We signed up for the study because sleep was our adversary.
Some of us were parents and shift workers juggling babies and last-minute scheduling, the constantly morphing maps of our days and nights opening and closing like one more hungry mouth to feed. Others of us were students, chasing futures, chugging coffee, our nervous twitches and keyboard clacks slicing each hour into small, neat piles. Still others came into the waiting room with their whole lives on their backs, dreading the vulnerability inherent in making one’s bed in shelters and under bridges. Some were artists, eccentrics, futurists who believed things would get better, futurists who believed things would get worse.
Many of us were simply insomniacs.
None of us were stupid: we knew how lax the regulations around clinical trials had become. We knew the companies behind studies like this one were as practiced at burying scandals as the cops were at burying bodies. We knew we were the kinds of people who could be silenced very easily. We felt the gamble we were taking deep in our bones.
But still, when they passed around the consent forms, when they recited the risks like a prayer to some dark god, every one of us signed. And yes, when they handed out paper-cupped pills, every one of us took the small blue disks into our mouths like sacraments. And as we swallowed, we let ourselves hope, just for a moment, that the study would deliver on its promise: eliminate our need for sleep.
We left. We went home. We went to work. We walked the streets. We haunted the bus station. We went to bars. We hugged our children. We cooked dinner.
Twenty-four hours passed, and none of us slept. We trundled back into the clinic office. Young people in lab coats doing unpaid internships took our blood pressure, asked us questions, handed us our pills. All of us swallowed them again.
Forty-eight hours passed. Seventy-two. Still, we did not feel the need to sleep. We tossed chicken in deep fryers. We wrote essays as the sun rose. We followed the sales scripts at our call centers. We packed school lunches for our children.
Tentatively, we started writing poetry again. We had sex with our partners. We had sex with strangers. We danced to the music we remembered from when we were fifteen and sad, or fifteen and happy. We read books at 2 am.
No, we told the interns on our daily visits, we were not sleepy. No, we did not feel sick. No, we did not feel manic, or confused, or like we were having trouble remembering things, or like we needed to pee more than usual.
Most of us were telling the truth.
We took second jobs. We took fourth jobs. Some of us took drugs, which we had agreed on our consent forms not to do.
On the fifth day, one of us started to notice shapes out of the corner of her vision. On the sixth day, a couple of us started to hear the voices of the dead: our parents, our friends, our younger selves. On the seventh day, one of us felt as though he were falling into the maw of some incomprehensibly huge animal, and when the interns asked us questions on the eighth day, he told them about it, shaking.
The interns called the study director. He did not look worried, and we wondered if that should make us feel more safe, or less. Yes, he said, we suspected this might be a side effect. The body can be made to survive without sleep, but the mind cannot survive without dreams. Please tell us about them, when they happen. We need to measure the extent to which they interfere with your life.
You can withdraw at any time, said the study director, but you do forfeit the honorarium. His teeth were white as gravestones when he smiled.
We shook our heads and swallowed our pills, one collective intake of something like need, something like desire. We left the clinic. Some of us had started dancing together in the park, propping up speakers, clapping out rhythms. Some of us had started savings accounts with the money from our extra shifts. Some of us had started singing during bath time with our children, watching them slap the water as they learned their letters.
By the twelfth day, all of us were dreaming.
Sometimes, the dreams were nothing more than color swirls, dancing in front of our eyes for a few moments as we waited for the bus.
Other times, we’d see people we missed standing beside us while we worked. Former friends would hold up the tools of our respective trades, our barcode scanners and hairnets, and toss them in the air, make them multiply and fall like confetti. Grandparents would guide our hands while we deboned chickens or restocked shelves. Sometimes, we’d open the doors to our taxis and long-lost cats would jump out, purring against our legs as we prepared to search for our first passengers of the day.
These dreams made our jobs pulse with life. Some of us loved it, welcomed the company and the laughter. Some of us felt their presence grind us down further, make us that much more aware of how much of our days we all spent joyless and aching and optimized for use.
Sometimes, though, our dreams were all our worst fears, falling and hurting and bleeding and screaming, and we’d see them while putting our children to bed, and we’d have to hide the horror in our eyes. Those were the worst times. Those were the times we wondered if this was all worth it.
But the dreams never took up more than an hour per day. And there we were, rediscovering how to bake our grandmothers’ recipes, how to play the guitar, how to masturbate. Taking the money from our extra jobs and paying off our debts, getting our landlords off our backs, buying our children new shoes. None of us wanted to lose all these extra hours to sleep once again. So each of us, on our own, resolved not to let the dreams interfere with our newfound lives, no matter what.
Weeks passed. The pills tasted bitter when left in our mouths too long before consuming. We learned to dry-swallow as quickly as we could, filling our mouths with saliva as the interns came around with our paper cups. In our dream-hours, we learned things too, things about who we really were, what kinds of lives we really wanted. Some of us left partners, confessed our love to old friends, went back to school.
On the 99th day, a strange thing happened.
Around noon, one of us, a man who spent his days racing up and down the aisles of a shipping warehouse, scanning the shelves for items to be boxed up and conveyor-belted, dreamed of a door in the middle of the warehouse floor. He could see the outline of it so clearly, and he knew with bone-deep conviction that if he opened that door, his life would change forever. He fell to his knees, scrabbling at the concrete where the door handle seemed to be, his breath fast and heavy.
The forklift driver didn’t even see him before the crunch and shriek and squelch of impact.
The study director did not acknowledge this death, but we whispered among ourselves that he must know about it. Our gatherings in the park were more somber now. A few of us started sentences with: If anything happens to me…
A week later, as we swallowed our pills as usual, one of us yelled, Stop!
She was one of the artists, one of the drifters. Her past had chased her into the city with long knives, and it was knives she saw now, the knives of loan sharks and exes, so vivid that they sparkled in the sunlight that poured in through the single-paned office window. These mind-conjured blades and their lurking owners were chasing her, coming for her, carrying all the weight of years lived in debt and terror, and with the certainty of dream-logic, she saw only one move to make. As the interns ran to get the study director, she gasped, a single choked-off sound, and jumped out the window.
We were ten stories up. Some of us looked out at her body on the pavement. Most of us did not.
The study director spoke about tragedy. He reminded us once again that we could stop the study at any time. Then he said, in the same breath, that this woman must have been unstable before joining the study. He reminded us of the forms we signed. Waiver. Non-disclosure. Study compliance agreement.
One or two of us considered dropping out then. But we thought about how, since we started the study, we had found hours to wonder about the existence of God, and minutes to clip our toenails, and seconds to swirl our soups around in our mouths.
The next day, all of us were back in the office, lined up for the pills and the tests once more.
The third death happened late at night. One of us saw her children emerge from their bedroom, only the dream-overlay of the scene told her these were not her children at all. Something wasn’t right. Something was profoundly dangerous about these two imposters standing in her kitchen.
She went to get her gun out of its hiding place in her bedroom cabinet, her hands trying and failing at the combination on the safe. 21-45-18, she breathed to herself, and in her dream state, the numbers floated in front of her as she spun the lock and opened the safe door.
The imposters followed her into the bedroom. She picked up the gun. She fired two shots, the recoil hitting her bad shoulder, and her children—and oh, god, they were her children after all—fell like ragdolls in an earthquake.
After that, she turned the gun on herself.
The next day, when the rest of us got to the study office, we found it locked, with a sign on the door: Permanently Closed. All Ongoing Research Cancelled. Thank You For Your Participation.
Some of us, the ones with families, the ones without papers, left. A few of us, the ones who had less to lose, stayed, jimmying the lock until the door swung open.
The main room, where we had swallowed our pills every day for the past few months, was empty in the way an old house is empty, where the emptiness only highlights the faded curtains and rickety chairs left behind. We walked further inside, poking our heads behind desks and into smaller rooms. Computers were gone, their errant cords left behind like forgotten jewelry. Filing cabinets stood open, gaping.
In one room, four paper shredders squatted like sentries amid a pile of sliced-up documents that looked as though it had bubbled up, fully formed, out of the floor. Most of us were looking for answers. Some of us were looking for money. We sat down and began sifting through the scraps.
We found schedules and academic papers and extra copies of the forms we had signed at the beginning of the study. We found a scrap of a training document for the interns with phrases for how to describe the study to us: have you ever wondered what your life would be like and help us discover and stop at any time. There was no smoking gun. There was nothing worth trying to sell. Eventually, we left.
We’d forgotten what it was like to feel sleepy. We knew what it was to feel tired, but sleepy was different: our bodies pulling us down into unconsciousness. We found it disconcerting when our eyelids began to droop and impossibly frustrating when we thought of all the things we would rather do than rest. Some of us obeyed our bodies immediately, but most of us tried to push through it, yanking ourselves back to wakefulness, slapping our cheeks and inhaling our coffees. But by the fifth day, all of us had been dragged into slumber. It was an undertow, a drowning.
The waking dreams were the last to go. Some of us welcomed their fading, but a few of us mourned their loss. They were insight: ancestors touching us, mind-to-mind. They were distraction, whimsy: some beauty in the world for a change. And they were also something we could not articulate, some sense of connection and meaning that we could feel slipping away from us as our dreaming recoupled with our sleep.
We have stopped dancing in the park. We go to work. We feed our children. Most of us quit those extra jobs we took. Some of us still write poetry on our late-night buses home. Some of us have noticed that we cry more. Time sits heavy on our diaphragms once again, but now its weight is greater because we all remember how we made a terrible bargain once and were able to breathe for a while. Sometimes we wish we had never heard of the study, never fell in love with doing more than just surviving. But most of the time we miss it all, despite everything.
So we’ve started meeting up sometimes, late at night or early in the morning. And when we do, our conversations always circle back to dreams.
We’ve been dreaming about a lot of things, lately.