City & Politics, Essay

A song for the sleepless

Centre for Sleep and Chronobiology, 8 p.m.

Like many Canadians, I have had a sleep disorder for much of my adult life. Two to six times a night – but not every night – I inhale deeply, hold it, then exhale in a slow, jerky wheeze. I am only aware of this because I am awakened by my beloved looming anxiously over me, hissing: “Breathe…breathe!”

It is his concern that gets me to the clinic this night. A security guard leads me through the deserted lobby, into the elevator where he presses fifth floor and leaps out as the door closes. The fifth is a single, silent Frankenheimer hallway, where I follow signs and push through the door into a standard waiting room. A large, disconcerting photograph circa ’60s shows a man rigged up to an enormous machine, insect electrodes swarming, about to be zipped up into a silver space-age sleeping bag. Around the corner comes a stocky Russian in scrubs the colour of old blood. He greets me soberly. Forms to fill out. Into the semi-circular lab with three bedrooms off one wall and a dozen more pages of questions. Wahler’s Physical Symptoms. Beck’s Depression Inventory. All multiple- choice from:

A) I don’t have any thoughts of killing myself to D) I would certainly kill myself if I had the chance.

I marvel at the phrase “had the chance.” Seems to me the chances are everywhere one looks. “Had the guts” seems a more accurate choice of words. The nutbar questions are slipped in nonchalantly, so that between “Any dizzy spells?” and “Feeling blue?” is the casual query “Is someone else controlling your thoughts?” After the innocuous “Worrying too much?” comes “Hearing voices that other people don”t?” I resist the temptation to come off as a dead to rights loonytunes, and answer them all honestly.

My bedroom door is open so I can feel a part of all the goings on. Two other women and a man are being fitted up by Elmer the Russian and a Chinese woman, Amy. They are just out of my field of vision. The man barely speaks and darts into his room where he remains with his door closed. The two women, in their 50s perhaps, talk softly to Amy and Elmer, relaxed and accepting. The accents, Russian, Chinese, and thick, harmonise with the friendly Canadian tones, and I stop writing to listen and be soothed. One woman, finished, calls to me: “Wanna see?” and appears in my doorway tricked out in her electrode finery. “Christ!” I gasp. She smiles. Speaks sotto: “Doesn”t hurt a bit. You can keep your underwear on under your pajamas if you like. They don”t mind.” I smile back at this warm sci-fi woman and then it is my turn. I sit in the chair and Amy marks spots on my skull and temple, applying whitish goop so the electrodes will adhere.

“ gotta lotta hair.”

“You shoulda seen it six months ago.”

“You showah today?”

“This morning…why?”

“Quite dirty behind yoh ears.”


“No mattah. I clean. Electrodes no like dirt. Electrodes no work on dirt.”

“Sorry…I work with a lot of grit…”

“You wear makeup on face?”

“Just on my eyes.”

“Hmm. Must be more dirt then.”

“So Amy – you here all night?”

“All night. All night. You need to pee you call me in regular voice and I come unhook you from machines.”

“Right…the machines…so Amy how did you get into this business? Sleep disorders yourself?”

“Yah. Very bad. Okay okay. I attach electrodes to your chin now (teeth grind check) and both shins.” (jimmy leg)

(embarrassed) “I haven”t shaved my legs in a while..”

(smiling) “No mattah.”

I stand up and look in the mirror. Electrodes on skull, temples, chin, chest, and legs. Wide cotton elastic bands around chest and ribs to monitor my sleep breathing. The tag on the side reads: Caution! Connect Inductoband To Basic Transducer Cable ONLY.

I am attached to a small box that I have to hold, bristling with wires of red, blue and green. All the patients have two-way speakers in their rooms and boy buddy is the first to nod off, his snoring booming over the lab speakers. In bed now, Amy attaches all my wires to the machines at the head of the bed, and fits a contraption round each ear and under my nose to monitor my breathing. Elmer calls from the lab.

“Rib band not working.”

Amy readjusts. Elmer calls again.

“Chest band not working”

And the two of them spend the next half an hour trying to get me online. Amy is frustrated.

“Room numbah three always headache. Maybe cursed.”

At last it is lights out, door closed. I don’t want to move for fear of loosening the gizmos.

Finally drift off but in comes chirpy Amy.

“Temples not transmitting. I look.”

Muttering over me to Elmer: “We trouble shooting now.”

They leave and half an hour later I drift off, only to wake up because I have to wee, damnit. Again I resist temptation, longing to suddenly screech Amy’s name into the speaker feeding into the quiet lab, making her hit the ceiling and stick, but in regular voice I say I have to pee. She responds at once, unhooks me and I stagger down the surreal office hallway in G’s plaid pajamas, covered in electrodes and half conscious.

Back in the room I take another 30 tedious minutes to conk out. Five hours later, soft knock and I’m up and in the lab chair, Amy’s fingers poised over the first of many tape squares on my face.

“You wannit fast or slow?”

“Oh God – too early for fast. Slow, please slow..”

The painful peeling commences and I feel- for the first time- the stirrings of pique. Into my clothes and cross legged on bed I fill out the final questionnaire: How Do You Feel – RIGHT NOW? asks the innocent page, the answers ascending from”not at all” to “extremely.” Irritated? Sad? Feel like smashing something? Do you want to injure someone? Grimly, I check off “extremely” all the way down the page and then bark at Elmer to call me a cab. The driver looks me over as I collapse onto the back seat, taking in my smeared makeup, my hair matted with suspicious whitish goop.

“Just getting off work?”

“Just drive” I snarl, and close my eyes, grateful for once to the darkness of the Spring morning.


Samantha Bennett is a writer currently living in Montreal She can be reached at where she cheerfully encourages feedback and conversation.