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A Hypnosis Skeptic Gets Very, Very Sleepy

An unlikely visit to a Gold Coast hypnotherapist treats more than just a clenched jaw.

Illustration by Joe Anderson
Illustration: Joe Anderson

Marc St. Camille leads me down a fluorescent-lit hallway, up a set of narrow wooden stairs, and into a room filled with natural light, leather-bound books, and antique globes. He does not live in this 17th-floor Gold Coast suite, though it looks as if he could, so aptly are the rooms an expression of him: bright, peaceful, calmly enthralling. His certifications hang on the wall: National Guild of Hypnotists, American Board of Hypnotherapy.

I have come here as a hopeful skeptic and must admit that the space makes a persuasive argument in favor of the benefits of the kind of internal navigation through which hypnotherapists seek to guide their clients. Crimson, gold, and cream dominate the color scheme, and there’s a veritable forest of gold leaf. Icons and images of haloed saints create a syncretic atmosphere of inner questing and curiosity. A painting of an angel taking flight rests on a music stand. Partial suits of armor stand at attention before the fireplace, gold and silver chest plates suggesting protection. A chunk of clear quartz crystal the size of a softball sits on an end table and will appear as an image during my hypnosis later.

St. Camille, in his late 50s, is dressed in gray trousers and a matching vest. Presumably, the third piece of the three-piece suit is around somewhere, but he is jacketless, and sports a purple button-up shirt and silk tie, looking businesslike, but with flair. He brings to his person an implication of magic, and yet none of what he does resembles hokey stage hypnosis. There will be no dangling of a pocket watch before my eyes, no exhortation to “sleep, sleeeep” — an image popularized by the hit 1931 film Svengali starring John Barrymore and now tenaciously associated with the practice.

By contrast, my hypnotherapy begins much like a regular therapy session: with me seated opposite St. Camille, explaining what’s brought me here. As he listens with luminous and total attention, I tell him about my monthslong bout of nocturnal jaw clenching and teeth grinding, which have become so severe that I wake up with headaches almost daily, the hearing in my left ear is beginning to go, and the ligaments around my top teeth have developed a loose, rubber-bandy poppiness that is more than a little alarming. I’ve spent months in physical therapy, seen a dentist who specializes in the glamorous niche of occlusal devices (i.e., night guards), and gotten Botox injections to weaken my jaw muscles, which have grown as overdeveloped as a fencer’s calves. Each of my health care providers cautioned that these measures are only mitigating my symptoms, doing nothing to treat the stress that’s causing them. I’ve still been spending night upon night basically chewing my face into oblivion. Thus, here I am.

Before we begin, St. Camille brings me a glass of cold, iceless water in an amber goblet, which he sets atop a coaster that resembles a tiny Oriental rug. Lily, his ever-present mutt — mostly Australian blue heeler — snuffles over to offer greetings, chew toy in mouth. We start with a guided meditation that I am to perform on my own as needed in order to become more grounded, more immune to stress, and better able to let go of the things I need to let go of. St. Camille tells me to picture a tower, column, or pillar of light. When I close my eyes, a figure that I — lapsed Catholic that I am — recognize as my guardian angel appears. I resist at first, then let it be there. An old bedtime prayer from my childhood springs into my head with perfect clarity: “Angel of God, my guardian dear, to whom God’s love commits me here, ever this day be at my side, to light and guard, to rule and guide.”

Opening my eyes, I see a painting above St. Camille’s fireplace of a winged figure brandishing a flaming sword. St. Michael the Archangel, he tells me, most commonly depicted as a warrior slaying a dragon. I have dragons, I tell myself, and need to slay them.

Now we begin the actual hypnosis. I’m invited to lie down on a red leather couch, my head on a pillow, with a faux-fur blanket covering my body. Lily gives an approving sniff. St. Camille puts a mask over my eyes and a headset over my ears. His voice, as soothing as any I’ve heard, pipes directly into my brain over the sound of softly crashing waves as he tells a customized story, full of recurring images and phrases, designed to help break my bad habit. The message is simple: I can choose to fix this problem. I can and will.

I do not fall asleep, but rather feel simultaneously relaxed and alert. I cry, but not because I am sad. I feel free and almost weightless. Being woven into St. Camille’s hypnotic narrative feels like falling under the spell of a mystical storyteller. I do not lose track of myself, but I do lose track of time; I feel like I could stay in this trance state forever: empowered and able to achieve not just the goal of relaxing my jaw, but any other goal I set my mind to. When he announces that the hypnosis is complete, a mere 20 minutes after it began, and brings me back to regular consciousness with a quick count of eight, it’s like I’ve awakened from a long, deeply refreshing nap. Unlike hypnotized people in the movies, I remember everything, and thinking back over the experience fills me with peace. St. Camille removes the mask and headset, and I feel restored, like myself but more so. Smarter. Stronger. Is it a placebo effect? I don’t care.

I am given a recording of the session, which I am to listen to each night before I go to bed as a form of visualization and self-hypnosis. Revisiting the narrative in the comfort of my own bed is not as intense as being in the same room with St. Camille, of course, but his tailored phrases retain their power of suggestion. As I drift off and sometimes during the night, vital images — the idea that I’m keeping a magic bubble safe inside my jaws, for instance, or that the wheels of thought can cease their grinding — float serenely behind my eyes. The recordings put me, as intended, into a hypnagogic state between waking and sleeping. Somehow spending time in that threshold really does transition me into nights of better sleep. I wake up more revitalized; I remember more dreams.

Hypnotherapy doesn’t cure me immediately. I still grind. But less. A couple of weeks into the home meditation sessions St. Camille has prescribed, I meet my friend Becky for a drink, and she exclaims, “You look great! Are you ovulating?”

“No, I was hypnotized!” I reply.

At my second appointment, I confess to St. Camille that I’m not sure I’m meditating right. My mind wanders like a puppy and I can’t always yank the leash to make it behave. He assures me that this is fine, and explains that there are two types of distracting thoughts for most meditators: clutter, which is the petty to-do-list stuff that’s best let go of, and daydreams, which are the thoughts and musings that can sometimes lead to solutions to problems. Those are like presents, to be accepted and opened later.

My treatment is going so well that he thinks that my next appointment might be my last — basically a tune-up. The date we choose is a full month away, and I’m nervous about backsliding. But by the time the day rolls around, I’m astonished at how much better I feel, not just with regard to my teeth — which rarely hurt anymore — but also my overall demeanor. Equanimity like you would not believe. I meet irritations large (our so-called president) and small (a jury duty summons) with a calm I never knew I was capable of. I’m kinder to people and people are kinder to me. On the walk to the train on the day of my appointment, a young man sitting on a stoop calls out, “You look beautiful today!” Instead of being annoyed, I say, “Thanks! So do you,” and he tells me to have a great day, and I say, “Same.”

I tell this to St. Camille, and he says this is wonderful, because the positivity of meditating leads to more positivity and synchronicity in life. But he warns me to beware. “No matter how busy you are, no matter how improved you feel,” he says, “keep meditating for the rest of your life.” I promise I will.

Of course you will, you may be tempted to think. You were hypnotized! But now you know hypnosis is nothing like that — it’s not about being controlled but about realizing you had more control all along than you thought.

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