Category Archives: The Sleep Study

All posts about the weird 28-Day sleep study I did in Boston.

Short Story: Buzz

I wrote this story in 2 sittings by hand while I was in the sleep study.  I was in the middle of reading Short Cuts by Raymond Carver.  I tried to mimic him some.  The only editor on this one has been me, so…

Buzz

My car radio didn’t work. I was thinking about how my parents would both be dead one day. First one then the other. It was getting late. I was tired. Not tired, exhausted. I still had a ways to go.

The heater didn’t work either. I had on my ugly green coat, my gloves and hat. My hands were hot, but the steering wheel was freezing. Without the radio and the heater it was almost silent, except when I went over 10 mph. After that a little buzz kicked up. It would have been easy to ignore with a radio or heater. It came from the back of the car, and stayed the same pitch. Sometimes I harmonize with it, but I was too tired. I was almost there.

I was wondering who would handle it better, me or my sister. I didn’t know if it would make us closer or push us apart. I didn’t know what it would do to her or to me. If we would grow up or down. It was so quiet and dark. My lights were the only things around. Even the high snow banks along the road were dark. As if there was no snow it would be easier to see. The snow was everywhere, except on the road in front of me. I could see my breath hitting the windshield. I was thinking about my sister and what kind of stuff she might keep locked up in her house in Michigan, and blowing my breath onto the glass. I was just thinking and slam.

I saw it coming just before it happened. His headlights were off and his car was black but I saw it. Before his left headlight hit mine, when they were just millimeters away, everything stopped for a second. The two cars dried in time like glue, and then released. My seatbelt caught, I barely moved. Steam was rising up and dissolving from under his hood. I stepped out first. He had to crawl through to the passenger’s side, and he came out saying “Oh jeeze, Oh jeeze. Oh man.”

I pulled my hat down so it covered my earlobes. It crept back up. I walked around to assess the damage. I was better off. My heater and radio and headlight were all busted. My fender was scratched down to the raw white underneath. That’s all. It was ok.

“Oh jeeze, I’m so sorry. Are you alright? Oh crud.”

“I’m fine. You?” We looked at his car, crumpled like a paper cup. It seemed impossible. I had been going so slowly.

“Me? I’m fine. Oh jeeze, but look at this.” He pulled on the fender and part of it came off. “Jeeze. Dang it.”

I thought about calling the police, but decided against it. The man seemed to feel the same way. We exchanged information. He wrote his down on the back of a business card from some Chinese restaurant in a town I’ve never heard of. His name was Hank.

Hank took off his hat and smoothed his thinning hair. “Well jeeze. What do we do?”

“Can you drive it?”

Hank got back in his car, crawling across the seats again. In the light from my remaining headlight he looked like a child. When he turned the key the engine didn’t make a sound. All I could hear was the hissing of the steam, which was waning. We pushed his car to the side of the road. He was clearly in my lane, but we didn’t mention it. We didn’t need to. Hank steered while I pushed.

“You have a cell phone?”

“No.” I don’t know why I lied. Hank laid his head back and looked up at the blank sky. He clapped his bare hands together.

“I can give you a ride somewhere.” My engine was still running.

“Aw jeeze, I would hate to trouble you. I already hit ya.”

“No, no.” I said.

“I don’t live far. 15 miles. On Addison. Do you know it?”

“You can show me.

 

***

We didn’t talk much on the way there. I told him I was from Hollis. He said he knew a pastor there. Then he was quiet for a long time. I was driving so slowly. I didn’t want to hear the buzz. He tapped the window twice with his fingers. Then he looked through the glass hard like he saw something in the field.

We were getting close. My phone started to vibrate in my pocket. You could hear it. Its buzz was dissonant with the one coming from the back of the car. Hank said, “You just turn here.” That was all he said.

His house was small. We went in the back door. He made a path through the snow. I stepped in his foot prints, but my feet were just a little bigger. Our prints on top of each other looked like sedimentary rock. He opened the door, and suddenly I didn’t want to go inside. I wanted to stay out in the yard, in the wind and snow. It had gotten colder. I followed him in, shut the door behind me.

We went through a musty mudroom. It was close quarters, me and Hank in there taking off our boots. For a second it felt like I might fall on him. The cold air was sneaking in under the crack and biting our Achilles tendons. Hank let me in the house, then shut the door to the mud room quickly. He kicked a purple towel back against the crack to keep out the cold.

The interior of the house was 1952. It was all wood paneling and brown carpet. It was all bulk furniture and yellow lights. We were standing in the living room. The enormous wood framed TV with a small screen, just like the one my parents had in their bedroom, was on softly. I couldn’t make out the picture but it was playing some old tinny song that I recognized. An ancient woman was sitting on the couch looking towards the television. She didn’t turn to look at us. I wondered if she was deaf.

“She’s in here,” Hank said. He wanted his wife to meet me. Meet the nice young man who gave him a lift. Hank led me towards the kitchen. We walked between the woman and the television, but she didn’t move an inch. She looked like a wax figure, melting slightly in the glow of the screen. As we walked by we screwed up the reception, the TV screen buzzed and distorted, first for Hank, then for me.

She was in the kitchen wearing a pink nightgown and holding a red mixing bowl in her arms like a baby. She was short and almost perfectly round. The nightgown came up above her knees, and loops of fat hung down from her thighs like a hound dog’s face. I didn’t want to notice that, but I did.

“Hank? Oh, you brought company. Hello! Who’s this, Hank?” She pointed her face at her husband and looked at me out of the corner of her eye. She began mixing whatever was in the bowl again with the fork she was holding. It went click-click-click-click-click.

“This is Ray…mond.”

“Hello, Ray!” she said. She was so cheerful. It seemed to me to be too late to be cooking something, but maybe I was wrong. It occurred to me that I had no idea what time it was. It felt very late, but maybe I was just tired.

“Hello.”

“I have some bad news, honey. We got into an accident. Me and Raymond here. Completely my fault.”

She turned her head to the side like a sparrow. “Oh, no. Is everyone all right?”

“Yes, we’re fine. It was my fault. I wasn’t paying attention.”

“Well at least you’re all right! That’s the most important thing. And you’re all right, Ray?”

“Yeah I’m fine.”

Someone was moving around upstairs. Hank and his wife looked at each other.

“Would you like some coffee, Ray?” She gestured with her elbow at the coffee machine on the counter while still beating furiously at whatever was in the bowl.

“No, thanks. I need to get going. I still have a ways to go.”

She looked disappointed.

“You know,” Hank said, “I think might finally get me a cell phone. If I’d’ve had a cell phone tonight, Raymond wouldn’t have to had come so far out of his way.”

“We weren’t far,” I said to his wife. “Just down the road. Fifteen minutes.”

“Jeeze, Marla. You should see the car. I busted it up good.”

“Well, I’m just glad everyone’s all right!”

The person moved around upstairs. It sounded like they were right on top of us. Marla set down the bowl on the drain board and wiped her thumbs across her forehead. She left behind a streak of something black. The person moved upstairs again, the floor creaking under their weight. We all looked at the ceiling. I wondered if they had kids.

“I had better get going.”

“Alright. Let me know if anything happens to your car, Raymond. You know, problems can show up later after these sorts of things.”

“Will do,” I said. I turned to Marla, who was making her way to sit at the table. “Nice to meet you.”

“Be careful,” was all she said as she dragged a chair out from the table and fell into it.

I crossed back through the living room. The old woman was still sitting and staring. She hadn’t moved an inch. I walked behind her this time. I stopped. I leaned forward to look at her, to get into her line of vision. I looked at her hands. They were folded on her lap, small and wrinkled. I left her sitting there. I looked up the stairs just before I stepped into the mudroom. It was completely dark up there.

***

I passed Hank’s car again and drove for about a mile. Then I turned around and pulled over by the place where we had made contact. I crossed the road. My breath was rushing out of me in a huge cloud. I watched it go up above my head and then dissolve. There was no sound except for the drag of my shoes on the pavement, then crunching through the snow as I approached Hanks car. I opened up the passenger’s side of the car and crawled through. It seemed somehow colder in his car than outside. Everything was so damn still, nothing was moving. I watched my breath smash against the windshield over and over. “Let’s go, let’s go.” I said. “Step on it.”

I pulled my phone out of my pocket. I was hoping whoever had called at left a message, but there was no message, no number.

Sleep Study: Part II. The Month Before Admission

This is a continuation of the detailed recollection of the sleep study I participated in for $5,000.  If you want to read it from the beginning, start here.

The month before going into the sleep study was almost more difficult than the sleep study itself.  I had to wear the awful actiwatch, which was ugly and uncomfortable.  I was only allowed to take it off when I was in the shower, even while sleeping.  The watch monitored my movement, and Jane told me that if I was ever sitting still that I had to jiggle my wrist, so that the watch wouldn’t think I was sleeping.   I was worried that after the study I would have developed a tick where I would jiggle my wrist every time I read a book, but that hasn’t happened.

Calling into Jane’s voice mail was a trial as well.  It was surprisingly easy to remember to do it, but it always felt silly.  Particularly if I was spending the night with someone; having to wake up and before I can even brush my teeth, place a call to some woman in Boston was always jarring.

The worst part about the watch, however, was that it somehow seemed to call out to random people.  My boss, my dental hygienist, a stranger in a cafe, all of these people felt it appropriate to ask me about the strange box-watchy thing on my wrist.  It was difficult to explain it all to my boss, as I hadn’t yet given my 2 weeks notice.

This was one of the most frustrating aspects of the sleep study: Jane could not tell me I was definitely accepted into the study until only a few days before I was admitted. So it took some courage to give my 2 weeks notice.

My dental hygienist was the worst.  She lost it when I told her what I was doing.  She insisted on repeating over and over again about how crazy it was, how she thought I was going to go crazy and how she thought she wasn’t crazy enough to even consider doing something like that.  All I could do was lie there, mouth open, and try to focus on the puppy poster on the ceiling rather than listen to her.

I also had to be sure to keep my sleep under 7 hours.  I do usually sleep about 6.5 hours, or so I thought.  I knew that if I had too many sleep log entries that were longer than 7 hours I would be disqualified.  I have a suspicion that my sleep patterns were more varied than I thought, as I found myself often struggling to stay awake at night so that I could sleep in a little in the morning.

After two weeks of keeping the sleep log, I faxed it back to Jane in Boston.  Later that day she called me and assigned me my average “sleep and wake” time.  First I was given 7:30am as a wake time and 1:20am as a sleep time.  A week after they readjusted it to 7:27am and 1:19am.  This was not fun.  If I went to bed at 1:19am and it took me 2 hours to fall asleep, then I would still have to wake up when my alarm went off at 7:27.

Lastly, one week before I was admitted, I made another trip to Boston.  First I met with the two project leaders, both MDs who interviewed me and made sure I really, actually wanted to do this.  They explained that because it is such a long and expensive process (over $1million to study just me) they wanted to make sure that I was going to allow them to gather the data they needed.  I put on my personality I got while working at the admission office at my college.  There’s nothing like giving 100+ campus tours to perfect one’s ability to act enthusiastic about something that you only partially want.

That night I spent in a sleep laboratory in beautiful Medford, MA.  This was a place where typically people with sleep apnea or particularly annoying snoring go to get treatment.  The doctors, almost exclusively young women with short hair for some reason, seemed confused about why I was there.  I explained the study to about 8 different people over the course of my time there.  They even showed me a video on sleep apnea and other sleep disorders.

The room that I slept in was like a very nice hotel that had been shrunken down to the minimum required floor space.  The bed was large and luxurious, but the walls were claustrophobic.  There was a small TV in the corner, and even a boring pastel painting of a bicycle by sand dunes like you might see in any Red Roof Inn.  It would have still been a pleasant night except that it was the first time I ever tried to sleep with electrodes all over my body.  Far from the last, however.  They also had something called a “nose probe” in me all night, which was worse than the anal probe yet to come.

The next day they served me apple juice and offered me coffee, which I sadly had to turn down.  I stumbled around Medford for a while, trying to find my way back to Boston.  I ended up walking about a mile in the wrong direction, but I did find a deliciously greasy little diner called Kelly’s.  I recommend it, especially if you have spent the night at a sleep lab.  I met with a psychiatrist, Dr. Gomez I’ll call him for these purposes, who spent an hour with me going over the psychological duress I might go through and assessing whether or not he thought I was capable of not going ape wild.  He talked to me about the darkness of the room during “sleep periods”, boredom and loneliness.  Apparently he decided I was particularly good at being bored, lonely and in the dark because I got the call 2 days before I had to show up in Boston that I was clear to come.

Packing for the experience was an arduous experience.  I ended up filling 2 giant suitcases. One was filled with books, DVDs, CDs, art supplies, toys and pictures.  The other had just clothing, and enough space to fit in things my friends were loaning me.  My last day of freedom was gray and rainy, and I spent most of it lugging my suitcase from one friend’s apartment to another, collecting anything I thought I might need.  I also ate chicken wings for the first time in a year and a half, because why not?  After that slightly sickening meal, I hopped in a cab to meet up with Jane at her office and head to the hospital.

Coming Up Next:  Let The Sleep Study Begin

SLEEP STUDY: Part I. The Tedious Lead Up

NOTE:  If you already know all about the weeks leading up to the sleep study and don’t want to read about it, then I suggest you skip down and read the bulleted points below.  They’re easy to find, they’re bulleted.

I heard about the study through everyone’s favorite website to buy lawnmower parts, find employment, and get anonymous ass, craigslist.com.  If you ever browsed craigslist searching for a job better than the job that owns the computer from which you are searching, then you’ve probably come across the sketchy advertisements posted by Brigham & Women’s hospital.

Their titles range the loud and awkward  “HOW LIGHT AFFECTS YOUR ZZZ’s!” to the straightforward “PARTICIPATE IN A 28 DAY SLEEP STUDY FOR CASH”.  I was drawn to the first one.

I had read about these studies on craigslist for a few years, since I had a friend participate in one when I was a senior in High School.  My friend went into the study, and I promptly lost touch with him.  But I had heard that he had come out somewhat “off” from the experience.  I didn’t take it too seriously until, four years later as a senior in college, I had regressed enough emotionally financially  to consider the study as a viable option.  The night I decided finally to participate, I was drinking a mixture of hibiscus tea and vodka out of a latte cup while mopping the floor of a cafe where I worked.  My co-worker closing with me happened to have a second job at the sleep study, and when I told him I was considering it offhandedly, he looked at me and said, “Liam, you of all people should do the study.”  What I found out after I had completed the study that what he meant was “Liam, you of all people are crazy enough to enjoy the study.”

A few days later I called the number on the advertisement and began the quietly freakish relationship with the woman who was my “recruiter”, who I will called Jane for safety’s sake.  Jane existed only as a soft spoken, hesitant voice on the other end of a phone for a long time.  She first conducted an interview with me, what she called a “Phone Screen”, to see if I would pass.  She asked me questions about family history, how much I drink or smoke, and weather or not I had ever heard voices in my head.  I passed the screening, almost failing once for telling her that I drank about 4 cups of coffee a day (due to my employment?).  “I can stop!  I can quit!  I promise!”  I actually groveled to Jane like that.

Then I spent a wild last few months in college, and met someone who I thought I had fallen in love with.  The day I was supposed to go into the hospital to finally meet Jane and take the next step towards entrance, I woke up to a beautiful June morning, with a cute and intelligent boy in my bed and the birds chirping outside.  I walked to the hospital and told Jane I couldn’t go in when the weather was so nice.

Fast forward 6 months.  It’s October and I’m living at my parents house in Portland, Maine, which is a city where intelligent gay men go to die.  One day, out of the blue, my telephone rings and who should it be but Jane, asking me if I’m interested in participating in the sleep study, now that the good weather had ended.  Well yes, Jane.  Yes I would.

Since I had already passed the screening (barely), the next steps advanced pretty quickly.  I made an initial trip to Boston, to meet Jane and do a few weird things.  First I was given a mountain of forms to read, describing the study in as much detail as was legally required.  Other forms I had to fill out, mostly on my sleep habits, asking me how long I thought it took me to fall asleep or how many times I woke up in the night.  Over the course of the study, I had to answer questions like that constantly, and I’ve found that the answers are more slippery than one thinks.   I also had one really strange 536 question long psych evaluation that was very sneaky.  It would ask you a series normal statements and then slip in one scary one:

T or F:  I enjoy reading mechanics magazines.

T or F:  I had a good relationship with my father as a child.

T or F:  Sometimes I fear that someone else is controlling the things I do and say.
I also filled out a form asking me what types of foods I like.  When she handed me this form, Jane said, “I would fill in as many things as you think you can stomach.  It can get repetitive.”  I checked off things like macaroni and cheese, pudding, broccoli and baked scrod (which was a huge mistake).  After I had finished up a total of about 1.5 hours of paperwork, Jane sat me down and gave me a long briefing on the specifics of the sleep study.  Mostly she was reading from the sheets I had just read, and this happened several more times along the way from separate people.  Basically, they really wanted me to know exactly what I was getting myself into.  Here’s what I was told:

  • You are the subject.
  • Before the study the subject will wear an “actiwatch”, which is basically a ugly black box that monitors how much light you encounter each day, and also how much you sleep.  Here’s a picture. Picture coming.

  • The subject will also record his sleep patterns for the entire month before he enters the study, and turn in the form to the recruiter the day before the study.  The subject will also call the recruiter and leave a voice mail every night before bed and every morning when he wakes up.
  • One week before the study the subject will also agree to follow an assigned sleep pattern, with required bed times and wake up times.
  • The subject will abstain from all caffeine (including chocolate), street drugs, alcohol, over the counter drugs, prescription drugs, and (I kid you not) poppy seeds for the duration of the study.
  • On the day of the study the subject will come to the 9th floor of Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston and enter a place called Pod 9-B.
  • Pod  9-B will be the room where the subject spends the next 28 days.
  • The Subject will be required to perform simple tasks throughout the day.
  • The subject’s brainwave and heart patterns will be monitored at all times with electrodes and an EKG, unless the subject is in the shower.
  • Pod 9-B is to be a “time-cue-free zone”, which is exactly what it sounds like.  There are no windows, no clocks and I wasn’t allowed to bring in anything that would indicate time.

I want to pause, here, and reflect on exactly how many things in life indicate time.  First, electronics.  Think about all of the electronics that are important to you, ipod, cell phone, laptop, magic bullet.  Almost all of them have clocks on them.  Furthermore, think about all the things you have at your fingertips that give away time.  Live television, newspapers, magazines.  Even my body was a perpetrator, with its hunger and sleep cycles.  Which meant:

  • The subject will eat and sleep at specific times.  Which is a less scary way of saying that you will eat and sleep when you are told to.  Even if you aren’t tired or hungry.
  • The subject will not be allowed any live contact with people outside the study.  The subject is allowed to write letters to family, as well as receive e-mails and letters.  However, all letters will be held back for a few days as to skew time, and the emails will have all time cues cut out with a pair of scissors by none other than Jane herself.
  • Upon completion of the study, the subject will be given $5,000 dollars compensation.
  • At any time, the subject is allowed to leave the study, and the staff members are not allowed to try and persuade him to stay.  If the subject drops out early, he will be awarded the money that he has earned.  However, 2,000 of the big bucks are a completion bonus, which means even if you only quit one day early, you still wouldn’t get a large chunk of the finishing prize.

Now, a lot of people are turned off by the idea of having to go to sleep when the lights go out, like a parrot.  But most people I’ve talked to, when I tell them this much, say that they could do it.  But there is a clincher that usually gets people:

  • Once in Pod 9-B, the subject will be required to wear at an anal thermometer, which is a flexible, mostly unobtrusive way of checking someone’s core body temperature.  And I’ll say this several times, they weren’t lying.  It was mostly unobtrusive.

My thought was, I’ve had gay sex.  A thermometer is nothing.

Once I told Jane that I understood all the things she had told me, she whisked me away to a hospital room where they drew three vials of my blood for drug testing, and then Jane gave me an EKG, which was weird because she was in civilian clothing.  After that, a rather mean doctor gave me a free physical, and did almost all of the worst things that typically happen during men’s physicals.

Then Jane fitted the actiwatch on my wrist and told me to call her if I had any questions.

Coming up next:  SLEEP STUDY:  Part II.  The Month Before Incarceration Admission

SLEEP STUDY INTRO: What’s this business?

This is a detailed account of one of the most bizzare things I’ve ever done to get money, which, according to the thesis of this blog, is essentially killing two birds with one stone liberating two birds from the same cage.  28 days of my life for $5,000.

Advice in summary, if you’re too sleepy to read it:  Thanks Brigham and Women’s Hospital, I WIN!  Do the sleep study.