My hypnotist, a psychologist I'll call Dr. Sigmund in honor of his Viennese birth, was a soft-spoken man in his 60s. At our first session we sat opposite each other in reclining chairs as he described how my body would feel pleasantly warm and heavy going into a trance, how I would become largely unaware of my surroundings, how he would give me suggestions to improve my sleep habits, and how he would teach me to hypnotize myself. I was relieved he didn't mention anything about wiping out my ability to remember my name.
Then he took my sleep history. Had I gone to bed early as a child? No, I was always up late. Didn't my parents insist on my going to bed? No, they were usually out, and I was in charge of my younger siblings. Had there ever been a period in my life when I got enough sleep? Yes, when I was pregnant. By then our time was up. Dr. Sigmund said I should come back the following week and he would actually hypnotize me. That night I went to bed at 12:30—an improvement. Had he secretly hypnotized me? Could I become the Manchurian Candidate?
The next week we sat in our recliners and Dr. Sigmund began a spiel similar to Flip's: heavy legs, arms, eyes. No hands on the forehead and shouted commands. After a few minutes, he said in a low, soothing voice that I was now in what is commonly called a trance. I was too polite to say, "Na-ah." He then said he would count to 10, and as he did I would imagine myself climbing a lovely staircase. I frantically tried to conjure up an appropriate flight of stairs, and no sooner had he said "one" than I found my foot was on the stairway to my grandparents' apartment.
My grandparents are dead, and the apartment I imagined was one they hadn't lived in since I was a girl. But there I was, sitting by their bay window watching the sailboats on the Charles River, as I loved to do, smelling the fried eggs my grandmother would make for breakfast. I would swear I was not hypnotized. I was aware of the traffic outside; none of my limbs felt especially heavy. Also, tears were pouring down my cheeks.
Dr. Sigmund started talking about how habits that made sense in childhood often don't serve us as adults. "You no longer have to be vigilant at night. You don't have to make sure everything is OK because your parents aren't home." I felt a jolt, and I was 12 years old, lying in my bed. It was 2 a.m., and my parents weren't home, and I was sure they had been killed in a car accident. I lay stiff until I heard the wheels of their car grinding on the gravel below. I remembered the feeling of listening for them night after night after night. "You don't have to wait for your parents anymore. You can choose a healthy bedtime for yourself," said Herr Doktor.
Then he said I was in a safe place. I found myself back at my grandparents', in their terrace garden. He now told me he would count backward from 10, and as he did I would walk down the staircase and come out of my trance. I could have told him I wasn't in a trance, but as my foot hit the first tread I started sobbing instead. "I don't want to leave," I said to myself, looking back at my grandparents as I descended.
As I wiped my tears, Dr. Sigmund asked me if I could tell him what happened. I did, adding that I didn't think I was hypnotized. He nodded and smiled cryptically. I said it had never occurred to me that my sleep habits were anything more than biological hard-wiring. But how had he known to hit on waiting up for my parents? "It just made sense," he said. He gave me a tape of the hypnosis session and suggested I play it before bed.
I got to my car, sat, and wept. It was a good thing Flip Orley hadn't mentioned anything about stairs while I was on stage at the Improv. Still, I was thrilled that even though I was getting old for this, I could blame my parents instead of myself for this bad habit. That night I went to bed at 12:45, too late to start the tape, and had a series of nightmares, in the last of which a hyperventilating maniac was trying to break down the door and attack me. Since I am not a full-time Slate employee, I started wondering how I was going to get them to pay for my inpatient care at a psychiatric facility. I also wondered if there would be a market for my memoir, Pillow of Steel: A Story of Sleep Deprivation.
For the rest of the week I intended to listen to the tape, but every night I was so tired that I couldn't. My goal was an 11:30 bedtime. I never made it, but I was shaving off hours from the usual 1:30. Several nights I even turned the lights out before midnight. When I finally did play the tape, my tears started flowing as soon as Dr. Sigmund mentioned the staircase. Again it was a night of fitful sleep and horrible dreams. I was starting to think that a mind is a terrible thing to hypnotize.
At the third session I told the doctor about the significant improvement in my sleep habits, but the decline in my mental health every time I listened to the tape. He suggested that after I got up the stairs I should imagine going to the beach. "No stairs!" I pleaded. I knew they would lead to my grandparents. Part of me enjoyed the visits, but I didn't want to be a girl again. Once was enough.
During the induction he told me to go to a relaxing place, and I did indeed find myself at the beach (even though I would have said I wasn't hypnotized), at the resort in Puerto Rico we went to last spring. I was holding my daughter's hand as we snorkeled. I could hear Dr. Sigmund telling me that soon I would be so habituated to going to bed at a reasonable hour, I would wonder how I'd ever done it any other way. When he counted backward from 10, my daughter and I paddled to shore and took off our masks.