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