How Sleep Deprivation Decays the Mind and Body

In the middle of the night, on May 7, 2004, American officers unshackled Afghan Guantánamo detainee Mohammed Jawad; they moved him to another cell, and re-shackled him. Three hours later, Jawad was unshackled, moved, and re-shackled again. Over 14 days, Jawad was moved from cell to cell 112 times. In response to motions filed by Jawad and the ACLU, the military claimed in court that, as a result of the tactic, Jawad had not suffered permanent physical harm, and that the long-term psychological damage to Jawad had been “unclear.” But some specific effects that this program had on Jawad are known. According to reports by the Associated Press and Jawad’s lawyers, he lost 10 percent of his body weight while sleep deprived.  In a legal claim against the government arguing that Jawad’s imprisonment was illegal under habeus corpus, ACLU lawyers also wrote that while kept awake, Jawad had blood in his urine. “The torture, cruelty, and harsh treatment to which Mohammed has been subjected throughout his six years in U.S. custody have resulted in severe and ongoing psychological harm,” they concluded.

Rather than kicking prisoners, as the Soviets did, Guantánamo guards kept prisoners awake by chaining their feet and wrists to the floor of their cell, so they could not fall over without being caught by the chains, and moving prisoners between cells every two or three hours. This sleep deprivation program was referred to as the “frequent-flyer” program, or “Operation Sandman,” and was used against at least 17 GITMO detainees, according to the military’s own logs kept at the prison in 2003 and 2004. In memos authorizing the program that were de-classified in 2009, Justice Department lawyers asserted that sleep deprivation works well as an interrogation technique, because it breaks down detainees’ ability to resist coercion, and because it decreases prisoners’ tolerance for physical pain. In 2012, a letter from British detainee Shaker Aamer asserted that despite being formally banned in 2009, the frequent flyer program was still in use at the prison.

As for Jawad, he was originally taken to Guantánamo for allegedly throwing a grenade into a jeep in Kabul, in December 2002, severely wounding two American Special Forces soldiers and their translator. On Christmas Day that year, he tried to commit suicide by repeatedly banging his head against one of his cell walls. His sleep deprivation program began four and a half months later.

In hindsight, I conducted my experiment inelegantly, under terrible conditions. In the first days of the trip, I was already only sleeping about four or five hours each night, so I began prematurely fatigued. A better scientist might have begun on full rest.

By the third day, I had two theories about the origin of the universe that I was certain were true and would change the world. The days all blend together now, but at some point I tried to speak exclusively in rhyme. On another day, I renounced speech altogether. I remember telling people that circles were divine and instituting a policy of smacking my head when I made mistakes, finally breaking my own glasses with one blow. At a stop in Austria, I stole a kaleidoscope from a mountainside gift shop, and at a cultural night in Switzerland, I volunteered to yodel for the crowd, all too confidently. I bought and wore a headband I refused to remove.

I remember realizing the obvious while waiting for our flight home: that this whole not-sleeping thing was actually inefficient, because I could accomplish more in fewer hours on full rest. I resolved to sleep on the plane home, but when I closed my eyes, my head spun, and I heard a woman’s soothing baritone voice. On the bus ride home from JFK airport, I thought that if I concentrated hard enough, I could jump out of our bus onto the highway, land at a run, and sprint on—to where? I have no idea. Luckily for me, our driver refused to open the bus’s door. I remember thinking I was dead, and that I had landed in a very Earthlike eternity.

We arrived at the high school, and my chaperones had me stay on the bus. They went outside and spoke to my parents. When I sat in the car, my mother asked me through tears about my trip while my father drove in silence. Within minutes we were at the hospital, where I was placed in a wheelchair, asked if I had smoked crack or taken LSD, and peed in a cup. I demanded that my brother drive to the hospital from his home, three hours away in Philadelphia, so I could ask him about astrophysics. He came. I bestowed the headband I had been wearing on my father. He put it on. Eventually I agreed to take the medication they handed me. I do not remember what happened next.

Later that first morning in the hospital, I sat at a table with a nurse in a bright, fluorescent room—all yellow light and white Formica—where several other pairs of people conversed. My legs and elbows shook. A nurse told me that I had been asleep for two days. She asked me if I remembered what had happened. When I answered, stringing the events together became more troublesome than I anticipated. I felt myself sway and I heard my words jumble. It was frustrating. I chuckled between sentences and glanced around the room.

There were holes in my memory and in my logic. It all had something to do with existence, productivity, efficiency. My grand theories had made sense in my head while sleep deprived, but now, for some reason they no longer did. The nurses and doctors responded by prescribing me anti-psychotic medication. This was 2004, and I was 18. It was a common age to be diagnosed with a mental disorder.

Throughout the next week in the hospital, I spoke every day with the first nurse and the head psychiatrist. My main goal was to convince them I was fine, so I could get the hell out of there. I was assigned to art therapy, where I tried to draw images that evoked solemnity and composure—it was all about showing I was fine, not feeling fine—including the most maudlin and transparent of these, a blue and green earth with stars and the word “Peace” floating above it. This had all been a misunderstanding.

When I finally went home, a week after entering the hospital, I had prescriptions and appointments with a psychologist and a psychiatrist. The psychologist believed I was not crazy. She and my parents argued with the psychiatrist about the medication, who eventually agreed to first wean me off an anti-psychotic by transitioning me to an anti-depressant, and then to wean me off of the anti-depressant entirely. This process lasted four months. Before the sleepless nights, I had been a strong test taker, and I never felt nervous while writing. On the contrary, writing had been one of the few tasks that gave me confidence, even calm. But in the middle of a standardized test in May, I shook with anxiety and asked to leave the room. (I later finished the test by myself under the supervision of a guidance counselor.) In June, night after night, I sat down a write a research paper, and my head pounded and swirled.

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Seth Maxon is a journalist based in New York City. His work has appeared on NPR, Columbia Journalism Review, and In These Times.

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