Is this just a fad, or will a weighted blanket relieve the recurring sense of doom that plagues my sleep? I wondered as I revisited the 10 open Amazon tabs before me. Each displayed a variety of weighted blankets; I’d had them open for weeks. Perusing the different weights and color options, ranging in cost from $90 to $115, I wondered just how I got there.
It’s actually not entirely lost on me “how” I got there. Anxiety is the fastest-growing mental illness in America, affecting approximately 40 million American adults, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America. Women are twice as likely as men to be affected. Many factors can lead to a generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) diagnosis, and three of the most common risk factors are genetics, personality, and life events. As my mother had a stroke six months prior to my diagnosis, and as I’ve always been a little high-strung, I checked off two of these three indicators easily.
The first signs of my repressed anxiety manifested itself when I was 23, during a work trip to Colorado in 2016. Disoriented by heart palpitations and brain zaps during a late-night pizza outing, I thought I was having a heart attack, maybe even a stroke. It quickly escalated into the first of three urgent care visits during my seven-day trip.
Misdiagnosed with altitude sickness and dehydration, I was told to leave the elevation as quickly as possible. I’ve since learned it’s common for anxiety to be triggered during trips to high-altitude areas, but it can also delay a much-needed diagnosis by masking symptoms.
I went on to endure almost daily anxiety attacks, triggered by the most mundane activities, like wearing too loose of a sports bra during workouts. (I’m a DD, and I had no idea the weight of my breasts and heavy breathing could cause an attack.) Four more emergency room trips would soon be brought on by similar activities, like running too quickly to catch a train or riding in a car that took a bumpy route.
It would be another six months before I was correctly diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder. I spent hundreds of dollars on specialists and midnight emergency room visits, trying to identify the source of my increased sense of dread and sporadic heart palpitations. It took an examination by an expensive pulmonologist to finally deliver the results.
I was prescribed a low dose of Celexa, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). It’d be another three weeks until I saw a new primary care physician who agreed with the diagnosis. Prescribing the fast acting anti-anxiety drug Klonopin for attacks and anxiety-related insomnia, he also decided to up my Celexa to get rid of the ever-present heart palpitations. But they never truly went away.
Because of my job at an education nonprofit, I was making close to $50,000 a year with few expenses other than housing. With my employer-paid medical benefits that were completely free, I had the privilege of not worrying about the upfront cost of all these medical visits. I could afford to dedicate a significant amount of my paycheck to them, never thinking twice about the costs or privilege that came with this type of access.
The same exact month of my anxiety diagnosis, a Kickstarter for something called the Gravity Blanket hit $250,000 in donations. I was inundated with ads for the trendy new company. With every Google search of a new symptom, I was served a targeted ad promising a good night’s sleep and cure for my anxiety-induced insomnia.
Sure, I’d think when I saw those ads, I could spend $295 on this blanket that might help my anxiety. Or I could pay half of my family’s monthly rent.
I put it out of my mind. But my routine of regular doctor’s visits and expensive medication was cut short when I moved back to my hometown of Buffalo, New York, in the wake of my mom’s stroke. Choosing to move home to be closer to family members in their time of need was great; being demoted to a contract worker at my job because of it wasn’t. This also meant losing my employer-provided health insurance and taking a minor pay cut.
I’d made the decision prior to my anxiety diagnosis and hadn’t thought through the ramifications a lapse in care could have on my mental health. Luckily, I could still get refills on my Celexa, which I still take now. Because nothing is easy, my first trip to refill my prescription after losing health insurance was a 45-minute affair. It would all be worth it, thanks to an understanding pharmacist who recognized the exorbitant out-of-pocket costs I was being asked to pay for a 30-day supply by recommending a prescription savings program. With that, I could get a three-month supply of Celexa for $25, compared to the $15 per month I had previously paid with insurance.
Klonopin, however, is a controlled substance that requires patients to get a new prescription every few months following an in-person doctor’s visit. No health insurance meant no doctor’s visit, so I tried to make the pills last by cutting them in half and only taking them when absolutely necessary.
My anxiety was the worst at bedtime; I’d find myself lying in bed and wanting nothing more than to sleep, only to be flooded with negative thoughts and physical manifestations of my anxious brain. Before my diagnosis, I just thought I had an active — always racing, going over the events of the day and every little interaction. But these thoughts would often lead to panic, which would lead to heart palpitations and shortness of breath. Nothing I did during the day was good enough, and my brain wanted me to know it.
Something about relying on a controlled substance like Klonopin to sleep felt wrong, so I used it sparingly, only reaching for it when my chance of getting at least five hours of sleep seemed all but unattainable. Sometimes melatonin would help. Most times it wouldn’t. Even though my SSRIs severely affected my ability to have an orgasm, masturbation was a quick fix I tried again and again, to varying degrees of success. I’d try anything to allow myself some reprieve, a few more hours of sleep than I’d had the night before.
And without insurance, I could no longer afford regular talk therapy copays. It was frustrating that, although it seemed like I should have support via the Affordable Care Act, I was priced out of an affordable plan because I was previously making too much to qualify for a subsidy. Even online, lower-cost alternatives like Talkspace and BetterHelp were too expensive to maintain. Using one of their free-month options or discount codes was only a quick fix. As therapy requires a solid foundation before you truly start to see results, I found myself in a vicious cycle of starting and ending without ever finding a solution.
There are currently 44 million uninsured people in America, and another 38 million struggling to access adequate health care. For my part, I had to choose paying for rent and food over my mental health. At this point, I was still paying half my mom’s rent as well as my own, in addition to one-off bills for my family and groceries when needed.
But possibly the most difficult part was seeing how I was treated during the hardest time of my life. Without my employer-paid insurance, my concerns were overlooked when I’d show up up at urgent care; sometimes I was simply refused treatment. And as a fat black woman, I’m constantly worried that my concerns will be attributed to my weight or will be just another example of black women’s pain and suffering being ignored.
As is the case for many people who seek alternatives to traditional health care, I was coming from a place of desperation. And with the rise of the anxiety economy, born from a wellness industry now valued at more than $4.2 trillion, there was no shortage of remedies on the market purporting to treat my anxiety woes.
The one I kept coming back to was that weighted blanket. Now, two years since Gravity Blanket raised more than $4 million to bring its weighted blankets to market, there were far more options to choose from: Calm Blanket, Layla, Bearably. The market was oversaturated, and the search to find a weighted blanket to cure my anxiety was suddenly triggering said anxiety.
One might think weighted blankets a new phenomenon. In reality, they’ve been around for more than 20 years, brought to the mainstream market in 1998 by Keith Zivalich, the creator of Magic Weighted Blankets. The brand’s story is that Zivalich was just a regular dad inspired by the feeling of calm brought on by his daughter’s plush stuffed animal atop his shoulder. Recognizing the cause was pressure from the toy’s many plastic beads, Keith looked to duplicate the experience of instant calm on a larger scale.
In the medical community, weighted blankets and vests can be seen as an extension of deep touch therapy. Our bodies react naturally to firm and deliberate touch by releasing oxytocin and decreasing cortisol levels. Deep touch therapy, once consisting of placing users in “squeeze machines,” has since been developed. It can involve the use of weighted blankets and vests for children with special needs, including autism and ADHD, as well as treatment for college students and adults with anxiety and sensory processing disorders.
I wasn’t sure if this type of thing would, or even could, work for me, but I figured I’d check out the blankets (within my limited budget). One brand on Amazon kept catching my eye, as it had the highest ratings and the most realistic price point at just around $100. I read a bunch of five-star reviews that I found surprisingly relatable:
“Amazing product. I haven’t been sleeping very well for a while due to stress, and after sleeping under this blanket, I’ve been sleeping through the night. I used to pile blankets and laundry on top of my bed to sleep better and so this idea of a weighted blanket made sense to me.”
“I suffer from a very severe and debilitating anxiety that often causes insomnia. Even when I don’t have insomnia, I toss and turn so much that I’m often exhausted in the morning. I realized that I often feel more comfortable when I pile on more blankets, and I usually have about 7-8 on my bed. Without them, I often just have this feeling of being untethered, and I just can’t rest. … And, OH MY GOODNESS, it’s worth the hype. The minute I slid under this thing, I immediately fell asleep and I slept undisturbed for hours.”
I thought I was the only one who piled blankets on top of their chest to sleep better. I found myself yelling, “Same!” at my computer after every sentence.
That first night I slept with my weighted blanket, I don’t remember falling asleep. I discarded my flat sheet and lay the blanket directly on top of myself, followed by my down comforter. The calm I’d read about in dozens of reviews took over my previously anxiety-ridden body. The blanket was heavy, as my 250-pound frame needed a 20-pound blanket to get the full effect. With my body held in one place, so was my mind. I could feel the rushing thoughts slowly come to a pause.
Currently, there’s a void in the conversation of self-care versus institutional care: Who can afford health insurance and the luxuries that come with it or opt for self-care methods that might not work at all? What’s often lost in these conversations is why we’re forced to find our own solutions in lieu of traditional medical routes. It’d be great to not have anxiety or worry about how my brain receives the world around me. It’d be even better if health insurance weren’t so expensive or so dependent on full-time employment that it’s unpredictable at best. Trying to treat our mental illnesses with stuff isn’t the future millennials dreamed of; it’s the terrifying truth that the world as we know it is changing and causing irreparable damage to our health.
What’s more, these self-soothing options aren’t a treatment so much as a Band-Aid. My weighted blanket didn’t cure my anxiety; it hasn’t even really made it better. But what it has done is give me back a small bit of control that I’ve lost. My reality, which is the reality of so many others in the country, is that having a mental illness and being inundated with health care costs can break you down. It can make the path forward look impossible when you’re barely able to keep afloat mentally, not to mention financially.
I purchased my weighted blanket in September and haven’t gone a night without it since. With summer upon us, I’ve also looked into different blankets with cooling technology for the warmer months. For now, a weighted blanket calms me and brings me and a full night’s sleep in the wake of anxious days.
Tiffanie Woods is a writer and content strategist living in New York.