720 Hours Awake
The Guinness World Records 2004 edition was my first induction into the world of insomnia. By that I mean my gradual problems with having an addictive personality, of wanting to stay awake all night, of wanting things to the point I could not then set them aside, might have actually stemmed from reading this book. Of course I’m being somewhat playful, things are not so easily correlated I’m sure.
The book is large, perhaps larger than my own torso at the time of my first encounter with it, boasting a holographic cover which traps spots of light in neon blue squares. Being the scrawny type to ‘accidentally’ forget my PE kit at school, it was also pretty much my first induction into the very world of ‘records’ themselves, and how people wanted to ‘break the record’ and ‘beat the record’, beat it to hell, beat it to shit. But when I just so happened to end up staying awake for approximately seven hundred and twenty hours straight about seven years ago a decade after the release of the book, I was not trying to beat the Guinness World Record.
For my research into this topic of staying up for long periods I came across an article published in 2018 by Sarah Keating that showed up on the BBC website when I searched for ‘longest time spent awake’. It talked about a young man in 1964 called Randy Gardner who purposefully stayed awake for a total of 11 days and 25 mins (264 hrs) in order to win the Guinness World Record of the day. He reportedly slept it all off after he’d reached the record, but then became afflicted with ‘unbearable’ insomnia in the following years. The reason this is so long ago is not because no one could beat him all this time. In fact, the Guinness World Records stopped certifying the attempts on the category of sleep deprivation altogether after it was believed that it would be too dangerous for the health of the entrants.
Of course, some people might say no one could actually stay awake that long. Seven hundred hours? You’d fall asleep eventually…Well, that’s what the nurses at the hospital thought, too. Luke’ll fall asleep eventually. He’ll fall asleep eventually. Oh, he’s not falling asleep eventually.
Some of my favourite entries in the 2004 edition of the Guinness World Records:
Fastest Sneeze (103.6 mph)
Longest Kiss (30 hr 59 min 27 sec)
Oldest Living Individual Tree (4,767 yrs)
(Honorary retrospective mention goes to Most Soap Bubble Domes broken by Fan Yang in Helsinki. From the book: ‘He blew a total of 12 soap bubble domes within each other in the manner of a Russian matriska doll.’)
I should explain some stuff. Normally, as in like right now, I wouldn’t be able to stay awake for more than perhaps two or three days straight like most folk. At the time, however, in 2014, it was possible. I unfortunately found myself one night unintentionally ODing on a legal psychedelic chemical called alpha-Methyltryptamine, and became not only unable to sleep but unable to remember what sleep even was. This eventually led to a three month long drug induced psychotic episode. AMT was developed in the 1960s, formerly known as Indopan in Russia before its discontinuation. This is from the Wiki page of the chemical, under Legality: ‘αMT was made illegal in the United Kingdom as of 7 January 2015, along with 5-MeO-DALT. This was following the events of 10 June 2014 when the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs recommended that αMT be scheduled as a class A drug.’ I sometimes wonder what those events of 10 June 2014 were, as that was the same time I was sectioned in a mental institution in Reading for an overdose of the (legal) consumption of aMT. Did they talk about me in meetings? Was I the reason it became illegal? But then I think it was probably rather an epidemic of several people and not just weird old me. I say all this to say: don’t take aMT.
Now that I’ve explained how one could possibly stay awake for so long, I am going to try and briefly describe what those 720 hours were like for me. It’s hard though, because a lot was experienced, and yet tying it together, weaving it into sense, seems like a Herculean task, something like painting Giotto’s Lamentation of Christ fresco with a single thread of hair. So I will keep it short.
When the seventeen year old Randy Gardner was beginning the attempt of breaking a Honolulu DJ’s previous record of sleep deprivation (260 hrs), the reasoning among him and his friend Bruce McAllister was that it would make a good science fair project. From the BBC article by Sarah Keating: “[The] first version of it was [to explore] the effect of sleeplessness on paranormal ability,” McAllister explains. “We realised there was no way we could do that and so we decided on the effect of sleep deprivation on cognitive abilities, performance on the basketball court. Whatever we could come up with.” At the end of the trial, Randy reportedly said: “It’s just mind over matter.”
While there is a sense in me that Randy achieved the unachievable, there is also the sense in me that competition of this sort is kind of strange. For good reason, the Guinness World Records does not condone these sleep deprivation attempts any longer, yet its continued creed of collating all the records of the world seems to me to be fraught with peril. Entrants have eaten trees and bicycles for a shiny world record. People have died, I am sure, in the attempts of being number one. And for what? To be the one who stayed awake for the longest, for all of eternity? Who would want to be that one?
What I suppose the main thing I realised about my prolonged sleep deprivation in Prospect Park was was this – the more tired I got, the more difficult it was to sleep, not easier. So exhausted my body couldn’t even lay itself down. It was a vicious cycle. Tired meant tired meant tired meant tired. Hallucinations came, most of them sinister (note most, not all). The weeks might as well have been centuries. Paranoia, but that was something I’d already studied so to speak. The worst thing of it all was the thought that maybe there was no way out. No way to sleep ever again. No way to get out of the hospital. That maybe this was it. That maybe this was my life now. And yet what was it, this life, if now it was so changed, morphing evermore? And there is nothing much worse than people not knowing what to do with you, and sending you into more and more obscure rooms, taking you further and further away into a maze until both the body and mind are restrained beyond movement, imagination is physics, and yet, all you really needed – despite what is said about sleep, that it’s only for when you’re dead, that it’s the quote unquote enemy – all you really needed was that somnolent voice, to tell you, and tell you again: Go to sleep, my love. It’s mind over matter.