Going without sleep for long periods of time can produce a range of experiences, including perceptual distortions and hallucinations.Waters, F., Chiu, V., Atkinson, A., & Blom, J. (2018). Severe Sleep Deprivation Causes Hallucinations and a Gradual Progression Towards Psychosis With Increasing Time Awake
Isolation is an interesting experience.
When you’re used to being surrounded by people, suddenly having to be alone with your thoughts can be terrifying.
She lays in bed in her dark bedroom, and the only source of illumination is her phone screen. She’s staring at the device as it vibrates with an incoming call, but she doesn’t answer – she just silently pleads for the person on the other side of the line to give up and leave her alone.
A few moments later, the vibrations stop and a string of incoming messages ping their way to her inbox.
The girl turns off the ‘read receipts’ option and puts her arm over her eyes, swallowing the sudden spike of bitterness that she feels.
She’s trying to fall asleep, but it continues to elude her. She’d put on her favorite pajamas, made sure the room was the perfect temperature, and even put a few drops of vanilla oil in a diffuser. But sleep is being hostile, and she is imprisoned by her mind.
She stands up and leaves the room to get a glass of water, standing over the sink as she drinks, and droplets of condensation from the cold surface of the glass splash on her bare feet. She sets the glass down and rubs the back of her neck as a sudden restlessness takes over.
She opens the sliding door to the terrace and steps out into a pool of silver moonlight. She climbs up awkwardly over the barrier and stands with her back pressed to the cold metal, her feet just barely within the confines of the concrete ledge. The sleeping city twinkles below her, and she grips the railing a little bit tighter and curls her toes so that they don’t peek over the edge.
The call of the void, she muses, this is what it’s called.
She pauses to think, her breathing racing in shallow gasps. The wind whips her hair into a frenzied halo, and she curses under her breath. Calm down, she tells herself. This is depression. Despair is a normal reaction to extreme stress. This is not the best course of action.
She climbs back over the railing and sinks to the floor, trying to calm her heartbeat. The lines of the metal fencing are etched into her arm, angry red against her pale skin, and she laughs at herself, thinking that if she really wanted to die, she wouldn’t have held on so tightly.
The clock chimes 1 o’clock.
Her phone vibrates again from her bed and she feels a stab of irritation. She briefly considers throwing her phone over the ledge, but swiftly chastises herself for her irrational thoughts. She stands up shakily, holding on to the wall for support, and makes her way back inside.
It’s an unknown number. Hi, are you still up? the message asks.
She answers. I can’t sleep.
Can I help?
I don’t know. Can you?
I’m trying to be nice!
I haven’t slept in more than two days. Skip the niceness and give me a solution.
There is a ‘typing’ indicator on the other person’s end, then it stops. She waits, resting her cheek on her pillow as she watches the screen. The other person starts typing again, and then pauses just as abruptly as the first time. She is about to turn off her phone when it suddenly starts flashing a notification for an incoming call.
Well, why not? She asks herself, her finger hovering over the ‘answer call’ button. After a few seconds of deliberation, she takes the plunge and answers.
His voice is nicer than she expects and she nestles into a comfortable cocoon in her bed, her phone tucked behind her ear. “Tell me why you can’t sleep,” he says.
“It’s the lockdown,” she answers. “I haven’t been sleeping much since it started. And my sleep cycle has been messed up – I’m awake at night and asleep during the daytime.”
“You probably need less screen time,” he jokes. “You should put away your phone and properly go to bed.”
She stays reticent, not rising to his bait. She realizes that he probably just wants playful banter, but she does not know him personally and therefore does not try to alter her actions or censor her words.
“Hey,” she interrupts him. “What do you do when you feel hollow inside?”
He falls silent, and for a brief moment all she can hear is his breathing. He sounds so close that she imagines she could reach through her phone and smother him, cutting off his air supply, if she wanted to.
“Is that what you feel right now?” He asks finally, throwing the question back to her.
“I feel detached from everything,” she murmurs, staring at the ceiling and absently rubbing the red marks on her arm. “Did you know I haven’t spoken to anybody in three months?”
“That sounds difficult,” he admits. “Why won’t you talk to anybody? It seems like you need support now, more than ever.”
“I really like your voice,” she says.
“Don’t change the subject,” he laughs. “Can’t you talk to somebody you trust?”
She considers his words, wondering how to answer. “I mean…I have a lot of people that I trust. But I don’t feel comfortable opening up to them. In their eyes, I am the last person who should feel depressed, considering the circumstances.”
“Ah, I see. And perhaps you also feel that they would think that talking about something like this is too out-of-character for you.”
She sits up. “Yes, exactly!”
“Well, that’s silly. You’re fully entitled to feel whatever way you want. And if someone says otherwise, they can go to hell. We’re living in strange times right now and it’s perfectly acceptable for you to find it difficult to adjust. Your feelings are valid, too.”
She smiles, forgetting that he couldn’t see her. “Thank you,” she says shyly. “I feel a lot better now.”
He laughs on the other side of the line. “You’re welcome,” he says. “Any time.”
“It feels like I know you from somewhere,” she muses. “You feel very familiar.”
“Maybe I am,” he teases. “Maybe I’m just a figment of your imagination and you’re totally making everything up right now and I’ll be nowhere to be found when you wake up.”
“Sounds right,” she shrugs. “You could be a hallucination for all I know – just my own brain trying to make me feel better.”
“Am I at least doing a good job?”
“Yeah,” she says, meaning it. “You’re my favorite hallucination.”
He doesn’t say anything in response, but she hears him laugh.
“Where did you come from, anyway?” She asks, trying to suppress a yawn. “You caught me just in time.”
“Just in time for what?”
She tries to think of ways to backtrack, then decides that the best course of action is to skirt the issue entirely instead. “Did you just randomly text my number?”
“You’re not answering my question,” he reminds her, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Sorry I’m being quiet right now, someone’s outside my room and I don’t want them to hear me.”
She blinks sleepily, pressing the phone closer to her ear. “That sounds nice,” she says absently. “You should whisper more.”
“You weirdo,” he says in a lowered voice. “Don’t start creeping on me now.”
“I’m not,” she protests, her voice growing slow and heavy as her exhaustion finally catches up. “You just sound very…soothing.”
“And you sound very sleepy.”
“Whisper nice things to me,” she demands in a sleepy voice, giving up and finally closing her eyes. “So I can fall asleep.”
“Like what?” He whispers.
“Anything,” she whispers back.
They stay silent for a few minutes, and the last thing she hears is him whispering good night before she finally succumbs to sleep.
She wakes up to painfully bright light and she blinks, sitting up in a disoriented manner. It’s 9 in the morning and her phone is dead.
She yawns, stretching as she gets up. She opens the curtains to let the daylight in and a scrap of pink fabric catches her eye – it is snagged on the terrace railing and it looks oddly like her pajamas.
She looks down. There is a tear on her pajama bottoms. She feels her pulse pick up and she inspects her arms, her fingertips brushing lightly over the already-faint red lines from the iron railing. She runs back to the room and places her phone on its wireless charger, waiting impatiently for it to have enough charge to turn on.
That wasn’t a dream, she assures herself, her hands cold with nervousness as she goes to her messaging app and opens it. She scrolls past hundreds of unopened messages in a futile attempt to locate her conversation with the stranger.
There are none.
She opens her call log. Missed call after missed call blur past her eyes. The last one is a missed call from 12:17 the previous night. There is nothing in her call history to prove that she had ever spoken to him.
He was right – it was her imagination all along.
She sighs, shaking her head in amusement even as disappointment burns in her chest. A gentle breeze blows from the terrace and she glances up, watching the white muslin curtains dance in the playful wind.
She gets up, goes out to the terrace and leans on the railing. The wind caresses her hair, and she closes her eyes, soaking in the sunshine
Her view of the city down below is beautiful.