Do We



By Lee Frank

Seventy-million Americans suffer from sleep deprivation, and half of them don't even know it. For instance, there's this disorder called apnea, which is when your windpipe closes. You stop sleeping effectively while your breathing diminishes. After you think you've had a full night sleep, you wake up feeling exhausted. Overweight men are prone to apnea. After studying the circumstances of his death, sleep experts suspect John Candy died of this sleep disorder.

Nobody knows why we sleep. Only that we need to. To do without sleep is torture. Literally. The Spanish Inquisition and the Nazis used sleep deprivation to torment their victims. The British army employed it in Northern Ireland to elicit false confessions. Deprive a person of sleep, and they can suffer serious psychosis. So when my editor told me to stay up for three days to see what it's like, I decided to do it at Bellevue Hospital. If you're planning to flip out, you go straight to the top.

The sleep lab at Bellevue Hospital is cluttered with computers and instruments pumping out charts. They minutely measure the physiology of the subjects who sleep in two adjoining rooms. Infrared cameras allow the researchers to monitor patients in total darkness.

I arrive when the hospital opens. Although I don't usually get up this early, clinic director, Dr. Joyce Walsleben wants me there in order to do a series of tests. These tests will establish a baseline which can be compared to tests done throughout my three-day Wake-a-thon. Of course, I have to sign a release, and I almost put the kibosh on the experiment over the clause: "agree to wear a rectal probe" I am assured someone else is currently using it, and, alas, is unavailable. I know my limit.

They attach a dozen electrodes to me. They are glued over my heart, on my chin, by my eyes, my forehead, and at various points corresponding to sections of my brain. I feel like I can receive HBO. I enter one of the bedrooms, lie down on the bed. The lights dim and I'm told to try to sleep. In no time at all, the technician barges in and says I came close to going to sleep. She says that's how they measure my sleepiness - by asking me to try to sleep and rousing me before I do. It's going to be a long three days.

Particularly so because, according to the technician, I came in already sleep deprived. It's true, I got six hours sleep last night, but that's what I frequently get. She says I could be sleepy due to jet lag, since I had returned from Maui four days earlier. To test my ability to perform, she has me play a video game. It's so boring, it makes pong look like half-time at the Superbowl. The challenge is to hit the space bar and move your car to the other lane whenever a cow shows up in your lane. Which Bossie does every minute or so. Perhaps this will get more difficult over time, but as for now, I am so bored, I'm woozy. The technician asks me to put away my watch. And I realize there are no windows in this office. Sensory deprivation, too. Great.

The current trend among sleep researchers is centered on the arousal theory, that is, sleep is the normal physiological state. The big question, then, is what causes wakefulness. To learn how wakeful I am, I'm told to lie on the bed in a dimly lit room, and to keep my eyes open and try to stay awake. Now keep in mind, these rooms are for people with sleep disorders. Soft colors, fuzzy kitty posters on the walls; the rooms are designed to put people to sleep. As soon as I begin to drift, in storms the technician to stir me. This is the first morning, and I am having serious difficulty staying awake.

By evening, I am cranky. Although, they want me at the lab to make sure I don't go to sleep, I am bored out of my skull and far more likely to crash here than if I was at my home, blaring my stereo, lifting weights, and finding stuff to do.

I have my second wind by the time I return to the lab at five in the morning. When I mention to the overnight technician that I feel energized by weight training, he says that's the reason why people shouldn't train after a certain hour. If the energized state you get from training, cuts into your sleep time, you'll become sleep deprived.

One of the symptoms of sleep deprivation is you begin to have micro sleeps. This is when you fall asleep for less than 15 seconds. You might never even be aware of it — unless you are behind the wheel. Two-hundred thousand car accidents a year are caused by sleepy drivers.

Another symptom of sleep deprivation is a decreased ability to cope with stress. Like when the magazine sent in a photographer and crew that grunge bands would consider grungy. Ordinarily, this would be a very hip look, but we are in a prestigious research facility. The lab director phones, worried we might not be taking this seriously. I lamely try to mollify her. I'm wearing a bowler hat, and make-up is being applied by a guy with an earring pierced through this lip. Yes, I promise her, we shall treat this with the utmost decorum. My nerves begin to fray.

My second night, I become aware that I am emotionally oversensitive. A frail, seven-year old boy comes into the clinic to be treated for apnea. I feel so sorry for the kid, my eyes get misty. Then, as the technician adheres electrodes to him, the kid starts screaming bloody murder. The incessant squealing makes me want to strangle the little bastard and dismember his body. I have to leave.

When I return, the kid is asleep. But it's not a restful sleep. As the technician points out, this kid is fighting for his life. A monitor shows the boy's blood with an oxygen saturation level of 7. For normal sleepers, it's in the mid-nineties. He then activates a device which uses air pressure to open the boy's windpipe. In a dramatic few minutes, his saturation level reaches 94. The Bellevue sleep clinic is at the forefront of sleep research and treats nearly 500 patients yearly, helping to save and rebuild lives.

At five in the morning, my third day awake, I feel chilled to the bone, and my ability to focus is shot. I stumble and knock a glass of water onto the floor. But I am normally a klutz and wonder if this is a symptom of lack of sleep. If a really try, I feel I stave off the effects of sleeplessness. I learn, though, that your ability to perform doesn't change when you're sleepy. It's your willingness to perform which goes down the drain. I need to feel motivated to stay up, but all I feel is torture. I remember the movie "In the Name of The Father," when the British broke the falsely accused IRA suspect by depriving him of sleep. But they also smashed the side of his head to rupture his eardrum. At least I don't have a ruptured eardrum.

A physician drops by the clinic to perform a routine physical on me. "Have you been scuba diving recently?" she asks. In Maui, I say. Why? "Because you have a ruptured eardrum," she says. I am ready to confess to the Kennedy assassination.

I didn't hallucinate, go berserk, hear voices, or believe I am Napoleon. I don't think I can fly, have little people living in my shirt pocket, or feel Martians are transmitting signals through my dental fillings. What I feel is really really tired. And I have a vague recollection of looking down a rifle scope on the grassy knoll. I play the cow video one more time, find it incredibly difficult to do, get frustrated, and end up braking it. So this time, when they tell me to try to sleep, they actually let me. I sleep for three-hours and forty-five minutes of bliss.

When I awake, I tell them I feel fine. You can make up for lost sleep with relatively little sleep. But Dr. Walslaben darkly warns me I still need more, and I should be very careful. But I feel rested and stay up. Later that night, a friend tells me about eardrum injuries, says that soon I'll be losing hearing in that ear, that one of my stereo speakers will just be taking up space. For the first time in my life — I faint. I come to like in the movies: the phone dangling in the air, "where am I?" I'm lucky I don't conk myself on the head.

I clearly need more sleep. I realize I'm completely out of touch with my own sleepiness. I learn I better become aware of it in order to avoid tragic consequences. It takes me another day of sleep to fully recover.

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