Even in the bizarre world of ASMR, Sarah Toth’s videos stand out. Her YouTube channel is wildly successful; she has over a million subscribers, 300 million video views, and enough sponsorships and ad revenue to support her family of four. This isn’t what sets her apart though — many ASMRtists make bank.
Toth bends the norms of even the most successful YouTubers largely by stripping the videos of all the pretense that her peers are often chided for. Every other night, she greets her viewers with a goofy transparency. Confessions about shrimp taco breath, accidental focus-skewing bumps of the camera, and periodic breaks in character give her videos an authenticity that more polished ASMRtists lack.
Toth’s candor goes far beyond taco breath. In her videos, she shares her wide-ranging experiences of trauma, from heroin addiction to suicide attempts, with the same authenticity as her commentary on cosmetic brands. Whether its a whispery tarot-reading, a haircut simulation, or a “mom tucking you in” roleplay, her frank familiarity gives viewers the impression that they’re building a relationship of trust, in spite of the hundreds of thousands of viewers live-commenting on the video.
Toth offers her life story for every viewer, in all its grit, ugliness, and triumph. Her approach is a crucial one when it comes to addressing addiction, according to her throngs of commenters.
While many ASMRtists will receive outpouring adoration from fans with insomnia or loneliness (ASMR is believed to promote relaxation and sleep), Toth operates in different margins with higher stakes. The comment-section seems less like the usual trolling clusterfuck and more like the safe space of an AA meeting. “I hope she feels as good about herself as she makes me feel about myself. I adore her,” says one viewer. “I’m going to get clean like her someday.”
Others share vulnerable admissions: “I felt suicidal this week. I’m in a big period of darkness. [Toth’s] family is the only thing getting me through.” Many big-name ASMRtists — including GibiASMR, GentleWhispering ASMR, and more — discuss mental health issues, but addressing addiction by bearing her dependency to more than a million subscribers leaves Toth in a league of her own.
There is scant research on the efficacy of ASMR videos for helping those with mental illness and addiction issues. Like Reiki and CBD, ASMR is another naturopathic option that continues to evade scientific scrutiny. In fact, very little research about ASMR in general has been done. The little that does exist comes from the few professionals within the ASMR community cobbling together small studies they have pioneered — like Dr. Craig Richard who, frustrated with the persistent snub from the scientific community, started compiling his own research, conducting surveys (with 25,000+ participants), and coordinating the largest existing database about ASMR. He’s the closest thing to an ASMR expert there is; he thinks we’re just beginning to uncover the benefits of ASMR, but we’re still years away from any validating scientific green light.
But let’s be real: We need to get creative about healing, especially after the past year. The pandemic has taken a real toll on people battling addiction, since in-person sobriety meetings are not often possible. Every one of Toth’s videos has countless testimonies from grateful war vets, teens managing anxiety, and others battling opioid addiction.
Toth found ASMR videos in the way many of her followers did: as someone at the end of her rope. While her husband was working 12-hour-days, she was managing two herculean tasks: sobriety and caring for an infant.
“It was a rough night in 2013. I can remember vividly. I was laying beside the air conditioner in bed, my husband still at work for the night, my newborn rustling in a hand-me-down bassinet,” Toth tells Mic. “As a new mother and a recovering addict, my anxiety kept me up at night, I was desperate for sleep.” Laying beside the wriggling, cooing motivation for her sobriety, her brand new son Odin, Toth faced the unbearable urge to take a hit. Instead, she spastically typed anything and everything into YouTube: makeup tutorials, clothing haul reviews, and then, a video of a doll getting massaged. The tingles started.
“The feeling was almost instant. I could feel those tingles come on so quickly and it was exactly what I needed to get relaxed and get some sleep,” she says. The habit stuck. “ASMR, at the time, was the absolute only thing keeping me going to sleep at night.”
Toth was 15 when she first tried Percocet. She liked the high and continued doing it, along with dabbling in LSD, shrooms, ecstasy, and heroin. At 19, she started going to a methadone clinic where she met her now-husband and got pregnant with their first child. A year later, while she was pregnant with their second, her father passed away. After the birth of her daughter, the compounded trauma took over and she sought the escapism she wanted through benders and music festivals while her husband juggled two kids with his job.
“They were fending for themselves,” Toth recalls. “The house was filthy. My husband was working all the time. I was miserable and crying all day. I put my family through hell.” It culminated in a conflict with her husband where she got aggressive. The cops were called and her children were removed by Child Protective Services (CPS), she says. A blur of a time punctuated by the cold reality of her mom’s couch — her temporary new living space — and the judge’s words in her head: “You will never get your kids back.”
At this point, getting her life together was a necessary step in currying the favor of a CPS board. But for a high school graduate, job prospects were dire where Toth lived — Johnstown, PA is known as the “poorest town in Pennsylvania.” The answer to her problem, however, appeared to lay in precisely what tethered her to sobriety: the ASMR videos.
It started small: an inexpensive tripod on top of a laundry basket, a plastic folding chair, a black sheet, some string lights. It wasn’t much but it worked.
“I figured if something I love so much is still so undiscovered, I can participate in showing the world too, right?” she says. While ASMR was already huge, she’s spot-on about the “undiscovered” part — the soothing sights and sounds being used to address addiction cravings and anxiety. Her first video was a whispery makeup tutorial. She posted the video and had 50 views overnight. For Toth, it was a small sliver of hope that this could work — for herself and others.
“Even on my worst days — the days when my children were taken from me, the days I didn’t eat due to being poor — even on days I relapsed, I still picked up that camera. I still filmed,” Toth says. She named her channel Karuna Satori; “Karuna” is a Buddhist word for universal compassion of a Bodhisattva, and “Satori” is a zen term for sudden enlightenment. She describes the name as the summation of her journey to sobriety and the universal benevolence she feels she was given. During the two years Toth’s children were gone, she acquired viewers little by little. She called them her “family,” temporary children for a mother aching for her children.
One of those children is Kimberleigh Fatras, a 25-year-old convenience store cashier from New Jersey who discovered ASMR right around the time she was trying to stop using heroin. “I remember being horribly sick from the withdrawal,” Fatras says. “I was at a low point where I was getting ready to just give up.” She started looking for YouTube videos to distract herself and a video of Toth popped up. It opened with a soothing, almost maternal presence, and calming hand gestures that gave Fatras a moment of distraction from using, but when Toth divulged it was her sober anniversary, it offered something slightly more enduring, “It was the first time in days since starting to get sick that I felt like there might be hope after all… If she could do it, why not me?”
Fatras had one relapse before going to a methadone clinic. Today she has been sober for more than four years. She’s no longer dependent on methadone, something she credits to ASMR. “To this day when I’m having a bad day or I feel like I might relapse, I just put on an ASMR video instead and it has become one of my favorite tools to use to keep me sober.”
Toth hears this a lot: “Every single day I read at least one testimony that says some version of ‘Your ASMR has helped me get clean,’” Toth said. ‘It’s very humbling.”
Two years after her kids were taken away, Toth was reunited with them. The channel’s original goal was met, but she kept it going. In the process of recovering her broken family, she had acquired another — and she couldn’t leave that one without their “mom.”
The channel has since grown by leaps and bounds. Her husband no longer needs to work a grueling schedule. Toth upgraded her filming equipment and improved her props, her backdrops, and her lighting. “Not only do I get to get paid for doing what I love, I get to help people get out of the same problems I once suffered,” Toth says. “I wouldn’t wish what I went through on anyone. I know what it’s like to feel hopeless, unwanted, alone. I know what it feels like to want to die.”
So now, Toth does what any good mother would do, figuring out new ways to comfort and protect her tribe from the anguish and instability of their worlds. She doesn’t have all the answers, but it still feels worthwhile every time she flips on the camera and whispers them to sleep.
If you need to talk to a professional about resources for yourself or a loved one, call the National Drug Helpline at 1–844–289–0879. There’s someone there 24/7/365. If you have an overdose, call 911.
Originally published at mic on February 24, 2021.