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The Only Thing That Helps Me Sleep Is Listening To Russian Women Whisper

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This article was originally published on December 22, 2015.

Approximately 50 to 70 million adults in the U.S. report some sort of insomnia. Mine is due to a generalized anxiety disorder — something that affects around 6.8 million adults. That’s a lot of tired, anxious people. After two decades of struggling with insomnia, last year I finally found a cure. It’s a little — well, extremely — weird. It’s called Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response, or ASMR for short. It's a complicated term that refers to a tingling sensation that occurs when listening to certain sounds, and it's a YouTube phenomenon.

ASMR videos feature pleasant looking women gently tapping objects, and whispering mostly nonsense into hypersensitive microphones that amplify sounds. The videos typically last around 30 minutes, but I’ve never made it through a full video, because I fall into an uncharacteristically deep sleep — usually with my phone in my hand like a true child of modern media.

My favorite "ASMRtists" (and I do have favorites) are from Russia (Maria, who goes by the moniker "Gentle Whispering") and the Czech Republic (Olivia, who goes by "Olivia Kissper"), their accents play a big role in my ability to fall asleep. Actually, I believe Olivia to be the unsung hero of the ASMR community. She lives in Costa Rica currently, and has a degree in psychology — and yes, that does elevate the content of her videos.

Watching these videos makes me feel instantly calm; it’s like meditating or being hypnotized. I have grappled with the idea that ASMR is some kind of cult with psychic powers or a group of human-acting aliens infiltrating my subconscious. I harbor fear that, one day, I’ll commit some terrible ASMR-related crime and be sent to prison, but I'll win my appeal on the basis of psychological indoctrination. On the flip side, the good news: I’m much less tired.

The various actions and simulations the women perform in the videos that send me to la la land include tapping wood, tapping glass, peeling apart tissues, and writing or drawing on paper with a pencil, a pen, or — if they want to make my dreams come true — a marker pen (gaaaaaah). They also do all sorts of fake treatments that they call "Personal Attention" practices, like pretending to give you a facial and slowly wiping your face with cotton pads while whispering about the benefits of natural products, and telling you that you have perfect skin. They sometimes pretend to brush your hair, give you a massage, or simulate an eye test. The dedicated ASMRtists upload new videos about every two weeks, so there’s always new material. (I have a healthy social life, I promise.)
While it may sound absurd, ASMR is gaining traction in serious places. It was recently recognized as a thing by the BBC and researchers at the University of Sheffield, where they are looking into the biology behind the trance-like state that ASMR induces. Results, thus far, have been inconclusive. But some videos have racked up 13 million views, so the proof, as they say, is in the pudding.

When I show people ASMR videos, they have two very distinct reactions: either "What the hell is this? This is so creepy. Why is it so sexual? I don’t get it; you’re really weird,” or “Oh my god, I feel like I’m brain orgasming; I’m addicted; I’ve never felt like this before; thank you.” And I know which category I’d rather be in.
I’ve endured insomnia, brought on by anxiety, since I was about six. Back then, I couldn’t sleep because I was scared of monsters and ghosts, so I’d make my older brother hold my hand across the gap between our single beds, which made me feel protected and helped me to relax enough to fall asleep. I was six and he was eight. Sweetly, he continued to do this until I was about 10 and he was 12, even though it was obviously very lame. Then, he moved into another bedroom, so I had to find new ways of managing my fear. Sadly, my mother is not Russian, so I would go into my parents’ bedroom nightly at 2 a.m., and later, with, "Mooooooom, I can’t sleep”, resulting in a lot of days off school, falling asleep lessons, and getting told off for not concentrating.

After watching The Ring at about 13 years old, I couldn’t sleep for three straight years — fuck you Samara. I’m exaggerating, of course, and I admit it. But sounding like you’re fibbing is a big problem when you have insomnia, because people often don’t believe me when I say I’ve only had three hours sleep the night before. They either think or say, “Yeah right, I’m sure you slept more than you think you did.” And also, no one cares.

In order for me to have any chance of sleeping, the variables have to be exactly right. I have to sleep with the window ajar, even when it’s absolutely freezing, I need a breeze. And I can’t sleep in any kind of pants or long-legged pajama; I need to have bare legs. And I have to wear big underwear, which sounds silly, but unless I’m wearing underwear that covers my entire bottom, I’ll be awake all night. And the wardrobe has to be shut.

Also, I am a very light sleeper, so I’ll wake up when someone in the next room switches the light on, or when someone washes their hands in the apartment above mine, or if, god forbid, anyone should try to hug me in the night. Perhaps most annoyingly, I can't fall asleep in a drunken heap after a night out.

Yes, woe is me. So I’ve been tiptoeing around sleep and not having much luck for the last 20 years. But that's all in the past; I’m over it, because now, I get into bed confidently, turn down the brightness on my phone, search for my favorite ASMRtist, and away we go...
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