I Spent Two Weeks in a Sleep Study

Participating in a sleep study, Craig McCarthy spends two weeks cut off from the world — no sunlight, clocks, or outside communication, except for writing letters.


Editor’s Note: This is a letter I received from my friend Craig while he was doing a 14-day study testing the effects of different reading formats (books, Kindles, iPads) on sleep patterns. At the facility, Craig was not allowed to communicate with “the outside,” except for writing letters. He was about halfway through his stay when he wrote me this. — Bureau Editor Kevin Nguyen

Dear Kevin,

Greetings from the sterilized white room inside of Brigham and Women’s Hospital. So far, so good, as I still remain intact with my sanity. To tell you the truth, it really isn’t that bad. I estimate that I’m awake for around 16 hours every day, which usually gets split up into eight hours of reading, four hours of watching movies/television, two hours of testing, and two hours of writing/hygiene/miscellaneous. There are no clocks, so I can’t be quite sure.

Probably my favorite thing I’ve read so far is Absurdistan by Gary Shteyngart. It came out a few years ago and it’s the first really good satire I’ve read set in the 21st century. It’s funny as hell. Also, I lucked out and had a friend who owns tons of Criterion Collection films, so I grabbed a dozen of those. (I highly recommend Godard’s Band of Outsiders if you haven’t already seen it — definitely the best one of his I’ve seen yet.)

Another upside/slightly depressing fact is that I’ve had more conversations with new people here than I’ve had in months. Every day new nurses, grad students, and technicians come in just to talk with me. (Weirdly enough, most of them are really cute med students from England.) A good portion of the time, I’m kind of engrossed in the movie or book in front of me, so I don’t feel like talking. I have to say to myself, “Alright Craig, this is some of the only human interaction you get all day, so pause the fucking movie and talk to the pretty lady.”

Nevertheless, not everything has been positive. I had an IV in my arm for the first day, which slipped out while I was sleeping, causing me to wake up with nurses around me while my arm was dripping blood. So that sucked. Plus, I’m sure all the nurses think I’m weird seeing that every time they walk in while I’m watching a movie something bizarre is happening, like a woman naked in front of a little boy or some guy screaming racial epithets. Either that or I’ve just farted.

When I entered they had to review all my movies to see if any contained “explicit content” or something to that effect, so they confiscated my box set of Pedro Almodovar movies. As if I was going to get all hot and bothered while watching Gael Garcia Bernal in drag, then start masturbating while two cameras are constantly watching. Ridiculous.

Even though I have been enjoying writing letters to people, it is annoying to be self-conscious about handwriting again. Nowadays, you could go on knowing someone well for most of your life without having any idea what their handwriting looks like. A second drawback to writing letters is having to spell things again. My mind definitely scans the page subconsciously, looking for red lines. I’m actually very lucky that at the last second before I left, I remembered to grab a dictionary. If I didn’t, I either would not be writing letters or they would be made up of monosyllabic words.

Whenever I start daydreaming off, I think about how weird it would be if a major world even were to occur while I was here, seeing as I’m not allowed to know what’s happening. Not in a 28 Days Later sort of way but more like 9/11. There must have been people locked away in sleep studies for that, only to get out to see that the political climate of most of the world had changed. When I get out, I’m heading to the nearest bar to grab a beer and have the bartender summarize what happened in two weeks. At least see who’s in the Super Bowl. (Sorry about the Seahawks. Being in the study is actually a perfect way of getting over the Patriots.)

They haven’t started the e-book portion of the study yet, so I still have Room by Emma Donoghue to look forward to. My project leader wanted to know why the hell I wanted to read Room while I was stuck in a facility.

I’m close to a week through the study, so I hope this gets to you before I get out. I have no concept of how long it takes mail to get across the country.

— Craig

PS: Every time I need a technician for something, I have to press a button that says “tech request.” So I really want to start screaming “tech support!” like Tom Cruise.

Craig McCarthy was a writer an editor for Dickinson's alternative monthly, the square, and has written reviews for the Philadelphia Film Society.