It was late one evening, as I was leaving work, and walking back to my car, that I encountered him. I could see him standing beneath a streetlight, with a gray and black backpack slung over his shoulder. He was a scrawnier guy, maybe about 5’9”, with curly red hair tucked up under a fedora, and beady brown eyes. He looked somewhat out of place, to say the least.
“Hey, man,” he said, sounding friendly enough. “You look like a guy who likes a good energy drink.”
While I have been known to indulge in one every once in a while, energy drinks generally weren’t my thing, and I wasn’t in the mood to buy what this guy was selling.
“Not really, but thank you, anyway.” I said, as I took my keys out of my pocket, and attempted to dismiss him.
“Now hold on there, man, I’ve got somethin’ the likes of which you’ve never experienced.” At that he opened his backpack, and pulled out a silver can, with something written in a sleek black and purple font on the side. I will admit, I had never seen whatever it was that he was holding, before.
“This here is Zenith Optimum, the last energy drink you will ever need.”
That sounded like a rather dubious claim if I had ever heard one.
“To be fair, I don’t actually need any energy drinks to begin with.” I quipped. “Besides, I don’t have any cash on me anyway.” I then tried excusing myself, making some remark about being tired, and just wanting to go home after a long day of work. Until he said something that caught my attention.
“No need to worry about payment, man, I’m giving it away for free.”
This had me confused. If it’s such a good beverage, why is it being given away for free?
“So, whadaya say, pal, try a can?” He said, with a goofy grin on his face and raised eyebrows.
“What’s in it?” I inquired.
“Couldn’t tell ya,” He replied, quickly. “Caffeine, sugar, a whole bunch of other things I can’t pronounce.”
Sounds like pretty much every other energy drink, I thought.
“I just have to get these free samples gone.” He said.
I will admit, I did admire his persistence, and figured I could use it someday when I was desperately in need of an energy boost, and hey, he apparently needed to get them gone. I guess I could help him out. So, I relented, and accepted. He excitedly handed me the can, promising its effectiveness, as well as it’s great taste. I thanked him for the beverage, and on that, he left, walking away down the sidewalk, until I couldn’t see him any longer.
Strange guy, I thought to myself. I got in my car, put the can in the cupholder, and drove home. I arrived home about 20 minutes later, exited my car, collected my belongings, energy drink and all, and went up to my apartment. Being that I was extremely tired I didn’t do much after I got home. I set my stuff down, put the energy drink in the fridge, took a shower, and headed to bed.
I promptly forgot about the energy drink for the next so many weeks, seeing as how I didn’t really drink them, and my life was rather routine. I got up at 8:00, did some chores, occasionally played some video games, then I went in to work at 2:00, got off at 10:00, and went to bed around midnight, wash, rinse, repeat.
However, one night threw all of this into chaos. It was a typical Sunday evening, around 9:30 PM, and I was sat, relaxing, watching TV, when I got a call. It was my friend Tony, telling me that our friend James had been in a serious car accident, and was in the ICU, and that they weren’t sure if he was going to make it. I was out the door as soon as I hung up with Tony. I drove down to the hospital, where I met up with Tony, and James’ girlfriend, Amanda. She said he had been just driving home from watching football at the bar, when he was struck by a drunk driver who blew a stop sign. His injuries were apparently quite severe. I didn’t know if I would be able to see him that night, but I wasn’t leaving until I got an update on my friend.
It was around midnight when a doctor came out to the waiting room, where we were sat, and asked us if we were there for James. We said that we were, and he commenced giving us the update. The doctor said he was in critical condition, but that there was hope. He said that while his right leg was shattered, and he was likely facing months on end of physical therapy, there wasn’t extensive internal damage, and that he would likely be breathing on his own in a couple of days. That was great news, I thought. Amanda asked if we would be able to visit him that night. The doctor said he wasn’t sure, but that if we wanted to, we could wait there longer, and await further updates. Tony had work early the next morning, and decided to head out. I can’t blame him, really. We said our goodbyes and assured him we would keep him posted on James. Amanda and I stayed, however. I grabbed a cup of coffee from the lounge, loaded up on cream and sugar, and just waited there. It wasn’t until around 3:45 AM, that the doctor returned to give us an update. He said that we could go see him, but only for a couple of minutes. On that, we headed up to the ICU, to see James.
We got off the elevator on the sixth floor and headed to room 623. It was admittedly hard to see our friend in such a state, with tubes and electrodes everywhere. Amanda had a very hard time seeing him like this, and understandably so. Teary-eyed, and clearly in an extreme state of distress, she told him that she loved him, and that she was pulling for him to make it through. I said a prayer in my head for my friend, and not long after, we left. I got home around 4:30 AM, which was easily the latest I had been up since my college days. I was beat. I went to bed, and as soon as I laid down, I was out like a light.
My alarm went off at 8:00, as per usual, and I got up, and started my day. I had barely gotten any sleep, and admittedly, James was still on my mind, but the day had to start, regardless. I poured myself a bowl of cereal, did a load of laundry, and before I knew it, noon had rolled around. It was time to get ready for work. I considered calling in, and explaining what had happened the previous night, but figured it would be better to just push through. I needed the money, after all. So, I hopped in the shower, got dressed, and as I opened the fridge to get my lunch, I noticed the energy drink that that guy had given me, pushed all the way to the back. I figured I might as well give it a try. Seeing as how I hadn’t gotten enough sleep, this seemed like the perfect time for it. So, I grabbed it, and headed out the door.
On my way to work, I cracked open the can, and prepared to drink it.
“Bottoms up,” I said to myself, and took my first sip.
It was actually rather tasty, a little harsh, but nothing one wouldn’t expect from an energy drink. It had a very nice mango-pineapple flavor to it. No immediately miraculous boost of energy, or anything like that, but hey, it was free, which even if it was snake oil, free was certainly a price point I was content with.
I arrived at the office right at 2:00, and immediately got to work. To my surprise, I had an extremely productive day, and was indeed feeling very energized. That drink really did the trick when I needed it most. I got all my work done by 8:30, which had never happened before. My boss was very impressed. He let me leave early on the condition that I at least took a little work home with me. I obliged and went home. When I got home, I immediately started working on the sales reports. To my utter amazement, I was done in under two hours. I was still feeling really energized, and on the back of what may very well have been the most productive day of my life, I settled in, to a night of gaming. I stayed up all night playing video games, trash talking some of my opponents, and even notching a few high scores. Man, when things are going this well, who needs sleep? So far, I would say that my foray into Zenith Optimum was an overwhelming success. I wonder why I’ve never seen it in stores.
I didn’t wake up the next morning at 8:00, seeing as how I never went to sleep. Now, I had stayed up all night before during college, usually when pulling an all-nighter to cram for an exam, which would usually result in a decent exam grade, and was often times followed by a long nap, but this was different. I went in to work, feeling energized, still. I handed my sales reports to my boss, and he complimented me on them, as well as my recent change in work ethic. I thanked him and headed to my desk. Where I again, got straight to work, and finished early. My boss again, allowed me to leave early. I had no idea what was happening. I had never been this energetic in my life, but I was getting a lot accomplished so far. I have to say, Zenith Optimum was one powerful energy drink. I haven’t felt even the least bit tired since drinking it.
I went home that evening, this time not with a stack of sales reports, but rather, with a new sense of confidence. I figured that since I had neglected my health for so long, might as well work on that, since I now had the energy, and who knows, maybe it will tire me out to the point where I could get a nice sleep. I changed out of my work clothes, and into some workout clothes. I headed out and went for a jog. I was gone for all of an hour, and to my surprise, it was easy. Not sure how, seeing as how I was very out of shape. I returned home, feeling good about the calories burned, and still not yet tired.
The next so many days went about the same, and my boss having noticed my progress at work, commended me on my performance, and said that if I keep it up, I would be up for a promotion, soon, and that he wished he had 20 people like me. That was quite the compliment, but little did he know, my secret was a little-known energy drink, and never sleeping. As nice as all that was, though, it was getting kinda ridiculous. I was left wondering when the effects would finally ware off. While five days without sleep I’m sure was nowhere near a world record, or anything like that, it certainly was my personal highwater mark. I think my previous record was about two and a half days, back in college.
It wasn’t all bad, though. I mostly felt great, and since I wasn’t sleeping, I finally had time to devote to hobbies that I wanted to take up. Before work yesterday, I went to a local pawn shop, and picked up a guitar, since I always wanted to learn how to play, as well as a little 20-watt practice amp. It was a cherry red Fender Telecaster, that I got for $180. So, for the next day and a half, I have been learning some basic chords. I think I’m starting to get the hang of it.
Days were just flying by at that point, and I was getting a lot done, and why not? I quite literally had all the time in the world. Anything I wanted to do, I did. To me there was no longer such thing as keeping odd, or regular hours, because I could now do anything at any hour. I could make time for anything. If I wanted to learn how to cook a new recipe, why not do it at 4:00 AM? I’ll be up. However, this good feeling wouldn’t last.
It was around day ten that I started to notice a change, however. For the first time in over a week without sleeping, I started to feel tired. Not overly exhausted or anything, just the first signs of general fatigue. My eyes began to feel ever so heavy. I certainly wasn’t on my way to bed anytime soon, but it was nice to feel something aside from extreme wakefulness. They say you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone, and oh how I missed this feeling, and how I missed sleep. It was nice being productive like this, and all, but sleep was a necessity, and felt pretty warranted at this point.
It would be several days later that I yawned for the first time in nearly two weeks. It really caught me off guard, as I had almost forgotten what a yawn was.
My performance at work remained at an all-time high, however. Without sleep I was able to effectively work around the clock. To most people this would sound insane, and to be honest, it is. Having not slept in two weeks, I got an exorbitant amount of work done and my boss gave me a 15% raise. So, in that respect, I suppose things were going well. In fact, one day at work my boss jokingly said that I must never sleep. Boy, he had no idea how accurate that statement was. I had taken on close to 20% of the entire workload of my entire 32-person company.
In addition to work, as well as playing video games, and learning to play guitar, I’ve started working on a screenplay. Having minored in creative writing in college, I figured now was the time to put it to good use. When I would get writers block, I would usually go for a walk, and in addition to all the other exercise I had incorporated into my daily routine, I was getting into significantly better shape. In fact, one day I went to a 24-hour gym and stayed for 24 consecutive hours. Figured that since I had the day off the following day, I might as well take advantage of their policy of never closing. The staff thought I was crazy, but by the two week mark I had begun to see noticeable physical changes. For starters, I could see my six-pack starting to show through, again. It had been a minute since I could say I really had abs. So, they were certainly a welcome sight. I had also made it a point to do 100 push-ups a day. Most days I succeeded at that. Not gonna lie, being in better physical shape had certainly boosted my confidence, and I was feeling really good about myself, but boy, was I tired.
As tired as I may have been, I was still really motivated to continue to learn the guitar and write my screenplay. I had been making steady progress with the guitar, and my screenplay was starting to take shape. It was to be a modern noire thriller, with a few fun twists and turns at the end. I could see it all now.
I carried on life as normal, with no one being any the wiser to my inability to fall asleep. I went to my nephew, Shane’s birthday party, and made merry with all my family members, and it was nice to see my sister again, for the first time in a while. My brother-in-law, Lance, even told me that I was looking good. I appreciated the compliment, and I guess I did look about as good as a guy who hadn’t slept in 17 days could. While I was certainly feeling a steady decline in my mental state, I was generally able to do most tasks. That was, up until the start of my third week without sleep.
It was at the beginning of the third week of being awake that things started to really take a turn for the worse. My mental faculties had clearly begun to diminish. I got in my car one day and couldn’t remember how to start it. I was confused. I had done this thousands of times in my life, so why couldn’t I remember how to do it today? I ended up calling in to work that day, claiming car trouble. My boss told me it was no problem, and that I deserved a day off anyway, after all I had been getting done for the company the past so many weeks. I thanked him for being so understanding, and he told me to treat myself to some sleep. Oh, how I wish I could.
As far as my recently picked up hobbies went, I had gotten fairly decent at guitar, and could now boast that I knew how to play several of my favorite rock songs by heart. However, my thoughts were beginning to lose clarity.
On my previously mentioned impromptu day off due to “car trouble,” I spent the day working more on my screenplay. I hit the keys something fierce as I was excited to get back to work on some important bits of character development. However, in the ensuing so many days, the plot to my screenplay had become jumbled, and on many occasions, I had forgotten where I was going with things. and ultimately, I lost the plot, causing me to have to scrap the whole project. Achieving focus for any notable duration had begun to become a task unto itself.
In addition to my severely lacking focus, I had also begun to hallucinate. Nothing too crazy, it’s mostly just unexplainable sounds, and the occasionally visual hallucination of something that wasn’t there. Sometimes when I’m laying in my bed at night, I’ll hear faint scraping sounds coming from the kitchen, and I get up to go investigate, only to find my kitchen is exactly as I left it. Also, on one of my nighttime excursions to investigate a non-existent sound, I could have sworn I saw a guy in ratty clothes sitting on my couch. I turned my head slowly to look at him, and as I did, he slowly turned his head to meet my gaze. He had matted short reddish-brown hair, dark eyes, and as I stared at him, a sly grin slowly grew across his face, revealing no more than five teeth, all in various states of rot. Then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone. After that I went to the bathroom to splash some water on my face and for the first time in a while, I actually took note of my appearance. This time I wasn’t admiring my gains, instead I noticed the dark circles around my eyes, and my flushed complexion. I looked like hell. Man was not meant to stay awake for weeks on end. At that, I turned off the light in the bathroom, and headed back to bed, where of course, sleep never came.
I have to say that despite my increased productivity in recent weeks, being in a near constant state of on-and-off deliria was becoming unbearable.
As my third week of sleeplessness came to a close, my eyes were in a constant state of heaviness. Some of my motor functions had begun to suffer and I started to forget how to do more and more things. It got rather scary when I forgot how to make food for a bit. It’s not like I was making anything overly fancy or intricate, more so that I had trouble figuring out how to use the microwave, or how to make ramen noodles. Eventually, my ability to make a TV dinner faded back in, and I enjoyed my Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes.
One day, after getting home from work, I picked up my guitar and tried to play some music, but alas, I couldn’t. Once competent scales and riffs had decayed to not much more than arhythmic strumming of what were effectively unrecognizable chords. Seeing as how I highly doubted my abilities would ever return, I took the guitar back to the pawn shop I had originally purchased it from and got $50 for it.
Just like my hobbies, my workout regimen had begun to fall apart, too. I stopped going to the gym, my jogs became walks, and not very long ones at that, and where I started out doing 100 push-ups a day, at the beginning of the week I topped out around 40, and by the end of the week I couldn’t even get past two.
To make matters worse, also by that time, my hallucinations had become much more frequent. I would tend to categorize most of them as being pretty minor occurrences, overall. Because while they weren’t particularly scary, per se, they could be rather unnerving. For example, one time, while on my way to the grocery store, I could have sworn that I saw a dog sitting in the passenger seat of my car, out of the corner of my eye. I sharply turned to look at it, but there was nothing there. Or another time when I was sat on a bench at the park, I thought I could see one of the lampposts in the park inching its way closer to me and flickering on and off sporadically. At that, I just got up and left the park.
It’s strange little things like that that I keep seeing, day in and day out. As far as the auditory hallucinations went, for an entire day I thought I heard someone whispering my name. Sometimes the whispers would be soft and sound like they were close by, other times they sounded distant, echoey and distorted. Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped.
My life had become a living nightmare. Although, if I’m being completely honest, I would greatly welcome a nightmare right about now, because at least that would mean I was asleep. At this point a typical night for me would consist of lying awake in bed, never achieving sleep, just tossing, and turning, all to no avail. I saw days come and go without a wink of sleep. I would watch the sun set each night, knowing that I would be awake to see it rise the following morning. Oh, and I guess it’s worth mentioning that I had absolutely blown away the world record for sleep deprivation. Which, for those of you wondering, was set at just over 11 days, by a 17-year-old boy named Randy Gardner in 1964, but I didn’t really feel the need to report it to any agency that kept track of that sort of thing, since I was in absolute misery, and it wasn’t exactly something I wished to gain notoriety for.
My desperation for sleep had become palpable, and figuring that I had to do something, being that I was in the most desperate need of sleep imaginable, I began researching sleep aids. First, I came across melatonin, a natural hormone secreted by the brain, to induce calmness and sleep, that came in supplement form. I went down to my local convenience store and picked up a small bottle for a couple of bucks, went home that night, and popped a tablet, hoping that this would bring the sleep I so desperately desired. To my chagrin, it didn’t work. I didn’t feel any different. The following week, I scheduled an appointment with a sleep specialist. When I told him my story he was flabbergasted. He told me that in all his years of being a sleep specialist he had never heard of a case so severe. Although, judging by his demeanor, I’m not so sure he fully believed me. I can’t blame him there, though, it does sound downright crazy, after all. He eventually prescribed me some heavy sleeping pills, and you guessed it, they had no effect. I tried listening to some ASMR videos on YouTube, and I have to say, I certainly stumbled into some strange stuff, there.
Unfortunately, the only thing I didn’t stumble into, was sleep. One day, I went out and bought a white noise CD, hoping that that would do the trick. The first night I had it, I put it on “babbling brook,” but alas, I could not fall asleep. The sounds of a babbling brook just became the soundtrack to my never-ending insomnia. What I wouldn’t do for even a wink of shut eye, right now.
It felt as though I would never sleep again. Seeing as how I had now become accustomed to a life in which sleep was unachievable, and I would only periodically rest. I didn’t know what to do. I was just so tired. I guessed that since I may never sleep again, the best I could do was maybe feel lively, and energized again. So, maybe I would have to reup, and drink another Zenith Optimum, and start the process all over again. Not sure I would want to live that way though, just reliving a hellish cycle over, and over again. Should I decide to go that route, however, it would be pretty hard, seeing as how I still haven’t seen it in any store.
My life felt as though it was deteriorating from beneath me, and with it went several facets of my life. I had let my apartment reach a very notable point of uncleanliness. I had stopped doing laundry, stopped cleaning, and often times reused dishes, to avoid cleaning them as well. It was as I was sitting in my now dirty apartment that something occurred to me. I hadn’t cleaned out my car, either. Meaning that the can of Zenith Optimum was still in there.
Wondering exactly what it was that I had put in my body, I looked at the ingredients label on the can, and began to read. Caffeine, no, that probably wasn’t it. That’s when I came across something particularly worrying. The third ingredient down said ‘dextroamphetamine.’ That’s not right, I thought. There shouldn’t be any type of amphetamines in any beverage. I researched it further and found out that the government had been doing tests on the effects of large amounts of highly concentrated dextroamphetamine. Had that been what I had been given? On a sidenote, I also learned that the old 80’s band, Dexys Midnight Runners, the band that did the song “Come On Eileen,” were named after Dexedrin, a form of dextroamphetamine that was used recreationally by concert-goers back in the day, with their name suggesting that people on the substance were running around at midnight. How accurate, I thought. Although, my once fierce run, had slowed to quite the slog, as of recent.
What kind of jerk hands out beverages laced with amphetamines to strangers? It was then, and there, that I resolved to find that guy with the backpack and give him a piece of my mind.
I quit my job the following day, figuring that I had enough saved up to last me at least a month, or two. My performance at work had been suffering greatly as of recent, and I figured it was only a matter of time before I got fired anyway, since my muddled state had become so immense. So, from there, I just went about searching for the guy who gave me that energy drink. Not having much to go off of, aside from where I first came across him, I began skulking the parking lot near my old job. It took several days, but miraculously, I spotted him. This time, however, he looked significantly more normal. Not as sketchy, but still sporting the same gray and black backpack. I got out of my car and rushed up to him to confront him. Being in a rage, I came up from behind him, grabbed his shoulder and spun him around to face me. Then, I grabbed him by his collar and pinned him up against the front of a store. He had a distinct look of shock and fear in his eyes. Sweaty, and breathing heavily, I began shouting at him.
“What the hell is your problem!? What makes you think it’s okay to give people drugs like that!? Do you even know what was in that drink?” I hollered.
“I don’t know nothin’ man.” He replied, now visibly shaken.
At that response, I pushed him back up against the wall as hard as I could.
“Do you know what kind of hell my life has been since I drank that poison you gave me?”
“I-I’m sorry.” He sputtered out.
“Not good enough!” I barked back. “I haven’t slept in weeks because of you. Who do you work for? Where did you get that stuff?”
“I don’t work for nobody, man, I’m a student at the local community college down the street.” He said, meekly.
It was at that, that I took into account how old he was, or at least how old he looked. He couldn’t have been more than 20 years old, and here I was roughing him up when he was likely on his way to class. After a second or two, I softened my approach.
“Where did you get those drinks?” I asked, as calmly as I could. His response was a lot more than I had bargained for.
“These guys, man, they asked me if I wanted to make some quick cash, and I’m broke, so I said ‘yeah,’ and they took me over to this van, pulled out some cans of that stuff, told me it was some experimental stuff. At first, I protested, but then one of the guys pulled a gun on me, and told me I either distribute this stuff, or that he was gonna off me right then and there, so I took ‘em.”
“Then what?” I asked.
“Then, I went around offering them to people, some people took ‘em and threw ‘em right in the trash, others drank ‘em right there in front of me, all I had to do was get ‘em gone.”
I suddenly felt bad for this kid. He wasn’t some criminal mastermind; he was just a pawn.
“What did these guys look like?” I asked.
“They were wearing gray suits, with black ties, and they had sunglasses on.” He replied.
That was pretty suspect, I thought.
“When was the last time you saw them?” I asked.
“Right after you took my last can, I went back to where their van was parked, behind the old gas station, I told ‘em I was all out, and they gave me $1000. They drove off, and I haven’t seen ‘em since. I’m sorry, man, I needed the money, I was destitute, and I was facing a possible eviction, I wasn’t tryin’ to hurt nobody.” He said, clearly sounding remorseful.
“What are you studying at college?” I asked.
He seemed confused by my question, and the sudden tonal shift of the conversation.
“W-Well, currently I’m just taking general studies classes, but I want to transfer out to a bigger university, ya know, and eventually get my degree in social work, and become a social worker.”
“Oh yeah,” I said.
“Yeah man, I didn’t grow up in a good home, in fact, I’m the first in my family to even go to college, and I just don’t want to see no more stuff like what I grew up with, I wanna make a difference, ya know, help out kids and families that need it.”
It was clear to me at this point that this guy was by no means a hoodlum, nor did he have any malicious intent, quite the opposite, actually, and on that, I let go of his collar, and let him go, but not before leaving him with some pointed parting words.
“For as much as you’ve impaired my life, likely even beyond the point of ruin, I’m no longer mad at you, now, I want you to go out there, and be the best damn social worker there ever was, so go, go and help people.”
With that, he nodded his head, and scampered off down the sidewalk. I turned around, and headed back to my car, and drove home. It was on my drive back to my apartment that I got a text notification on my phone. It was from Amanda. I opened it up to see an update on James. She said he was in stable condition, and that the surgery on his leg was a success, and that he will likely be coming home within the next month to begin physical therapy. I think I cracked a smile for the first time in weeks, reading that.
I got home, and sat down on the couch, accepting my fate, that I may never sleep again. I have basically become the reverse Rip Van Winkle, I joked to myself. I don’t know how much longer I have, maybe a day, maybe years of this. What a grisly thought that was. I live my life on the verge of a respite that will seemingly never come. Not until my final sleep, at least.
Credit: Steven Allen
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