Can a Machine Cure Insomnia?

Can a Machine Cure Insomnia?



This post was originally published on October 11, 2016.

There’s really no “cure” for insomnia—you can throw back the Lunesta, Ambien, Ativan, Klonopin or maybe even down a shot of something strong, but you might still find yourself wide awake. Not being able to sleep at all for days-on-end can be so hellacious that some poor souls end up attempting or committing suicide. Yes, this kind of waking nightmare exists for people. But one woman has figured out a very novel approach to dealing with chronic sleepless nights.

A New Way to Shut Off Your Thoughts

In a personal essay for the New York Times, non-fiction writer Pagan Kennedy describes in the Sunday Review her invention called “The Insomnia Machine” that has alleviated the torment of her condition, at least for now. The device is a simple headband made out of a sock. Ingeniously, Kennedy cut two holes in the sides then placed earbuds through the holes, allowing her to toss and turn without the earbuds falling out. She connected them to an MP3 player that continuously played audio books throughout the night, effectively replacing the manic loop of anxious thoughts about falling asleep that plagued her night after night.

“I’d cue up an audio book and a monologue would commence, blotting out my own thoughts. Instead of laboring to calm myself, I could just drift on the voice pumped into my head,” Kennedy wrote in the piece. “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.”

She started with the most boring titles she could find, until finding that they didn’t turn off her mind.

“I turned to books like Dirt: The Erosion of Civilizations, 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.”

Don’t Feed Insomniacs After Midnight

It’s especially refreshing when Kennedy points out that the notorious “Sleep Hygiene” method just layers guilt and shame onto the insomniac, blaming them indirectly for their debilitating condition. I’ve always thought it a little ridiculous to ask us to not look at our computer screen for at least an hour or two before turning in, to not eat three hours before bed, never drink water or consume caffeine or chocolate or whatever the hell else these sleep police say. I mean, insomniacs aren’t a pack of Gremlins.

I’ve tried these methods myself when I’ve had my bouts of sleeplessness, but even when you successfully do them all and then top them off with valerian root (which will make your breath reek), melatonin, passionflower tea and the soothing sounds of a babbling brook on your white noise app, you can still stay wide awake all night. All that deprivation and there’s still no guarantee.

“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,” Pagan wrote. “So that’s why I—the dirty, disreputable insomniac—took matters into my own hands.”


Whatever Works, Works

Though I’ve personally struggled with many forms of sleeplessness over the years—to the point of completely losing it on a romantic getaway to Mexico this past Christmas—I’ve never suffered from insomnia so dreadful that I can’t sleep at all for nights and nights on end. I can’t even imagine trying to live through this kind of hell. I’m thinking Edward Norton perfectly embodied this curse in Fight Club when insomnia wrecked him so bad he wound up in the ER begging the doctor for a handful of narcotics so he could finally go to sleep.

I definitely applaud Kennedy for both her ingenuity and for bringing further attention to the hell that is severe chronic insomnia, because we need to be reminded that it exists so that the insomniacs out there can band together to support each other. Lord knows I’d feel better when wide awake at three in the morning knowing there’s another soul out there suffering, too.

Click here  for more tips on healthy sleep habits!


About Author

Tracy Chabala is a freelance writer for many publications including the LA Times, LA Weekly, Smashd, VICE and Salon. She writes mostly about food, technology and culture, in addition to addiction and mental health. She holds a Master's in Professional Writing from USC and is finishing up her novel.