Wired: Thomas Sicay-Perrow can’t sleep
Thomas Sicay-Perrow announces his condition nearly every day in class. “I only got two hours of sleep last night!” he often shouts enthusiastically. We were eager to know more. Long story short, we went to Thomas’s house one Saturday night to
investigate a night in the life of a self-diagnosed insomniac.
Sophomore Thomas Sicay-Perrow flipped through TV channels, searching for some decent midnight programming. He paused on a comedy channel, laughed and muttered along with comedian Eddie Izzard. Thomas has watched this act a dozen times and knows all the punch lines by heart.
“If you stay up all night for a long enough period of time, you can pretty much memorize an entire stand up comedy routine,” Thomas said.
When we arrived at Thomas’s apartment at the Artisan for the night, the first thing we noticed was how tidy it was.
“It’s not usually this clean,” Thomas said. “My parents made me spend all day cleaning because you guys were coming over. My room’s usually a wreck.”
“We don’t care how late you stay up, but there is a volume limit,” Rosemary said.
“You won’t wake up because of us,” Thomas said. “You’ll wake up because of the thumping upstairs of the people weightlifting at one o’clock in the morning, and so will we.”
“Well you’re awake at one anyways,” Rosemary said.
Thomas laughed. “True,” he said.
Pulling all-nighters isn’t unordinary for this sixteen year-old. He hasn’t had a decent night’s sleep in several years. “Ever since I was 10 it’s been harder for me to fall asleep at night,” Thomas said. “I think that’s around the time when school and my social life started to impact the way I felt about things, so I got stressed out. It’s not that I have stuff to do, but at night you have way too much time to think about the problems that weigh you down.” Thomas labels himself as an insomniac, which is a condition that causes difficulty in falling or staying asleep.
According to the National Sleep Foundation, teens need about nine hours of sleep each night. However, their study on adolescent sleeping patterns found that only 15 percent of teenagers sleep for at least eight hours. Thomas certainly doesn’t get the recommended amount. Usually, he sleeps two to four hours a night.
“Compared to most normal people who wind down at about ten thirty, I wind down at about two or three. Sometimes one o’clock if the day has been especially tiring,” Thomas said. “I always have to go to bed at two-ish or later, otherwise I just lay there trying to fall asleep. There’s only so long you can stay awake staring at the ceiling.”
Sometimes Thomas doesn’t sleep at all. “I’ve gone without sleep for a week once. I was eleven. It was one of the first few times that I’d gotten a class that I couldn’t breeze through,” Thomas said. “Up until that point, I could just look at the content and understand it, and for the first time I wasn’t able to do that. For the next week after that I was extremely stressed out and I didn’t really know how to deal with it.”
According to Dr. Russell Rosenberg of the Atlanta Sleep Medicine Clinic, several consequences exist for insomniacs due to lack of sleep. “Often times there are mental [issues] including difficulty concentrating and problem solving, mood issues and having difficulty relating to friends and family,” Rosenberg said. “Physical [problems] involve tension, poor reaction time and issues of metabolism slowing down. Sleep disorders can even lead to high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, things like strokes and even heart attacks.”
Thomas has gone so long without sleep that he almost doesn’t feel the effects. “After having not slept an entire night, I feel normal, up until the point that I sit in a comfortable position, then I just get really tired,” Thomas said. “Mentally, I’m completely fine, but my body wants to sleep. Most of the time, it’s like my brain and my body are running on two different clocks.”
Dr. Gary Montgomery, medical director of the Children’s Sleep Lab in Atlanta, says that the reason people get tired at night is due to something called “circadian rhythm. “In the morning when you wake up, after lunch and in the late afternoon you get sleepy. Then in the evening you’re alert again. After the sun goes down and it’s late and dark, you get sleepy again. That’s all your circadian rhythm.”
According to Montgomery, Thomas’s feeling of being on ‘two different clocks’ is the result of disturbing his sleep cycle. “If every single day you stay up until two A.M. and sleep until noon, then after two or three weeks, your circadian rhythm shifts and your body gets used to that sleep time,” Montgomery said. “Then it’s harder for your body to shift to going to bed at ten and getting up at six. That’s what causes insomnia for some people because their mind is ready to go to sleep but their body isn’t.”
“Oh I love this joke,” Thomas said.
“I want to follow in their footsteps. And their footsteps were like this: AAAAAAAH! I’m covered in beeeeees!” Eddie Izzard said, running across the stage.
In the kitchen space, Thomas’s dog, Herbie, paced back and forth aimlessly, wearing her doggie diaper. She occasionally bumped into furniture, paused for a moment, confused, and then turned around and walked in the opposite direction. She is blind and deaf and only stops pacing when she settles down to sleep.
“I pace a lot too,” Thomas said, “when I’m bored at night.”
Thomas says that boredom is often a cause for his inability to sleep. “I have trouble falling asleep because my brain wants more to do. It’s like it has a quota of ‘this is how much stuff you’ve done, you need more to do,” Thomas said.
So what does he do at night? “I open up a portal to the land of magical unicorns and I ride across the dimensions of demons and dragons…” Thomas said, jokingly. “No, really, I read books, I watch stand up comedy, look at YouTube videos, read web comics. I do all the normal stuff that people do when they chill, I just do it a lot longer.”
In some ways, Thomas’s sleep disorder has benefited him. “Not being able to sleep has led me to many of my interests. It has allowed me to explore things such as web comics, pop culture, sub cultures and comedy,” Thomas said.
Rosemary Sicay-Perrow doesn’t see Thomas’s insomnia that way. “My mom has not always been very happy with me waking up and being like ‘Guess what, mom? I fell asleep at four!’” Thomas said. “Have you ever seen your mother’s face contort when she’s angry? It’s hilarious.”
Thomas and his family haven’t thoroughly explored solutions to his sleeping habits. “I told the doctor that Thomas has a very odd sleep schedule and they told me that if he didn’t have a problem with his performance [in school], they weren’t going to send him further down the line to a sleep specialist,” David Sicay-Perrow said. “If it’s a complaint, then they’ll send you. If it’s just an observation, then they don’t worry about it.”
According to Montgomery, the first step to curing insomnia is to eliminate bad sleeping habits, which can be anything from drinking caffeinated beverages before bed to falling asleep with the TV on. The second step is to prescribe insomniacs with certain medications. “Medicines are usually used temporarily for a few weeks to get in the habit of falling asleep,” Montgomery said. “They might just need it one or two nights a week. Some people, when they try to fall asleep, worry about the next day, about the exams they have coming up, or whether they’re going to do a good job in the school play, things like that. Because they are worrying, they can’t fall asleep. We have them take medicines on those nights.”
Thomas, however, has doubts about whether pills would help him. “I have this hereditary thing, from my dad. It’s some chemical imbalance in our brains,” Thomas said. “Once when I was seven, I was at summer camp, and they had a candy snack stand. One of those giant pixie sticks was fifty cents. I had a $20 bill. Calculate that, as you will. What happened [was] I woke up about two hours later after consuming them. Ever since that day, energy drinks, caffeine and certain pills either don’t affect me or take several hours to affect me … I don’t think sleeping pills would work either.”
Thomas may have also derived his sleeping difficulties from both of his parents. “I don’t sleep very well usually,” Rosemary Sicay-Perrow said. “I can’t sleep late. I always end up waking up at [around] six, no matter what time I went to bed.”
David Sicay-Perrow has had more severe sleep issues. “I had insomnia two or three years ago for a couple of months,” David Sicay-Perrow said. “That’s why I can’t understand [Thomas], because I hated it. For me, it wasn’t like ‘I have so much time now,’ it was, ‘I’m exhausted. I need to sleep.’”
Now David Sicay-Perrow’s disorder has subsided, and Thomas is the only one with sleeping struggles. There could be hope for Thomas since his father was able to overcome his insomnia. But he still has worries about the future concerning his sleeping problems. “I might have issues in college,” Thomas said. “I will probably have to work out something with my college roommate, because if they can’t accept that I don’t sleep, I will probably have to request a single … or just live on a bench somewhere.”
As we saw our reflections for the first time that day, we grumbled that we looked exhausted.
We only got four hours of sleep the night before. We asked Thomas how he slept.
“I got maybe two hours,” he said. “I played video games. Then I tried to sleep, but it was mostly just laying in bed. Whatever, that’s normal for me.”
Thomas has no plans to change his habits. He doesn’t consider his insomnia an obstacle. “It’s not so much of a problem for me,” Thomas said. “It just makes me who I am.”