The insomnia machine

Audiobooks are a godsend for the sleepless: There is magic in the human voice telling a story and it helps to tame the midnight mind.

In 1914, The Lancet reported on a clergyman who was found dead in a pool; he had left behind this suicide note: "Another sleepless night, no real sleep for weeks. Oh, my poor brain, I cannot bear the lengthy, dark hours of the night."

I came across that passage with a shock of recognition. Many people think the worst part of insomnia is the daytime grogginess. But like that pastor, I suffered most in the dark hours after midnight, when my desire for sleep, my raging thirst for it, would drive me into temporary insanity. On the worst nights, my mind would turn into a mad dog that snapped and gnawed itself.

Though one in 10 American adults suffers from chronic insomnia, we have yet to answer the most fundamental questions about the affliction. Scientists still argue about the mechanisms of sleep and the reasons it fails in seemingly healthy people. There are few - if any - reliable treatments for insomnia. At the same time, medical journals warn that bad sleep can fester into diseases like cancer and diabetes. Deep in the night, those warnings scuttle around my mind like rats.

About 18 months ago, during a particularly gruelling period, I felt so desperate that I consulted yet another doctor - but all he did was suggest the same drugs that had failed me in the past. I was thrown back once again on my own ways of coping. As a child, I had invented mental games to distract myself. For instance, I would compile a list of things and people that made me happy, starting with words that began with A and moving through the alphabet.

One night, I was in the Qs, trying to figure out what to add to quesadillas, queer theory and Questlove. Then, suddenly, the game infuriated me - why, why, why did I have to spend hours doing this? In the red glare of the digital clock, my brain rattled its cage. I prepared for a wave of lunacy.

But instead of a meltdown, I had a wild idea: What if there was another, easier, way to drive the miserable thoughts from my mind?

 

I began to fantasise about a machine that would do the thinking for me. I pictured it like another brain that would fit on top of my head. The next day, I cobbled together my first insomnia machine.

COMPANY OF GREAT AUTHORS

Though millions of us struggle with chronic insomnia, we're not a unified army fighting the same foe. Every one of us is grappling with a different mix of mental and physical dysfunctions. Dozens of medical conditions deprive people of sleep; these include apnea, Parkinson's disease, chronic pain, depression, brain injury, autism and restless legs syndrome.

Literature did not cure my insomnia, but transformed it into a manageable condition, and so I feel enormously grateful to the Internet and its crowd of volunteers for providing thousands of hours of literary medicine. I think of Jorge Luis Borges, who lamented that he had been put in charge of Argentina's National Library after he'd gone blind and was unable to peruse a single page. Today we live in a splendour that Borges might have dreamed into existence, a library we can stumble through in the dark.

I suspect a strong genetic component in my insomnia - as a child, awake in the middle of the night, I would listen as my mother roamed the house, searching for a spot where she could curl up with her detective novel and wait for the Seconal to kick in. Insomnia has affected other family members, and seems to be coiled somewhere in our DNA. Indeed, a 2015 study of twins found that wakefulness is significantly heritable, especially in women.

My affliction certainly felt baked in, because it had resisted every intervention. I had done all the right things: I had consulted doctors; I blocked blue light, ate carbs, avoided carbs, bought a special pillow and listened to meditation tapes. I'd done all the wrong things, too, like gobbling down drugs - from Ambien to Lunesta to lorazepam - but that hadn't worked either.

For a while I followed the rules of "sleep hygiene" - a tough-love approach that includes dragging yourself out of bed during wakeful periods, and allowing yourself to crawl back under the covers only when you feel sleepy. But I never felt sleepy. And in my frigid New England house in winter, it was excruciating to be exiled from the wool blankets; I felt humiliated, like a bad dog, as I put one foot and then another down on the cold floor and slunk off to another room. Even the name of the therapy shamed me: The word "hygiene" had an old- fashioned sting to it, an implication that the way I slept was filthy and needed to be scoured.

So that's why I - the dirty, disreputable insomniac - took matters into my own hands. I found a stretchy sock that was long enough to wrap around my head like a blindfold. Then I sewed the sock into a circle, from toe to topstitch, making sure it fit securely, so it would stay in place no matter how I tossed and turned on the pillow. I cut two slits in the inner layer of fabric, sewing stitches to create button-hole-like openings. And then I found an old pair of earbuds, sewed foam around each bud, and threaded the foam bumps into holes in the headgear. This way, the gizmo would hold the speakers near my ears, but not in them - more comfortable for sleeping. Once I had finished, I attached a cheap MP3 player (made by SanDisk) to the rig. Now I could roll my head around, doze, slumber or pad to the bathroom, all while listening to the new voice in my head.

My boyfriend said he felt as if he were sleeping next to a hostage. But weird as it looked, the device offered relief. I'd cue up an audiobook and a monologue would start, blotting out my own thoughts. Instead of labouring to calm myself, I could just drift on the voice pumped into my head. I began to wear the machine all night long, floating in and out of sleep, comforted that whatever happened, the narrator would stay with me.

After I'd built my headgear, I discovered companies were selling similar devices online - usually in the form of fleece headbands outfitted with flat earphones. I tried some out, but found they weren't snug enough to stay in place, so I still use my DIY gear.

Of course, the insomnia machine is a humble hack. The real challenge lay in curating the audio: It took trial and error to find material that could tame my midnight mind.

At first, I loaded the machine with the kind of dry disquisitions that, according to conventional wisdom, bring on sleep; I turned to books like Dirt: The Erosion Of Civilisations, an important jeremiad about soil quality that is not super- entertaining. But the drone in my ears didn't keep my mind busy enough, so instead I began to pick out funny, engaging and friendly books. When I enjoyed those hours of wakefulness, I no longer tried to sleep, and when I stopped trying to sleep, I slept.

My voracious appetite for spoken-word audio led me to discover a treasure: the free audiobooks on LibriVox, a storehouse of public-domain literature narrated by volunteers. I began to spend my nights in the company of great authors, wandering around in the 19th century, an era no longer protected by copyright laws. I befriended the "lady explorer" Isabella Bird, who scaled the Rocky Mountains and survived the winter in a cabin cooped up with frontiersmen. Charlotte Bronte whisked me to the fictional kingdom of Labassecour. And Mark Twain confided that a flirtatious shopgirl had persuaded him to buy a pair of kid gloves suitable for wearing to the opera - even though he preferred buckskin.

The slow pace of 19th-century novels and memoirs is perfect for an insomnia machine: You fall asleep when the characters are having dinner, and when you wake up they've only reached the drawing room. It feels as if you're surrounded by friends, dozing comfortably in a corner as life carries on.

Recently, I've been listening to War And Peace. One night, I rode into battle with a Tolstoy character named Rostov. Drunk on the romance of war, Rostov dug his spurs into the flanks of his horse, lurching ahead of the other cavalrymen as he cut the air with his sabre. Suddenly, he seemed to freeze in mid-gallop. "How is it I am not moving? I have fallen, I am killed!" Rostov thought. His horse had collapsed underneath him, and blood streamed from the poor creature's head. Rostov staggered to his feet and looked around the empty meadow, feeling as if he must be in a dream. Was he in enemy territory? Where were the other soldiers?

And now I was sleeping. Wakefulness, that galloping horse, had fallen to the ground beneath me. I waded through fields of grass while Tolstoy monologued at me. I wanted to warn him to shut up and take cover, for Napoleon's spies watched us from the hillside, but he wouldn't stop talking. Still, I was glad to have Tolstoy by my side, leading me through that desolate meadow.

Literature did not cure my insomnia, but transformed it into a manageable condition, and so I feel enormously grateful to the Internet and its crowd of volunteers for providing thousands of hours of literary medicine. I think of Jorge Luis Borges, who lamented that he had been put in charge of Argentina's National Library after he'd gone blind and was unable to peruse a single page. Today we live in a splendour that Borges might have dreamed into existence, a library we can stumble through in the dark.

CODEINE DRAWL

In 1886, the author Franklin Harvey Head reported that his contemporaries regarded insomnia as a "modern and even an almost distinctively American disease" brought about by the hustle-bustle of the railroad and the telegraph. As wires spread across the country and incandescent bulbs burned away the stars, some warned about what would happen when electrification spread into rural towns. Surely, chickens would die of insomnia - and presumably the farmers, too.

Whenever a new technology comes along, we inevitably blame it for ruining our sleep. Today, we believe that cellphones and laptops will scramble our sleep, even though the evidence of that is thin. Few studies have been done to find out whether digital media can set off insomnia in adults, and the findings of what research has been done tend to be contradictory. Still, many health professionals recommend that we banish all digital devices from our bedrooms.

Of course, there are many ways to ruin your health with a laptop - like engaging in a flame war on Facebook at 4am. But used judiciously, the Internet itself can become a therapy.

Both Netflix and Amazon cater to insomniacs by offering "sleep-tainment" options; you can watch videos of a window fan, a train ride through the mountains, knitters chatting in Norway, drizzle falling on leaves or rain tapping on the walls of a tent. This testifies to how many people like to drift off to the lullaby of digital media - and how idiosyncratic our tastes can be.

Most important, the Internet is becoming a place for insomniacs to gather together and figure out what works, to share insights and help one another.

For instance, in 2013, Drew Ackerman created a podcast to lead listeners into slumberland. Now, three times a week, he climbs into a makeshift studio in the back of a closet and spins whimsical stories about matters of no importance. "Fasten your sleep belts," he might murmur in a codeine drawl before jumping into a tale about the glug-glug-glug sound of a water cooler.

Ackerman told me he has designed his Sleep With Me podcast to tame the vigilant, overactive "guardian" in the brain that feels it must stay awake to worry. "I'm trying to trick the guardian," he said. "It hears my voice and decides, 'This guy is a goofball. He's not a threat.'" That "frees up the rest of your brain to drift off". Ackerman has no training as a sleep doctor or health professional. He, too, found salvation from insomnia in audiobooks, specifically aboard the Pequod, squinting out at the 19th-century sea as he floated along on Melville's words. That experience led him to wonder whether he could fine-tune audio as a therapy.

Nowadays, about 70,000 listeners download each episode of his podcast, and reviewers attest to the power of this treatment.

"I've struggled to fall asleep for most of my 37 years," writes DaileyComputer. "I've tried everything - changing my diet, exercise, meditation, pills, you name it." He continues: "Nothing helps consistently. Except this podcast." Ackerman treats insomnia as a disease of existential loneliness.

"I hear from so many people who listen to the podcast while their partners are sound asleep," he said. "They might be in bed with somebody who loves them. But in that situation, it's the deep dark night, and you're all alone." And so Ackerman created an alter ego named Dearest Scooter who hosts the show and acts as your "bore-friend". In the bunk bed of your mind, he's the compassionate brother lying a few feet above you, a voice in the darkness promising he'll talk until you drift off.

He's also the antithesis of the sleep-hygiene therapists. He does not shame, he commiserates; he knows how horrible insomnia is, and he's here for you.

"People need to be validated," Ackerman said. "If I'm thirsty, I drink; if I'm hungry, I can eat. But when I want to sleep, that's not under my control. And that's why this is such a painful mystery." So many of us are muddling along, finding relief where we can get it. At least we have one another. At 2 in the morning, with my insomnia machine strapped to my head, I listen to a volunteer reading George Meredith's The Egoist in a South Indian lilt.

As every parent knows, there is magic in the human voice telling a story; this is the oldest and most primitive insomnia treatment. In the dark hours, when we're wandering in the wilderness of thought, sometimes we just need to feel that someone, even a digital someone with a pre-recorded voice, is watching over us.

NYTIMES

Pagan Kennedy is the author of Inventology: How We Dream Up Things That Change the World.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on September 25, 2016, with the headline 'The insomnia machine'. Print Edition | Subscribe