The first time I tried Ativan, I was 15. I had to spend the night in the emergency room, and I was given one "to take the edge off." It turned out that I had leukemia, and I would spend over 200 nights in the hospital that year. I asked for an Ativan almost every single one of them.
In the 14 years since then, I've gone through dozens of prescriptions for sleep aids, from Ambien to Zopiclone. I've tried over-the-counter pills like Benadryl, Gravol, and Unisom. I've never felt guilty about it. I consider sleeping pills a solution to a problem, rather than a problem in themselves. But there was an incident a few weeks ago that gave me pause: Manic in the throes of a weeklong, profound insomnia, the over-the-counter pills and $120 worth of natural sleep aids weren't working. I called my doctor and begged for an emergency prescription of Ativan, convinced I would have a heart attack if I didn't take the goddamn pill and get some sleep.
I got the prescription, took the Ativan, and slept. I still had three half-milligram pills left. But for the first time, I felt like an addict. And for the first time, I considered that I might want to stop.
Sleep learning, or "hypnopedia," is an attempt to trick the mind into absorbing information during sleep. The first commercial application was in 1927, when Alois Benjamin Saliger marketed the Psycho-Phone, an audio device that promised to tap into "the vast powers of your unconscious mind during sleep" by playing specific phrases on repeat. "It has been proven," Saliger told the New Yorker in 1933, "that natural sleep is identical with hypnotic sleep and that during natural sleep the unconscious mind is most receptive to suggestions."
Saliger sold recordings to inspire prosperity, inspiration, normal weight, even life extension. The script for mating went as follows: "I desire an ideal mate. I radiate love. I have a fascinating and attractive personality. My conversation is interesting. My company is delightful." The recording would go on through the night.
Fifteen years after the launch of the Psycho-Phone, in the summer of 1942, psychologist Lawrence LeShan conducted an experiment on sleep learning. LeShan brought a group of young boys who bit their nails to a country home, and while they were sleeping, played a recording of his own voice repeating: "My fingernails taste terribly bitter. My fingernails taste terribly bitter." When the record player broke, he supposedly went into their rooms and whispered the message himself.
After 54 nights listening to the mantra, LeShan eported that 40 percent of the boys stopped biting their nails. Since then, the scientific community hasn't given much consideration as to whether or not sleep learning works, but research suggests sleep plays an imperative role in cementing learned information, and audio played at night can marginally enhance language learning.
Illustrations by Mai Ly Degnan
I wanted to see if sleep learning could teach me how to sleep. I bought a fresh notebook and made a voice recording, inspired by the Psycho-Phone, of myself repeating: "I will sleep so deeply tonight; I will have a restful night and wake up feeling awake and alert." I would play if for myself every night for two weeks, in the hopes I could convince my unconscious mind to make it through the night without sleeping pills.
Here are my notes from the first week of the experiment:
I wanted to start today, but I didn't sleep last night and was scared I'd get trapped in another insomnia cycle. Took my last 1.5 milligrams of Ativan. I'll start tomorrow.
Was tired all day from taking sleeping pills and not sleeping enough. I set my recording to start an hour after I went to bed and fell asleep immediately, around 10 PM. I woke up at 1 AM to the low sound of my own voice, thinking, Fuck my mantra.
Went to yoga tonight, which sometimes helps me sleep more soundly, but woke up at 4 AM. When I woke up, I put the mantra on pause for another hour, to ensure that I didn't hear it while awake—it's meant to be "sleep learning," after all, not "wakeful learning." But I didn't sleep much after that, and woke up from a disconcerting dream five minutes before my alarm.
I had my first sleepover with the man I'm seeing. Too embarrassed to listen to my recording, obviously. Didn't sleep much but didn't feel tired the next day.
Fell asleep so fast that "it's like it was your sport," my bedmate told me. (He was intrigued by and supportive of my sleep recording. Good sign!)
On the weekend, I told some friends about my project. I haven't told many people about my sleep problem. I'd been trying to avoid the fact that it was a problem, but also, it's a problem that seems so banal. My friends were kind and supportive, saying that it seemed like I was using sleeping pills for the right reasons—that is, to sleep—rather than to "numb feelings" or "avoid problems." They were intrigued by my sleep learning experiment, if dubious. We all agreed it seemed a lot like hypnosis.
"I will sleep so deeply tonight; I will have a restful night and wake up feeling awake and alert."
During the second week of my experiment, I continued playing my recording in lieu of using pills, but slept fitfully. There were three nights that I heard the audio begin to play before I fell asleep and became anxious about the fact that I'd been lying awake for an hour. But generally, I did feel less anxious if I couldn't sleep—a huge change for me. I couldn't tell if this was because of the sleep learning or because, in thinking and talking about my insomnia more than I usually do, I was normalizing it.
Chronic insomnia is defined by the American Sleep Association as at least three restless nights per week over a period of at least one month. By this measure, I'm surprised not everyone is an insomniac. Since I started talking to people about my trouble sleeping, it seems almost everyone suffers from similar problems. Indeed, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine acknowledges that 30 percent of adults have some symptoms of insomnia.
A recent study conducted by the American College of Physicians suggests patients try cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) before medication. They couldn't say outright that cognitive behavioral therapy outperforms medications for chronic insomnia, but the group does say that therapy is less risky.
I mentioned this to my friend Sarahjane, who is studying psychotherapy in Toronto. "CBT is about conscious reconditioning to change your habits," she told me. "But sleep and insomnia are inevitably coming from an unconscious place, and I think to address those issues, you need a therapy practice that goes much deeper."
Deeper, as in back to the start of the problem. I've never before had the thought that my insomnia could be linked to emotions about my teenage cancer, but this experiment has made me wonder. Primary insomnia is defined by sleep problems unrelated to another health condition. But secondary insomnia can be spurred by anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as moving, job loss, and separation.
Since finishing the experiment, I've fallen back into my normal pattern of sleep and sleeplessness. I've taken OTC medications about every other night. I still think insomnia is a bigger problem than addiction to sleeping pills, and while I can't say the sleep-learning experiment had any direct effect on my insomnia, investing this much thought into my sleep patterns and history has changed things for me in a way I hadn't anticipated.
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