’Sleep with Me’ is a popular podcast that lulls you to sleep through its meandering tales.
Image: Chris Waits/Flickr
When Drew Ackerman was in elementary school, he had trouble falling asleep.
"I was having a lot of issues at school with undiagnosed learning issues and so I would stay up all night worrying about it," Ackerman, who is now a librarian, told me over the phone. "I remember that feeling of being alone and being anxious and almost feeling like I was in physical pain. I was so scared about school and then I was scared that I couldn't sleep."
Though it didn't cure his insomnia, Ackerman found that listening to the radio was comforting, and would help him relax because the comedy shows he'd tune in to were distracting enough to pull him away from his worried thoughts.
As an adult exploring the vast world of podcast a few years ago, Ackerman began wondering why there weren't any "bedtime stories for adults" among the hundreds of different shows. He thought back to his memories as a child, and decided to try to make the show himself, to reach out through the darkness to other people who can't sleep. In the fall of 2013, the first episode of 'Sleep with Me,' Ackerman's now-popular podcast, was published.
Though there are lots of guided meditation podcasts, white noise Spotify playlists, and soothing sleep music apps, Ackerman's show takes a unique approach to the insomnia-plagued. He simply tells a story: a rambling, tangent-prone, sometimes boring story. It's reminiscent of an elderly relative recounting the same story you've heard 100 times, or a good friend who has had one whiskey too many.
The stories are intriguing enough to distract you from whatever worried thoughts are keeping you up, without being engaging enough to keep you awake. And the magic lies somewhere in the middle, but I'm not sure how to describe it, because the first episode I listened to knocked me out cold within the first 20 minutes.
"A lot of my stories—and I don't mean this in a self-critical way—are like bad first drafts," Ackerman said.
'Sleep with Me' tales are vaguely reminiscent of Grandpa Simpson's stories that don't go anywhere.
The best way to understand what this experience sounds like is to listen to an episode, but if you can't be bothered right now, here's a short transcript from a recent episode where Ackerman's alter ego "Scooter" was describing making mashed potatoes and stuffing:
"And so while we wait for that to boil, we're gonna take the bread and we're gonna put it in the bowl with the mix, with the herb mix," Scooter coos slowly. "Okay, and just start coating it just spin, just stir, stir, stir. [pause] Yeah, I do have a slotted spoon, that's why—it's not a slotted spoon, it's a holed sp, it's a spoon with holes. I don't know what a slotted spoon is. What's the spoon that has the things that make it look like it has spikes? Is that a slotted spoon? I don't know. This spoon has holes. I call it a slotted spoon."
Sure, it's not exactly Westworld, but that's the point and for lots of people, it works really well. Ackerman told me new 'Sleep with Me' episodes are typically downloaded 100,000 times, and each month the show sees 2 million downloads in total. The show also has financial support from loyal listeners, more than 2,000 of whom pledge between $1 and $20 every single month through the show's Patreon campaign.
It makes sense that a meandering, borderline-boring story would help some people turn their brain off and ease into sleep, according to Dr. Sujay Kansagra, the director of the pediatric neurology sleep medicine program at Duke University Medical Center.
"If you are excited, your brain produces chemicals like norepinephrine, which keep your brain awake," Kansagra told me via email. "Boring activities dampen this type of chemical release. When adults use the podcast, it's [also] a distraction for the brain to avoid the intrusive negative thoughts that keep adults awake "
Kansagra cautioned that if your anxious thoughts are keeping you awake at night, you should really talk to a health care professional to get proper treatment. And Ackerman agrees: he said 'Sleep with Me' isn't a substitute for proper sleep hygiene or health care to address underlying conditions. But it is a tool to use when you're alone and awake in the dark and aren't sure what else to do.
Though he gets letters from listeners who say it didn't put them to sleep, many more write to thank Ackerman for helping them get rest during all kinds of turmoil he's never expected, from PTSD to grieving the loss of a partner to dealing with the pain of cancer treatments.
"The thing that connects all of these people is this mystery and agony of sleeplessness and I know what that feels like," Ackerman said. "The podcast is the idea of someone sitting there at the foot of your bed saying 'wow, I see you can't sleep and that must suck. Let me tell you a silly story to take your mind off of that.'"