for the past For several months, I have fallen asleep listening to a woman named Teri, or someone like her, every night. I climb into bed around midnight, open a certain proprietary wellness app on my phone, tap the “sleep hypnosis” section, and mindlessly select one of the hundreds of tracks available. I then place my phone face down on my pillow, right next to my head, and focus on the voice in my ear. I often fall asleep before the recording ends. I haven’t slept this well in years.
I have no idea who Teri is. Her biography identifies her as a “hypnotherapy and NLP trainer”. According to a little research, NLP stands for something called Neuro-Linguistic Programming, a pseudoscientific method of hypnotic instruction somewhere between life training and magical thinking. Other nights she chose Dorothy, “licensed psychotherapist and meditation teacher”, or Anaïs, “neuromindfulness coach”. From a scientific point of view, I have not found much evidence that these methods are effective in treating insomnia. The tracks are cheesy, usually set against a background of snowdrops or the soft pattering of rain, and the whispered platitudes sound silly when heard in daylight.
I don’t mind. The app works. These disembodied voices provide a desperately needed period of transition: from day to night, from language to silence, from sociability to solitude. And perhaps most importantly, they help me transition from my technologically saturated existence to sleep. The irony is that this transition to sleep is possible by my phone. I have more and more married him at the exact moment that I am supposed to part with him to rest. This is perhaps a paradox worthy of the great meditation teachers, who tell you that in order to find peace, you must put aside the effort to achieve it.
Any doctor, any website, anyone on the street will tell you that the first line of defense against sleepless nights is to develop a relaxing nighttime routine. In professional parlance this is called “sleep hygiene.” The main rules of sleep hygiene include: rigid schedules for going to bed and waking up; eliminate caffeine, alcohol and food before bedtime; and get away from all screens at night.
Hygiene is a revealing word. Not coincidentally, the predecessors of these rules were invented during the Victorian era as part of a puritanical response to perceived “unnatural” technological interventions in everyday life, such as telegraphy, radio, and electric lighting, which were blamed for a new “epidemic”. of insomnia in the upper classes. Over the intervening century and a half, these sleep-disrupting technologies have been combined into the precious, reviled, and consuming object that fits in the palm of my hand. The object that I compulsively check for updates. The object that transmits the voices of my patrons and loved ones (and now my hypnotists) to my ears. The object I caress in my coat pocket as I walk down the street. The object I have an almost impossible time convincing myself to turn it off at 10pm.
I’ve had bad sleep for as long as I can remember, and a hyperbolically terrible dream for the last few years. I have followed the usual search for solutions: sleep studies, various types of therapy, dozens of medications. I changed my diet, exercised to exhaustion, chewed handfuls of melatonin gummies. But in my experience, sleep doctors and wellness gurus are obsessed with the screen in particular, which is telling. The message I’ve received is that all the social, economic, and political reasons I’m exhausted and unable to sleep could be remedied with a more stringent, personally imposed approach to the screen. Lock your phone in a box, urge. Install an app that turns off your other apps. Write an automatic response. Set limits. Exercise self control!
To a bona fide insomniac, these tips and tricks might sound like a cruel joke. From the r/insomnia subreddit: “You think normal people have to put their phones in another room, read for 20 minutes, never drink coffee, have a humidifier, listen to 20 minutes of calming music, take a hot bath, no screens afterwards At 20:00 just to get some sleep? Fuck the sleep hygiene preachers.” Or: “Insomnia. Severe. Don’t talk to me about sleep hygiene, this is an emergency.”
In addition to the often justified alarmism about the effects of connectivity on health, from too much light at night to technological necks, I also find remnants of a deep cultural anxiety about what is natural that goes back to the moral panic of bourgeois Victorians. The phone, he continues to think, is an artificial object that forces us to live contrary to our nature, as if there were a pure, unadulterated, technology-free existence to return to. If only I could escape the stranglehold of the screen, I’ve been conditioned to believe, I could find myself again. I could get in touch with my body, I could slow down, I could rest.