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A $20,000 bed? Let me sleep on it

In the old days, when something wore out, I bought a new one. Now, everything I buy seems to be a test of identity or a means of self-expression. Even buying something as universal as bedding involves the kind of personality analysis I associate with searching for a husband. When I needed a new mattress recently, I found out that all this personality doesn't come cheap.

To begin with, most mattresses are now so thick that they require new, larger sheets. There are glamorous, standoffish satin sheets or comfy, friendly flannel sheets. There are exotic Egyptian cottons with high thread counts or homey Sea Island cottons. There are polyester comforters and comforters made of down from the pinfeathers of college-educated geese. Mattresses alone can cost $20,000, such as the "individually pocketed" British VI-spring -- they made the mattresses on the Titanic -- or $16,000, such as the Hastens, which serves the Swedish Royal family. No one buys a mattress anymore; they join the mattress revolution, or invest in a sleep system or discover their "sleep number." I will spend a third of my life in bed, the mattress salesmen all told me. Yes, I wanted to say, but it's the third of my life when I will be asleep.

So preparing to buy a mattress was like going to couples therapy or interviewing for a job. To sink down at the end of the day, or even sometimes in the middle of the day, and drift into the velvety darkness of sleep is my personal nirvana. It wasn't enough to know that I love to sleep. Was I an old-fashioned girl? An Anglophile? Or a technobabe? Did I want to be like the Queen of England, or like Sex and the City star Kim Cattrall?

The $8,000 Hypnos Empress, the hand-tied cashmere and silk mattress slept on by Britain's Royal Family, beckoned regally from the showroom floor. As I sank into its depths, a great feeling of peace came over me. The monarchy was safe. Uneasy lies the head that bears the crown; the royal body is deliciously comfortable. As the salesman droned on about cashmere from the underbellies of goats frolicking on the Hindu Kush, I began to drift off. His cell phone woke me up.

Then I went to look at a Tempur-Pedic mattress, a Swedish "sleep system" that uses special foam originally invented by NASA to relieve astronauts of the G-forces of a rocket launch. It was very, very comfortable. An hour later, at the Select Comfort mattress store, I was assigned a sleep number based on the way I answered questions about how I sleep and the way a computer image showed the mattress pressing against my body. I used a remote control to make the mattress softer and watched the computer image turn from red to a restful green. It was all I could do to stay awake.

Listening to these salesmen, I came to learn that I had never had a good night's sleep in my life. I was deprived of the "deep" and "recuperative" sleep that the right mattress would provide. I was tossing and turning all night without even knowing it. I was damaging my bones. My skin was being tortured. No wonder it was hard to get up in the morning. No wonder I hadn't won a Pulitzer Prize.

These new mattresses promised me stamina and energy. I would make more money, one salesman assured me when I winced at the price. I shouldn't think of a mattress as a purchase, but as an investment.

It was a long day. On my way home I stopped at a local store, where I sank into a modestly priced Kingsdown. It felt amazingly good. In fact, I realized that I have never met a mattress I didn't like.

The moment of lying down on a soft mattress, whether it costs $10,000 or $500, is always a very good moment. I'm sleeping on the Kingsdown now, with my plain old white sheets, but I keep thinking about all the energy I'm sacrificing.

Am I the kind of person who turns my back on a revolution? Don't I care enough about myself to spend the limit on a mattress? How do I ever expect to get ahead in the world? Somehow all these questions just make me sleepy.

-- Susan Cheever, a columnist at Newsday, is the author of 11 books, including My Name Is Bill, a biography of Bill Wilson, the co-founder of Alcoholics Anonymous. Domestic Bliss will return next week.

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