I had assumed that my time in the Harvard sleeplabs would be rather unremarkable, a repeat performance of my sleep-deprivation stints in Bethesda, Maryland. Mainly because of certain surface similarities: the headfull of electrodes, the IV polls, the reflex and dot tests, the sleep deprivation. But Harvard had a few surprises of its own: camera eyes, magic lamps, “Constant Routines,” and a fiftyfoot telephone cord stretching all the way from the wall to my asshole, for the purposes of rectal thermometry. For the “Constant Routine” that I mentioned, subjects are required to remain awake and in bed, at a forty-five degree angle, for stretches of anywhere from twenty-four to seventy hours (it was fifty, in my case). You cannot bend your knees or lean forward. You must piss in a urinal and shit in a bedpan. And you cannot change anything, once Constant Routine is underway, not so much as a sock, blanket, or hoody.
Everything within the study is tightly regulated and cyclical. Food comes in bitesize quarter sandwiches with a fluid ounce of orange juice on the side, every semihour or so, along with the battery tests and tubes for spit collection. The room and everything in it is NASA white, the walls and furniture and computer monitors- everything, in order to assure the integrity of the experiment (which concerns light, time cues, biocircadian rhythms, and funny things like that). Think of the last scenes of 2001 Space Odyssey, with an aging Dave eating breakfast in bed.This is me on Constant Routine. It is a petridish portrait of Foucauldian discipline. 15 Lux, exactly. 23.5 potato chips, exactly. 1.1 millimeters of subject blood (or whatever we damn well please). Absolute regulation- this is where it became interesting, for me personally. Sleep deprivation has become, over the past ten years, almost habitual. But habit, this is something genuinely new to me. Especially since leaving the Virginian public school system, I’ve prided myself on my divergence from any sort of lattice of day-in-day-out regularity: bedtimes, mealtimes, work schedules, regular showers, sitcoms, poker nights. It had not occurred to me, before the doors were locked from the outside, that this could be useful for the private annals of experimental living, a torturous nine-day constraint game in itself. However, I soon learned its value.
Like I’ve said, I often flourish under constraint. And within the first twenty-four hours of lockdown, I had already turned the tables. I set up a television studio before the cameras- the first live talk show beaming from Harvad sleeplabs- for the benefit of the labtechs in the Control Room. My inflatable rabbit companion was my debut guest. The audience was puzzled at first, but rapt. So the interviews continued, with guest appearances by IV polls and trashcans, musical segments blaring Krautrock and Providence noise, and puppet shows and man-to-camera staring contests to unnerve the folks on the wrongside of the camera. “Hum,” I wondered “what does this kind of role-reversal mean for the future of the Panopticon, the world of Big Brother and the Everpresent Eye? Will everyone become a television star? Will theatrics eventually become a coping mechanism? Has it already?” I floated off into meditation on the meaning and future of Reality Television, a phenomenon too few are willing to take seriously; a phenomenon too loaded to go into detail with here.
Like some solitarily-confined Alcatraz inmate, I invented small hurdles and challenges to keep the time rolling: beating the biological threshold on the reflex tests, overfilling the urinal with one unbroken stream, guessing the time in spite of the meticulous removal of all timecues. Though I cannot claim victory over the first two, for the third and most important hurdle, forensics prevailed. I dropped some knowledge one of the labtechs in my sharpest know-it-all tone:
“The ultimate fallacy with the Constant Routine is since everything must be normalized- the food and tests and everything- they provide time cues. So all you have to do is measure the intervals between one spit sample and the next, and you got it.” “Yeah, but how do you do that without a watch, wiseguy?” she challenged. I pulled my Lilliput tape out of the stereodeck and bragged “This tape is forty-five minutes long. The cycle went five minutes longer when I flipped it over. My cycle is fifty minutes long.” Checkmate. Her smile dropped nervously and I became a little worried that my study might be unceremoniously terminated. She was definitely the stickler of the labtech crowd, but I was only reacting to the smugness with which she said the word “impossible.” I lightened the conversation by saying that, oh, I had totally, totally lost track of the number of cycles, really, rendering all my busy arithmetic useless. I was still tempted. Everytime a labtech entered with a spittube, I was very tempted to say “Oh, is it seven thirty already?” In the end, the satisfaction was probably not worth 2,200 dollars.
Another thing I was impressed with, over the Constant Routine, was the cinematic quality of the hallucinations. The cloudwhite monochrome and the dim fifteen lux glow (and the sickbed tedium) must have made all the difference. There were cartoons in the electrode tray. I mean right there, before my eyes, Asterisk and Obelisk wrestling arm in arm, a dog wearing a fedora with a coat of writhing serpents, and snowmen singing to the little worker elves dancing around the impedance meter. Later, comparing notes with Jeremy and Luke about the dot test, Jeremy had evidently had experiences very similar to my own. “You could watch movies,” he said. “Exactly! Fucking exactly!” The so-called Dot Test, considered by some to be the most pointless sadism of the Harvard sleeplab experience, required the subject to stare directly at this black dot for five minutes, as their inner pilot-light flickered and held on for dear life. A very low-tech operation: a piece of paper, with a dot on it, taped to a manila folder and lowered over the monitor following the reflex and arithmetic tests. But because of the backglow, the black dot became a crystal ball, right before your very eyes. I watched- and I promise you I’m not exaggerating here- I watched a short film, starring myself, about being chased down and stoned to death by an angry Aghanish mob of shepard zealots, only to be put into some weird contraption that looked like a bobsled, resurrected Christlike, and lifted onto their shoulders like a winning quarterback on homecoming. Unnerving, to say the least. I should sell tickets. Capitalize off my sufferings, for once.
But the sleep study was not pointless sadism. It had a point. A very sharp point, in fact, as I learned the morning after my first Constant Routine, when I emerged from the shower to find everything rearranged with wires feeding this way and that, and my bed replaced a weird piece of Victorian quackery, a semisphere with a little chinrest that was going to hold my head for the next few several hours. It looked like an overrated desklamp to me, but the head researcher wasted no time in demonstrating the true powers of his Magic Lamp. It turned on with a beautiful Yves Klein blue, a blue-bottle blue, and I dove in eager at first, pretending to leap full tilt into the void, as Yves Klein would have done. But medical science soon took over and, before long, I felt as though I had swilled a sixpack of Nyquil. “Yeah the light exposure alone is what makes this study a living hell,” one labtech told me, shaking his head in amazement. I was forced to remain in that Clockwork Orange torture device for six and a half hours, staring into the blue without talking or music or anything to occupy myself with. But by god it worked, man. This device did what it set out to do. After crashing, I was ready to conquer the Roman Empire during the next Constant Routine. The researcher had evidently sucked the lifeforce out my eyeballs and administered it to me the very next day through tiny magic orbs emitted from my rectal thermometer. I threw a bedbound party. I thrashed and blabbered, and came to the conclusion that “this study ain’t so bad afterall.” Especially with the cute labtechs, obligated to remain with the subjects for the entire Constant Routine. I now take a moment to thank those kids for the lovely time, especially the cute ones. A spoonful of sugar, I’ll tell you what. I had such a good time that it eventually occurred to me that my quickflick hallucination- the one about death and resurrection- had come true, at least metaphorically.
Upon release, I gathered up my things- my “decorations”- and boarded the train for Providence, unaware of the ordeal that was yet to come…
“Brandon, can you please check your sensor?”