Let me back up. I haven't slept normally (i.e., in the way I believe other people my age sleep) since I can remember. According to my mom it's been since birth but I don't know if that's true. I know for sure I started having trouble in elementary school and it got significantly worse in middle school and the start of high school. I remember going through many pharmaceutical and homeopathic solutions throughout that time but very few worked. In my early adolescence I had severe insomnia, sometimes lasting for days on end, that seemed to be calmed down by a combination of antidepressant and blood-thinning drugs. Unfortunately, as a side effect, I lived every day in a half-asleep daze and would faint if I stood up too quickly. Fun times. Moving to California for college and escaping the right-wing cesspool of ignorance that is the deep South helped a lot, but I was still up late at night for no reason.
Throughout college I had tons of issues, too. Two classes, at least, I failed because I slept through some lectures and tests. I accepted, at the time, the conventional common-sense wisdom that I was a fuck-up and that my sleep problems were my fault. I'd spent most of my life having grown-ups tell me that, so I believed it. There had to be some personality flaw in me or lack of discipline that I was failing to overcome. It was a hard feeling to shake, and I guess I can't really blame anyone for that, because the truth is just so much weirder than that.
In starting my career here in Chicago, I started with a nine-to-five job at an ad agency. I loved the agency I was working at, loved the people there, liked the work I was doing and took a lot of pride in it, but couldn't for the life of me wake up early enough to get there on time. I don't know to what extent my punctuality was a problem but I'd been spoken to about it a couple of times. The next full-time job after that, I specified later hours and got them, but later on my hours were one of the reasons given for firing me.
When I had the chance to work mostly from home for several months on end, I noticed that I was sleeping a full eight hours a night, between the hours of 5am and 1pm—whereas beforehand I had become accustomed to less than six hours a night due to my working schedule. After a few months like this, I worked at the same ad agency again for a few weeks (sharp-eyed readers will note my exasperated blog posts about issues I was having with that project). I overslept two days in a row and freaked out. Something was really wrong if, after more than a week on a nine-to-five schedule I couldn't adjust. So, I did what any nice jewish boy would do in circumstances such as these: I called my mom. Much to my surprise and delight, my mom spent half the day researching and came up with a lesser-known sleep disorder, discovered in the 1980s, the symptoms of which matched my own so perfectly I was taken aback to find out it existed.
Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder is essentially like being permanently jetlagged by a few hours. Brunch time feels like dawn to me, and it doesn't really ever feel like bedtime until the sun's almost ready to rise. Also, occasionally I just don't sleep at all (not sleeping last night is what prompted me to write this entry). Also, apparently, DSPD is the reason why my body temperature and blood pressure are both lower than normal on average (rock steady right around 95°F and typically in the neighbourhood of 100/45, respectively).
I fear I've been kind of obnoxious and overly expositional about it, but honestly I think if people understood how significant this discovery was for me they'd understand. It was a welcome revelation to find out that not only am I not the only one but there are actually many people with the same disorder—about 3 in every 2,000 people on average. Okay so that's still very rare (about 1/6th of 1%) but it's 3 in 2,000 more than I thought there were. It was a wonderful feeling of weight being lifted from my shoulders, the vague possibility that many of these incidents in my past weren't really my fault. My body chemistry is just fundamentally different from normal.
But there were a couple of more ominous implications to the discovery. Most troubling to me was the thought that, while it was nice to know that it's not my fault I can't sleep normally, there is very little that I can do to fix that. While there are some treatments available they're more like coping procedures than real treatments—just ways for you to kind of hack your sleep mechanisms into working for a little while at a time. For this reason it's a bona fide disability, recognized for the purposes of the Americans with Disabilities Act. Again, that's lovely, because it means if I need to I can always get the right hours at work, but this too is disconcerting as any special or different treatment at work isn't necessarily a good thing.
Really a huge part of the problem is that I fear a lot of people think it's fake. This is understandable, I guess, since people rarely see me stay up late at night; they only see me wake up super-late and it's easy enough to assume I'm just lazy. I also get "Oh you're just a night person; I'm a night person too" from people who stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning every night, as if that's remotely the same thing. You can totally stay up that late and still hold down a full-time job. It is significantly harder to do that when your body refuses to sleep before 4am. Believe me: I've been trying to work around this since I was 10 years old. In high school my sleep issues and my frustrating inability to overcome them brought me as close as I've ever come to the brink of suicide (which, if anyone's keeping score, wasn't very close but it's as close as I've ever come).
People always have helpful tips for how to sleep, and believe me I love hearing them, but none of them work on me. I know people are only speaking from their own experience so I can't really blame them, but really my experience with sleep is just fundamentally different than theirs. Just so we get this out of the way right here and right now, I have tried all of the following with limited or no results: acupuncture, melatonin supplements, prescription drugs, illegal drugs, over-the-counter drugs, booze, nyquil, changes in exercise, changes in diet, changes in caffeine intake, homeopathy, herbal remedies (including valerian root), and meditation. There's still some treatments specifically for DSPD that I haven't tried (see also: light therapy, freerunning sleep), so I'll be experimenting with those during my time off work. On the whole though it's pretty discouraging, and the wikipedia article on the subject doesn't exactly inspire confidence (best tip from the article: get a job as a cab driver or bartender; thanks, wikipedia!). My goal for this year is to work out a coping strategy that will hold for a couple of months at a time so that I can still do my work. I need a better coping strategy for late-night boredom, too, I think.
Wish me luck, space cadets.