A Conspiracy of Silence.

A Conspiracy of Silence.

The Harvey Weinstein debacle has left a seriously bad taste in my mouth.
The words ‘vile’ and ‘venal’ vie for dominance although they’re both spot on.
It’s neither the abuse of power, nor his predatory nature that bother me as much as the silence of other men that rankles most. Why the silence? Because in some way, I feel complicit. You see, I know where this silence is grown, how the silence has contributed to the distorted perceptions many men carry about their relationships with women, how these perceptions are conceived and nurtured.
I too have been guilty of silence.

At fourteen, I was far more interested in riding my bike and reading fantasy novels than in thinking, or talking about sex. I was curious about sex, as one can be curious about the names of trees, or stars, but women’s genitalia were mysterious far off places, best left for later discovery.

I remember standing awkwardly in school changing rooms as one of our pubic haired tribe spoke about his sexual ‘conquests’, how he crowed about how he ‘grabbed her by the pussy’ (sound like someone else?) or how another boy ‘showed her who’s boss’. I remember other boys like me, looking around nervously, pretending we were very busy as these often physically mature boy/men flexed their testosterone and fragile masculinities. There were times, that if you didn’t laugh on cue, or join in on the venal banter you were accused of being a ‘moffie’ (homosexual), a label that seemed to call down all manner of furies on a boys body. At school, my camouflage was excellent, I could move between groups, shape shifting and experimenting with different models of masculinity, I could travel between and then vanish when conflict arose. Emotional sensitivity in a young adolescent boy was often ruthlessly dealt with by the alphas. Hiding ones emotions and silence around crass sexual innuendo were ways to survive and avoid being singled out. If you learned to laugh in the right places, you had immunity and would not be cast out.

And yet, although there was a lot of hollow machismo between boys passing a playboy between them, there was also a complex interplay between shame, desire, curiosity and fear that danced across their virginal faces. Innocent boys who were also trying to learn about sexual intimacy with nothing to guide them but locker room bravado, dated two dimensional sex education and in some cases, emasculating mothers who used their sons to replace their depressed, unfaithful husbands. In helping boys transition into men by understanding the nuances of sexual intimacy, fathers were largely silent, absent or guilty of perpetuating antiquated gender stereotypes, their ideas of sexual intimacy and masculinity minted by previous generations of sexually repressed forefathers.
I have heard too few narratives of fathers teaching their sons a healthy respect and admiration of women. I’d like to know what Harvey Weinstein’s father taught him about how to treat a woman.
Men who are so obviously wounded by their own limited ideas of sexual intimacy can be found in very powerful positions. The combination of power dynamics and sexual exploitation has a long history and silence allows it to flourish, not only in the corridors of power, but in our schools, our churches and even our homes.
There is a plague of silence which starts in the home by not talking about healthy, consensual relationships between men and women. The intergenerational transmission of an often brutal model of machismo, faux masculinity and patriarchy does not only affect young girls and women, it is also a brutal attack on the young, sensitive, ignorant minds of boys.
Things need to change, men need to stand up and educate their sons and others around respect and equality. We need to review sex education and life orientation in our children’s schools to help them learn about healthy, authentic relatedness. We need to challenge other men when they denigrate women, and interrogate our woefully inadequate models of masculinity.
As a father of two daughters, as a man and as a therapist working with men, I stand up and say ENOUGH!

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What ever happened to Adrian Mole?

Do any of you remember the ‘Secret Diary of Adrian Mole’? It first appeared in 1982 in the U.K- it’s the story of a young, relatively gentle, curious adolescent boy and his struggles with his loving but painfully English  parents, a beautiful girl called Pandora Braithwaite and Adrian’s slightly odd experiment with a tube of superglue. I used to relate to his internal world, I felt a sense of familiarity and kinship with him, he made me feel as if I wasn’t alone, that my struggles were somehow normal and that I was going to be alright in the end.

What ever happened to Adrian Mole?

Fast forward 30  years- Adrian Mole is now 46 and in some serious shit. He’s addicted to oxycontin, has male pattern baldness, a flagging libido and an enormous overdraft that keeps him awake at 2:37am. Oh and his second marriage has just collapsed in a painful, jagged, shame filled crap-heap at his feet.

I know a lot of Adrian Moles’.

Contrary to many people’s perception, it is midlife and not adolescence that is the most miserable part of most men’s lives. A recent study in North America found that  almost 80% of fatal drug opioid overdoses were men. Why? A number of factors seem to be responsible. Men are more likely to work in dangerous jobs such as law enforcement, construction, mining or forestry where they can incur severe, painful, chronic injuries for which opioids are often too freely prescribed. Men don’t like talking about their pain, emotional or physical and therefore many men are leading lives of quiet desperation with little or no psychosocial support. Most of us have been ruthlessly conditioned by multiple aspects within society to suppress our emotional vulnerability, often with devastating consequences. Many men in midlife seem to be dislocated from any sense of a deeper, more soul congruent  meaning and purpose.

We are so myopically habituated to the two dimensional metrics of an antiquated view of masculinity (sexual prowess, power and money) that we are staggeringly stunted when it comes to knowing and owning those parts of the male psyche which do not meet these criteria. The leader of the most powerful nation on earth is just another gross caricature of all that is rotten in the state of masculinity. It is no wonder that so many of us are trying to soothe our fear, confusion and impotent rage with anything  that will provide even a brief respite from our suffering and loss of an authentic self.

I am sure there are many pundits who  believe that after all the devastation patriarchy and ‘shadow masculinity’ have wrought on the bodies and minds of countless women and children, the environment (not to mention their fellow men), that men deserve to suffer, but surely this perspective offers no healing, no solution which men could work towards in an effort to offer some reparation? Many of us are lost, confused, addicted, wounded shadows of our younger, curious, open hearted and hopeful selves.

It is time for men to rally to another banner, to apply their minds and hearts to a new agenda, to heal the wounds  our forefathers ignorance have wrought upon our male psyches. We can no longer hide in our addictions, our misogyny or our fierce greed without devouring and destroying what little remains of the trust we have so brutally assaulted through our institutions such as church and state. The tipping point of no return is near. We can no longer be children who refuse to pack away our toys after a sugar fueled frenzy, its time for us to grow up. It is time  for men to stop denying own their pain  so that we can stop projecting it onto others and begin to heal- it is our duty now to contribute, protect, innovate  and solve some of the immediate, complex, challenges we face as a human race. Before it’s too late.

I’ll get off my pulpit now.

Do I hear a hallelujah?

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The inconvenience of wings.
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The inconvenience of wings.

I’m awake in the thin hours again.
I dreamt that I was flying through a furious storm with a choir of wounded Angels.

So I lie here, thoughts drifting through my mind like falling feathers, some dark and threatening, others mere wisps, barely formed.
The dark ones cast a pall over me- leaving tight, anxious feelings in their wake.
Ripples of dread.
I’m sure some of it is not my own.
I watch the parade on the stage of mind, pick out familiar faces, clients, friends, many of their brows heavy with anguish, carrying loss like thorny bundles in their arms.
Sometimes this work I do, this work I love, is hard.
I sit with grieving mothers, lost children, adult orphans- good people in often unbearable torment.
It does not escape me that the development of self awareness cultivates suffering.
So why would anyone come into therapy?
Perhaps people come in when the pain of staying the same is greater than the pain of change.
The problem though, is fear, because with change comes fear, no matter how much we have convinced ourselves otherwise.
I listen to the primal rhythms of fear and loss every day and still… after more than twenty thousand hours of being a midwife for change, I am in awe of the human spirits’ capacity for regeneration.
I have watched lives rise from the ashes and I have borne witness as lives have turned to dust.
There is no audience for the shifts that occur deep within us, the hopes, the crippling struggles.
If we are blessed enough to have loved ones in our lives, they are often absorbed in their own journey.
At times we all feel invisible, as if no one would notice if we just evaporated.
Perhaps we are all evaporating slowly, desperately clutching for meaning before we go.
So why not share your story with an other?

To know that you are not alone and that we are all in this together can lighten the burden.
Therapy is but one finger on the hand of change, but a deep encounter with another human being, to be seen, to be recognized and hopefully – to be known- is a powerful medicine for the soul.

You are not alone.

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The Unbearable Lightness of Being
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The Unbearable Lightness of Being

And now? Now that the crushing tide of work has abated briefly, just long enough to take small sips of life again. Now friend, what do you find? Being still floods me with a gentle anxiety, a deep sense of being alone in a vast universe, yet intricately, inexplicably connected to others through gossamer threads and entangled roots like trees breathing deep beneath the earth. I can still hear the pulse and taste the ache of every brave soul that walked into my life in one way or another this year. I feel raw but alive.
Grateful.
As a gift to you, my motely crew, those few who land on these pages looking to catch a glimpse of yourselves, I offer a few pearls from Alain De Botton’s gratitude list.
Love and Courage
J

– Most of the 78 organs in our bodies have performed pretty reliably since the day we were born.
– We don’t need to be afraid of starving – or even of being very cold.
– Every year, if we just stay in one spot, there are at least two weeks of perfect weather. – We are never too far from a very hot bath.
– We’ve sometimes been surprised by how things turned out.
– We can with complete impunity fantasise about the people we can’t have.
– We’ve come a long way since the early shyness, incompetence and fear.
– Everyone messes up their life quite a bit.
– Of course we couldn’t have known.
– Compared with what we feared in the rockiest patches, this is almost OK.
– We’re still here.
– There were no outright catastrophes today.
– A few times, we really experienced what love felt like.
– A few times, we really felt understood.
– Many of the people we love are still alive.
– There’s always music.
– Without asking anyone, we could go into many shops and buy a treat.
– We could disappear for a bit.
– We’re no longer trapped, like children are.
– We still have quite a lot of time left.
– Children of three or four are, intermittently, reliably sweet.
– There hasn’t been a war here for a while.
– You can turn on the tap and clean water comes out for almost nothing.
– We can leave the places we were born and raised.
– There’s always someone suffering just in the way we are.
– Everyone is weird, we just don’t have access to their inner minds.
– The silent majesty of a clear night sky.
– We’re very normal in the number of idiocies we’ve committed.
– We don’t have to take ourselves seriously.
– We can feel heroic about the ordinary.
– We have managed to learn a few things down the years.
– There are lots of beautiful people we can take pleasure in looking at.
– There are people who have loved us, even though we didn’t totally deserve their affection or devotion.
– A few bits of our body are really rather beautiful.
– Our parents met and managed to make love successfully. And their parents did too. We so nearly didn’t even exist.
– People who didn’t absolutely have to took a serious and benign interest in our education and development.
– Things really do look better when we have slept.
– Many of the world’s most interesting people have written down their thoughts and ideas.
– Other people are usually shyer, sweeter and kinder than we’d anticipated.
– We’ve perhaps found one good friend.
– We can write everything we feel down on paper.
– We can, without too much effort, order a bowl of French fries.
– We once really turned someone else on.
– Others forget the stupid things we’ve done faster than we do.
– Sincere apologies tend to be gladly accepted.
– We can reinvent ourselves – a bit.
– We didn’t turn 18 in 1939.
– Parents keep on loving us even if we largely ignore them for a few years.
– Children continue to love us even if they say they don’t; and even if we were not always perfect parents.
– By the time we are forty, nothing we did or thought at the age of twenty will seem very important.
– No-one can stop us having our own thoughts.
– We can get to hear the jokes and stories of the funniest people on the planet.
– In the middle of the night, and in the early morning, we have the world to ourselves.
– It isn’t what happened to us that counts; but how we choose to tell the story.
– We do not know what will happen in the future.

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Striving towards Life
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Striving towards Life

Today’s selection — from When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi.
In May 2013, at 36, Paul Kalanithi was diagnosed with stage IV metastatic lung cancer. At first, Paul prepared for death, then, he and his wife Lucy decided to have a child.

” Flush in the face of mortality, many decisions became compressed, urgent and unreceding. Foremost among them for us: Should Lucy and I have a child? Even if our marriage had been strained toward the end of my resi­dency, we had always remained very much in love. Our relationship was still deep in meaning, a shared and evolving vocabulary about what mattered. If human re­lationality formed the bedrock of meaning, it seemed to us that rearing children added another dimension to that meaning. It had been something we’d always wanted, and we were both impelled by the instinct to do it still, to add another chair to our family’s table.

“Both of us yearning to be parents, we each thought of the other. Lucy hoped I had years left, but understand­ing my prognosis, she felt that the choice — whether to spend my remaining time as a father — should be mine.

” ‘What are you most afraid or sad about?’ she asked me one night as we were lying in bed.

” ‘Leaving you,’ I told her.

“I knew a child would bring joy to the whole family, and I couldn’t bear to picture Lucy husbandless and childless after I died, but I was adamant that the decision ultimately be hers: she would likely have to raise the child on her own, after all, and to care for both of us as my illness progressed.

” ‘Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?’ she asked. ‘Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more pain­ful?’

” ‘Wouldn’t it be great if it did?’ I said. Lucy and I both felt that life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

“Years ago, it had occurred to me that Darwin and Nietzsche agreed on one thing: the defining characteris­tic of the organism is striving. Describing life otherwise was like painting a tiger without stripes. After so many years of living with death, I’d come to understand that the easiest death wasn’t necessarily the best. We talked it over. Our families gave their blessing. We decided to have a child. We would carry on living, instead of dying.”

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Who Rescues  the Rescuer?

Who Rescues the Rescuer?

Being a rescuer of others in emotional distress is a popular gig. As children, many of us learnt that fulfilling this role afforded us a modicum of immunity within our often volatile family ecosystems. Being the emotional support of a sick, depressed mother, or alcoholic personality disordered father may have brought a degree of proximity with the largely absent parent, it made one feel important, needed and provided at least some form of emotional nourishment to our emaciated emotional bodies. We learnt to stifle our own needs in service of the beloved, damaged other, we developed an almost supernatural attunement for signs of distress in others honed by years of hyper-vigilance.

Slowly as adults we drifted often into toxic codependent relationships where we tormented ourselves with guilt and anguish if we dared peek at our own unlived lives. At times, there were breaks in the powerful repetitions, moments when our soul beckoned, imploring to be freed from servitude to the Other. Many flee from the call, too afraid, or unskilled to take their own helm, choosing rather to be steered by the life of another, or drift aimlessly until they can attach themselves limpet like to someone else’s distress. There is no shortage of wounded others and a painful but necessary truth is that rescuers are doomed to wander as hungry ghosts if they continue to attempt to heal their own primal wounds through ‘rescuing’ others.

But now and again, some of us emerge from this unconscious default.
Midlife is ruthless in the interrogation of our internal operating system, it demands that we re examine our relationships and our roles within them. Change, whether it be brought about by illness, divorce, retrenchment or the death of a loved one can be violent catalysts for the disintegration of rescuers perpetual codependence…

Those of us who escape are often blinded by the brilliance of having to take the reins of our own lives. Huge surges of repressed libidinal creative energy can bring intense and often disconcerting feelings to the numb parts of our disregarded selves. It can be a confusing, disorientating rebirth to find oneself responsible only for ones self.

I’d like to share a poem with you, kindly submitted by a client of mine who is going through this awakening, with his permission.

Deep Below
You get used to the quiet
When you live underwater
Your fingernails rust
Your eyes cloud with
Salt.

They released me for a day
Allowed me to play in the sun
I felt the wind on my face
Watched leaves tumble
And felt the joy of love
And dust.

They took me back
To the forest of kelp and coral
And wrapped my hands
In bandages.
I made my bed on mussel shells.

I lay in the dark
And understood the language
They speak deep below
Where there is no moon.

We Rescuers, we too deserve the care and love we bestow on others without a second thought. Learning to discover our own inner terrain, to forage and nourish our own needs without crucifying ourselves with guilt becomes what one may argue is the single greatest personal challenge a Rescuer can encounter.

love and courage,

J

 

 

 

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A Loving Equation
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A Loving Equation

It’s been a tough couple of months.
Love and I have had some fierce skirmishes.
I’ve retreated from the field, confused, battered.
Now is time to examine my strategy, courageously, honestly.

“Love is the hospital for our old wounds”- Hollis wrote.
Love changes us, as it works on our painful personal histories (loss, abandonment, betrayal, jealousy etc), it also elevates us towards our highest human potentials, at times of synergy, the sum of its parts are greater than the individual. It allows us to break from our solitude and then, if we are skilled, to be finally transformed into something firmer.

Anais Nin wrote-
“Where the myth fails, human love begins”, “then we love a human being, not our dream, but a human being with flaws”.
It appears that the more we mythologize and idealize the person we love, the more disillusioned we grow as we come to know their imperfect humanity.

My need to cut and run under extreme emotional duress, was gestated and nourished by a difficult childhood, it is both my saviour and the single most self-destructive defense with regards to perceived abandonment. It’s not on a hair-trigger, but it always waits in the wings to rush to my aid when it senses danger, much like my beloved dog (Peabody) who would jump into the pool when I swam as a child in an effort to rescue me. I’d often end up fighting for my life as the dog’s misguided attempts at rescue drove me further beneath the water, scratching my flesh, leaving us thrashing, exhausted and ultimately in my dragging his well intentioned, heaving, heavy body to the shallow end.

My experience of long term intimate relationship tends to support the theory that closeness and familiarity can bring with them a shadow of growing disrespect and thin layers of contempt which collect in the corners of unspoken words.
How to hold a relationship stable, while tending it with mindful attunement, deep listening, loving speech, acts of service and creative spontaneity, all the while preserving respect for one’s self AND the other seems to have eluded me in spite of my best efforts. The difficult dance between intimacy and independence seems to have many scalps on its belt.
And yet, after spending most of my adult life in pursuit of this elusive quarry, I have learnt a lot about its movements, it’s promises, it’s mirages and deluded ravings.

I am not ready to retire permenantly from the search, I will continue to learn the painful lessons that are offered to its followers, I will endeavor to not blame the other for my own injuries but instead will watch as love moves as a sea between the shores of our souls.

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On feeling depressed…
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On feeling depressed…

We’re not talking about the extreme, most paralysing, regions of despair – where external medical help is vital. Our target is rather the times when we feel – as indicated by Henry David Thoreau’s phrase – mired in moods of ‘quiet desperation’: a large, grey hinterland in which beneath an outward surface of endurance, we feel exhausted, close to tears, beyond the sympathetic understanding of others, easily irritated and daunted by the simplest tasks. There will probably have been certain triggers for our melancholy: an intimate rejection; a humiliation around work; the growing realisation that the ambitious plans of earlier years have come to very little…

Unfortunately, sadness feels very taboo. Societies tend slyly to insist on cheerfulness. We end up not only struggling, but humiliated that we are in such difficulties. Yet, in truth, there is nothing more natural or routine than grief. We have so much to feel morose about: simply by virtue of being alive, we will inevitably so often feel badly misunderstood, unfairly criticised, overlooked and rejected. We will be struck by our own stupidity and appalled by our inner ugliness and cowardice. We will make some shockingly poor decisions, we will let others down – and will witness those we love suffer and die before ourselves having to give up the keys to life. The reasons for feeling low and demoralised touch more or less every one. It is the universality – the normality – of suffering that makes the sight of small happy children so poignant; we know, as they cannot yet, how much they are going to suffer – we don’t know the precise details but we know that in some way or another a distinctive range of horrors will, in time, befall them.

Every day, almost without noticing it, we have to fight off a range of incoming powerful reasons not to despair. We rely on an internal engine or muscle of hope to pump out consoling thoughts. Then one day the task seems too much; the muscle can’t take it any more. At such times, we need to keep a few ideas in mind: For a start, that sorrow is not an individual failing; that it is a basic reality for our entire species. We are extremely sensitive, fragile constructions, constantly exposed to danger; for the most part blind, hopeful without regard to reality and with unquenchable needs for love and sympathy. Our tribulations are a symptom of being human, never just a curse attached to our sliver of existence.
Others, who might seem successful, buoyant and composed will travel, at moments they shield us from, to the same places of despair we have been exiled to. We live so close to ourselves, we know so much about our private failings, we miss that our flaws are general: present even in the outwardly placid, the beautiful, the rich, and the people next door. If only we could see into the minds of strangers, we would feel so much less alone. We are, it’s true, sometimes hard to be around. We’re easy to caricature as grumpy and a pain. But in truth, we’re sad rather than mean, anxious rather than bad. It’s hard to make our despair sound charming, to present ourselves in the way that would win us the compassion we so require. Yet we’re being harder on ourselves than we would be on a friend. We should – at the least – accord ourselves the same degree of forgiveness we wouldn’t hesitate to direct to an acquaintance. In the end, however tempting it is, we can’t just abandon our lives. There are too many people who rely on us (even if their presence doesn’t feel real right now). Above all, we don’t know the future. It’s the other side of our dependence on chance. Things can get slightly better for reasons it’s hard to foresee. Just as pleasures fade and can seem meaningless in retrospect, so pains (at least sometimes) can pass or soften. Things we thought we’d never be able to get over gradually become bearable; we adjust our mental posture, we stoop to accommodate a new reality. Being miserable does not exclude us from the human community. It’s a sure sign that we are very normal – and that life is progressing, in its own dark way, more or less exactly to plan.

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Insomnia- searching for the sandman.
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Insomnia- searching for the sandman.

Things have been crap lately and I’ve spent hundreds of hours awake in the thin hours of morning. During that time, I stumbled across this article on insomnia which I found useful, enjoy.

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. Author Pagan Kennedy writes in The New York Times: “I came across that passage with a shock of recognition.

“Many people think that 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 suffer from chronic insomnia, we have yet to answer the most fundamental questions about the affliction. Scientists are still arguing 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.

“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 apnoea, Parkinson’s disease, chronic pain, depression, brain injury, autism and restless legs syndrome.

“I suspect my own insomnia has a strong genetic component – 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, too, 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 with a half-dozen 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 our 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 that 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 that 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 commence, 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 I 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 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.

“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 volunteer readers. 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. Here I befriended the ‘lady explorer’ Isabella Bird, who scaled the Rocky Mountains and survived the winter in a cabin cooped up with frontiersmen.

“Charlotte Brontë 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.

“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 splendor that Borges might have dreamed into existence, a library we can stumble through in the dark.

“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 phones 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. Nonetheless, 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 4 in the morning. 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 that 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. 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 has 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 doesn’t 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.”

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