Dream thieves: inside America’s ban on sleep | The Verge

As productivity climbs, a drowsy underclass is being left behind

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Tim Stoker remembers perfectly the last time he slept. “I was out for seven hours straight,” he says, shaking his head. “I didn’t even dream, at least not that I can remember. And when I got into rehab, I thought about it for weeks. I was obsessed. Sometimes I wanted to die but… it’s not that I was suicidal, right? I just thought it might be kind of the same.”

When I meet Stoker, the stocky 23-year-old has spent two months in an Amazon work-release program, fulfilling orders in one of the company’s subcontracted warehouses outside Atlanta. The money is minimal, but so are his living expenses — and it’s a far cry from the fines and jail time he could have received for violating the recently tightened, near-total national ban on sleep. His thin neon polo shirt clashes dubiously with a pair of fresh jeans and $200 Nikes, proudly bought with his first steady paycheck in years. “I want a TV, one of the big ones,” he says, standing in the bare company cafeteria during a 15-minute break. “But I don’t really have a place yet — just family.”

Stoker credits his family with turning his life around. An admitted academic underachiever, he struggled with high-school classes and was prescribed sleeping medication after a series of panic attacks. But with more pills easily available from friends, he quickly began spending hours in a state that he now sees as tantamount to living death. In the end, it took an impaired driving charge, a year of parental support, and thousands of dollars to get him to his current cold-turkey state. And along the way, he’s become one of the millions of casualties in what some pundits have wryly termed the “War on Dreams.”

The slumbering poor

The scientific consensus is that thanks to a broad expansion of the federal vaccine program, sleep is nearly cured. Roughly 85 percent of Americans are capable of operating at somewhere from 0 to 30 minutes a week, and only 3 percent have proved resistant to the combination of synapse incisions and time-released hormones that greatly reduce or altogether eliminate the sleeping urge and ability. A handful – mostly concentrated in Southern right-Evangelical communities – are granted religious exemptions. Of the 10 percent of the population with diagnosed mood disorders like Stoker’s, the vast majority are prescribed less than 90 minutes weekly. But these rosy numbers hide a persistent underclass for whom sleep is everything from medicine to recreation.

As quotas have lowered in recent years, restrictions on sleeplike activities have loosened. After some debate, meditation was removed from the DSM-V in 2013, and the current wisdom suggests that within reasonable limits, it bears little resemblance to a traditional unconscious state. To politicians, however, it is something of a Rubicon. Statistically, there is little evidence for conservative claims that meditation functions as a "gateway drug," especially given its popularity among the middle and upper productivity quintiles. Social progressives have accused them of carrying out a class war by proxy, citing the exceptions for largely upper-middle-class tantric variants in proposed bans on public classes.

But the underlying argument – that current laws and DEA action have failed to contain an epidemic among both urban and rural poor – is more difficult to refute. While partisan think-tanks produce wildly different numbers, a 2011 Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that 11 million people at or below the poverty line slept over five hours per week – and a stunning 45 percent of those are classified as morbidly narcoleptic, with some sleeping as much as five hours a night. In Detroit, America’s most sleep-stricken city, approximately 1,000 infants a year do not receive synaptic therapy until six months of age or later, although the CDC notes that the long-term developmental effects on the waggishly named "slumberkind" remain unclear.

"They don’t have time to wait for muscle therapy or anti-psychotics."

Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), author of the Promoting Alert Industrial Development (PAID) Act, blames Congressional gridlock and a lack of health care facilities for the poorest Americans. "It’s a vicious cycle," she said in a phone interview. "Some of these people have four or five jobs – they’re working 23 hours a day, they don’t have time to wait in line for muscle therapy or anti-psychotics. If you can get knockoff Ambia on the street for a few dollars, what are you going to pick?"

The PAID Act passed committee in June, but amnesty provisions for mothers who sleep with small children have derailed its progress. North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory has threatened to file suit over the exemption, which he calls "reckless and ridiculous." McCrory ran on an emphatically anti-sleep platform in 2012, in part because of his state’s proximity to West Virginia, whose position as a pharmaceuticals hub has made it a nodal point in the DEA’s crackdown effort. Companies like Mylan Pharmaceuticals, the country’s largest manufacturer of generics, have stepped up background checks and issued harsher punishments to workers found smuggling out pills.

One of those workers is Lyndie Platt, a former quality-assurance technician and mother of two. Platt, 31, had worked at various facilities for 10 years before being caught with a packet of synaptic stimulant zolpilam wrapped in paper towels and concealed in her shoe. She had never, she says, even intended to use them, but the recent death of her partner left her in heavy debt. With little chance of a promotion, it was her first attempt at earning outside income – and her last real job.

"I was proud of how long I’d been there, you know?" says Platt. "And then one mistake – a stupid mistake, but just one – and I never got another chance." As a first-time offender, she served two months under house arrest in a plea bargain, but over a year later, she’s held only a few short stints as a warehouse stocker and a hostess at chain restaurant Shoney’s.

Platt attempted to compensate by throwing herself into a renovation effort on her small one-story home. "It just drove me crazy," she says. "All my life I’ve been working 10, then 15, then 20 hours a day – 22 with overtime, at the end. And then suddenly I could watch the clock tick by every single minute. That’s just not how I was raised."

Today, Platt’s house is impeccably clean, with an elaborately manicured herb garden. But to one side, boards and a cement mixer stand next to a tarpaulin-covered wall. "I didn’t have enough money to finish it," she says, wistfully. "Everybody says time is money, but I’ve got all the time in the world and just nothing to do with it."

Google’s employee perks include access to ‘therapeutic’ padded cots

And that’s the paradox: with unemployment hovering over 10 percent for Americans without a college degree, the job market is brutally competitive. And without work, there may be little but sleep to pass the long hours of boredom and lost productivity.

Conservatives, and some liberals, have suggested that generations of poor economic prospects have fostered a culture of time-wasting and even time-theft among the communities most likely to oversleep. "When a kid’s father is off dealing sleeping pills and his mother’s dead to the world three hours a day, they grow up thinking that’s acceptable. Or even that it’s cool. A lot of today’s media really glorifies it," says McCrory. Provocateur Donald Trump was more direct. "It’s oiled-up girls in f—ng pajamas, rolling around like they’re dreaming," he said in a controversial Fox News segment. "It goes all the way to the top. Even Obama – Obama admits himself that he’s lazy, and what does that mean? It means he’s sleeping on the job." Trump later issued a partial apology. "I shouldn’t have made it personal," he said. "If I could take back the words, I would. But I’m not gonna take back the sentiment. Poor people like to sleep. And there’s a racial component to it. That’s just a f—ng fact."

The cult of awake

But luxurious sleep, historians are quick to point out, was once – and sometimes remains – the province of the rich. Upscale furniture store Williams-Sonoma maintains a stock of flattened feather-down couches, which can sell for thousands of dollars. "They say they’re buying it for… you know," said one sales rep, winking, when I visited. "But there’s no way some of them aren’t falling asleep on them afterwards." Search giant Google’s employee perks include access to padded cots for what the company insists are therapeutic reasons. Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt’s lavish lifestyle is rumored to include private "pillow parties" that see celebrities and fellow startup titans bedding down as if in some somnolent modern Bohemian Grove gathering. And while popular erotica trilogy 50 Shades of Grey has been the subject of endless essays about female desire, one of its most shocking scenes is protagonist Ana’s 14-hour slumber with sadomasochistic billionaire Christian Grey.

By and large, however, the CEOs of Silicon Valley in particular have made a point of rejecting sleep. In a panel last month, Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg claimed to have eschewed even the shortest nap since the company’s IPO in 2012. "It’s just sad," he said. "All that human potential wasted. Imagine what Thomas Edison could have done if he hadn’t spent a third of his life practically dead! Or Ben Franklin! Or da Vinci! We could all be flying around with jetpacks by now." Prolific entrepreneur Elon Musk attributes his development of the high-speed Hyperloop transportation system – currently concluding the first stages of construction in California – to a full decade of constant vigilance.

This "cult of awake" does not sit well with everyone. Author, musician, and programmer Jaron Lanier emigrated to the sleep-permissive Netherlands eight years ago, when official limits were tightened to 90 minutes a week. Today, he is one of sleeplessness’ greatest critics. "I don’t even understand Americans anymore," he says. "Three hours a night, then one, then ten minutes – where does it end? We’re treating people like machines, expecting them to spend every second of the day being economically productive. And they love it! All those stupid apps for bragging about how many naps you’ve skipped, so you have time to develop your own stupid sleep-counting app and become a millionaire. And then what do they do? They keep on working."

"We could have used that extra time to understand ourselves. But everyone just pushed their noses closer to the grindstone."

The subject holds a special bitterness for Lanier. The head-mounted virtual reality displays he pioneered in the 1980s have become a standard method for treating work-related hallucinations and providing concentrated reparative bursts of REM-like stimulus. He publicly disowned the technology in 2007.

"I don’t regret making them," says Lanier. "But I might regret ever showing them to anybody. I thought we might learn a whole new way of thinking. We could have used that extra time to understand ourselves, to figure out a new way to relate to reality. But everyone just pushed their noses closer to the grindstone. I mean, years back I told people they weren’t a gadget," he says, referencing the title of his 2010 bestseller. "But even gadgets sleep. Even your iPhone needs to recharge sometime. Maybe I should have changed the name."

For people like Platt and Stoker, these questions are purely academic. Platt has put in applications at dozens of restaurants, janitorial agencies, even coal processing plants. But for now, she remains at home – rearranging her furniture, shuttling her children to school and a variety of extracurricular resume-builders, polishing a collection of ceramic figurines over and over. "It’s funny, I never wanted to sleep before," she says. "But I find myself thinking about it sometimes. If it weren’t for the kids… I just don’t know." Stoker, meanwhile, is still struggling to readjust, often spending his few free hours at the warehouse to avoid temptation. "Most people just don’t get it," he says. "They don’t know what it’s like to fight through the tiredness – all the Adderall in the world can’t take it out of your bones once you’ve got it. But even outside that… do you remember your dreams?" he asks.

When I shake my head, demurring, the hint of a smile crosses his face. "I always used to write them down," he says. "I burned the notebook in rehab, but sometimes I still think about it. Flying, falling, even the nightmares. You could have a billion dollars and never be able to buy anything like it." He blinks hard and looks down at his barcode scanner, resting on the cafeteria table. Then he picks it up and clicks the power button, and the 3AM shift begins.

Lead image credit: Mark Turnaukas.

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