Over the past two months, David Mahabali has become highly skilled in transporting pillows, floor mats and blankets around the San Francisco Bay Area. He layers an assortment of them on the plush floors of McMansions in Woodside, spreads them on deep-pile carpets in posh condos in San Jose, and neatly arranges them in the living rooms of three-story Victorians in San Francisco. Once he has created a suitable den and he and the client have agreed on the rules of engagement, they settle comfortably into Mahabali’s “nest”. Sometimes they pick, fully dressed, Mahabali resting his arm on his client’s shoulder or hip.
There’s nothing sexual about the setup; Mahabali is a professional cuddler for Cuddlist.com, whose job it is to boost people’s moods via the oxytocin shots of physical touch. He averages four sessions a week, he estimates, double what he did last year. He attributes the growing demand to growing stress among tech workers and startup CEOs he visits. Sessions often get emotional, he said, with some clients oscillating between tears and laughter. People talk about feeling isolated, juggling back-to-work and childcare policies, and worries about having to lay off people or being laid off themselves.
Of all the signs that Silicon Valley’s collective sanity is unraveling, a boom in unconventional and alternative therapies may be the surest. People in Silicon Valley are looking for help in all kinds of places. Demands for psychedelic therapy, equine therapy (communicating with horses to reduce anxiety), laughter therapy and cuddle therapy have skyrocketed in addition to demand for conventional talk therapy. The Bay Area is now home to more than 60 ketamine clinics, where patients embark on emotionally intense, drug-infused journeys. The waiting list for ketamine-assisted therapy at Oakland’s Sage Institute is so long that the center’s website redirects people to its competitors.