I have a muddled childhood memory from the late ’80s or early ’90s of a time when my mother briefly became a hypnosis enthusiast. She went to a meeting with a friend and came home with sets of tapes, called something like “The Power of Training Your Mind” or “Minding the Power Your Training.”The idea was that a third-party, the voice on the tapes, could instruct the listener to harness the untapped strength of their mind to overcome rebellion of the body, as if the two were enemies facing off across the division of battle lines.
At the tape peddler’s additional meetings—or maybe they were one-on-one sessions, or possibly they were Satanic orgies, my memories really are very hazy—my mother said she was hypnotized with the goal of being better: quitting smoking, losing weight, being calmer. At night, she would take our communal boom box into her room and listen to the tapes, voiced by a man saying boring words very slowly. This involved a lot of breathing, my mother endlessly panting as if she were exhausted by the exertion of settling herself into deep, vulnerable relaxation.
Despite the crumpled green packets of Salem Light 100s that remained in the bottom of her purse, my mother insisted the hypnosis worked. Even after she quit the tapes and the meetings, she remained adamant that if she’d just stuck to it, she could have vanquished her body’s cravings using only her mind.
Three decades removed from my mother’s failed experiment, I’m still not sure how much stock I place in the power of sitting quietly and obeying commands to be different. But in spite of those doubts, I have lately become a connoisseur of sleep meditation apps. This week alone I’ve already tried and abandoned three. Like a ravenous person at a buffet bitching about the consistency of the mashed potatoes, I’m exhausted, yet looking for the just the right combination of background noise, voice timbre, and permission to usher me quickly and completely into unconsciousness.
Pretty much everyone I know is finding it difficult to fall and stay asleep these days, and I’m no different. For as far back as I can remember, I’ve had no problem falling asleep during the day, while at night, the smallest sound or slightest discomfort can trigger an anxiety spiral of wakefulness that can last anywhere from a few minutes or until morning. As a child, I used to keep a copy of Matilda in my nightstand and reread it, sometimes cover to cover, during the hours I was supposed to be sleeping. I have perhaps arranged my entire life thus far around my erratic sleep schedule—no morning classes in college followed by six years of grad school where I mostly taught afternoons, freelancing for years after that. Now my set hours here, the first time since 2014 I’ve really had to be anyplace at a certain time with any real consistency, require me to get up at 6 am, and a copy of Matilda isn’t going to cut it.
For a while, I tried a CBD gummy and a Unisom before bed but the combination made me too sleepy in the morning and neither worked on its own. Alcohol does not and has never made me sleep. Over the last month and a half as I, along with everyone else, watch the doom scroll of constant bad news, more and more, I’ve been waking from the few hours sleep I’ve painstakingly lulled myself into with the dullest books I can find, with an aching jaw and a dull, thumping headache. I’m not sure whether to blame my body or my mind for my clenched restlessness, but perhaps there’s enough blame to go around.
A few weeks ago, a link to an online meditation popped up in the Jezebel Slack chat. I can’t remember why or what we were talking about, but I listened for a few minutes and felt, briefly, pretty good. Kind of warm and woozy and not at all like my usual state, a coffee-soaked bundle of short-circuiting nerves. So, that night, I searched “Sleep Meditation” in the App Store and downloaded a one-week trial of the Calm app.
Calm’s the app where Laura Dern and Matthew McConaughey read bedtime stories to pandemic-jangled adults, but it also features sleep meditation and guided meditations promising to banish anxiety and foster gratitude. One-stop shopping for all your anxiety needs. I knew the celebrity bedtime stories would only make me more attentive and wakeful; I cannot be lulled to sleep listening to anything with a plot. And I have no interest in meditations meant to make me a better person during daylight hours. But the first sleep mediation I tried on the app was lovely, tinkly water sounds beneath a woman’s measured voice, granting me permission to let go of the tension in my feet, which I was startled to notice did, in fact, house an alarming amount of tension.
Releasing that newfound anxiety hiding in my arches was narcotic. I fell asleep right after the meditation ended, and within days, I was falling asleep within minutes of pressing play, with the woman’s voice still rattling off her list of bodily cubbyholes from which I might expel unwanted tension.
But I also quickly learned that not every meditation on the app is a winner. The man’s voice makes me anxious, something about his consonant sounds or maybe his tone. The meditations that knock me out need background water sounds and no talk about gratitude or anecdotes from a white woman on lessons we can learn from African tribes she’s read about. These tangents set my mind to anxiously outlining blogs about how dumb the idea of listening to a voice on a phone reminding me to calm down actually is. That left just three or four meditations out of dozens on the app that could do the trick.
After my one-week trial was up I balked since the Calm app costs nearly $70 a year, an exorbitant price for a combined total of an hour and half of a woman telling me I am allowed to go to sleep. So now, I’ve become restless in my sleep-seeking, making my way down the search list of sleep meditation apps looking for the special app that will knock me out consistently in a way that is also pleasant and outside my ability to ridicule. The field narrows every night.
What I’m doing, I’ve realized, mirrors exactly my mother was doing all those years ago: searching for a grown-up helper to spur me to victory over the tension in my body by coaching me to focus my restless mind. Yet I do not like sleep meditations that remind me of this reality, the fact that I am asking some stranger with a talent for droning to hypnotize me to sleep for free, or at least a more reasonable rate than $70 a year.
Two nights ago, I deleted an app in disgust at 11:30 p.m. because the woman kept on yammering about going “Deeper and deeper,” putting me in mind of some Rasputin-voiced hack from a cartoon swinging a pocket watch. Please, lady, I’m an adult. Albeit an adult who needs my hypnotist to disguise the fact that she’s hypnotizing me a little bit by calling it “sleep meditation” and using yoga-speak about releasing tension from my core to keep me from balking at the endeavor, much the same way I have to hide my dog’s medicine in peanut butter to make it easier to swallow. Last night, a Scottish gentleman from a different app described rain falling on a tent for an hour, in a meditation I chose specifically because it was called something like “Deep Sleep Rain Meditation.” Oddly, there were no water sounds, just the man talking about how great water sounds. I felt tricked, as if I’d downloaded pornography for one type of sex act, only to open the file and find the filmed boning just tangentially related. I fell asleep anyway, not fully satisfied.
Tonight, I’ll most likely download a different app and search for a different voice who can give me what I’m yearning for—dropping off to unconsciousness that lasts, unbroken, for hours, mind and body both vanquished by the power of someone else’s sanction of my desire to just fucking relax.