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A drawing of a pair of Sleep Ultra Thin Pillow Headphones, with bundled cord and on-cord microphone. Dana Rodriguez for Vox

The best $10 I ever spent: sleep headphones to soothe my bedtime anxiety

I used to be great at sleeping. Now that I’m older, more anxious, and married, I need some extra help.

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For a long time, I took a quiet pride in my ability to fall asleep. Not stray, unplanned sleep like dozing off on the couch at 3 pm or in a theater during a long movie or any other moment when sleep becomes an interruption, but in my bed and on my terms. Once I set my alarm and turned on the fan or white noise machine, I fell asleep. Easy as that.

Around six years ago, though, while dealing with a work environment from hell and my first foray into romantic cohabitation, I felt like I was on the verge of a major turning point in my life. Every decision felt unbearably consequential, and I was more on edge than usual. It’s no wonder, then, the anxiety that had clouded my waking life for as long as I can remember gained strength and found its way into my bedroom.

If you’ve ever had a panic attack, you know they don’t always manifest as dramatic, TV-ready physical eruptions that just go away after, I don’t know, breathing into a paper bag. Sometimes they’re these persistent, low-level emotional tremors whose effects can linger for days, if not weeks. In my case, a certain anxiety will often hit a particular nerve and invade other thoughts until I can focus on nothing but the particulars of its premise.

I don’t remember what caused the attack that led to the subject of this story, but I know myself well enough to assume it had something to do with my health, which is to say my death. There was probably a scary headline about a new study in a peer-reviewed journal about how some facet of my life makes me 10 to 15 percent more likely to die “early,” whatever “early” means, which took root in my brain and increased my heart rate and my blood pressure, gave me a headache, affected my breathing, and even made my calves throb.

(“Oh, anxiety affects everyone differently,” I remember a charming grump of a doctor telling me with a near-yawn during one of the three appointments I had with him.)

Most frustratingly, it affected my sleep. For one of the first times in my adult life, lying in bed in a dark room with the fan on left me wide-eyed and incapable of drifting off. When you can’t sleep, thinking about how annoyed you are by being unable to sleep only makes you less capable of sleep. It’s a vicious cycle familiar to, I imagine, the vast majority of anxious people.

I’ve gotten better in the years since, thanks in part to meditation, exercise, and changes in my diet and career and routine, not to mention a decent amount of good luck (a factor that should never be discounted in conversations about wellness, because who honestly knows what makes us well). But if you asked for the single thing that returned me to the sleep patterns I once took for granted during those early bouts with insomnia, I’d tell you it was a podcast called Sleep With Me. Though currently one of the most popular podcasts around, back in 2014 it only had a handful of episodes, which I found via a desperate iTunes search.

I’d stick in one earbud and let Drew Ackerman’s peculiar, nasally voice and meandering stories send me right into the eight hours of dreamland I was used to. When the anxiety attack fully subsided, I kept on sticking in that earbud and listening as I dozed off. Why not? It was white noise, but friendlier.

One Sunday morning, I woke up with a strange feeling in my ear canal. It wasn’t pain, per se, but it wasn’t comfortable. Something was in there. A bug? Oh, god, I thought. What if it’s a bug?

I stirred my then-boyfriend, Josh, and asked him to look inside my left ear for the source of the obstruction. “There’s definitely something in there,” he said, as calm as usual. I grabbed the headphones, which were dangling off the nightstand, and examined the earbud I’d had in while sleeping. As suspected, it was missing the plastic cap — the piece that creates a nice little bit of suction to keep it in place.

I began trembling, maybe screaming, and bolted to the bathroom to grab a pair of tweezers. A few moments after reaching in and fumbling around, Josh grabbed the missing plastic cap and began to pull, but it hurt! Of course it hurt. Suction is hard on a delicate eardrum! Two hours, one giggly doctor, and an Urgent Care copay later, the plastic cap was out of my ear.

For the next year or so I dealt with not having the comfort of my hazardous earbuds, but after another sleepless bout of anxiety (imaginary-cancer-related, I’m sure) I decided there must be a solution. Turns out there was, and it didn’t take much Googling to find a way to continue listening to my beloved sleep podcast without requiring a visit to CityMD.

What I stumbled on: a $10 pair of flat headphones that let users listen to anything they want in bed without disturbing their sleeping partner or risking an obstructed ear canal. Though I have not ripped them apart to see their insides, I assume they’re little more than incredibly cheap headphone speaker elements that have been denied their hard plastic shells and instead surrounded by two flat circular pieces of soft-ish, presumably synthetic padding.

At a low volume, they sound crystal clear to your ear of choice and like absolutely nothing to anyone more than an inch away. They are a simple miracle, and each time I recommend a pair to someone who brings up needing a way to listen to things in bed, they’re surprised that a product meant for such a specific problem exists. While I don’t listen to podcasts or sleep music or hour-long brown noise tracks every night, it’s comforting to know that when I need it, it’s there, able to be plugged into my phone and shoved under my pillowcase.

The Sleep Ultra Thin Pillow Headphones have joined a pile of books, a sleeping mask, a notebook, a blood pressure monitor (a related story not worth getting into now), and an utterly useless Philips wake-up lamp as just another piece of my nightstand clutter. Despite the awkward fumbling required when inserting them into the pillowcase on nights I plan to use them, Josh — he’s my husband now — laughs at them considerably less often than he ought to. Probably because he remembers the tweezer moment, or because sleeping next to someone who uses a pair of padded pillowcase headphones was part of the deal he made last October.

Cohabitation reveals unpolished truths about bodies and behavior, but also those that are less visible. While I’ve gotten better at taming it, I know my anxiety will always be with me. And each time I lie down on my cheap and priceless little headphone pillow, I feel lucky to have found a person who has, somehow, decided to do the same.

Bobby Finger is a writer and the co-host of the podcast Who? Weekly.

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