We've Gotta Have it
Why I Never Skip Making My Bed
They say the little things can change your life. Sometimes, they also help you hold onto it
A year ago, I gave away my bed. I needed less clutter, in my home and in my mind, which to me meant sleeping on a cot for three months until I bought a futon and tatami mat. The cot was so narrow that one night I rolled right off it, in the middle of a dream in which I struggled to open a stubborn attic door that abruptly gave way. I went crashing to the floor, in the dream and in real life.
Still, what I missed most about my old bed wasn’t its size or comfort. What I missed most was the daily routine of making it, that satisfying, soothing morning ritual of smoothing the bottom sheet and resecuring any elasticized corners that might have released their hold on the mattress during the night and slunk into themselves. Next, I’d shake out the flat sheet, letting it drift downward, onto the mattress. Even my cat, who is annoyed by most household chores and the noises or disruptions they create, enjoyed the ritual. Granted, his enjoyment came from interrupting the bed-making — tail twitching dangerously, he pounced while the sheet was still hovering, then attacked it with startling ferocity, all teeth and claws.
Of course, making the bed isn’t the only domestic chore that provides satisfaction, a feeling of accomplishment, or even pleasure. Dish washing, for example, can be meditative, as can folding laundry. Unlike bed-making, though, there’s no clearly defined, satisfying end to other quotidian chores like washing dishes or doing laundry. As soon as you are done, dirty items begin to pile up again. Once the bed is made, it’s made (at least until I get into it again), a signal that the day has begun. As long as it remains an untidy nest of blankets and sheets and tossed-about pillows, I feel equally untidy and tossed about. I can no more leave the bed unmade than I can leave the apartment without taking a shower and getting dressed.
And so, when I slid into severe depression at age 48, making the bed took on an even greater importance. At first, putting my bed in order felt like the least I could do, since I couldn’t put my mood in order. I’d been depressed before with the usual list of symptoms — crying for no reason, a lack of interest in activities that I usually enjoyed, and, yes, staying in bed well into the afternoon, even though I wasn’t sleeping. I’d been dealing with depression since my late teens. But this? This was different, less a dip than a slide that couldn’t be stopped. To continue with the bed metaphor, a lead blanket had fallen over me.
Perhaps the only way to describe depression is with analogies: it’s a lead blanket, an abyss, a void, the depths of the ocean where no light ever penetrates. And you are always alone, your only companions despair and terror.
Yet even when I was far, far gone, unable to do more than tremble and breathe through each excruciating second of existence, I still made my bed in the morning, even when I was just going to get right back into it. I kept up the routine once I landed in a psychiatric facility as an inpatient, though the routine I’d once loved now felt like an ordeal — it still signaled the day had begun, but it was the beginning to an endless, grueling day. Even when it was time to slide beneath the blanket and top sheet for real, there was no comfort to be found in sleep, which was almost as torturous as consciousness — it no longer offered restoration or relaxation or even escape. When I woke, I still felt depleted, exhausted, trapped.
Shuffling through the hallway of the facility, I glanced mechanically into the other patients’ rooms. Their beds were always unmade, telling the story of yet another restless night, of nightmares that didn’t end upon waking. The fact that I kept on with my morning bed-making meant, to me, that I was different from the other patients, that I was on some level functioning.
The fact that I was as nonfunctional as they were infuriated me even more than I already was at being 150 miles from my home in New Orleans, in a psychiatric facility that billed itself as a “behavioral hospital” and featured a mural of a dolphin with an insipid smile on the dining hall–cum–recreation room wall.
Every morning for the five mornings I was an inpatient, I smoothed the gray bottom sheet with its suspicious yellowish streaks over the thin, plastic-covered mattress before shaking out the top sheet. I folded it neatly at the head of the bed and tucked everything in meticulously. Then I plumped up the limp, plastic-coated pillow, which was always limper and flatter by morning, as though it, too, were depressed. I punched and patted with a vigor bordering on rage.
After placing the reinvigorated pillow at the head of the bed, I drew the worn beige blanket from the foot of the bed to the top, over my handiwork. Once I had smoothed it slightly so that it was as wrinkle-free as possible, my work was done. The bed looked acceptable again, no longer rumpled, no longer disassembled; it was complete.
During those five days, I had no control over where I went or with whom I spent time. Every weekday was segmented into different group therapies — talk therapy, recreational therapy, coping skills therapy — while the weekends had no scheduled activities. Patients were only allowed outside for 15-minute smoke breaks every hour. I didn’t smoke, but I joined the smokers because those 15-minute increments were the only times I could breathe fresh air and see the sky. While the smokers clustered around the lone picnic table, I walked back and forth between the building and the high wood fence that bordered the property. On the other side was a field, and beyond the field was a road. If I stood close enough to the fence and put one eye to the narrow gap between the boards, I could watch the cars and trucks as they passed.
Other than the door to the bedroom I shared with another patient, I was unable to open or close any doors by myself; all were controlled with electronic locks. And I certainly had no control over my brain, which continued to move with infuriating slowness, churning through the same feelings of hopelessness and fear. But making the bed. That I could control.
After two long years, I finally regained control of my brain, five months before the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States and the lockdowns began. Making my bed suddenly took on even greater significance than before. What if leaving the sheets and blankets a mess one day resulted in my mood getting equally messy? I’ve added bed-making to the list of superstitions I continue to abide by — skirting a ladder propped against a building; going out of my way to avoid crossing paths with an all-black cat; holding my breath when passing a graveyard lest I inhale a troubled spirit — because who knows what else might go wrong if I get careless?
Dutifully taking my medication every morning didn’t save me from a mental breakdown; I guess you could say that making my bed didn’t save me either. And it won’t save me now, from another breakdown or from isolation-induced loneliness or from the uncertainty we’re all living with. But this morning, the sun shone through the bedroom window, and the cat wrestled with the sheets as though his life depended on it. And me? I went on with my day.
Heather L. Hughes is a freelance writer based in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has appeared on Ozy, YourTango, and Salon, among other sites, and you can read more of her work here.