To read the prequel to this story, click here.
I am a sleep scientist, and I have to spend the night alone in the sleep lab.
I have performed this overnight vigil hundreds of times before. I’m comfortable with the sleep lab; it’s like a second home to me. I think I spend more nights here than I do in my own bed. The room is dark – it has to be, of course, so that no light goes into the Sleep Room next door — and I stare at the flickering screen in front of me. The lab computer records and monitors the patients’ brain activity — EEG brainwaves — never-ending wiggly lines, dancing across the screen.
First, I think I need to explain what the Sleep Lab is, exactly. The room I am in right now is known as the Monitoring Room. It is next door to the Sleep Rooms. There is a window installed into the wall of the Monitoring Room, which allows us to look directly into the Sleep Room without having to go in.
The good thing is that my main job through the night, usually, is simply to stay awake, and keep an eye on things. Monitor the patients and their brainwave activity on-screen; make sure everything is ticking along as it should be. There are infrared cameras mounted on the Sleep Room walls, so I can see the patient on another monitor, make sure everything is okay. I have to make sure the brainwave recording is going well, that the recording wires are still attached to the patients’ scalps, and that the recording is free from noise and interference. Through all this, the main job is usually just staying awake and alert.
To keep myself awake, I’m allowed to browse the internet on my laptop, as long as the speakers are switched off, of course — and on the condition that I keep a vigilant eye on the patients and their signals. Later on comes the mentally taxing part of analysing their data — but, overnight, I don’t have to worry about that yet. Sometimes, watching the EEG brainwaves flit continuously across the screen can be strangely hypnotic and I have to fight to keep myself awake.
Tonight though, tonight, is different. Tonight, there’s no danger of me nodding off. I’m wide awake. And I’m terrified.
There is only one patient in the sleep lab tonight. He’s in a coma, so I’m practically alone in the building. There’s no one who I can go to, no one to wake up. That’s what makes tonight even more unnerving.
Normally I would never wake up a patient, unless protocol requires it, but these aren’t normal circumstances. If there were someone else around (sometimes I monitor multiple patients at a time), I would have awoken them by now. Not to adjust their wires, not to give them their meds, not to check up on them. Simply because I need someone here with me, because things are getting out of control.
Anyhow, he’s the only one here, and he’s in a coma, so I could scream and shout all I want and he won’t stir. All I have is an unconscious body for company. It’s why I’ve come here — to reach out to you.
Normally, I like the darkness of the sleep lab. It’s comforting. It’s what I’m used to. So tonight, even though I could have turned on the lights at the beginning of the night, if I wanted to (the patient wouldn’t have woken up, even if I were to shine a flashlight with the brightness of a thousand suns straight into his eyes) instead, I just sat here quite comfortably in the dark — a matter of habit, I suppose.
Let me get one thing clear: I have seen all manner of things during my time working here. A mixture of scary and panic-inducing.
I’m a neuroscientist specialising in sleep research, and my professional interest lies in characterising and trying to find new treatments for sleep disorders.
I’ve had multiple patients with sleep paralysis, who’d wake in hysterics, telling me about the demons that tried to kill them and draw them out on paper to show me. They’d show me diagrams of the terrible faces that haunt them in the night. They’d point out frantically and urgently where the demons had stood in the room. I’ve had countless children in, who have woken up screaming — bloodcurdling screams, the kind of sound that makes your hair stand on end — suffering from night-terrors. I’ve had people sleepwalking, throwing things around — sometimes they’ve even managed to rip the wires off their head (which is very painful, because they are glued on) and still not woken up. One man, still unconscious, cut his own wrists with a shaving razor, and slept through it, even as I bandaged him up and phoned for help. I’ve had patients stop breathing suddenly, mid-dream, and I’ve had to rush in and perform CPR. Sometimes, some people somehow manage to open the door of the Sleep Room, wander through the corridor and come into the Monitoring Room – some of them trying to attack me, hit me, bite me, all while asleep.
What I’m saying is, I’ve seen a lot. I’ve had to remain level-headed throughout it all – and focus on the job. They rip their wires out? I need to put them back on and make sure the EEG recording stays online. They start sleepwalking? I can’t wake them up — I need to make sure their wires are still in place, that we’re getting a good signal, and that the infrared camera is capturing everything so we can analyse the data. Usually I just need to make sure they’re confined to the Sleep Room and can’t hurt themselves, or me. Child screaming? No big deal, it can be a little creepy at first, but I’ve seen it a thousand times before – just make sure the signal is okay, make a note of the time and duration of the night terror, and then it’s carry-on-as-usual.
I need to be focused and to concentrate on the central aim — ensuring that patient data collection continues uninterrupted, and keeping a corresponding meticulous written record of any unusual events. After all, that’s why they’re there, these patients, so we can diagnose them. So that we can get them the treatment and medication they need to get on with their lives. So we can help them break out of the bubble of terror that engulfs them every night, created by their minds.
When it goes awry, the slumbering brain can be an evil, self-destructive thing. My job is to help reign it in.
I’m actually used to this routine — these strange, tumultuous nights — more so than a lot of my colleagues.
You see, I became a sleep neuroscientist because of my older brother.