Doctors try to unravel the mysteries of “sleep infomercials”

It’s 2:03 am in the sleep studies ward of Green Lake County General Hospital. The halls are quiet. The lights are dim, and and so are the staff – a bright-eyed med student is writing about her hatred of chili on LiveJournal while the patient she’s supposed to monitor grinds his teeth into dust. And Donnie Barkley is getting out of bed.

“Donnie, come back, honey,” says his wife, Darla. “Not tonight.” But Donnie, undeterred, walks to the closet, picks out a pastel-colored sweater and walks into the hallway, acknowledging cheers only he can hear. And he begins.

“Thank you, wow! Today we want to tell you about an exciting breakthrough in antique coin cleaning technology that is going to save you space, save you time and save you money! Let’s meet the inventor…”

Barkley is one of thousands suffering from a mysterious but increasingly common disorder known as Sleep-Related Infomercial Disorder, or “sleep infomercials.”

“It’s a matter of brain chemistry,” explains Dr. Perry Refrigerator, who heads Green Lake General’s sleep disorder unit. “At night, the part of the brain that controls whether or not we host infomercials shuts off – for no apparent reason. So these poor souls get out of bed and sing the praises of product after nonexistent product, all while completely asleep.”

Barkley, a 53 year old cheese engineer and lifelong Green Lake resident, says he’s suffered from sleep infomercials “for probably decades – I’d wake up in the kitchen holding a food processor and shouting ‘this machine’s gonna change the way you look at egg yolks!'” – but he wasn’t able to put a name to his symptoms until coming to the hospital. Now he and wife Darla nod off at the sleep studies ward most nights, while Dr. Refrigerator and his staff observe and try to plot a course of treatment. “It takes a toll on you,” Barkley explains. “My cheese work is on hold, and my home life – we don’t have kids, but we do have magic pixies living in the garden. I don’t want them to worry at night if I’m going to get up and try to sell them a home gym or a collection of lite-rock hits from the 70’s.”

While more common disorders like sleep apnea or sleep eating can have serious physical side effects, the main byproduct of sleep infomercials appears to be annoying the pants off everyone in the house. “Donnie’s a good guy,” wife Darla explains, “but if I hear the words ‘miracle juicer’ again, hide your valuables and pets.”

National health statistics say as many as 1 in 3000 Americans may already suffer from sleep infomercials, and the number is growing. Worse, it may be evolving: earlier this week Green Lake General’s sleep researchers observed a new variation of the disorder: a patient known only as “Mr. Gigglypants” acts not as an infomercial host while asleep but as an easily-led home viewer. “He’ll say things like, ‘It cleaned all that with just one application?’ and then rush over to a phone with his credit card,” says Dr. Refrigerator. “He tried to order fourteen commemorative pendants in a single night.”

Refrigerator admits making a diagnosis of sleep infomercials has been easier than finding an effective treatment. “It hasn’t responded to medication,” he says, “and aversion therapy is no use – who isn’t already scared of Tony Little, right?” Tonight they’re trying behavior modification: instead of selling a knife that can cut through tomatoes, carrots and industrial duct work, the doctors want Barkley to think he’s a character on the 80’s sitcom “The Facts of Life.” At first it appears to work: he crosses to the recliner in his room, saying “But Blair and Tootie were the ones who actually kidnapped the donkey in the first place, Mrs. Garrett, so if you could… could… LOOK AT THE WAY THIS KNIFE CUTS RIGHT THROUGH THIS NICKEL PLATING!!!” Dr. Refrigerator sighs. “Gonna be a long night,” he says.

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