In Which My Seasonal Affective Disorder Manifests As Incessant Dreams About Ben Schwartz
Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes | Essays
The First Dream
Here’s the first dream, from the night that bridged October 3 and October 4: I walk into a room. A series of stairs lead to a curved bay window. It’s dark outside. Along the stairs are bookshelves filled with books. In the center of the platform around which the bay windows surround is a leather desk chair. Sitting in the chair, in a dark suit, is Ben Schwartz. He leans on his right arm. He’s sold his soul to a demon so he could have a black market crab business. He’s gotten into a disagreement with a local restaurateur. He hands me a single crab, in a bag, on ice. He directs me to deliver this crab to the local restaurateur with a message. “Tell them, ‘It’s an eye for an eyelash,’” he says. An eye for an eyelash! Ben Schwartz is brutal. I lean over to him to take the bag. “You’re so good,” I tell him and lean even further over to whisper directly into his ear, “at business.” I walk out to deliver the crab.
I have seasonal affective disorder. Every year, as the sun rises later and later in the morning, I start dipping deeper and deeper into the sludge of depression. It starts, I hate to say, in August. Usually by September I plateau for a while: foggy, with bad days, especially when there’s cloud cover. By October there’s another dip. December is usually busy enough that I get by. January and February—brutal. On the worst days, it feels as though my blood is made of molasses. I cry or feel nothing. I sleep excessively, napping hard for my full hour lunch break. I am getting 9 hours of sleep at night.
By March, I am having some okay days again. By April, I am finally fine.
Every year I feel foolish to have SAD. It’s so obvious. The face of it is so clear. I know exactly what will solve my problems. If the fucking sun would just rise earlier in the morning, I could be lucid, alert, happy again. Things like therapy seem useless; it would be like someone going to therapy because they’re thirsty. The correlation is so one-to-one, so uncomplicated, it hurts.
I am golden and alive and powerful during May, June, and July. I wake up before my alarm each day and nearly float out of bed. I can stay up to ten o’clock easily. If I take a nap in the afternoon, it’s pure pleasure: allowing myself to rest and maybe dream only to bounce up and fully live the rest of the day.
But I can’t make the sun rise earlier. So I just feel terrible for half of the year and wait.
The Way I Deal With It
After many years of suffering, this is the system: I have a lamp that slowly turns on 30 minutes before my alarm goes off—my sunrise lamp. Then, if I wake up at 3:30 a.m. I know I can still sleep because the light is not on, but if I wake up at 5:55 a.m., I will see the light glowing and know I have to get going. I wrench myself from bed, away from my husband, Kenny, with whom I am usually still attached from the night before (when he comes to bed around midnight, in my sleep, I wriggle my way into the crook of his arm, resting my head on his chest, and do not detach until absolutely necessary). I go to the kitchen and gnaw on a vitamin D gummy and flip on my SAD lamp—an ultra bright lamp that is supposed to trick my brain into thinking it’s the sun. Then I have to get breakfast for my kid, log onto my work computer, and etc.
I try to only drink coffee three or four days of the week. When I drink it too much, it doesn’t help me wake up, and I just end up jittery and sweaty. I try to take walks if the weather is at all amenable, but often I end up taking a nap at lunch.
Some days it helps; some days nothing can. Regardless, anytime my SAD lamp turns off, I get a feeling of dread in the back of my throat, like something dropping from a rope.
The Second Dream
I’m with my friends in a cabin. We are here for the weekend. It’s fall, so we spent some of the day outside, but now it’s night; we are warm and cozy in the low yellow light of the cabin. I find Ben Schwartz on a bench and sit beside him. He’s wearing a red flannel over a t-shirt: classic. He looks at me, and I touch his jaw gently, run my finger along his hair by his temple. “You know I dream about you, right?” I ask, actively dreaming about him.
So, Why Ben Schwartz?
“Do you think about Ben Schwartz often?” Kenny asks me, as I explain this dream to him.
“I mean, I am now!” I exclaim. But the more I thought about this I did realize: I kinda do think about Ben Schwartz a lot.
Like, I watched his movie, Happy Anniversary, two years ago. I have literally never heard anyone talk about this movie. One day I just searched “Ben Schwartz” on Netflix, and it came up, so I watched it. I use the “The Woooooorrst” gif of Jean-Ralphio Saperstein, Ben Schwartz’s character on Parks and Rec, at least once a week. I watched all of the Middleditch and Schwartz specials and mourned when the Thomas Middleditch allegations came out, not because I gave a shit about that guy, but because I knew I wouldn’t get more Ben Schwartz long-form improv on Netflix. I had excitedly watched Flora and Ulysses on Disney+ because Ben Schwartz had a full-on beard. If a video with Ben Schwartz is suggested to me on YouTube, I click!
So fine, I guess I didn’t mean to, but I do think about Ben Schwartz often.
A Note on my Dreams
I dream a lot and about a lot of people. I dream about my friends regularly. From the time I was 19 until I got pregnant at 27, I dreamt at least monthly about miscarrying a child or having a stillbirth. These dreams were brutal and graphic and often ended with me screaming and waking up crying. When I would talk about these dreams, people would love to tell me what they meant. “A birth usually means a major change is happening,” they’d comment on my Facebook status. “I have these dreams monthly,” I’d tell them, “they don’t predict anything.”1
What dreams do mean, for me, is that I really feel them. Once, I had a dream I was walking through my grandparent’s home, touching everything: the embossed lilies on the wallpaper, the bumpy but smooth brick-like tiles by the front door, the wood butcher block island. I woke up crying, and Kenny, still asleep, mumbled, “It’s okay; it’s not real.”
“But it is real,” I told him. “I’m crying because it’s real that that place doesn’t exist anymore and that I can’t go back.” My grandfather had been dead for seven years by then.
I usually dream about people I know, but I do occasionally have celebrity guests. I’ve dreamt about holding hands with Phoebe Bridgers or, once, that she was sitting on my lap. Cameron Esposito is a regular as well. In those dreams, I almost always am trying to use a public bathroom, but the door won’t stay latched, so Cameron Esposito holds the door closed for me. They’re one of my dream guardians, protectors.
Ben Schwartz is not a dream guardian. He is someone I am having intense and intimate moments with. He is a fixation.
1 To quote Phoebe Bridger’s song “Funeral”:
And I have this dream where I’m screaming underwater
While my friends are all waving from the shore.
And I don’t need you to tell me what that means.
I don’t believe in that stuff anymore.
A Note on Kenny in my Dreams
If I am even vaguely romantically interested in someone in a dream, I am also grieving, because Kenny has died. My brain cannot fathom a world in which I am not with Kenny and/or cheating on Kenny, so instead, it just kills him. But this also means within the dream world, any feelings I’m having, any risk I’m taking, is doubled down by the fact that I know Kenny Lakes, my lovelight, my beardsley, is dead.
While I usually get SAD symptoms starting in August, October is usually a pretty middling month for me. I have another dip, but the promise of daylight saving time is around the corner, and it’s not so brutally cold that I’m stuck inside yet. But October 2021 hits me like a cartoon boulder rolling me flat. I’m sleeping as much as possible. There are days that feel like I’ve woken up wrong, glitchy, and I spend the whole day waiting for night so I can restart myself like a computer. Kenny shoos me upstairs to lie down while he makes dinner, something I hadn’t even considered would be helpful, I am so consumed by muck.
My friend Sarah asks me, “Have you ever considered medication?”
“No, I haven’t,” I said. By which I meant: I didn’t realize it was an option. Any time I had googled, in desperation, how to treat SAD, I had seen these things: vitamin D, SAD lamps, exercise, limiting caffeine. But now, with “seasonal affective disorder medication” in my search, I see that it is apparently an option. I make an appointment with my PCP.
I Try to Get Ben Schwartz Out of my System
If you’ve ever had a song stuck in your head and tried listening to the song to get it out of your head, you might understand my strat here. At first, I was just thinking about Ben Schwartz so I was casually looking at his Instagram. But then, I was reading his Wikipedia page. I realized there were quite a few things I hadn’t seen him in (this was also when I realized how much stuff I had in fact seen him in). So I watched The Earliest Show, a web series produced by Funny or Die (also featuring the impeccable Lauren Lapkus) about a morning news show. The six-episode arc starts with Ben Schwartz’s character proposing on-air to his girlfriend and then each subsequent episode he experiences the 5 stages of grief (because oh yeah—she says no).
There’s a moment in this last episode, “Acceptance with Guest Pedro Pascal,” where Ben Schwartz’s character speaks with his ex-girlfriend for the first time since the first episode. Ben Schwartz sinks into genuine feeling. His voice gets low and direct. He has one arm crossed across his chest. The watcher forgets what this show is. There is no one but Ben Schwartz. He says, “I loved you, and I wasn’t prepared for you not to love me back, so I handled it poorly, but if you truly feel like you don’t love me back, just say it now and we’re fine.”
The ex-girlfriend stumbles, and Ben Schwartz says, “Do you love me?” She starts to say something but before she can finish, he says, “Are you in love with me?”
“No,” she says.
“That’s fine. I can deal with that. I can make that work. It’s not your job to stay in love with me, that’s fine.”2
Something about this clip fires off a bunch of little bells and lights in my brain. I watch interviews, like his interview with Larry King, as jubilant as Ben Schwartz is during the whole exchange, something between not quite believing this interview is happening and desperate to not just answer questions but ask them.
But then I just start watching clip reels:
“ben schwartz is a perfect man you can’t change my mind”
“Ben Schwartz Being Sassy For 5 Minutes and 8 Seconds”
“Best of Jean Ralphio | Parks and Recreation”
“Ben Schwartz Moments I’m Attracted To”
These videos excise Ben Schwartz from whatever he’s been on and condense him, tiny little packages of chemicals for my brain to eat up. I start watching them on YouTube in incognito mode so as not to flood my normal algorithm. I can’t stop. I think perhaps the overload will excise Ben Schwartz from my brain, that I’ll get tired of him, that I’ll run into some clip of him being sexist or transphobic and can just write him off completely. But I don’t. He is precious and kind and joyful.
I think about him all day every day for a full week.
2 I have watched this 33 second clip so many times that I got 90% of this exchange verbatim without having to rewatch it.
The Third Dream
I am at a house. There are maybe other people in the house, but they aren’t with us. Us being, of course, Ben Schwartz and me. I ask him to dance with me, and he does. It’s a mid-tempo song, so I get close to him and touch his face again. Then, one by one, I put my fingers in his mouth, which he receives. He sits down on the couch, tired, but I keep dancing. I ask him a question and realize he’s turned off. By which I mean: it’s like he’s an android and his power source is off. His eyes are open but he’s motionless. “Ben?” I say.
I Tell Ah-reum About my Depression
Everyone knows about my SAD because I yammer on about it all of the time, but what people don’t know is that I also think about killing myself all of the time. This makes it sound like I’m incredibly depressed, but I’m not. It’s a habit, like biting your nails or, if you’re also me, looping a strand of hair around my fingers and running it over my mouth, which I’ve done since I’ve had hair long enough to do this.3
Driving with my Ah-reum to see Phoebe Bridgers in Philadelphia, I tell her something I saw on TikTok that explains this. When I was 10, I didn’t have any friends or agency, and I was severely depressed and suicidal. I truly believe if I had Google (my year of depression started in tandem with the search engine’s first year of existence) that I would have at least attempted it. I thought my only options were guns, very sharp knives, or drugs, none of which I had access to. The thing I saw on TikTok, which I have not vetted but made a lot of sense to me, is that if you’ve ever been in that thought pattern, that your brain will just return to it: like muscle memory.
“So if I’m really stressed out, my brain just starts pinging, ‘Oh you should kill yourself. Oh you should kill yourself.’ It’s like a strobe light,” I tell Ah-reum “But it’s just a weird brain thing! It’s just left over from being a formative youth!” I’m driving, so I’m staring at the road when Ah-reum pauses before responding.
“I have to ask, you don’t actually think about killing yourself, do you?” she gently asks me.
“Oh, well, yeah,” I say. “But that’s more of a thought experiment.”
I tell her in October about how bad this month has been and how I’m going to try to see a doctor about getting drugs.
“Just a reminder that your feelings are valid regardless of how deep your understanding of the causes might be!” she texts me. “Be gentle with yourself—your body, as always, is doing it’s best to protect you in this change of season.”
I imagine my subconscious flipping through a rolodex of names and ripping out a card labeled BEN SCHWARTZ. This is it, fellas! My subconscious yells to the little theater troupe of my dreams. This is what will save her this year.
3 When I was 18, my grandfather asked when I thought I would stop doing that. I told him, “Well, it’s been 18 years, I don’t think it’s happening soon.” Another 15 years later, I still stand by that.
Ben Schwartz Isn’t Sleeping Well This Month
On October 26, 2021, Ben Schwartz, along with Anya Taylor-Joy, is a guest on the Late Late Show with James Corden. In the interview, he admits that he’s been struggling with insomnia. He admits that he’s listened to rain white noise so often that driving in Toronto rain nearly had him asleep at the wheel. On the 28th, Comedy Bang Bang comes out with a “Solo Bolo Hallowolo” episode, and Ben Schwartz briefly mentions there that he only got four hours of sleep the night before. Here I am, spending all night touching his face, and he’s barely asleep at all.
In my book, Ashley Sugarnotch & the Wolf, Ashley and the Wolf mostly interact in their dreams: “midnight trysts,” I call them. I like the idea of this: that we can find each other on some dream plane, even though I fully believe that to be impossible. I both know for a fact that my dream space isn’t intersecting with Ben Schwartz’s and completely horrified that I’m pulling him into my dreams and that it’s mucking with his sleep. “I keep dreaming about a woman with half-purple hair,” I imagine he tells his mom4 on Facetime. “I wonder who she is. I hope she’s okay.”
4 His mom, I learned, has the same birthday as me. This is basically an excuse to fit that useless coincidence in here.
The Fourth Dream
I’m on a porch that has thin outdoor carpeting. It’s one of the porches that faces the pond in my old childhood neighborhood. There is a helicopter hovering over the pond, the water feathering out. By “on” the porch, what I mean is I am face down on the carpet, hoping the helicopter doesn’t see us. Because, by golly, Ben Schwartz is down on the carpet with me. It’s not clear if the helicopter is looking for us specifically or is just dangerous in general, but we hold hands and press our foreheads together and wait.
It’s Okay If You Don’t Believe Me
Skeptics amongst the readership of this—this, whatever this is—are probably starting to stroke their tiny goatees and twirl their sideburns and say, “Hmmm, I suspect some trickery here! I suspect these dreams never happened! And I bet that young lady isn’t nearly as sad as she claims to be!”
To you, I say, that’s fine. You don’t have to believe me! The point of my dreams is never that they did or didn’t happen. It’s that I wake up feeling swept away. It’s that they re-form the way my brain is going to process information that day.
Tig Notaro has a beloved, long joke about Taylor Dayne. In the joke, she recounts three different times she ran into Taylor Dayne and says the exact same thing to her. At the end she says, “People always say, ‘There’s no way this story’s true.’ It’s like why would I make up a 14-minute story about a pop singer that nobody’s really heard of? And just as a side note, I left out other times that I ran into Taylor Dayne.”
I think people have heard of Ben Schwartz in 2021 but, otherwise, I feel pretty much the same way. And just as a side note, I have had way more dreams about Ben Schwartz than the ones I’ve retold here. They just aren’t nearly as interesting. How many times would you like me to describe holding hands with someone I haven’t actually met?
Is Ben Schwartz Even Real?
I ask myself this over and over. Because, for all intents and purposes, he’s not. Does he exist out in the world? Absolutely, but so did Caesar, at one point. So does Britney Spears, now. That doesn’t mean I’ll ever talk to him. That doesn’t mean I’ll ever get to thank him for making me laugh during one of the worst bouts of seasonal depression I’ve had in years.
Have you noticed I only call him Ben Schwartz? He has a name like that—a name that is a unit in and of itself. My husband has a name like that: Kenny Lakes. And before I got married and made my name a line of iambic pentameter, I, too, had a name like that: Liz Morris. I don’t know just Ben.
So why this made up person, Liz? The fact of the matter is I am entirely and completely in love with Kenny. There’s a reason I cling to him at night, that when he actually has to go into the office and I don’t see him for a full eight hours I get weird and sad. He reads to me every night before I fall asleep, because I am apparently the same age as our five-year-old kid. He gives me space to be sad when SAD hits. He suggests I take time to write and read. He looks at me with wonder. He loves me. Kenny is the best person I know. He’s real, and he’s right here beside me right now, reading a manga about a dude who can see ghosts.
But then, I close my eyes, and: Ben Schwartz.
I Want to Stop Dreaming About Ben Schwartz
In a moment of pure lucidity, I check to see if Ben Schwartz is on Cameo. I think, maybe Ben Schwartz can help me to stop dreaming about Ben Schwartz. But no, he’s not, and instead I’m watching his first interview with Larry King again. In that one, Larry King had asked him, “What’s the best perk of being a celebrity?” And I don’t know what I was possibly expecting, but Ben Schwartz says, “My hope is that if my family needed, I could help them out, in a hospital way, or something like that.” My ears get hot. It’s the sweetest possible answer. He’s not even saying a perk of being a celebrity that he’s experienced. He’s saying that when presented with a way to use his celebrity—his power—he’s glad he’ll be able to protect the people he loves.
This is what I want from him. I want him to make me feel these little jolts of something. My favorite band, Roof Beams, has a song called “Pablo Picasso” where Nathan sings, “Love is more than all of these chemicals and circumstance.” This song came out when I was a teenager, and I carried that sentiment with me. Because sure, love was more than chemicals and circumstance, but was my SAD? Just chemicals and circumstance: the sun forcing my brain to stop providing me with whatever makes me feel stable and good. Perhaps these dreams about Ben Schwartz were my brain trying to compensate, to artificially replace what the sun won’t provide me.
From what I can tell, Ben Schwartz is genuinely kind. He seems to find real joy in the people and things around him. He seems like he really thinks about things and is curious about the world around him. So it’s not so bad to dream about Ben Schwartz. When I say I want to stop dreaming about Ben Schwartz, what I mean is I want to stop needing to dream about Ben Schwartz. I want to not need to retreat into the recesses of my brain to try to mine whatever chemicals make me feel clear and alert. I just want to be better.
I Go On Antidepressants
On October 29, I have a telehealth appointment with my doctor. She’s a full 30 minutes late, but I remember immediately why I go to her when she does finally log on. I explain my predicament and she says, “Yes, let’s put you on a very low dose of antidepressants; there’s no reason for you to suffer.” She tells me how hard it was for her to adjust to Maryland after moving here from India. “But I got used to it,” she tells me. “You should try medicine.”
I pick up my prescription after work and take the first one Saturday morning. It’s the lowest possible dose of Zoloft—25 mg. By that evening, I am wide awake. I stay up later than usual, before going to bed and waking up three or four times. But in waking, I find myself at peace. The next day, too, I am awake, nearly cartoonishly. I feel like maybe it’s a little too bright or like I’m breathing in pure oxygen.
Over the next week, I level out. It doesn’t feel like summer, but it’s close (“Stevia summer,” I tell Ah-reum when she checks in).
I walk to get the mail on a cool day two weeks later and start crying. I start crying because it is so beautiful: the leaves are fully in transition, the air is cool and crisp, and the sun is filtering oddly through the clouds like it only can in Autumn. I am crying because, every other year, this has filled me with solid dread. “A harbinger of death!” I used to exclaim to my fall-loving friends. The idea of purely enjoying this season without knowing how terrible it would soon make me feel, how much more terrible, really, had been unfathomable before. Unfathomable in a way I couldn’t have even described.
It feels dramatic to say, but I keep thinking, “I’m cured.”
The Fifth Dream
In the fifth dream, I am at a writing conference in an auditorium. I am talking to famous author Amber Sparks about writing and children. I walk to the bookfair, where I see my friend Sarah. I watch her table for her while she runs to the bathroom, and a woman comes to buy three books, which cost three, 22, and 99 dollars. I do the math like 6 times before I finally take her cash and put it into the envelope for Sarah. I leave Sarah and find Ben Schwartz at his own bookfair table. We go for a walk, and I try to hook arms with him, but he is so impossibly tall that I instead rest my hand on his forearm. We get chicken sandwiches at an in-conference center McDonalds; Ben Schwartz pays. We walk to the beach to eat our sandwiches. The sun is setting, and we watch the gyrados jump in and out of the waves. It’s incredibly beautiful and calm. It feels warm but not desperate. It feels like everything is more than okay.
Elizabeth Deanna Morris Lakes was born in Harrisburg, PA and has a BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University and an MFA from George Mason University. She has appeared in Dream Pop Lit, EcoTheo, The Rumpus, Cartridge Lit, and SmokeLong Quarterly. Her book, Ashley Sugarnotch & the Wolf, is out from Mason Jar Press.