Why I Sold Myself for Science

By Julia Park Tracey

When I was a single mother, I tried many ways to cut corners and make a few bucks, to keep my three daughters and myself fed, sheltered and clothed. A journalist with a master’s degree, I had a full-time job at a weekly newspaper, but it paid just above minimum wage, and we were struggling.

I had tried selling Avon products but always seemed to break even, or lose money, with the weekly quota. I sold a few items on Craigslist, but I didn’t have all that much to sell. We owned a piano and I couldn’t get even one person to make an offer. My leather jacket went for $50 and after that, no one wanted the kids’ stamp collections. With the girls at home, I was limited to part time work I could do while they were in school during the day, alongside my other job. I even went to the food bank to get help with groceries.

The stress and worry of  managing life as a single mother kept me awake at nights. I could turn out the lights, lie down and close my eyes, but racing thoughts and doomsday scenarios played out in my head. Even if I fell asleep reading, my eyes would pop open about 2 a.m. and I would wrestle with my pillow and gloomy thoughts for a few hours before a final hour of nightmarish . I dragged though the days, exhausted, as my worries grew.

But one day I saw an ad in the alternative weekly press asking for volunteers. “Can’t Sleep? Insomnia? Participate in Our Medical Trial…” The large font and promise of payment lured me in, and within a few days I was registered for a scientific study.  The hospital in the next town had a center for studying sleep disorders. The preliminaries included a blood test, a lengthy questionnaire, and an agreement that I would take the unspecified drug (or placebo, I wouldn’t know which), record my reactions, and spend three nights in the sleep center. In return, I would receive $1800.

The drug was an herbal compound, so I had no fears of waking up with two heads or extra fingers, but I had to scramble to find a friend to sleep over on the nights I was scheduled to be gone. I took the pills every night for a few weeks, recording my night’s sleep or lack thereof every morning, first thing. I did not notice any difference in my sleep patterns, although my were vivid and surreal while I was taking the medication (or was it the placebo? I never found out).

When I arrived at the sleep center for my first night’s stay, I realized I would be sleeping in a laboratory. Cameras were trained on the bed and the technicians monitored my vital signs.  First, I changed into comfy yoga-type pajamas. For about two hours I sat while the technician measured my head and drew marks with a grease pencil. She used some kind of fixative that smelled lemony, felt like wet sugar, and somehow managed to get in my eyes, where it stung. Then she attached sensors to my head. I asked, “Is it supposed to sting?”

“It doesn’t sting!” she snapped.

She drew my blood again, stabbing a few times to get the vein. When I was all but hooked up to machines, she let me go brush my teeth and use the bathroom. I was not allowed to read or watch TV. I took the medication as usual, then lay back while she attached all the electrodes. She turned out the lights and I tried to sleep.

Easier said than done with the cameras trained on me, fixative burning my eyes, cords attached to my head. The creepy desolation of lying in what felt like a prison ward instead of my cozy, lovely bed at home, with my daughters nearby left me awake for hours. My eyes closed, then popped open when I heard footsteps in the hall. It was a very long night, with short, intermittent sleep, and crazy, frightening dreams.

In the morning, my forefinger that had been clamped in a sensor all night was purple. A different technician came in and unhooked me from the machines. “How did you sleep?”

she asked.

“I was going to ask you the same thing,” I said. “How do you think I slept?”

“We won’t know until we analyze the data,” she said. I got dressed and went home, where I made a big pot of coffee and scrubbed the blue pencil marks and fixative from my hair.

I continued with the medication and two more overnights at the sleep center. I never noticed any difference in my ability to sleep. Until six weeks later, when I received the check. Not surprisingly, with a little extra money in the bank and back in my own bed, I finally got a good night sleep.

Tags:  Dreams Sleep sleep science

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