Comatose in Kazakhstan

The following is the extended* edit of an essay I read at Chicago’s The Paper Machete, a live magazine which takes place every Saturday at 3pm at The Green Mill. I was lucky enough to be selected to read for the 12/20/14 edition of the show. My essay is based on something entirely real from that week’s news.

Just 445 km south of the nation’s capital, the village of Kalachi, Kazakhstan, has earned the nickname “Sleepy Hollow,” but not for the reason you think! Pumpkin-based murders are out; falling asleep mysteriously, suddenly, and seemingly for no reason whatsoever, is in!

That sounds insane, but you heard correctly: Residents and visitors of Kalachi, which has a population of fewer than 700 people, are spontaneously falling asleep. This, of course, is followed by falling down, being discovered and taken to a hospital, failing to be woken up by anything, and just as spontaneously waking up several days later without remembering anything. This occurs so often that those it effects are referred to as “sleepers,” and some villagers have started carrying packed bags with them in case they suddenly wake up somewhere else and in the future.

Involuntary sleep could strike anywhere—in one’s home, at work, at school. There are reports of children just “falling down in the streets,” which medically speaking, is pretty funny.

Don’t worry, though, no one has died from these somniferous surprises. Well except for maybe one guy, but not exactly from the sleep sickness. Locals fear that before the epidemic was regularly diagnosed, they may have at one point accidentally buried a sleeping old man. Which, whoa, that’s some Edgar Alan Poe shit. Do they not remember if he was breathing or not? Anyway, they are too spooked to go dig him up again.

Image from The Siberian Times

Image from The Siberian Times

Though it’s been happening for years, over the past two years alone, locals estimate that over 100 people have experienced this abnormal form of sleep sickness. There are unfortunately no recorded statistics, though—presumably because as soon as someone starts to write it down, he collapses at his desk and wakes up four days later in the hospital.

Falling asleep isn’t the only symptom of this epidemic, though. Other symptoms include memory loss, staggered walking, dizziness, and hallucinations. Kalachi’s own Misha Plyukhin told how he saw light bulbs and flying horses around him, and then he saw his mother with eight eyes and a trunk, and snakes and worms were eating his arms. All of this suggests that this sleep sickness is not unlike a combination of narcolepsy, hypersomnia, sleep paralysis, amnesia, and probably an eighth and a half of mushrooms.

So now the question is, what is causing this sort of thing? And why does it only effect some people and not others, even in the same household? Nobody actually knows.

Some of the local theories are government experimentation, and (seriously) “alien viruses.”

Some doctors suggest that this could be a case of massive psychosis, like the rash-inducing, paranoia inspired “Bin Ladin Itch” many Americans experienced a few years back. Or like France’s infamous Dancing Plague of 1518, which was a case of “Dancing Mania.” It was all started when some woman named Frau started in public for no reason whatsoever, and within a week 34 people had joined her, and then 400 people within the month. This caused many to non-stop-dance themselves to death, like a terrifying version of the book, They Shoot Horses Don’t They? And if you’ve never read that book, just imagine the exact opposite of Footloose.

Anyway, could it be soporific group mind? Possibly, but more people predict the cause is from all the Radon they have in their air.

Oh, right, Kalachi is down the road from some major Uranium mines, which closed in the 80’s. Some people blame the sleeps on Uranium in the air, or in the water, but experts cannot find any connection.

Almost 7,000 experiments have been conducted to find a cause, with everything being tested from radiation to cheap vodka, and including analyses of soil, water, air, blood, hair, nails, and “spine fluid.” All have come back inconclusive.

Truly mysterious. All that is known for sure is that America would really benefit from a similar “problem.” Over 40 million Americans suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders, with another 20 million experiencing occasional sleeping problems each year. The most common being some form of sleep deprivation. And these disorders account for an estimated $16 billion in medical costs each year, while the indirect costs due to lack of productivity, etc. are probably greater.

So, yeah, most Americans could really use an involuntary night’s—or five night’s—sleep. Why should some ramshackle town in Kazakhstan have all the luck?

Americans self medicate their sleep deprivation by using sleeping pills, melatonin, marijuana, alcohol, and masturbation. Who knew all we needed was a little evaporated Uranium!

Insufficient sleep is a public health epidemic in The States, and is usually caused by stress, self-imposed pressures to complete tasks, or FOMO, the fear of missing out. Maybe FOMO sufferers should visit Kalachi—the best thing about falling asleep for three days there is when you wake up, you know you didn’t miss anything.

If Kalachi’s brand of sleep sickness “plagued” America, we would probably be a lot more friendly and tolerable. Chances are, if you’re an adult with a real job, you haven’t met a well-rested American in maybe 5-6 years, or longer, and if you have, they probably bragged about how much sleep they got the night before, and you probably contemplated murdering them. But, hey, you can’t wake up on the wrong side of the bed when you fall asleep on the sidewalk!

Alexey Grom, 30, visited his mother-in-law in the village and was struck with slumber. He slept through the whole trip, avoiding conversation with his in-laws completely. Who wouldn’t want that option to be on the table this Holiday season?

Not only would some extra sleep benefit Americans as a whole, but imagine what you can get away with if the excuse of falling asleep for up to 6 days at a time was available. That’s a Get Out Of Life Free Card. That’s a way to filibuster reality. Late to work? “Sorry, I fell asleep on the bus!” Didn’t study for that test? “Whoops, I collapsed at the library!” Another work friend invite you to his “game night?” “Oopsie Daisy, they accidentally buried my grandpa!”

So if you’re weary or stressed, come to Kalachi—the Tempur-pudic mattress of Central Asia.

*the original edit, the one I read live, is around 50 words shorter.

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