again, I’d bunch the pillows a different way, stick my feet outside the covers, remove my sweater, turn on my back and watch the show my activated visual cortex produced as I hovered between waking and sleeping.

I’ve treated my own wakefulness with the patience one would extend to a slightly noisy neighbor, a snoring dog or a child depositing monsters under my bed and jumping in to cast off nightmares. I have a long history of tolerance in the face of chaos, starting from early childhood, so a new mattress hadn’t occurred to me until an indelible depression in the middle of the old one caused me and my spouse to roll into each other or, as compensatory alternative, migrate to opposite edges of our shared unrest.

Increasingly, our mattress fought us, like a disgruntled employee, ready to retire, who’s stayed on until we hired a replacement. And of course, why not get a smarter bed? An au courant mattress with masterful new technologies that would help us improve our Sleep IQ, now that we’d covered crosswords for waking IQ, a library of self-help books and podcasts for EQ, and a crap ton of supplements to stem the inevitable tide of atherosclerotic cardiovascular disease. So, we made a date to peruse beds in bed stores, a project done lying down at various angles, a phone in hand, and plugged into nearby sockets. Experts talked us through options for mattress pressure, for continuous adjustments, for angles of head and feet, for a mattress with two separate heads or separate mattresses linked together which obviated the need for any agreement between the two sides.

We went home to digest the volume of information and the impact such a smart bed would have on each of us, even our relationship, let alone our hoped-for outcome regarding more continuous sleep.

All the mattress options to eliminate wiggly sleep reminded me of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, “The Princess and the Pea.” In that story, a lowly-looking young woman reveals her true nature as a princess by virtue of her sensitivity to a pea placed beneath multiple mattresses. In my story, “The Mattress and the Pea,” the true nature of a smart mattress would be tested by its sensitivity to the ‘peas’ on top of it. But in both tales, a relationship exists between persons and their beds.

It seemed both alluring and frightening to consider a more intimate acquaintance with a mattress; one that would get to know me as I got to know it. In fact, my mattress would register a thousand things about me every single second, with its fancy-dancy, full-body, ballisto-cardiography sensor. Already, distinct from other furniture, beds carry the weight of many expectations. A bed serves as a place within a room within a dwelling. Beds hold the weight of our dreams and nightmares; we study on them, work on them, seek solace there, have sex, sleep–or try to sleep, snuggle against or with others who may enter that space. Beds cushion the most important of our ‘hellos’ and ‘goodbyes’–those dear ones entering or exiting the world.

Sure, Siri, Alexa, and Apple watch–with new technology that will even tell a woman when she’s ovulating–as well as cameras and satellites, extend the reach of our intelligence, our interactive intelligence, just as much as internal brain or heart-signaling devices, such as a cochlear implant or a pacemaker attach us to and amplify how we function. We are one with our tools, from stone knives to lasers to an endlessly possible set of more elaborate extensions that connect us to the world–both molecular and global—as well as to other humans everywhere on our shared planet.

We recognize our connectedness more and more, our human version of mycorrhizal networks, like those that live under forest floors for the transportation of micronutrients, and perhaps even electrical current. But social media outlets promote fantasies of self-importance, of individuality–our hedge against mortality, our inevitable non-existence. A tide of paranoia easily rises alongside our discoverability—a piece of vanity that any of us have much to demonstrate of interest to governments or to social entities with clout.

That paranoia, even that lesser sense, of self-importance, recedes with age, as repeatedly, we watch our footprints in the sand washed by the inevitable tide of non-following. It hurts less too, this moving into the slow lane (forgive the metaphorical changing of lanes; an example of how hard it really feels to let go), where we drive less hurried because we can see the off-ramp ahead. We feel it in our gut now, that loving and thriving, are one and the same; that love is what we can give the world. The body knows it now, though we have read this in poems, in spiritual teachings, in songs, in folk tales, in philosophies. The body knows it in the dust it is becoming, in its dissolution. And, as the anthropologist Robin Dunbar has investigated, the number of people we can maintain meaningful relationships with is limited by the size of our brains. The ideal human community is around 150 people. My brain, your brain, is made of 150 people.

My mattress numbers merely aggregate with thousands and millions of others for the general advancement of knowledge about how to alter the character of wayward sleep. My personal data has no meaning for anyone else, even the 150 within reach of my heart and my daily thoughts. I slept on this fact, both comforting for making my idiosyncrasies invisible, and pernicious at the same time, in the face of anonymity’s encroachment.

This morning I woke from a disturbing, perseverative dream in which I’d bought a classy electric kettle with a thin, elegant spout. I did buy such a kettle, but it hasn’t arrived yet. In the dream, knowing how faulty consciousness may produce a fatal disconnect with those around us, I insisted my immediate family watch as the kettle brought water to an optimal temperature right below a boil. And again. Gathered around, we must have watched it multiple times in my dream. I’d press the button and the heated water made steaming sounds. Finally, vapor issued from the tiny ‘o’ of the spout. I picked up the kettle and it turned off. Made sure it was off.

Later, I thought about what must have promoted the dream: a psychotherapy client told me that, after sitting in on a session, her mother had scolded her for using the word, ‘fucking’ in our conversation. “What must she think of our family?” the mother said, referring to me. Of course, as a therapist and a writer of stories I love all words, including ‘fucking’. Whatever words people use to tell their stories. How they say what they say bonds us as closely as is possible across the impassable-and-yet-connected abyss between that person’s mattress and mine. I reassured her that nothing will shock me after more than three decades of witnessing life stories. And so, that led me to think about the horrible, tragic stories I’ve heard and held, sitting across from someone traumatized and relieved at the same time for spilling.

I can tell you that, oftener than you might imagine, a person has left in a car, not only their dog but their baby, to bake and die; or let a small child roll into a pool and drown while getting a beer or running to the bathroom. Or has forgotten to turn off the kettle on a gas flame that burns down a whole house, with five apartments–in which one of them, a family sleeps until it’s too late. Or someone drives drunk and survives the accident they caused while their best friend, or lover, or child dies. Or stabs a lover or strangles them. Or overdoses after a breakup. And sadly too, I heard the details of a couple who died in a motorcycle accident while on the way to the funeral of another twosome among their friends who’d died in a motorcycle crash.

We have lapses in consciousness; a fret my kettle dream warded against. A dream laid on my new mattress for the betterment of me and my dearest people: wake up, wake up, even when you’re already awake. Wake up.

This is how accidents most often happen: We believe in our own omnipotence. We have faith that an unsafe situation will be safe for just a few minutes, just this one time, if we hurry; we ignore the inner wisdom nagging at the backs of our necks. We believe in our ability to compensate for impairment, or that a god of some kind is watching over us. We get complacent about putting on the seat belt or leaving the text message unanswered. Plugged into the mycelial-like grid of the car, the phone, and all the places expecting us, there are those moments we will still go offline, go rogue, misremember, forget completely, stop caring; or mistake ourselves for exceptional beings or exceptionally lucky humans. We have the hubris to imagine ourselves having more of an influence on an outcome than all the rest of the other determining forces, converging at the same time and place. But then something breaks, a glass, a heart, a life, a country. And it can never be put back together. And it happens on the journey, sometimes long before the sign to the ultimate off ramp is spotted, as I spot it now, with many years under me on the old mattress.

“The use of BCG as a passive-sensing technology enables the measurement of motion, position changes, breathing, and small movements within the body such as those generated by the ejection of blood with each heartbeat. The smart bed sensors automatically begin data collection as soon as the user enters the bed and stops once the user leaves,” says the information packet that comes with my Sleep Number bed.

I might not leave my bed at all; at least not until I’ve rearranged the nuts and bolts in my head. Sometimes I can’t help getting stories stuck inside me. They embed themselves, looking for a soft place to land and to close their eyes from weeping, or open their fists from raging. On the worst nights I’ve gone to bed with every client I’ve seen that day. We can barely move on the packed mattress or someone might roll off onto the floor. These experiences give new meaning to the phrase “bedroom community.” A therapist utilizes, with some training, of course, the same activated dorsolateral and ventromedial prefrontal cortices that any prosocially programmed human uses, to navigate relationships within the 150 and beyond.

We are spied upon and spies. We wish someone cared how we slept or didn’t sleep. But we don’t want them creeping into our dreams. We can only allow them to think certain things about us. Unless we know they love us anyway, in spite of the negative things they are thinking about us, as those in our 150 do. Or possibly do.

I press the button and the head of my bed elevates. I think better in a slightly upright position. I pick up Stephen King’s memoir-ish book, On Writing. I raise the bottom of the bed so my feet can think better too. Some notes from my mattress have just been sent to the Mayo Clinic and are melding into a sea of other information about position changes within its collective of users. Maybe the new electric tea kettle will come today to replace the dream I had about it. I pat my mattress a bit and smooth the soft sheet over it. I like it. I get the feeling it likes me too and I’ve passed the ‘pea’ test as well as an old lady might.

Copyright 2023 Friedlander