I was free— free atlast— from the Harvard Sleeplab, with a bottle of iron supplements, a faceful of electrode sores, and a doctor’s warning to “rest up, okay, you’re still pretty sleep deprived… Three days or so.” But after five solid weeks of bioregularity, I yearned to return again to the virtues of excess; back to the “do not eat, feast; do not sleep, collapse” kind of routine. And sure enough, Luke and I were breakdancing, to the best of our white-suburban abilities, outside yet another Olneyville houseshow, when I felt the flicker of infinite energy return. Since my release two days before, we had been batting around the idea of an all-out head-to-head Sleep Deprivation Marathon, much like the ones I had dominated throughout my freshman year at the University of Virginia.
Though by “dominating” those competitions I mean that, unlike my competitors, I never fell asleep midsentence or facedown in my caesar salad; nor did I unconsciously type out my dreams for composition assignments before lapsing into a slobbery, upright coma. Luke would be a different kind of competitor too, I could plainly see. A perfect nemesis: certain of victory, obstinate to the last, tall, pale, eager to suffer for higher ideals, and like me, unencumbered by the punchclocks of the dayjob. “I’ll start whenever. I’ll start now. I’ll start the moment you say,” he challenged, with a visible twitch. I knew he was goading me, but… “fine,” I said, straightening up, “We can start right… now.”
Tara sauntered up, rosy from her redwine, and all smiles. Luke slung his arm around her. “Do you want to be in a sleep deprivation contest? Eh? Me and Brandon just started.” Pausing tipsily, “sure,” she shrugged, taking another swig and passing it to Luke.
That’s how it all began, so far as I remember. There were other, half-hearted recruits, but they tuckered out before the evening was over… Just rolled over in their graves and said “Good Night.” We passed that first evening together at Sleep Attack, over bowls of Luke’s Green Concoction Number Five, talking, bullshitting, and setting the pattern and precedence for the rest of the Marathon. I shared the time-polished strategies and known side-effects of self-willed insomnia: the games of Chess and Go, the gorging and caffeine-based pain-management, the small, constant movements over the fiftieth hour, the dubious folk-physiology about spinal fluids, the hypothermia, the sensitivity to light, and the slippery slopes past the Point of No Return…
The mind must stay sharp and occupied, above all else. Once it drifts too far, too close to The Darkness, the brain becomes a bowl of spaghetti and the sleep demons come clanging for your soul. This is what we call, handily, the Point of No Return.
When the first morning broke, we were prepared. Luke and I left the warehouse overdressed in sketchball outfits, five layers thick, with silly hats and dark sunglasses. Garb reminiscent of Kilgore Trout, or Ignatius P. O’Reilly, or maybe just your standard-issue streetperson. Paranoid, I think, would be the best way to characterize this fall fashion look. And I now understand its utility. It is protection, from that intrusive and menacing everpresence we call “Reality.” And even after one night, the get-ups offer indispensable comfort, especially my hat (one of those straw Chinese-lampshade hats, particularly popular within the black community). If we were going to lose our minds during the ordeal, atleast we’d be dressed the part.
Another note. Providence may be the worst place in the Western Hemisphere to hold such a marathon. Really. Everything is locked and offlimits by eleven o’clock. Olneyville, the rundown warehouse district where I reside, is no place for midnight wanderings, unless you need “a date” or perhaps “some stones.” Charlottesville, the arena of most of my previous binges, was the very opposite: open and inviting, given to meandering, full of computer labs and welcome mats, warmer in climate and temperament— paradise on earth. Here, in Providence, everything would be a matter of inner resource, inner strength. Just Luke and myself, staring at each other, over a chessboard and under a single, swinging fifty-watt bulb. A tiny flicker in a great ocean of darkness.
And poor Tara had daytime duties to think of. Providence happenings and the like. Luke and I hitched along for the ride, hanging around her kitchen for chamomile and small comforts from her housemates. Despite these handicaps, Tara remained strong and impeccably lucid for the first three evenings. And for those evenings, we laughed, we cried, we attended parties and dinners and biked throughout the hinterlands of Providence, but finally, Tara succumbed, as we all must, to naptime. Requiescant in pace.
Things started to get ugly, particularly during the troughs in our circadian rhythms, the seratonin lowpoints in the daily cycle. Walking around to sleepy Olneyville homes— around breakfast time— Luke started to stagger and gyrate in the middle of a crosswalk. He looked like a robot in the middle of a meltdown, or a German expressionist, either one. Doing this weird rectilinear dance, until coming to and blurting “Jesus, I was totally just dreaming there.”
Particularly strange was another phenomenon, very telling of the cognitive utility of sleep: though Luke and I were no longer wearing the sunglasses we had on for the first three days (I had broken mine), our brains never quite got over them. We still “saw” the sunglasses and continuously clawed the air around our faces to take them off. There were just these little mirages in front of our faces for the rest of the stretch. It was eerie, this optically-illusive degeneration, but further anecdotal evidence of the essentially cognitive function of sleep. Sleep is, in the words of sleep-scientists, “of the brain, for the brain, by the brain.” But the altered and liminal states brought on by sleep-deprivation provide a first-personal understanding of the mind and body that third-personal quantitative science can only compliment; because in my worldview, all roads of inquiry lead back to Experience, however treacherous and bumpy they might become.
On the upside, Luke and I’s lowpoints were off-rhythm, so we each had the dubious pleasure of watching the other drag himself through three hours of total self-abasement and garbled, underwater conversation. Luke’s eyes would roll and his behavior would become squiggly and erratic. But, even at his worst, he maintained. “There is no way I’m going to sleep tonight.” “Well, it’s okay if you do,” I said, letting him know that, beyond this point there was probably more grace in surrender than in endurance anyway. “I’m telling you,” he assured me, “there is no way.” At my best, I was lucid and iron-willed— with sleep vanquished— but every now and then, screws came loose. I would be talking and talking on a car ride, normal at first, when suddenly out of my mouth comes “…Your brain starts making cartoons…” Completely non sequitur. The car went silent. Meghan Fuller asked, as compassionately as possible, “cartoons, Brandon?” “Yeah,” I said, attempting to recover my dignity and train of thought, “it takes two VCRs.” I was referring, naturally, to the VCRs in my head.
Had this been, in any sense, a real competition, Luke and I would taken these lapses as opportunities to taunt the other for being a weak-minded bedwetter. But either from pity or personal embarrassment, the competitive dynamic became less and less about finish lines, and more and more about spurs and gentle elbow nudges to keep the other person from folding. Luke was the first ever to travel beyond the seventieth hour with me, and before long a new possibility began to sink in, bigger than just who-wins-what or who-mocks-who. The question became: could I make the six days, seven nights to obtain immortality and avenge the death of Gilgamesh?
For those unacquainted with my fascination with Gilgamesh in “Sleep Deprivation and Superhumanity,” I repeat the central drift here:
“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!”
Gilgamesh was the reason for the season, my inspiration, and the hundredth hour was rapidly approaching. This could be the stretch, I realized. The one. The mastery of finitude.
— “Two people, companions, can prevail together against the Terror.”
It occurred to me, somewhere in the muck, that ideals liberate us from the predictability of simpler passions. Ideals create the stubborn sonuvabitches that cannot be swayed or tamed by the more reasonable requests of Common Sense. Rash ideals are the engine of history. Diamonds of integrity. Do you think that I would put myself through this torture if I listened to Common Sense? No way. Not a chance. My conscience is far more dangerous than my urges. It is my conscience that demands the impossible, demands that my body suffer to mirror my ego-ideal. Six days, seven nights: I am competing with a mythological hero. The conquest of Death? Where do I get these retardedly horrendous ideas? ….My parents must have done something wonderfully, wonderfully wrong.
And is this all-for-naught? I need to communicate here, more than anything, the triumph of lucidity. I need to communicate what I am trying to get a glimpse of…
Some evenings, Reality would become as crisp and delicious as a shiny red apple, especially after I allowed myself the luxury of hot coffee and Mountain Dew. I would be wandering around Thayer Street with Joe and Laura, or watching Patrick perform his one-man play by Brown University, saying to myself “this is impossible. That I’ve won this easily.” I had conquered Sleep, emerged victorious, caught time by the tail. Those moments in which I was more than fine— I was energized, breaking apart styrofoam cups into millions of pieces, up and down the escalators of Providence Palace Shopping Mall, high on the fluorescent light and classical ditties. Sure, I would have to sleep eventually— someday— but never again could she dictate my days and nights. On any given night, I decided when and whether I would sleep. It was now a choice. And by the very fact that I was still there, I had unequivocably won… A triumph by decision.
Luke, having struggled valiantly, superheroically, blasphemously through his first true marathon, crashed around his hundredth hour, bless his heart. I crawled through the kitchen window of Sleep Attack and tip-toed over to the sofa, where Luke was sleeping the Big Sleep, the sleep of the just. Fifty-eight hours to go, and the troughs were sinking lower and lower, uglier and uglier, into the swamp of the backbrain and the land of the deranged.
“Brandon it’s your move.”
“It’s your move, man.”
I looked up and across the go board to see Chris and Luke snickering, as I scrambled to cling to whatever was left of my external reality. “Can you excuse me,” I say, with the floodwaters rising, “I think I need some fresh air”…
I went out into the hallway, talking to myself, knowing that, at that very moment, the only recourse was… to close my eyes… Not sleep, just close the eyes and rest the muscles around them. In order to do that without fallling prey to sleep, I also needed to flap around like a wounded pigeon…
After thirtysome laps in the warehouse tower, I snapped and landed right in the city center of LaLa-Land. Looking down in a panic, I said to myself “Fuck, where’s my sensor? Where’s my IV poll? The labtechs are going to kill me,” referring to my friends at the Harvard sleep study, who were by then ten days in the forgotten past and, in any case, a safe distance away in Boston, Massachussets. My superego, ever on the watch, was convinced that I was still in the sleeplab… so frazzled were my braincircuits. Frantically I searched the hallways up and down for my lost rectal thermometer. “I must have disconnected it. I must have. It’s not in my ass any longer!”
The angels in the warehouse rafters must have been puzzled: “what’s all this business about his asshole?” “Dunno. Not in my contract.”
And the Harvard labtechs continued to haunt me; like the freaky, head-melting demons in Jacob’s Ladder, coming to take my soul away. And like Jacob, I clung to life and to my world… I refused to die, and so Reality continued to devolve into evil forces, sentence fragments, misstarts, and threads of perception. Chris asks:
“Brandon. I’m going to the convenience store, you wanna come?”
“Am I allowed to come?”
“Allowed?… What do you mean?”
“Will they allow me to come?”
But four hours later, after yet another psychedelic trough in the circadian circle, I had returned. Returned triumphant, returned from the Land of Humbaba, to drink again from the wellspring of infinite energy, bicycling through Providence with nostrils full of the early-autumn air. After four hours of ecstatic suffering, my private mythology was reaffirmed and my soul, three inches bigger. This private mythology was part of a belief-system I had been nursing since ninth grade, when my thoughts coalesced into the person I am today. In those days, one of my favorite motifs was immortality; both literally and metaphorically, but mostly metaphorically. Immortality, in my ninth-grade mind, was more of a drive than a state… It was the asymptote of the Bergsonian life-force. Whether it manifested itself in having children or leaving legacies in the tennis world, immortality was its implicit, impossible end. But what got me was the yearning itself. I parsed a lot of my actions into those that denied and those that propelled this life force, obviously having a preference for the latter.
For instance, corollary to this lifedrive, folded within it, was the drive for unbroken consciousness, the Unblinking Eye, the “unwavering band of light.” All were manifestations of this slapdash élan vital, which would not, could not, go gently into that good night… That would not sleep, that would not die…
Gilgamesh, for one, refused:
“Now that I have toiled and strayed so far over the wilderness, am I to sleep, and let the earth cover my head forever? Let my eyes see the sun until they are dazzled with looking. Although I am no better than a dead man, still let me see the light of the sun.”
Tragic philosophy teaches us that Life is little more than the rationalization of Death. But I’ve never taken their advice: I will not rationalize Death. Death sucks. End of story. Death sucks. It sucks— I refuse to die… People who tell me it is inevitable miss the point. I’m telling you I’m not going to die…
St Augustine, among others, tells me that man pines for the infinite— that he is incomplete without it. I understand what he’s saying, but I refuse to turn to the transcendental to fulfill that need, toward another world that has more room for infinities… I need to hold these infinities in my hand… I need to see them, get them on video… I need to brag about them over dinner; show them to my friends. The only reasonable compromise, then, is to embody the infinite somehow— to hold the try-outs on the surface of earth. Infinity made imaginable, the sublime within experience… God help me.. The whole bit about unbroken consciousness is just a brazen way of saying— “Look how much I love the thrill of experience! I will not even let go for a fucking second… I want to be around to see infinity unfold”… How can I explain this? No matter what residues or reconstructions I cling to, they will ultimately fail to capture the color of the stoplights in Providence this evening as they happened to me. The experience of experience! There is no way to contain or freeze-dry them— well, atleast not yet… And some part of me, and some part of the mighty Gilgamesh, refuses to die until this little snag is smoothed…
The seventh night eventually came. I was watching a fuzzy-blue Conan O’Brien on our antique television set, waiting for the clockhand to strike four. I was drained and contemplative, smoldering with whatever was left of that “infinite energy” I had spoken of. How about that, I conquered Death. I wonder what kind of dreams I’ll have tonight.