BY DAVID H.
Here are some facts about me that most likely don’t make me any more unique than the next guy:
1) I get kind of weird about things feeling uncomfortable, and it might run in the family.
I remember when my brother was four years old, he would throw insane fits about his socks feeling lumpy, presumably because he could feel the seam on the toes getting turned to one side. He would maniacally, and in a desperate means of rectifying the situation, hoist his little sock up his calf as far as the fabric would allow in order to straighten the sock out. Somewhat defeated but still slightly more satisfied, he would walk out of the house with his saddle shoes, his shorts, and the socks,wearing thin from the constant abuse, halfway up to his knees.
Other times, the neck of his shirt would “feel too loose,” prompting a fit of collapsing and re-collapsing his shoulders as though he were a marionette with no control, demonstrating just how loose the shirt neck supposedly was. It was as though the excess breathing room in his shirt rendered him powerless from holding his back straight. He’d fidget, unable to control his desires for a tighter tee.
As for me, I’ve always been one for the “Pant Leg Pull-Down,” which is a maneuver used when one has been sitting on a couch for an unspecified amount of time. It is only so long until the legs on one’s pants will often get bunchy and twisted, at which point the pull-down comes into effect. Just a quick tug of the leg, away from the waist and over the foot can yield amazing results.
My feet are equally culpable to this peculiarity, and as children my siblings would at times employ it against me, as a type of torture. I once broke my leg, leaving my feet completely out of my own reach. My brother and sisters would sit next to me and put a simple dab of lotion on my toes, just leaving it there. My human body understood full well that there was a moisturizer ready to be spread over the skin, and yet it wouldn’t, and couldn’t happen without help. And I had none. They left me for dead.
2) I like to alter my facial hair as often as possible. Most often I wear a full beard, but I enjoy just as much when I go into the bathroom and shave it all off. Or leave sideburns. Or leave a moustache. I never keep anything for more than a week, but I get a kick out of having that degree of control over my appearance. I wonder periodically if I could possibly evade arrest with a few simple clips of my shears.
For a while in 2002, I contemplated the idea of doing both sideburns and a moustache, connecting them into a Civil War-era look reminiscent of Chester A. Arthur. Ultimately I decided against it, for fear of scaring someone. Nothing drives more panic into the hearts of passers by than hair styles over 120 years old.
3) I don’t like to go to the bathroom (specifically, number two) anywhere other than within the comforts of my own home, or at least not where anyone might walk into the bathroom afterwards and judge me. Number two should never be an offense. It should be a private matter between you and loved ones.
So while those personal notes are probably shared with millions of others all across this great land, I may be one of the few who has had them all tried in one fell swoop, a money-making endeavor that went horribly wrong.
* * *
During 2003, my first year in Boston, jobs were hard for me to come by. I took the first two part-time jobs I found, one as a telephone interviewer conducting consumer surveys, and the other as a valet. The money was adequate, but the desire for a little something extra was always in the back of my mind. At work one day, a friend slid a newspaper across my desk.
“I’m thinking about doing a sleep study,” she stated matter-of-factly.
“A what?” I asked. I was new to the big city, and wasn’t yet accustomed to places where science was something to be researched, tested and broadened. In Tennessee, you just tried to act like it didn’t actually exist.
“A sleep study. It pays $4,000, and you just have to sleep for 10 days.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Just to see what your brain does. I mean, I’ll be sleeping anyways. I may as well make some money for it.” There was truth to this. I sleep. I may as well have been earning some cash while I was at it. I began thinking about my hours of slumber as a wasted, untapped resource that science desperately needed.
I set up a screening appointment the next day.
Days went by before they finally returned my call, but they showed a preliminary interest in me, and I was asked to come in for more testing. Over the next month, I went in no less than four times for blood work and interviews with doctors. I was assured I would be well compensated for my time at the end of each interview, each one a little more personal than the last (from “Is there any history of mental instability in your family,” to “Do you think days alone could trigger depressive or suicidal tendencies in yourself?”). Finally I was given the green light.
I was given a go-ahead not for the study itself, but for the next wave of preparation. I was told the study would begin in a month, and until then I would need to cease any lifestyle choices that might act as an artificial stimulant to my body. I was told to not use alcohol, tobacco or drugs of any kind. I was told I could drink no coffee, eat no chocolate, ingest no poppy seeds. I had to go to bed at the same time every night, and wake up eight hours later. If I woke up before that, I had to lay in my bed until it had been eight hours. Science had truly come for me.
The day of the study finally came, and I was nervous, excited and bent out of shape. I paced the floor, squeezing a balled up pair of socks that I was supposed to be putting on.
The cause for concern was that I had received, in the week prior, a long, detailed sheet of guidelines for the actual study. It seemed as though they would not only be watching me sleep, but would also be subjecting me to rigorous mental testing throughout my ten-day stay at the hospital. I would also have to stay awake, at their discretion, on three different occasions through the study. These no-sleeping periods could last anywhere from 36 to 70 hours.
Lastly, I was also told I would have no time cues inside my room. No windows, no clocks, no newspapers. I would have no concept of whether it was raining or sunny, day or night, Monday or Wednesday.
I relayed this information to another friend of mine. Always the science enthusiast, he quickly came up with his own blog post about my study. To him, I became the timeless one — a friend who was entering the unknown with his head held high, in the name of societal advancement. The weight was becoming too much. I was no Übermensch; I was just a young man with the whole world in front of him, but now as each day went by, that world’s weight was landing squarely on my shoulders. I was only 23 years old.
To make myself feel more at ease, I reminded myself of what $4,000 would look like on my bank statement. While packing, it came as a surprise when my doctor called to tell me that the head of the program had looked over my reports. He had decided that I might be unfit for the study because my family had, indeed, had a history of mental illnesses.
“But that was just my uncle,” I exclaimed.
“The director feels that with this type of study, it could in fact trigger tendencies that are deeply buried but looking for a reason to emerge,” she fired back.
“You told me during the testing that it was only immediate family that would be of any concern. I know I’ll be all right,” I challenged her.
She said she would call the director back, and an hour later she called to let me know the director had changed his mind and would accept me into the program. I sprinted to the bus stop, caught my bus, and 40 minutes later was at the hospital being admitted as a patient.
* * *
My room was mostly white, with just a few items in it to break up the bleached-out appearance. A wood dresser stood in the corner, and a matching desk held a computer that sat outside the small, dim bathroom. The overhead fluorescent lighting managed to make even these pieces of furniture paler than I would have thought. This was my entire room. A meager hospital bed was unsurprisingly going to serve as my sleeping quarters, and as promised there were no windows in the room. I was told that after settling in, I would hear a noise in my room that would indicate that it was time for a computer test. I began unpacking my clothes into the dresser.
When the small, mechanical beep sounded, I sat down at the desk and went through a series of tests in about 20 minutes. These tests were all reflex and alertness evaluations, such as fairly simple math or a counter that started running and stopped only when I pressed the space bar. I found that I was really enjoying it, truth be told, and decided to really put my all into the testing process. I envisioned them entering my room less at any time to inform me that my alertness was off the charts, that they had never tested anyone of my reflexive prowess. Perhaps I would be shuttled off to NASA, trained for a mission of some sort. You think about these sorts of things when the most exciting part of your day is adding 387 and 152.
The test ended and I stood up, unsure what to do next. I walked across the room, sat down and began to read.
An hour or two later, I was interrupted by a nurse and told that I had to begin the process of getting wired to their various machines. He told me that, for 24 hours a day, I would now be wired in several different ways to a machine that was on a rolling post. He walked me through the procedure.
He first indicated a long, clear tube running to the blue box. “This is obviously the IV, which will be drawing blood on a regular basis every once in a while.” The nurse set the IV tube down and moved on to to a thicker tube, which he picked up. “And this is the rectal temperature the sensor.”
“I’m sorry?” I asked, because I was sad and didn’t know what else to do.
“A rectal temperature sensor,” he repeated. “You will insert this when I leave and it will remain in at all times, except for when you shower. It will need to be inserted up to this point…” and he pointed at a piece of masking tape which marked what seemed like eight inches down the tube.
The last thing he picked up were 3 rubber pads and some electrical wires. They looked like something I might imagine if someone told me to think of torture scenes. “These are the EKG pads. They will monitor your heart. Three of them, you’ll have to wear at all times; the other two will be attached to your face right before you go to sleep.” He looked at my full beard, as though he could foresee a few problems with attaching anything to the coarse hair sprouting from my cheeks.
After a few other medical notes, the nurse left me to attend to the unfortunate business of inserting expensive medical gear up my ass. I had considered asking the nurse whether we weren’t all better served with a more traditional thermometer under my tongue, or one of those ear-canal temperature readers. The prospect of sliding eight inches of a foreign article up my butt seemed, at the time, like the worst thing that could ever happen to a person, but I bit the bullet and headed to the bathroom.
Later that evening, I found myself sitting at the computer again, in the midst of doing math, with blood being drawn from my arm, three cables running out of my shirt, one running out the back of my trousers and it suddenly dawned on me that this might not have been worth it. It hadn’t necessarily reached that definitive a point just yet, but it was becoming more and more clear to me that this whole experience could easily take a turn for the worse, and quickly.
That night they tried to attach the EKG pads to my face, using rubber cement in my beard. The next morning we found the EKGs had detached themselves.
After two nights of this, they asked if I’d be willing to shave off my beard, as it had become evident that it was simply too bushy to hold the EGKs in. I agreed to do so, if they could bring me a trimmer of some sort. I was assured they could, and they returned later that day with not a trimmer, but a plastic Bic razor. I looked for shaving cream, to at least work up a nice lather for an otherwise unpleasant job, but there was none. I looked at the smooth-faced male nurse and realized the guy must have no idea how beard physics work. With a beard my size, you trim, then you shave. I tried to explain this.
“This isn’t going to work. This little plastic razor can’t shave my beard.”
“I think that’s the best we can do.”
“Well, where do you want the gaping hole in my beard? Because there is no way I can deal with the pain of shaving my entire beard with this razor?”
“How around your chin, and right under it?”
I reluctantly agreed, headed to the bathroom and began hacking away. It took awhile, but I emerged later with a clean chin, straight down to my neck. I looked in the mirror and realized I had inadvertently realized my misguided dream of sporting a beard reminiscent of President Arthur.
I entered the world again, rolling my blue box behind me and careful not to catch the butt thermometer cable on the door, which had almost happened a couple times already in the two days I had been there. I was beginning to feel less and less like myself with each hour that (I assumed) went by.
* * *
Two more days went exactly like this. I would wake up, take tests, read, take a shower and go to sleep. Having gotten lost in two days of clinical routine, I had almost forgotten what had been looming since I arrived, but I was reminded of it immediately when I woke up on the fourth day. Instead of going from pitch dark to insanely bright the instant I was supposed to get out of bed (as they had been each of the other mornings), this morning the lights came on to about 10% of their usual luminosity. A female nurse rolled a computer to my bed and told me to do the tests while laying down. I was told not to sit up or anything. I completed this test, and realized that, four days in, I was still pretty well convinced that I was the fastest reaction-tester of all time.
After the test, the same nurse as before shuffled in and rolled the computer back out without a word. I laid there, fidgeting a little in the overly tight t-shirt I had chosen to wear to bed the night before, and recognizing that my flannel pants had gotten a little bunchy during my sleep. I focused more on trying to get the butt thermometer to feel at least more comfortable than it felt at the moment and wondering why the lights were so dim.
It wasn’t long before I was informed that this morning marked the first day I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep until instructed to do so; furthermore, it was explained to me that I had to stay in bed so as not to provide any form of physical stimulation. In fact, they had decided even meals could provide more physical stimulation than was helpful for the study, so instead of meals, I would be eating a quarter of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich every hour, as well as a small shot of orange juice and one of water.
I would be in bed, sitting up at an increasingly uncomfortable angle, for the next 36-70 hours in dim lighting. It hit me, very quickly, that I had not worn the right clothes for such an undertaking. If I had known I’d be consciously lying in a bed for a day and a half (at least), I would have never worn a tight t-shirt…a t-shirt that, due to the horrible angle of the back of the bed, kept sliding up over my gut and up my back. And if I had know about being in bed for the next 36 hours, I would have never worn those uncomfortably baggy flannel pants that I was again noticing were getting very bunchy.
I asked the nurse if I could readjust my pant leg, but she said no “due to physical stimulation.”
Six computer tests, twenty-four PBJ fourths and almost fifty liquid shots later, I was officially uncomfortable. While most of this was due to the fact that I wasn’t allowed to fix my pant legs (the flannel was now twisted and hiked up to around my knee), the other element of discomfort came from the other unfortunate result of not being able to get out of bed: the use of a bed pan. Disallowed from getting up to go to the bathroom, I had determined that I would hold my shit until the end of this particular segment of the sleep study. I could use the in-bed urine thermos, but taking a crap in a metal bin and making someone carry out that mess, and even trying to figure out the logistics of such an endeavor with such on-the-job training, as it were, was too much for me to even consider. Any dumps in the next 36-70 hours would simply have to wait, I decided.
But 24 sandwiches in was making that a more difficult prospect.
I had thankfully been distracted during this process by the steady stream of nurses who all seemed to want to play Scrabble with me. I had made the mistake of starting up a board game that takes over an hour to finish with a rotating cast of employees who replace each other on the hour, meaning each one of them would walk into a game mid-progress, get excited about Scrabble and want to start over. I didn’t have the heart to tell them no. But somewhere along the line, I started feeling ill to my stomach.
Unsure what it was, I demanded that the current female nurse give me a pant-leg pull down on the spot.
“A pant-leg pull down. These pant legs have been climbing my leg for like 30 hours, and I can’t take it anymore. I need you to go to my feet and straighten the pant legs on my pajama pants.”
“Jesus, okay, you freak.” I swear she called me a freak. But it didn’t matter, because she stood up and walked to the foot of my bed, lifted the blankets up to my knee, and pulled the leg down in a swift movement. The feeling was exhilarating.
“AAHHHHHHH…..” I bellowed.
“Oh my God,” she replied. She hesitantly, but firmly pulled the other one down.
“OH GOD!” I exclaimed. I had never had such a perfect pant leg pull down in all my life.
“You sick bastard,” she replied, to her own amusement. The relief was great, but it was certainly only temporary. Before long, I was feeling sick yet again, and this time there was no pant leg to fix. The timing was horrible.
“Test time!” My female nurse shuffled out, while a male nurse rolled a computer in and began testing at one. I was sick and sleepy, but began the test. I noticed quickly that my times were far slower than previous tests. I was falling asleep. The male nurse was far stricter than any I had had before, and he began yelling at me.
“If you can’t stay awake, David, we will have to terminate the study!”
“Okay, I’m trying.” Nod off again. I pressed the space bar with 1423 on the timer. Days before, I was averaging under 200.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I repeated. 1651 that time.
I made it through the test, but found out that I was in for a back-to-back session, only the second test was one that I hadn’t seen before. Three nurses came jogging into my little room and covered everything that wasn’t already white with white bed sheets. The computer and the desk were covered, as were my chair and the dresser. The third nurse brought in a piece of paper that had a large black circle printed on it. I was told to stare at the circle until the test was over, and they would be watching me on the security cameras. I was not allowed to fall asleep, and the test would last between 20 and 45 minutes.
The test began, and I stared at a black circle on the wall. I thought about the rectal temperature sensor, and I thought about the razor. And I stared at the black circle.
I thought about the dim lighting, and I thought about the computer tests and NASA, and how I probably wouldn’t get in now. And I kept staring at the black circle. It started to look like an eyeball to me. And the room was feeling too small and too big all at once. I was hyper-aware of my own body.
I thought about how I had an 1870s beard, and about all the sandwiches I had eaten, and I thought about stopwatches. The black circle was on the wall, and it looked like it had a red flower pattern in the middle of it.
I thought about my bi-polar uncle, and about my brother with his loose shirts, and about having lotion on my feet, running in between my toes as it came to room temperature. I realized that I could make the red flower rotate any direction I chose, and I began thinking about whether it was weird that I wasn’t even shocked that I saw a red flower, but was instead excited that I could make it rotate by mind control. Was that weird?
I started to feel sick again. I needed to throw up. I started calling out to the security camera, to no one in particular.
“I’M SICK! I’M GOING TO BE SICK! HELP ME!”
A voice came on over the intercom. “Are you sure?” it asked me. I thought about it, and realized what I had to do to feel better.
“YES! I THINK I NEED A BED PAN!”
In came the bed pan, with a promise of, “We’ll turn off the cameras now.”
I hate to be coarse, but this is unfortunately a story about shit — there’s really no way around it, so I’ll just be quick.
In a sickly daze, I arched my back as high as I could and created the most disgusting mess that has ever reached the inside of a bed pan. It came out fast, and it came out for a long time. Unable to see what was happening under me, I grew convinced quickly that I had filled up the bed pan, that it was overflowing. Horrified, I began imagining that they wouldn’t let me get out of bed, and that there would be feces on the sheets, and it would smell like a disgusting nursery. I pinched it off. After a solid 90 seconds of crapping, it was still coming, and I had to pinch it off.
Completely ashamed, I called the nurse back in, apologizing profusely as I handed her this unholy disaster. Realizing I was now faced with either asking for a second bed pan or quitting the study, I realized I couldn’t bring myself to do the former and I dropped out on the spot.
* * *
I looked like a train wreck. I was walking home at 11:00pm, uncertain how to proceed. I wound up walking all the way home, milling silently around Cambridge all night. I had left the hospital on a Saturday, but it wasn’t until 6am on Sunday that I became fully cognizant of my surroundings. I smoked occasionally at the time, so I found myself at dawn having a smoke in front of my church, wide-eyed and wanting to go home and finish the shaving job. I took a long drag on the cigarette, rubbed my ass cheek for a minute, and decided that I should, as soon as possible, call my friend from work, the one who had decided to share this wonderful financial opportunity with me, to tell her that it wasn’t worth it. Not by a long shot.