As a kid, I dreaded bedtime and not for the usual reasons of wanting to stay up watching The Bionic Woman (this was the late 1970’s). Instead, I knew that I would lay in bed for at least an hour or two before falling asleep. Oh, the stories I would make up during those dark hours! Monsters and bad guys were often seeping out of the crevices of the bed or the floorboards. This made for some interesting adrenaline-influenced dreams, once I finally fell asleep.
When I became an adult and wanted a real job, the kind with an 8am start time, trouble brewed. I believed that something was wrong with me because it was (still is) a rare event for me to fall asleep by midnight and oh how I tried. Why was everyone else able to do it? What was wrong with me? Jaime Sommers was my childhood hero for a reason! I could do this.
Nope, couldn’t do it. I tried everything short of prescription meds and nothing worked. I was exhausted, averaging 5 hours of sleep each night for a couple of years but was fortunate enough to be able to negotiate my work start-time to an hour later, still not late enough.
Finally I saw a sleep specialist who diagnosed me with delayed sleep onset disorder. Here is the definition:
A disorder in which a person's sleep is delayed by 2 or more hours beyond the socially acceptable or conventional bedtime. This delay in falling asleep causes difficulty in waking up at the desired time.
To remedy my disorder, I tried all of the different sleep meds available. There was one that sort of worked but only for four hours, made me hallucinate, and caused total amnesia for the last hour before falling asleep. Every morning I would check my phone to see who may have been called by me during that lost hour. More than a few times there was some explaining to do.
Imagine my great joy last year when I picked up Matthew Walker’s book, Why We Sleep, and read about chronotypes. Chronotypes are the innate preferences for sleep timing. It’s in the genes! He describes two chronotypes, larks and owls. Larks are early to bed and early to rise, energetic in the morn and ready to get into some serious meetings at 8am. Owls are late to bed and late to rise, probably getting their biggest dose of critical REM sleep at 8am. Owls are at higher risk for illness and disease because they don’t get enough sleep. The world revolves around the schedule of larks and does not approve of us owls, though that is changing.
After decades of trying to fit into that square hole, I am finally letting go of the idea that I have a sleep disorder. Even though I read Walker’s book over a year ago, I am just now deciding to try to find my natural sleep rhythm.
I cannot describe the freedom I feel over this decision. It has literally been a lifetime of evening stress around sleep. So, what am I planning on doing, staying up all night and running with the wolves? No, but please, let’s calendar that.
I am going to run an experiment and stay up until I am naturally tired and wake naturally. After spending a lifetime beating myself up for my sleep patterns, I really don’t know what my natural sleep rhythm is and feel this is a good time to find it because my schedule finally allows me this.
Taking on this exercise feels like the greatest act of self-care I have ever undertaken. There is a lesson here. It took reading Matthew Walker’s book to give me the courage to stand up for one of my most basic needs after a lifetime of being tired. It makes me want to ask this question: in what other areas of my life am I a round peg, trying to fit into a social norm that doesn't work for me? Journal prompt!