Living with DSWPD: A Night Owl’s Account of Embracing his Sleep Disorder
Some introductory notes:
This was originally published in Spanish on my blog in early 2020.
The delayed sleep-wake phase disorder (DSWPD) is a circadian rhythm disorder where there is a major misadjustment between an individual’s biological clock and the solar cycle, and hence the norms of the society he/she lives in.
From Alexander D Nesbitt’s paper at the U.S. National Library of Medicine:
“In essence, people with the disorder have an abnormally delayed major sleep episode relative to the dark phase of the solar cycle, and hence great difficulty initiating sleep at an appropriately early time, and, as a knock-on effect, waking at a desirable time in the morning, leading to chronic, and often quite severe sleep restriction trying to conform to a 9 to 5 schedule.”
This is the story of how I auto-diagnosed myself with this disorder and what it’s been like to live with it.
I used to say that the number and name of the day don’t change for me until I wake up after approximately eight hours of sleep. For example, as I’m writing this it’s 5:16 on the morning of Friday, November 29th, Eastern time. To me, it would still be Thursday, November 28th, because I haven’t gone to bed and this is the last in a long series of activities that I would’ve previously called a “day”.
Then I thought that the idea of going to bed at a certain time and waking up until the next day is also a social convention; a by-product, perhaps, of the industrial revolution. In the middle ages, for example, people used to wake up in the middle of the night, read or start working, and then they would go to bed again for a couple more hours and wake up for good at around 7 a.m. Also, according to the description of XIV century monastic living in Les Heures Benédéctines by Edouard Schneider, monks would usually wake up at around 2:30–3 in the morning, work until lunchtime, which to them was also around noon, have dinner before it got dark (which in Europe could be around 16:30, depending on the time of year) and go to bed before 7 p.m. Well, I’ve taken these examples as inspiration to grant myself more flexibility with my definition of a day, so I can say that I always start my day at 12 a.m., not having slept almost anything in the last 12 hours.
Sometimes this hour catches me while I am watching TV with my girlfriend, or out drinking, or writing on the little wooden table by the living room window where I’m at right now. If I’m at home, I spend a few hours doing things like this; I might play a bit of guitar, I was the dishes that remained in the sink while I listen to an audiobook, I work a bit, like going through emails that start arriving from clients or colleagues in Asia or Australia. Eventually, I brush my teeth, wash my face, take another shower maybe, and go to bed to see my Twitter feed until I fall asleep. By then it’s 3, 4, sometimes 5 in the morning, and if I’m lucky I’ll be asleep for eight hours. Then I’ll get up and it will be daytime, but it’s not “the next day” or “a new day”, because that started hours ago.
This is part of my daily routine, I just took a long break. Looking at it another way, I set myself on doing something that is essential to my survival, and once that’s done I just carry on with the day. There’s a morning routine I can live with. Some people brag about waking up at 6 a.m. because “the early bird gets the worm”, but by the time they wake up I’ve already done a bunch of things and I’m about to take a long nap that will trigger a string of essential processes for my body. So who’s got the advantage?
At some point in fourth grade, I realized that going to bed early just wasn’t for me. Although my parents would confine me to my room at a certain time, for each morning my mother would wake me up at 6 a.m. to get me ready and be leaving for school by 7:20, there was a TV in my bedroom. On that TV, each evening at 10 there would be a broadcast of what a marketer in Mexico City probably named or translated as “la hora Fox”. On the Fox channel, they would show a nighttime movie each evening at 10, likely aimed at an older crowd. It was in one of those sessions of which some people eventually called insomnia but that I always felt was something else, when I first saw films like David Fincher’s Fight Club, Danny Boyle’s The Beach, Pedro Almodovar’s Hable con ella, and Ridley Scott’s Alien.
Naturally, waking up the next morning was a torment. I never felt that what I had was insomnia because, eventually, the movie would be over, and then I’d fall into a profound sleep, usually with beautiful dreams, sometimes horrible, til’ my mother would wake me up and I would spend the next three hours being essentially a zombie. Besides, in the summer, I’d have no problem going to bed once I’d get sleepy and then I’d sleep around 8 hours just like everybody else. When school was in session, on the other hand, days would fade between each other. Around 1 pm in the afternoon, when the sun would pose itself directly above our little heads and reflect painfully unto squinting eyes from a solid concrete basketball court, the vague memory of the morning felt like it hadn’t been the same day or the same exercise in consciousness.
This went on somewhat similarly for many years, practically until I finished high school, and then a bit through college, depending on the day of the week and the semester. Since I was forced to adapt to a schedule that clearly didn’t match my circadian rhythm, I’ve come to believe that this imposition quite literally robbed me of some physical formation. I’m 1.70m. Not bad, but I think I could’ve been taller. Maybe it robbed me of some intellectual formation as well, but that’s where I think I found ways to compensate.
Some people say that nothing good ever happens after 2 am, but whoever said that probably referred to being outside, under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, and in search of acts of mischief to commit. While I’ve certainly enjoyed that state of being, I think whoever coined that phrase or common belief perhaps didn’t use to spend much time at home, alone, at 2 in the morning. There is something magical about those hours in which you know most people around you, whether it’s neighbors, roomies, or family, are all sleeping but you are alone. If you manage to not interfere with other people’s sleep, which is not very hard, you can pretty much do whatever you want.
There is a social convention in regard to what one does and doesn’t do at, say, noon. A teenager’s parents aren’t going to be exactly thrilled if their offspring is still in their pajamas at 12pm, or your spouse would maybe raise an eyebrow if you start drinking at that time. While the debate over whether those conventions are well-founded exceeds the limits of this writing, I mention them because 2 am is very different in that sense. Nobody expects anything, except perhaps that you’d be sleeping, and since you already broke that expectation, you might as well do as you please. That’s why 2, 3, and 4 in the morning are commonly thought of as ideal moments for artistic pursuits; uninterrupted hours where you can create, care little if the result is great or complete shit, or just get lost in books, movies, records, conversations…
That’s why I wouldn’t say that my intellectual and spiritual development ever got stifled by my sleep disorder. Of course, it perhaps impaired a portion of my academic performance. Whether you have a sleep disorder like this one or not, as a teenager, it’s outrageous that anyone should ask you to be anywhere at 7 in the morning, especially if it’s a classroom. In fact, DSWPD is most common among adolescents and nearly always manifests itself in that stage. Regardless, I guess I remember people from school that always seemed to adjust better to the schedule.
After years of struggling with schedules that required me to be in a classroom at 7 am and do my best academically, I went full-time into the job market straight after college. It was here where I was able to choose something much more adequate to my sleeping habits. The fact that the internet is now something ubiquitous has meant that I’ve been able to create a job situation for myself that’s 100% online and entirely independent of a location and schedule. I first had several clients for whom I wrote or did digital marketing consulting. To them, it didn’t matter if I went to bed at 4 am and woke up at noon, as long as what I had to deliver was done on time and properly, with the exception of occasional calls.
Later, I started doing the same kind of work within an agency setting. There were no problems there, but it helped that at one point I was working from Europe with the rest of my team mostly in Eastern Time. Afterward, I took a position at a SaaS company, and it was there that I had some issues due to this beautiful condition of mine. A part of the time was sprawled between Hong Kong and Manila, and they were perfectly happy with me answering emails or jumping on calls during their early morning, which was around midnight for me. However, there was also a part of the team in Costa Rica, and they weren’t thrilled with the fact that I usually didn’t show any sign of activity until after 11 am, Central, although they never told me this directly. In fact, my getting up late was never the cause for late delivery or any sort of problem with a client; there was just this expectation of what a normal working day is supposed to look like in your time zone and I wasn’t meeting it.
And that’s one of the reasons that got me writing about this in the first place, other than just late-night leisure: the stigma that we have around sleeping and waking up late. I understand how societal norms in regard to the times for activity and times for rest are laid to serve the biggest portion of society. That being said, I do believe that as a society we could be much more inclusive, conscientious, and respectful of the fact that those norms are one-size-fits-all, and that just because they work for a majority doesn’t mean they have to work for everyone.
To me, it makes more sense for everyone to find the schedule that best suits them, and as a society, we should value the achievement of that pursuit way above the typical dogma that says that rising early is what productive and successful people do, and waking up late is for lazy people.
In other words, I submit to you that the person that looks tired and groggy during a 7 am meeting or class should be judged in the same light with which you’d see one of those people working the night shift at a 24-hour drug store, or at a toll booth at 3 am, whose red eyes and heavy eyebrows clearly indicate that they don’t want to be working at that time. Why is it that in the first case we usually hold the individual to blame, for not going to bed at an “appropriate” time, for instance, and in the latter cases we place the blame on the company that sets those shifts, or we just think; “poor bastards”? In both cases, what we’re seeing is people that haven’t had the good luck and privilege of finding an occupation that better fits their particular sleep necessities. Nothing more, nothing less.
Now, thinking about some of the people with whom I have talked about this recently, three interesting examples come to mind.
The first one is my father, and likely the genetic source of this condition in me and hence of this writing. Up until around his 50th birthday, my father was never able to go to bed early. This made things a little hard on him through medical school, but it didn’t stop him from graduating first of his class. In fact, perhaps all those hours spent studying instead of sleeping came in handy. Of course, there was always the mid-day nap, which is a custom that he’s had since I can remember, and also a normal thing in Latin America and Spain. The disorder proved itself useful once again when he became a resident. Most fresh graduates entering the residency would fight to be on call during the day or within more normal schedules, while he was the first to volunteer for the night shift. Later, he got assigned to a little town in the Sierra Gorda de Queretaro for his social service year (a requirement for all doctors in Mexico). One night he was the only doctor available on the premises, the same night in which a gang fight erupted nearby. From 3 am to sunrise, he dealt with 15 stabbed patients, two gunshots, and had to deliver two babies in the middle of it all. Fortunately, this all happened without him being sleepy, but in one of the best moments of the day for his brain and his body.
Then there’s the last Uber driver that I had before writing this. It must’ve been a man in his sixties. He was driving me to the Queretaro Airport at about 4 in the morning, so I asked him if he usually worked that late/early. He explained to me that he far prefers to work at night because the heat isn’t an issue, there’s way less traffic, and since fewer drivers want to work those hours, there’s more work for him. Instead of being stuck in traffic under the inclement sun of Queretaro at 2 in the afternoon, right when all the city’s parents are rushing to pick their kids up from school, he’s usually sitting down for lunch. His workday ended at 9 in the morning and since then he’s been enjoying some downtime. After a heavy lunch, he takes a long nap until 6 pm. Then he goes for an evening stroll with his wife, has dinner, and goes back to bed. At 1 in the morning, he’s back on his feet, gives the car a wash, and starts taking rides.
Of course, those are fortunate examples. Then you have folks who simply haven’t had the fortune of finding a job that adapts to their alternative sleeping style, and they have a rough time. Michael is a friend from the US that I met a couple of years ago while he was motorcycling through Mexico. Michael has narcolepsy, which means that he’s sleepy most of the time but rarely gets a good night’s sleep. He’s told me that he could use something where he could work from home and choose his own hours, but he’s a paramedic. If he gets the morning shift, he has to go through hell and he’s been forced to quit jobs because of that.
So I guess that’s why articles about how to get up earlier are far more popular than a 2000 word diatribe about how a dude in 2019 came up with his own definition of a day. Although I dream of a future where 7 am classes and meetings are not mandatory, and most things are open 24 hours, I know we’re not quite there yet. But when I wake up from my 8-hour nap at around noon, or when I’m doing yoga at 1 am, I like to think that remote work and the internet are slowly taking us closer to an individual circadian rhythm utopia; or at least that’s what I wish for everyone.
Special thanks to Ishvani Hans for encouraging me to finish this translation so she could read it.