She wasn’t a swinger. She was into high tech. This meant that when I visited the office of A New Day Hypnosis in Austin, I didn’t have a gold watch arcing in front of my face. Instead I put on a pair of glasses that blinked lights randomly on the other side of my closed lids, making me feel I was in kissing distance of an active disco ball. White flashes bounced around the blackness while through my noise-canceling headset I heard trippy syncopated music that sounded like some 70s soft rock song slowed down to one-hundredth of the normal speed.
I just wanted to sleep naturally and to somehow override the trigger that set off a vicious cycle.
Though I arrived at the office nervous and wrung out, I was soon melting into the velvet settee—curved under my legs and back to fit me like a properly placed jigsaw piece. Then Laura Ryan, the hypnotherapist (that’s what they’re called these days—not hypnotist), began to speak above the soundtrack, which at times included the patter of raindrops.
I wasn’t nervous that she might ask me to do something weird—cluck like a chicken or jump out a window—while I was in a trance. I had been hypnotized years earlier to stop a bad habit (chewing on the inside of my cheek), so I knew it was safe. No, I was scared that hypnotism might not work for my current issue—insomnia. And I desperately needed it to work.
Hypnosis for Insomnia: Overriding the Trigger
I have suffered from insomnia on and off since having children. Anxiety and depression had long manifested themselves in my sleep, or to be precise, lack of sleep. I had hit an especially bad patch when my youngest went off to college (which is a whole other story, literally), and none of my usually coping methods worked. My nighttime rituals of warm baths and chamomile tea weren’t helping. Melatonin and other homeopathic sleep aids were no match against my panicked brain. Even over-the-counter drugs that I normally resorted to in desperate times—overseas travel, pre-election season—were useless. After weeks of fighting this new threat, I was forced to go to the doctor for prescription medicine, which did knock me out but left me groggy.
I just wanted to sleep naturally and to somehow override the trigger that set off a vicious cycle. Whenever I went a few days without good sleep, my brain essentially gave into my worst fear: that’s it, you’re heading back to that awful land of no sleep; you’re heading back into depression. I read that suggestions given while under hypnosis are more likely to be accepted by your unconscious mind, which is less critical than the conscious mind. I needed someone to find a fast track to my unconscious mind and rewire it. (I also read that hypnosis is often helpful for other problems such as anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors—nail biting, hair pulling—and take note ladies: erectile dysfunction.)
The Secret Language of Sleep
I’d come to Ryan hoping she’d be able to speak the secret language that would draw out my drowsiness. After we talked for about 90 minutes about my history of nighttime ceiling-staring, she told me she was going to bring out the heavy hitter—a special hypnosis session that she promised would do the trick. “Over 15 years, this has never not worked,” she said. Instead of making me feel better, I became a bit more panicky. What if I’m the first person it doesn’t work on? What if I’m a hopeless case?
What if I’m the first person it doesn’t work on? What if I’m a hopeless case?
Ryan spent the first 15 minutes getting me to relax all the muscles in my body, using the kind of prompting often found on guided meditation tapes. I could feel my heart rate slowing slightly. Helpfully, she instructed me to repeat her words as she was talking if I ever felt my thoughts straying (say, to the fact that I was desperate for sleep). Then she got down to business. She asked me to visualize a beautiful home in the country surrounded by a picket fence. My job was to imagine painting each picket, alternating between a “beautiful blue color” and pure white. She talked me through the steps so I could imagine the paintbrush going up and down on each picket, reminding me to “paint just the face of the picket and not letting any paint dribble on the side of the picket.”
Talking to My Subconscious
She then told to keep painting the pickets while she talked. “And you don’t have to really listen to my words, just concentrate on your task. Because I’m now talking directly to your subconscious, which hears and sees everything.” That was kind of scary, but I followed my orders and heard her telling me, ur…I mean, my subconscious, that I would have a restful sleep all through the night—maybe the deepest sleep I’ve ever known and if I had to wake up to tend to anything (pee break, I assume) I would immediately drift back to sleep. For 15 minutes I was painting the fence (every once and a while thinking of Tom Sawyer) and she would sometimes direct her attention to my work there and sometimes she would talk again to my subconscious.
“I’m now talking directly to your subconscious, which hears and sees everything.”
At the end of 30 minutes, she finished by telling me to “sleep well.” In the chair in her office, I was in a deep trance. I knew that because my arms and legs felt as heavy as steel girders. Seriously, Ryan stopped the music, turned off the disco ball glasses and got up to talk to me, but I couldn’t move. I thought of the tin man left out in the rain. Finally I got fingers and toes twiddling and blinked my eyes open.
Testing the Treatment at Home
She handed me a CD. She had been recording our 30-minute hypnosis session, and she wanted me to listen to it three times a day. At bedtime that night, I drank some chamomile tea and with my earbuds in (and the session transferred to my iPhone), I listened to the whole 30 minutes again. At some point, while I was busily painting that long fence, I drifted off. I awoke at about 4:00 in the morning and was thrilled. I’d gone to sleep by myself. No drugs. I was so excited that I couldn’t get back to sleep. I didn’t mind, however. I’d jumped over the biggest obstacle.
My whole outlook on life changed. I wasn’t scared of the night any longer, knowing it no longer held a battle for me.
Over the following week, I painted that fence three times a day: once in the morning, once after lunch, and again at bedtime. I slept deeply every night—not even waking up in the middle of the night after that first attempt. My whole outlook on life changed. I wasn’t scared of the night any longer, knowing it no longer held a battle for me.
After the initial session, I saw Ryan 10 more times as part of her “Insomnia Package.” After discussing my progress and any new anxieties that threatened to disrupt my sleep, she ended each session with hypnosis (not more than 15 minutes’ worth) and a new CD I could listen to at home. I started listening to the shorter sessions during the day and saved the original knock-out CD for bedtime.
I feel like I’ve rewritten my sleep script, and on my last session with her, I hugged Ryan and told her the new name I’d thought of for her: The Sandman Whisperer.