Sleep is something to be overcome. I consider the negation of sleep the most concrete expression of the superhuman urge; a protest against necessity, rest, and the whole net of human limitations. It’s a hobby of mine, like stamp collecting or genealogy, only more painful. There is nothing quite like crawling through your third dawn, wading knee-deep in fluid hallucinations, with the sleep-reflex thoroughly beaten into submission. It is cheating Death in installments, a triumph extending back into the darkness of antiquity. In the Mesopotamian epic of Gilgamesh, the hero-king must outlast seven sleepless nights in order to prove his worth for immortality. And for reasons which I cannot fully explain, this seems right to me; that somewhere on the other side of seven nights lies the secret principle of the life-force. You may not be able to see straight, or remember your telephone number, or even maintain normal bowel control, but other than that my friends you are incontrovertibly superhuman! And this is the hope that has driven me since birth: to one day surpass my own humanity.
Family records reveal this red-eyed idealism, in all its obstinate glory, in the seedbed of my kindergarten years. In civil disobedience of the bedtime hours, littleboy Brandon would sit, legs crossed and mind afire, at the edge of his bed, vowing to keep vigil until the morning light broke in Virginia. But his physiology other ideas. After a few hours of pointless games and Wonderwoman fantasies, littleboy Brandon would blink and- “what the hell?”- dawn had arrived, with my body in the same sloppy lotus at the corner of the mattress. An entire night compressed into a splitsecond by a flashflood of deltawaves. But, in the humility of my early years, I had another, better explanation of these events: I thought that I, Brandon Joyce, controlled the change-over between Night and Day. I blink and night divides the day. Occam’s razor.
I tried to explain this to my parents over the dinnertable, but they were, of course, very unreasonable. “I don’t sleep,” I kept insisting, realizing then and there that Society-at-Large would always be somewhat skeptical about the conquest of Sleep and the highflown masochism of us rocking-horse winners. The years and nights rolled by and I became even more incorrigible, more convinced than ever that, in the words of William Blake, “energy is genius.” I prided myself on keeping vigil at sleepovers, pacing living rooms through the night, talking to working-moms the next morning about seeing smoke and gremlins in glassdoors. I would read through the night and hear cocktail parties in dripping faucets. I would soak in the gentle, background hum of a supersaturated, sleep-deprived mind as I zoned out through the rollcall in highschool homeroom. I was told “beyond ninety-six hours, the line between fantasy and reality completely disappears.” This was the Promised Land, I was sure; the point at which radio static and late-Seventies psychosurreal children’s television programs would start making perfect sense.
Throughout the college-years, my companions and I took numerous detours into the netherworld of “quasi-periodicity,” forcing ourselves to sleep every other night, in the infamous 48-hour day I assume on-and-off to provide enough stagetime for my hyperthyroidal antics. Its relatively easy after the first few cycles, though sometimes projector slideshow lectures can make you wish for death. During one such lecture, in our “Life Beyond Earth” class, fellow-struggler Willie Hoffman was drawing to keep his eyes and mind focused and alert. After a quick brain-blink, he came to and began scribbling on his neighbor’s syllabus. She was noticeably uncomfortable with what had just transpired, but Willie only replied with an angelic grin– and she really should have seen that coming, just by looking at us. Red-eyed. Jagged. Dressed like urban Eskimos.
Over the following weekend, we stretched our day to sixty-four hours, filling the time-chasm with activities productive and mysterious alike. We painstakingly removed thousands of staples from only the bottom half of an old cork bulletin board; partially to mystify the UVA Slavic Languages Department, partially because it became a kind of punch-drunk jigsaw puzzle, something that didn’t need to make sense at the time. The absurdity of the world was coming through with a greasy smile. By this point in the struggle, everything flows and everything follows.
When hallucinations pass from presque vu and fogginess into a fullblown case of Munchkin Land, it’s time for some fresh air, or a cattleprod, which ever comes first. It’s clarity at all costs; because beyond the sixty-fourth hour, darkness sets in very rapidly. The brain tries to cave in with an almost geothermal pressure, and the real heroics of sleep deprivation commence. The cultivation of bald will. The integrity of consciousness. Sheer mental fortitude. At a hundred hours, the mind is coming to grips with a whole new vocabulary of concepts, a godlike vantage-point that watches the rest of the world wake-sleep-wake-sleep-wake-sleep-wake-sleep-wake-sleep-wake; continued only with faith in your own inner kickstand. The garden section of Super-K-Mart, where you initially fled for the lastditch stimulation of pretty flowers and fluorescent lights, becomes your own private hell. “What is that lady on the intercom saying? That doesn’t make any sense at all. My head just flipped inside out.” Welcome to the Promised Land, friends. Here I begin to understand the task I have undertaken: nothing short of the total conquest of Sleep.
In my spotty college career, I’ve made thousands in unclaimed income from prostituting my body in the name of medical research science— sperm donation, plasma donation, Prozac, estrogen, testoterone, experimental anti-coagulants, cold and flu studies– but the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research offers studies tailor-made to my dementia- Sleep Deprivation. Having undergone two sleep-dep studies in one summer, I was honored to play even my bit-part in the “Cure for Sleep.” One day, sleep will be unmasked as the sinister anachronism it truly is; and alarm clocks and blurry morning rituals will be merely the memories of an older, obsolete generation. So I gave Walter Reed my all, though they only asked for a meager fifty-four hours– a cakewalk, especially in exchange for the unjustifiable sum of one-thousand dollars. Here now, for your enjoyment, was our schedule: 9/15/99 17:00 With my fellow masochist Wil Cather, I arrived early at the research facility to complete some release forms and medical history questionnaires—”Do you often cry uncontrollably for no particular reason?” “Have you ever contemplated suicide, if so, how often?” — measuring the psychological timber of their test subjects.
9/15/99 18:00–Assistants drove us to the “New Building” to begin preparations… Our skulls were measured and marked with grease pencils. Women in white coats superglued electrodes to our scalp and face with Collodium adhesive… They spackled our heads with electrogel, a clear blue conductant of a toothpaste consistency, injecting it into the tiny breathing holes of the electrodes. The electrode wires were gathered, bundled, and plugged into a Medilog, a five-thousand dollar Walkman built for brainwave transcription. In place of my watch, I wore an actigraph, a little box whereby the white coats could monitor my pulse, movement, and general activity (No doubt wired to detonate in the event of escape). Two EKG pads were added, just below our collar bones. Finally all the wires were fed into a green Army vest, which we were required to wear for the duration of the study, including the recovery sleep. By this time, Wil and I cut quite a sharp figure– Cyborg Commandos preparing for battle. And to tell the truth, they went easy on us, atleast compared to my last visit to Walter Reed, which added a saline drip, an IV poll, and a “nightcap, a bulky headband with a little arm that clips onto the eyelid.
9/15/99 19:00 We headed into the suite, our home for the next four days. There we were joined by the third test subject, #OO3, who had some strange autistic obsession with digital videocameras and martial arts. He bitched throughout the fun that he was “having the worst day of my entire life,” trying unsuccessfully to sneak in edgewise naps when the whitecoats were busy elsewhere. We could not figure the little guy out, so as a rule, we just ignored him. After that, Wil and I headed directly to the kitchen, and soon discovered the eight-hundred dollars worth of groceries provided for us. A banquet of the gods: mounds of chocolate pudding, shelves of eight-ounce juice boxes, Salisbury steak, every variety of instant oatmeal, microwaveable Ravioli, dried fruits and trail mix, decaffeinated Coke, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, beef jerky, candy– every combination of salt, lard, and sugar. Gluttons that we are, we made little attempt to conceal the fact that this was the best we’ve eaten in years, sucking down five cups of chocolate pudding in under five minutes.
9/15/99 23:00 They led us into our escape-proof rooms for bedtime, in order to synchronize our biological clocks as best as possible. Everything was proceeding as planned.
9/16/99 06:00 Rise and shine, no more sleep for three days, ladies. We stumbled out to the suite and ate enough breakfast for ten men, and peed enough for ten little girls. Boredom had already set in, and after a few failed attempts, the nurses assured me that I was not Nintendo-compatible. We returned to our bedrooms, and assumed the position at our computer console, for a mind-numbing battery of tasks; painful reflex tests, right-hand/left hand games, timed arithmetic, and what have you. “This is not a competition”-yeah, sure- “Please do not compare results with your suitemates.” Afterward, the nurses read further directions off a clipboard:
“Now, get into bed and assume a position that is comfortable for you. Find, but do not push, the blue button on your Medilog recorder. In a moment, I am going to turn out the lights. When I do so, immediately press the blue button. Then, close your eyes, but do not fall asleep…” The lights went out for fifteen minutes, and our job was to remain still and awake, with only our poorly connected thoughts to keep us company. Following quiet time, we were asked to stare at a dot for five minutes, then close our eyes and pretend we were staring at the dot.
9/16/07:00 Headed to the suite for a new coat of electrogel, and farted around until the next set of tests. The whole routine took approximately an hour-and-fifteen minutes, and amounted to an amusing game the first couple times. But, we were condemned to this process thirty-six more times during our visit. After the twentieth time, the mind goes. To make matters worse, our rooms were eqipped with “white noise makers,” little boxes that produce the husky drone of window unit air conditioners. Instead of a warm cushion of sound, my ears heard Native American chants, electronic music, and shrill voices screaming “It’s not fair!” over and over and over again. I told the nurses that the voices were distracting me from my computer tasks, but they were without pity. This is the thing about medical experiments– you enter a veritable wonderland, where all the guidelines of human interaction are temporarily suspended. If the nurse tells you to get in the cage, you get in the cage. No questions asked.
9/18/99 06:00 Administration of the anti-narcoleptic Modafinil. Once the drugs hit our system, Wil and I agreed: this is the best of all possible worlds. Not that we needed the Modafinil. Please: we’re professionals; medical curiosities. Sleep is of no concern to us- it was the repetition that was driving us absolutely insane. Time, by now, had become so cyclical that it had lost all meaning. A jigsaw puzzle had become the light of our life, and its completion replaced any concern we might have had for our own well-being.
9/18/99 12:00 Bedtime, at long last, only this time, there’s a catch. We must remain in our pitchblack soundproof cubicles for a full twenty-four hours. Even after three sleepless days few can sleep more than twelve hours. On top of that, the Modafinil was still coursing my veins. I slept seven, atmost. Seventeen relentless hours in that hole, a goddamn psychological experiment in itself. I did find one release though. On the bathroom break, one nurse disclosed the true scope of the EKG and actigraph– they can apparently differentiate between blinking, laugh ing, coughing, depression, sleeping–”damn near read your thoughts,” I was later told. So I pocketed a wad of toilet tissue, and went back to my room for some long overdue Me-time. I’ll let them come to their own conclusions.
9/19/99 12:00 Freedom. Renewal. Sunlight. The electrodes came off, not without some torment and turpentine. The Actigraph was retired. And I gathered my earnings and fled the country, with neither a theory nor a plan, certain that the gods would amply reward me for my stubbornness.