17 October 2009

A sleepless life.

Okay so... I'm sure most people either know this or have figured it out about me, but I have a sleep disorder. I stay up really really really late at night and I sleep really really really late in the day; it's kind of like being perpetually jetlagged a few hours. I didn't always know this though. It took decades to figure it out.

The first time I remember having trouble sleeping was when I was living in Athens, in the smallest bedroom of my parents' house, at least a decade ago. I took the bus to school and this was during this bizarre period in Athens' schools where, in an effort to relieve the disparity between the demographics of the schools, buses would travel all the way across town to get to you. For those who haven't lived in the South let me explain. Because of the fact that black folks and white folks lived in different parts of town there was a huge imbalance between the schools, almost as if they were still segregated. My middle school was on Baxter Street, right next to the public library, the catholic hospital (at which my mother worked at the time), and the primarily black part of town (for y'all Athenians, I went to Clarke Middle School, near Rocksprings). What I'm getting at here is that I had to wake up super-early to get to the bus to get me to school on time. Ridiculous, I know, but whatever.

I had to wake up very early, and still I had trouble going to sleep at night. After a while I would miss entire nights, staying up all night reading, sometimes for a couple of nights in a row. I started to lose focus during the day, my grades weren't as great, and I started to forget things more. I started to fall asleep in class. Constantly. I saw a doctor who thought it was insomnia.

The doctor prescribed something. I don't remember what it was. The first night, it worked, beautifully. It was amazing, the best sleep I'd had since I could remember. I was at my father's house, in my room that was obviously a garage that had been finished, with shag carpet. The next night, the prescription didn't work quite as well though I did sleep, and over time the pills lost their effect. I found myself still laying in bed awake late at night, long periods of extreme boredom punctuated occasionally by this feeling of dread when I happened to glance at my alarm clock. That alarm clock was brutal. Watching the minutes tick by without even the slightest hint of sleepiness, stressed me out. It was hard to tell if the thought of sleeping at that point didn't cause me performance anxiety, some kind of psychosomatic thing.

I started to get headaches. My doctor at the time likened them to cluster migraines or cluster headaches or something, and said that they shouldn't happen to a boy my age; the usual demographic for such things, he explained, was women in their 30s. Very helpful. I'd like to think I started to doubt his competence at this point but I'm not sure if I did or not. After all, I did keep going to him for medical advice.

Another medication, this time a mild antidepressant combined with a drug that thins blood and lowers blood pressure. This one worked for a while, several months, but caused me to look—and feel—kind of stoned all day. If I stood up too fast I got lightheaded. It was still excruciating to wake up in the morning and concentration still took extraordinary effort for me. I started drinking more coffee. A lot more. Most mornings I had a thermos on me filled with ├╝ber-strong oolong tea, which I'd found made me less jittery. I was getting by at this point with less than four hours of sleep a night, catching up on the weekends by sleeping for ten to twelve hours at a stretch.

After a while the most magical thing happened. I went to college and suddenly I could schedule my own classes. My first quarter I had one 8am class I couldn't avoid taking (it was an intro programming class), but luckily it was a subject I already knew pretty well and I managed to get by without showing up every day, even though I did try very hard not to skip it. Overall, I slept better. Staying up late was common, being in the computer science program, and I mostly scheduled my classes in the afternoon. In a couple of cases I put off taking a class for a quarter, and took something else, because it was only offered early in the morning but would be later in the day the next quarter. At this point I felt alright. I was able to live my life just fine even though I stayed up very late, and I was at college so everybody was staying up late. I was the last one to leave every party, every show, and I still had time at night to get my schoolwork done, but I slept very late. It wasn't a big deal until...

...I slept through two midterms. In a row. In the same class. I don't think I need to explain that I failed the shit out of that class. This was brutal for a variety of reasons, not the last of which being it was a class I could have easily tested out of and that it was my first F ever. I got berated by my advisor and I took a lot of shit from my family. It sucked. I'd settled into the idea that I was just making irresponsible choices, that I chose to stay up late and couldn't get it together. I was convinced that all these things were my fault.

After college I moved here, in Chicago, and started work at a local ad agency as a web developer. Having to come in at 9am, I started to have trouble again. Those same patterns from high school, the lethargy, the coffee drinking bordering on outright caffeine abuse, the repeated sleeping through alarm clocks. That last one was a serious problem. It was while freelancing at this same ad agency earlier in the year that I slept through my alarms two days in a row, much to my extreme professional embarrassment, and it was at that point that I did what any sensible jewish boy would do.

I called my mom. I had missed a couple of hours of work and I worried that my employers might be pissed about that. My mom tried to cheer me up and then we signed off and I walked back upstairs. Meanwhile, in Saint Louis, my mom started googling sleep disorders.

By the time I talked to her later that night, when I got home, she'd come up with something that sounded identical to my symptoms, Delayed Circadian Rhythm Disorder. After a long dry spell in my work, I had noticed that when left to my own devices I sleep perfectly, but from around five or six in the morning until around noon. I sleep at around the same time every night and can wake up every noon spontaneously (i.e., without an alarm clock) at around the same time. Also, my body has a particularly low core temperature (94.1°F or so), which had always been mysterious. It seemed to fit.

It took me until a week and some change ago before I had insurance and the time to go visit a sleep specialist. Not too surprisingly, when I outlined the symptoms I was experiencing, he concluded I have Delayed Circadian Rhythm Disorder. After taking one month while working and one month while not working to document my sleep patterns I wasn't surprised, but in a way it was like I'd just found out. I started to think more seriously than I'd allowed myself earlier in the year about how this was going to continue to adversely affect my life. But for a couple of excruciating methods that aren't even permanent, there's no treatment for it, and there's no pharmaceutical that affects it. So I'm stuck being this way.

It's a disability, but I don't want to think of it that way. This is my mutant superpower I was born with. Like Batman, I own the night, and that's kinda neat. Now I just need to figure out how I can hold down a decent job living like this. Depressing as the diagnosis is, now that I know what I'm dealing with I feel more optimistic overall. And with that, it's 3:30am and I've still got some other stuff I wanted to do before bed. Sleep tight, space cadets.