One afternoon, a couple of months before my mother died of colon cancer, I crowded onto her bed to join her and my aunt where they lay side by side, my 8-month-old daughter playing between them. I pulled out my phone to record the two of them as they talked.
“What’s something you remember from when you were growing up?” I asked. The two sisters gave each other sideways glances and began to chuckle. In between bouts of laughter, they recounted the time my mother came home drunk one night well past curfew during her typically well-behaved teenage years, and in her highly inebriated state needed the help of my aunt to get into the house without waking up their parents and other siblings. The story was light and hilarious, and one I had heard before, but I hung on every word as if the secret to life itself was being decoded before my eyes. In this moment of laughter and ease it was blissfully easy to forget that there was a killer disease lying in the bed with us. For three years this recording sat untouched on my phone, an anchor I could call upon when and if ready.
This January, 10 months into shelter-in-place and one year post-partum from the birth of my second child, I decided to hire a nutritionist. I need help. I love sugar, which has sent my A1C levels spiking to near pre-Diabetic levels. I also love staying up late when the house is quiet to treat myself to all the podcasts, movies, and TV series I can’t fit into my day. These twin loves do not love me back, and I realize that feeling exhausted and foggy most mornings is the exact opposite of treating myself.
One of the first things that Peta-Gaye Williams, my new nutritionist, instructs me to do is schedule meals and bedtime on my smartphone. I learn about the chicken and egg of sleep and nutrition: My poor sleeping habits fuel my food choices, and my food choices contribute to my sleep habits. “Setting alarms for meals and sleep is like appointments you’re keeping with yourself,” Williams tells me. I set out to dutifully follow these instructions, somewhat skeptical because I have never been great about self-accountability. Scrolling through my apps to find the alarm tone I’ll use, I come across the file of my mother and aunt telling the story of the drunken night out. This recording has remained untouched on my phone for three years, and I feel a jolt when I realize I can plug it into my schedule in lieu of an alarm as my cue for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and bedtime.
Two months into this practice, this recording still catches me off guard. I’ll be working at my desk, or changing a diaper, or in the bathroom when I’ll hear my mother and aunt laughing from some corner of the house. I find my phone by following their voices, listening to the fire, and love pooling from their mouths as the story unfolds. Once I find the phone, feeling it subtly vibrate in my palm as they speak, I head to the fridge and make my meal, or get into bed at my ridiculously early preset time—a time apparently not that ridiculous, as I find myself asleep a few minutes after putting my head to the pillow.
When the breakfast alarm goes off, the story begins: “And you called me and I had to let you in…” my aunt says to my mother as I sit at the kitchen table and eat my spinach and eggs. At lunchtime, they have gotten to the point in the story where my mother tells my aunt to stick a finger down her throat, as she is too drunk to do it herself. I listen to them belly laugh as I eat more greens and a piece of fish. By the time I arrive at my dinner alarm, my mother and aunt are arguing over the details of what happened in the aftermath. “No, Mommy and Daddy never found out.” “Yes, they did.” And by the time my nighttime alarm goes off bidding me to crawl into bed, the story has petered off and my mother and aunt are arguing over whether or not my daughter needs some water. This recording is now like a song whose lyrics I have memorized, keeping time with me over the course of my day.
Three months in and I still haven’t quit. My attitude toward food and sleep is actually evolving. The time needed to prepare my meals in advance has magically presented itself. I feel more energetic and clearer-headed. Why is this working for me, when in the past I would have cooled by now? A 2020 Australian study on alarm tones and sleep inertia found that “a sound ranked as melodic by participants shows a significant relationship to reports of reductions in perceived sleep inertia.” I can imagine that my mother’s voice is energizing me similarly to how a piece of music might, but is perhaps even more effective because of the memories and feelings I associate with her.
“The hippocampus, amygdala, and prefrontal cortex are all brain regions involved in both memory processing and emotion regulation,” says Byron Young, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist and emotional wellness program developer. “The areas of the brain where your memories are stored are very close to the spaces where your emotional wiring is. An example of this connection going awry is post-traumatic stress disorder, where even subtle reminders of trauma can trigger difficult memories and thoughts of the trauma. But when this connection goes right—with positive things like a scent or a sound, or the voice of someone you love, in this case your mother—you can be brought back to a positive space, which can trigger productive actions.”
This principle applies to all of us. For me, the catalyst for sustainable behavioral shifts has been a recording of my mother’s voice. For others, it could be any sound that evokes positive emotions. Listening to the recording, I can imagine dopamine firing off in my brain as I am taken back to that day. I see the sunshine that streamed through the cracks in my mother’s window blinds and slanted across all four of our bodies. I see the room itself: the framed painting of Black Jesus cradling two lambs on the wall above the nightstand. The dresser top-heavy with perfume bottles, self-help books, prayer missiles, and photos of my parents and me and my siblings growing up. All of these memories trigger a sense of community and connection for me, and a central feeling overarches all of this feel-good: I want my mom to be proud of me. So the task of learning to properly fuel and rest my body moves from being a self-centered project into one grounded in righting some of the unhealthy eating patterns I inherited that contributed to my mother’s illness.
Recently, I’ve begun to play with additional audio recordings in my phone as alarm sounds: a recording of my nieces singing happy birthday to my daughter is my cue to pause for deep breaths five times throughout the day. Audio of my children babbling back and forth to one another reminds me to shut down my work computer by 5 pm. These pieces of my life that exist as audio files in my phone now having a second life as aids to my wellness.
And as this chorus of digital voices cheers me on from morning to night, I find myself in conversation with my mother again. I hear her laughter and soft chiding alongside the voices of my children in time they will never get to have in real life. Of course a recording is not the same as flesh and blood existence—but it does offer an anchor, a reminder of my why, a way to reframe the terms of my wellness journey that decodes the science of nutrition and sleep hygiene into a language that is uniquely mine.
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