The High Cost of Sleep

So tired, so very tired. Even having trouble thinking clearly. But now, at last, a lucid moment: “We must not allow this,” I kept telling them, “and if that means taking it to the streets, so be it.” Unfortunately, they didn't listen, and I'm too exhausted to continue. If I could only...only... What was I going to say? Oh yeah, sleep. Hah! Now that is funny. Takes me back, too. When was that, five years ago or six? Back when it was free. Probably about the only thing that still was, which made its regulation by “the overpowering force of the marketplace” inevitable. Everything else was big business, after all — from sex to air fresheners.

Suddenly I'm marching down a street with thousands of people. They seem to be chanting something like, “Sleep for rest, not for profit.” What was I doing there? Of course, I was there to protest, too. In fact, as I recall, I helped organize the whole thing — and what a success it was! All those people, unified and angry. And for good reason. It was, after all, such an outrageous idea, or at least it seemed to be until the government launched its counterattack. However, by the time the hack ministers, pseudocommissions, and media surrogates finished flooding the public with “study” results and misinformation about the scheme's purported advantages, a lot of them actually started to believe in it.

My thoughts drift slowly toward relaxation, raising my hopes. Sleep seems to be coming...wonderful sleep...blissful nothingness...I can just begin to feel it...trying to get in around the edges...but, no, it's not to be. Damn it, this is really awful. Now where was I? Ah yes, all those people falling for the government line. How could they have been so stupid! But the government promised jobs, economic growth — and who can argue with that? Certainly not me, although I tried. “Dignity!” I cried, “we must have dignity!” “Jobs!” they cried back, “we must have jobs!” Strange thing was, there weren't even that many jobs to be had from it, what with automation. But times were tough and people will take what they can get.

A faint, mournful dirge is coming from my living room. I've been hearing a lot of strange things recently, so I only allow myself to be distracted by it briefly. So, what tactic did we try next? Well, we compared the enterprise to a tax. That worked better, but in the wrong way. “The rich must pay more,” cried one side. “An hour's sleep is an hour's sleep, whether you're rich or poor, ” the other responded. The debate became so rancorous it threatened to undo the whole scheme. Cursing my fading memory, I have to ask myself why it didn't. Several more moments reflection provide the answer: we were outmaneuvered by the government's proposal for a “Guaranteed Social Minimum.” With that single stroke, they defused a raucous mob, turned it into a genteel cheering section, and earned accolades from the populists for standing up to the rich. My last card? “It's unholy to interfere with our sleep!” It triggered great theological debates, but in a secular society, those debates have little impact; they certainly didn't in this case.

Now wait a second — what's happening? The dirge has grown quite loud. There are people marching right in front of me. They seem quite happy, judging by the smiles on their faces, even if their dirge remains grimly somber. And quite a cross‑section of people they are too — white‑collar, blue‑collar, even the clergy — all, it seems, except the poor. None takes any notice of me as they pass by, which is something of a relief. At least they haven't come for me.

For a few seconds I try to figure out how they got into my apartment. When they pass through the wall on their way out, I have my answer —it was a hallucination. They say when you can't sleep, you start to dream while you're awake — and they're right. How long has it been now? Two and a half days. That's, let's see, how many hours? One is 24, so two Half of that again comes to 50. No, that's not right. Why can't I think? Sixty, it comes to 60. Sixty hours without sleep! Must be some kind of record.

A scientist materializes in front of me. He's wearing a white lab coat and steel rimmed glasses, and he has a thick accent. “Ve haff develupt a cheemekul dat keepz you from sleepink,” he says proudly, holding up a test tube filled with clear liquid. He then picks  up a vial of pills and adds “Unless you take theess.” He starts detailing how the chemical interferes with the functioning of the hypothalamus and the sleep cycle, but before I can ask him any questions, he's replaced by a bearded man in a wrinkled suit. Puffing on a pipe, he asserts that adding the chemical to the water supply could create a vast new pharmaceutical industry; charging “x” amount of money for each pill (that is, for each hour's sleep) would generate “y” amount of profits and “z” amount of reinvestment. He starts babbling about growth curves, elasticity of demand, job markets. As I start to object, he too dissolves. I find myself talking to a policeman who intends to arrest anybody distributing untreated water. “To hell with you!” I yell at him. He starts laughing. “Sleep well,” he sneers as he fades out.

At least for the moment nobody takes his place. A cold shower might not only keep him from coming back, but wake me up enough to figure out what to do. Before I can act on this impulse, my mind wanders back to the first night I couldn't sleep. I tossed and turned, but nothing approaching sleep ever came. Yesterday, I went to the doctor. She said I was fine—at least physically—and she prescribed some medication. It didn't help. I went to the customer service center this morning. They checked my file. Everything was in order. They explained that they can only stop me from sleeping, not make me sleep when I can't, but I was getting suspicious. I went to some of my friends, the ones in high places. Too high, as it turned out. They had pushed the hardest for a Guaranteed Social Minimum (“GSM”) of 5 pills a night, which made them popular and influential. None was interested in rocking the boat, especially for somebody who'd continued to agitate against the whole scheme long after it had become unfashionable to do so. Besides, with the GSM firmly in place, such deprivation was impossible, they explained. When I suggested that I was deliberately being given placebos, they just accused me of being paranoid. “See a doctor,” they suggested. I told them I had. “Try a different one,” they said. I did. And still no sleep...

I'm hearing a voice now, a familiar voice. It's mine. It's asking me how long I can live without sleep. I tell myself I don't know. From the way I'm feeling, not too long. How long is “not too long”? A day or two at most.

A walk, maybe I'll take a walk. Fresh air sounds better than a cold shower.  Can I walk? Yes I can, though not very steadily. Well enough to get me outside, though. Now which way should I go? This way, I think. God, I feel so awful! If I cross this street here, I'll be at the park. That should be a good place to... Good grief! What's coming toward me? It's sure making a funny noise...

“James Russell, political activist and social critic, was killed in an automobile accident last night on Bellevue Street. Russell, 43, died instantly when he stepped into the street against the traffic light and was struck by an oncoming car.”

—Greg Evans

graphic by JR Swanson