I stopped sleeping, then I started hallucinating.

The mind-bending effects of sleep deprivation

It was already March of 2019, I had promised myself I would do my taxes early this time. When you try to file your taxes on your own, you can see the invisible hand of Intuit making sure the process is as confusing as possible. This time though, I'd hire someone. No more confusion.

He was a good hard working man and he jumped on my taxes right away. When I looked at the time, it was already 3 am and we were nowhere near done. I told him we needed to wrap it up, I had work in the morning. He didn't answer. Instead, he hunched his back and buried his nose in the documents. I looked down at my legs and felt embarrassed, I was only wearing my boxers. Hurry up, I told him one more time. He hunched some more and mumbled away as if he was reading the docs even faster. I felt bad for putting all this pressure on him. It wouldn't hurt to get back at it the next day.

I made a step closer to him and put my hand on his shoulder, only to find out that he had fallen asleep. I looked around disillusioned. What seemed to be his desk was a crib. And what seemed to be a man was my 2 months old son. This was the first hallucination I experienced. Or the first I remember.

My wife had a difficult pregnancy. We spent a good deal of time going in and out of the hospital in the last stages of her pregnancy. I felt that I wasn't getting enough sleep, but I'm not one to complain to a pregnant woman. Plus, I didn't know that the 4 to 6 hours of sleep I was getting would become a luxury in the not so distant future. My wife gave birth to our beautiful twin boys, ahead of schedule. They were in the Newborn Intensive Care Unit for close to two months. My wife and I basically lived in the hospital.

I worked at a 4 person startup that had recently received angel investment. We were working our ass off to get to that first round of funding. My life consisted of work, hospital, sleep, work, hospital, sleep. I couldn't cut the hours I was spending at work, though I had reduced it when the kids were born. There was no way I would spend less time at the hospital. So my sleeping habits suffered.

And of course my wife had her own troubles. Right in the middle of giving birth, the doctors discovered that something was unusual. It explained why she had difficulties and had to give birth early. She had a rare condition where in most cases women cannot even conceive children. Yet there she was with twins. I slept 3 to 4 hours a day.

Then the kids came home. They were slightly more than 5 pounds but they were in good health. A newborn's diet is kinda unusual. These two little beings drank 2 ounces of milk every 3 hours. That meant warming the milk, waking them up, then feeding them. This took up to 30 minutes. Once they were burped, it was cleaning and diaper changing time. Then it was time to go back to sleep. On a good run, it was a one hour job. They slept two hours then the process started over. As they grow, the amount of milk is increased steadily. This schedule will be disturbed because babies cry. Twins always cry at the same time or back to back. This further reduced my sleeping time to optional or sometimes at night.

I read in Steve Jobs' biography by Isaacson that Jobs would sometimes experiment with "the mind-bending effects of sleep deprivation" as an alternative to taking LSD. I couldn't wrap my head around it. How can the lack of sleep get you high? Sleeping very little only made me tired and quick to irritate. But I soon found out the effect of complete abstinence from sleep. I hallucinated.

It could happen any time, but I was more susceptible during the night. My hallucinations were heavily influenced by the most intense activity I performed during the day. When my brother helped me do my taxes, I hallucinated a tax man. When I read an article about kids vandalizing a store, I incorporated it in my own story.

One of the twins would refuse to sleep, crying all night long. I'd have him in his little rocking bed and I'd feel disappointed in the kind of friends he chose to hang out with. I knew they were a bad influence, but abruptly stopping him from seeing them would only encourage him to sneak out and hang out with them. I'd be there on the edge of the bed, rocking him to sleep, thinking about a solution to this made up problem until the alarm goes off and it is feeding time.

In the morning after 2 or 3 hours of non consecutive sleep, I'd drive to work. I remember debugging Golang code, trying to understand why a certain variable wasn't updating. I used the variable after a switch statement and it caused a null pointer dereference. When I removed it, the code compiled. I turned to the left to tell my colleague about my discovery and I almost fell to the ground. I woke up laying down on the patio bench on the rooftop. Somehow my internal compiler led me to discover shadow variables.

Diallo Twins

We attack at midnight, your grace.

Once I only had one hour of sleep and I went to work. A colleague of mine handed his two weeks notice, so we decided to do a knowledge dump before he left. We went to the meeting room where he presented how the very complex task queuing system he designed worked. That's where I got an insight into how hallucinations actually work. You don't actually see butterflies or unicorns roaming around. Instead, you believe they are there. And believing is seeing.

My colleague stood in front of the whiteboard and drew the queuing system with his marker. I smiled. I couldn't believe we were there already. Only a moment ago he was an infant, now he was building a task queue. He explained how the whole thing works and I couldn't have been prouder of him. I couldn't understand what he was saying but who can understand what kids say these days? I was just so proud of my son. Note that this was an Asian man in his early forties.

From time to time I'd snap out of it and listen. I'd see him as he was and take notes. But a few minutes later, there were these visual suggestions. I could see the traits on his face, they look just like my sons'. The way he stretched his arm. The way he smiled. He was a good boy, a smart boy, and I was proud of him.

On days where we had a bug in our machine learning system, I'd come home and blame my children’s behavior on the training data. I'd think of ways I could tweak the data to improve it. Maybe we need to dump that last batch we received from the human labelers. Or maybe there was a bug in the API and it was not returning properly formatted data. I'd try to debug it in various ways and take note of which tweak made the baby decrease his cries. In the middle of my hallucination, I'd say out loud "It's just a baby, there is no data."

The past few years being ripe with political news, I couldn't help but incorporate them too. I knew my kids were lying. They didn't really believe in the things they said in the news. They did it for the camera and to get votes. Outrage is the political currency. "It's just a baby. It's just a baby!"

Every cry at night turned into a story and I had to repeat the words "It's just the baby!" I had to say it until I started to believe it. Even then, I could still feel the hallucination lurking in the corner of my mind. Waiting for the next moment of weakness to take over.

It's like dreaming about the best business idea in the world. It feels wonderful and you get to benefit from it. When you wake up, try as you may, you can't remember the idea. It feels like it's right on the tip of your tongue. But the reason you can't remember it is not that you forgot the idea, it's because you dreamt about the idea of having the best idea. When my sons and their friends are terrorizing the neighborhood, I don't actually see them vandalizing property. I don't even picture it. My mind skips the event, it pretends I already know all the details. I'm left with thinking about what I am supposed to do now that the deed was done.

Diallo Twins

Like most parents, I learned to live with it. My hallucinations didn't go away, they toned down. They don't bother me anymore. I learned to be on autopilot. I can make milk in my sleep, I can cleanly and safely change a diaper without using any mental energy. I learned to take a 15 minute rejuvenating cat nap in the office. Sometimes, I'll just log on to work in the morning and send a group message: "Can't make it today, going to sleep". It made my life slightly better, but I won't pretend that gaining an extra hour of sleep when you only sleep 2 hours is healthy.

In fact, I don't think it was healthy at all. I feel like I've lost things along the way. The experience I'm describing here could be early signs of dementia, I don't know. My mind doesn't work as well as it used to. I made some of the worst professional mistakes in my career. I made some of the worst financial decisions. I was only half awake after all. I became much more reserved. I spend much less time with other people, I can partially blame covid for that. I get stressed out easily. But I am hopeful.

Just the other day, I met another twin parent at the park. He had no trouble handling 4 kids on his own and he couldn't look more Zen. He told me, "When things get better, you don't even notice it. It's just better."

Now my kids are 2 and a half, an aptly named stage called The Terrible Twos. Oh, it is stressful, but I sleep so much better. My wife is better. We feel better. I'm writing and building software everyday. As the world is opening up, it's easier to live a normal life. Kids are kids and with all this they are still the joy of my life. I left my job in December of 2020 and I got to spend more time with my family. It's a challenge, but I wouldn't trade it for anything else.

But from time to time, I'm awakened in the middle of the night by two kids crying at the same time. I remember that all I have to do is update the hyper parameter then retrain the model.

"It's just the babies!"


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