There’s nothing I won’t do for better sleep. I have hidden my phone, set a bedtime, quit caffeine—I’ve tried sleep teas, sleep elixirs, and sleep gummies. I’ve taken Melatonin and NyQuil. But none of the above has ever significantly improved the quality of the low-grade sleep I’m accustomed to. I usually fall asleep around 12:30 and wake up by 3 or 4 a.m. That’s fine, I used to think, resigning myself to a life of abbreviated rest. Some people are just meant to be awake more than others.
Unfortunately for me, and 1 in 3 other people who experience some degree of insomnia, short sleep has longterm ramifications. In his book, Why We Sleep, neuroscientist Matthew Walker examines the effects of sleep deprivation (classified as six hours or less) on the brain and body, from memory loss to obesity. “Sleep is not like the bank, you can’t accumulate a debt and then try and pay it back at a later time,” Walker said in a recent interview. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, but unsurprisingly, proof that sleep does count didn’t help me sleep any better at night.
Then an email from the at-home massage service Zeel touting their sleep massage appeared in my inbox. I had heard of people falling asleep during massage treatments, but it never happened to me. Instead, I fixated on the music or the temperature of the room or the massage pressure. Unlike a Swedish massage which involves kneading tension out of tight muscles, a sleep massage uses long gliding relaxing strokes up and down the back, explains Eva Carey, who developed the technique for Zeel. “Essentially it is like putting the baby to bed type of massage to induce a calm, relaxed state conducive to sleep.”
But even those who normally fall asleep during massages have to wake up when the session ends and go home. In my own apartment it would be different I thought, and booked an appointment at 9 p.m., timed strategically to drift from massage-assisted rest to solo sleep. With Zeel, a woman (or man, you decide) arrives at your home 10 minutes before your scheduled appointment with a fold up massage table. You provide two sheets and a pillowcase. And you set the temperature, lighting, music, smell etc. It’s collaborative in that way.
So there I was, face down on a massage table at the foot of my own bed, ready for a stranger to put me to sleep like a baby. The technique itself did not feel unlike other massages—shoulder and back flesh was kneaded rhythmically, over and over. Thirty uninterrupted minutes passed before a phone call rang over the Beats Pill that had been playing mood music. Then another one. “Do you want me to get that?” Rather than put the phone on airplane mode, I gave in and accepted a FaceTime call with my face cradled in a headrest. “Sure.” There were no spa rules to stop me. “I’m getting a massage,” I said, and hung up. The remaining thirty minutes were spent drifting in and out of a lavender oil-assisted trance.
After the session ended, my masseuse slipped out quietly like a sleep fairy and I got into bed. It could have been a dream.
When I opened my eyes again it was almost 4 a.m., but the good news is I went to sleep almost three hours earlier than I normally would. And even though hitting eight hours would take more work, I realized creating a nighttime routine—and one, specifically, that centered around relaxing and “switching off” at least an hour before bedtime—could at least help in my mission to get some rest.