Sleep with me

Published in The Cusp, February 2016

I am lying in the dark with my headphones on, listening to a man named Scooter talk about snowballs. He calls it a ‘guided metaphor’. A regular podcast is like a snowball, Scooter explains, it has density and mass in your hand. When you’re listening to a regular podcast, you’re thinking about this snowball in your hand and thinking about what you could do with it, where you could throw it. But listening to Sleep With Me is like holding a scoop of ice cream—as you’re trying to get a grip on it, the whole thing melts away.

I’ve simplified Scooter’s snowball metaphor, which he takes the better part of 10 minutes to explain. His version is long-winded and full of digressions. At one point he acknowledges that porpoises have no hands, but insists they are still capable of throwing snowballs. Later, he shapes a lame pun out of the poet Robert Frost and his frost-based snowball metaphor. I laugh out loud at least twice during this spiel, and then I fall asleep.

Sleep doesn’t always come easily to me. I suffer on-and-off from a condition called ‘early morning wakefulness’, or ‘sleep maintenance insomnia’; I often wake up in the middle of the night feeling as though an Epipen full of adrenalin has been plunged into my heart. As with most sufferers, my insomnia is triggered by stress. It began when I was diagnosed with cancer four years ago. The cancer is gone but the insomnia stuck, visiting at 3am with Epipen in hand.

Research has shown that 13–33% of the adult population of Australia have regular difficulty either getting to sleep or staying asleep. Insomnia can be a symptom of serious problems, including depression and chronic pain, but for many people it’s just the broken way our bodies process trauma. Acute insomnia (lasting less than 4 weeks) is most often precipitated by difficult life events, and it passes as the events pass. Long-term, chronic insomnia is a different beast: the fear of not being able to sleep is the thing that keeps you awake.

Scooter (aka Drew Ackerman) suffered from childhood insomnia. He had a lot of difficulty in primary school and he worried each sleepless night about what would happen at school the next day. “I felt like even if adults – my parents or adults – even if they wanted to help or understand, they just couldn’t. I think that’s a thing a lot of people that can’t sleep face. People that don’t have trouble falling asleep have trouble understanding; ‘What do you mean you can’t sleep? Why don’t you just close your eyes and go to sleep?’” he remembers, “To me [insomnia] felt both emotionally and mentally painful, almost physically painful.”

Scooter shared a bedroom with his brother and would try to distract himself from the sleepless nights by swapping bedtime stories. He found he had quite a knack for it; his brother always fell asleep. When he got older, Scooter would entertain his friends by telling fanciful stories in the park; they would offer up a few disconnected words and he would meander through a story that connected those words together. This was not, as far as he knew, a useful gift – at least not until podcasts became a worldwide phenomenon.

“At some point, I just wondered if I could do that as a podcast, maybe to put people to sleep, like a bedtime story. I thought about it on and off for years. I was always very self-critical of the idea: ‘That idea is goofy, and it would really be risking embarrassment and humiliation.’ [But] I thought there was a chance that it could work.”

Today, Podbay holds nearly 1,000 five-star reviews of Scooter’s podcast, Sleep With Me. He’s even had a mention in the NY Times. There are reams of satisfied customers who sing his praises; who have fallen in love with Scooter’s off-beat stream-of-consciousness; who rely on him to get to sleep. His stories range from Game of Thrones recaps to lengthy ruminations on the nature of ponytails, delivered in the soothing drone of a neighbourly stoner hippy. Episode 350 began with Scooter wondering what would happen if he was hypnotised by his dog. An entire multi-episode story arc – Get Bezos! – was devoted to the idea that Amazon founder Jeff Bezos had started a new Hell-based company. As MaggieGM writes in her review, “This guy is either really this boring and weird, or a genius on par with Andy Kaufman.”

Scooter uploads three episodes of Sleep With Me a week, each more than an hour of original, unbroken monologue. Like most Sleep With Me listeners, I rarely hear more than 15 minutes of any given episode.

“It’s funny because I’m creating these whole stories that are lulling, soothing and have meanders, that I put a lot of work into in time and patience, that aren’t going to be heard. Ideally, 90% of the people listening are going to fall asleep in 10, 20, 30 minutes,” Scooter laughs. “Maybe I could put in half the effort, but I believe in the mission… In some crazed Don Quixote way, I believe in the madness of what I’m doing.”

Scooter knows that the parts of his podcast that go unheard are essential to its success – his thought train chugs along and is eventually lost in the mist. “I have to try and tell the best story I can, otherwise people aren’t going to fall asleep,” he says. It’s hardly a scientific formula – it’s not even logical – but the results speak for themselves. Whether it’s boring, weird, funny or comforting, Sleep With Me’s greatest quality is that it never fails to work. Scooter’s bizarre, incomprehensible nonsense always lulls me to sleep.