night owls unite!

A friend of mine just posted this little gem on Facebook:

Dawn, n. The time when men of good reason go to bed. Certain old men prefer to rise at about that time, taking a cold bath and a long walk with an empty stomach, and otherwise mortifying the flesh. They then point with pride to these practices as the cause of their sturdy health and ripe years; the truth being that they are hearty and old, not because of their habits, but in spite of them. The reason we find only robust persons doing this thing is that it has killed all the others who have tried it.

— From The Unabridged Devil’s Dictionary by Ambrose Bierce

Okay, so it’s all about men, but the sentiment applies nonetheless. Lemme give a bit of my history here…

As a child, I had a helluva time falling asleep – when I was nine, my parents actually took me to the doctor for it. Not because I slept poorly or had any health problems, just because I was wide awake at bedtime and would stay up reading well past lights-out, only to feel zonked the next morning. I remember my doctor, a very kind old man, poking and prodding and asking questions. His eventual prescription? “Relax. You think too much.” Thinking back, I’m glad it wasn’t worse. I didn’t know how to turn off my brain, and didn’t feel particularly anxious or anything, so I just got creative about hiding my wakefulness – angling the reading lamp, feigning sleep as soon as I heard footsteps approach, and so forth.

As a teenager, I found the early start of high school classes to be unbearable; nighttime was my wake time and rousing myself at 6 a.m. to get to class on time just about killed me. I remember doing early-morning exams some years where I literally fell asleep on the exam papers, the abrupt downward streak of pencil on the page proof positive that my body just did not want to be awake. I found creative ways to appear to be paying attention in class while actually napping. (Did you know that if you hold a book open with the bottom edge on your lap and the top edge against the desk, and slouch down, the angle of your downcast eyelids makes it look like you’re reading, but the position of your head allows you to nod off? Just don’t snore.) And yet, I aced my classes because I did my homework at night.

As a young adult I chose jobs in the retail and service industry and opted for the late shifts and evening jobs that nobody else wanted, working at movie theatres and closing up shop at stores and at the gym.  At CEGEP and I noticed that if I started a class before 10:30 or 11 a.m., I could just about guarantee that my mark would be at least 10% lower than any others; but because I got to pick my own schedule it was easy to make that problem go away. University was a similar boon to my body clock. Learning, apparently, can take place at any hour. What a relief!

Then I hit the corporate world. And while I loved my job, my boss had a really strong conviction that in order to be a good worker, I needed to show up at the crack of 8:30 a.m.  When that proved to be a major challenge for me – not helped by a long rush-hour trip from one side of town to the other – the resulting guilt-trips, employee review notes and general disapproval of my ways really took a toll on me; I felt unfairly attacked and judged, and as a result I ended up being really defensive and angry. It just didn’t make sense to me that the hour of the morning should have any bearing on whether or not I was seen as a good employee, when my numbers were demonstrably higher than average. Either way, if I showed up “on time,” I would stare slackly at my computer screen until 11 or so – not exactly prime production time. More strategies ensued. I brought in sweet orange oil to sniff. I’d take short walks to get my circulation up and force my body into wakefulness. I’d eat chocolate. (I spent a lot of time wishing I didn’t hate coffee so much, because it seemed to work for everyone else…) In the end, the time question was a major contributing factor in my eventual choice to leave; the strain of being misjudged really wore on me.

From there, I became a freelancer. Freelance writing clients don’t care if you do their work at 8 in the morning or 8 at night, as long as they get what they’re paying for. Yay! Plus, most people don’t want to take radical sex workshops at 8 a.m.

And once again, more recently, I have found a haven in university studies. At the beginning of the semester, I went to an early-morning class at which the professor was a no-show (argh), and so I took advantage of the trip to campus to drop in at several offices to get paperwork done – you know, signing up for insurance, figuring out payroll, paying tuition, getting a student card. At every office, there were barriers set up to channel people in long, winding line-ups, but at every office, I was the only one there. By the third office, I made a comment to the woman at the desk about how weird it was to see no line-ups. She peered over her glasses at me and announced acidly, “Graduate students do not get up in the mornings.”

These are my people!

And then… and then, another friend of mine posted a link to, of all things, a Wikipedia article about Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome. And it seriously just about made me cry.

Apparently, there are lots of people like me, and the cluster of “symptoms” we all show are typically taken by those around us to mean that we’re lazy, no-good layabouts, or excessive partiers, or what have you. Read this excerpt:

Delayed sleep-phase syndrome (DSPS), also known as delayed sleep-phase disorder (DSPD) or delayed sleep-phase type (DSPT), is a circadian rhythm sleep disorder, a chronic disorder of the timing of sleep, peak period of alertness, core body temperature, hormonal and other daily rhythms relative to societal norms. People with DSPS tend to fall asleep some hours after midnight and have difficulty waking up in the morning.

Often, people with the disorder report that they cannot sleep until early morning, but fall asleep at about the same time every “night”. Unless they have another sleep disorder such as sleep apnea in addition to DSPS, patients can sleep well and have a normal need for sleep. Therefore, they find it very difficult to wake up in time for a typical school or work day. If, however, they are allowed to follow their own schedules, e.g. sleeping from 4 a.m. to noon, they sleep soundly, awaken spontaneously, and do not experience excessive daytime sleepiness.

The syndrome usually develops in early childhood or adolescence, and sometimes disappears in adolescence or early adulthood. Depending on the severity, it can be to a greater or lesser degree treatable. Prevalence among adults, equally distributed among women and men, is approximately 0.15% or three in 2000.

DSPS was first formally described in 1981 by Dr. Elliot D. Weitzman and others at Montefiore Medical Center. It is responsible for 7–10% of patient complaints of chronic insomnia. However, as few doctors are aware of its existence, it often goes untreated or is treated inappropriately. DSPS is frequently misdiagnosed as primary insomnia or as a psychiatric condition.

Now look at a few key concepts here. This is a “disorder” in which sleep timing is off kilter “relative to social norms.” Everything functions just fine if we are “allowed to follow” what works best for our bodies. It’s often “treated inappropriately” and is often “misdiagnosed (…) as a psychiatric condition.”

Further in the article…

It is conceivable that DSPS often has a major role in causing depression, because it can be such a stressful and misunderstood disorder. A recent study from the University of California, San Diego found no association of bipolar disorder (history of mania) with DSPD, and it states that there may be “behaviorally-mediated mechanisms for comorbidity between DSPD and depression. For example, the lateness of DSPD cases and their unusual hours may lead to social opprobrium and rejection, which might be depressing…” (…)

The fact that half of DSPS patients are not depressed indicates that DSPS is not merely a symptom of depression. Even in depressed patients, treatment methods such as chronotherapy can be effective without directly treating the depression.

And a bit earlier…

Working the evening or night shift, or working at home, makes DSPS less of an obstacle for some. Many of these people do not describe their pattern as a “disorder.” Some DSPS individuals nap, even taking 4–5 hours of sleep in the morning and 4–5 in the evening. DSPS-friendly careers can include security work, work in theater, the entertainment industry, hospitality work in restaurants, hotels or bars, call center work, nursing, taxi or truck driving, the media, and freelance writing, translation, IT work, or medical transcription.

Some people with the disorder are unable to adapt to earlier sleeping times, even after many years of treatment. Sleep researchers have proposed that the existence of untreatable cases of DSPS be formally recognized as a “sleep-wake schedule disorder disability”.

In other words, DSPSers do just fine when nobody’s getting on their case about their difference, but people tend to reject them socially or think they’re crazy, which can become a self-fulfilling prophecy in that exactly these issues can lead to depression. And not only that, but medical researchers want it to be seen as a disability. But certain professions are friendly to people like us – ones that allow a person to work alone or with fellow creatures who only come out during the shadowy times of the day.

Does any of this sound familiar, o sexual and gender transgressors?

Okay, I’m certainly not trying to say that the social disapproval and related stress of sleeping at odd hours is in any way equivalent to the experience of being queer or trans. But the parallels are astounding. I’m also a bit leery of grabbing onto the “disabled” label, but I admit it certainly might have come in handy when I was working with daylight creatures who could enforce very real consequences for my difference in this department. And I’m definitely leery about the medical approach to the whole thing. But y’know, maybe for some people, who are willing to invest in a lifelong course of treatment in the aim of becoming “normal,” it would have its advantages. As for me – I’m simply not interested in drugging myself for the rest of my life so that my hours look like those of your average rat-race office worker. Really, I’m just fine with being outside the norm.

The parallels are even further enhanced by Bierce’s quote above. His act of satiric redefinition echoes some of the strategies that queers so typically employ to defend our existence – camp, sarcasm, and the implication (accurate or otherwise) that something about our difference in fact might just make us superior, that we might, by virtue of our supposed ill virtue, have in fact found the secret to happiness. I hear tones of Oscar Wilde and RuPaul in here. And I’m reminded, on a somewhat more serious note, of the scene in the film Kinsey in which a young gay man – brutally assaulted by his brothers when they found him out – says to Kinsey, in a Southern drawl, “I don’t so much mind bein’ queer. I just wish everyone else wadn’t so put out bah it.”

Now, can you picture what a DSPS resistance movement would look like? We’d have candlelit protest marches. We’d come up with a glow-in-the-dark DSPS pride flag, and 24-hour diners would post it in their windows to attract the DSPS dollar. We’d lobby for flextime at our day jobs, and for the inclusion of our condition in the list of federally protected special-needs groups. We’d educate our kids about how Heather’s mommy might get up at noon and go to bed at three in the morning, but that we don’t call people like her “lazy,” we call them “differently slept.” Evolutionary psychologists would produce research to show that DSPS cave-people were highly valued and given special status because they kept watch over the fires at night and kept their tribes safe from nocturnal predators. And eventually, the movement would experience internal strife among the “moderate” and “severe” DSPSers, because meeting times would never be scheduled at the perfect time for everyone.

Okay, so I’m being deliberately silly here. My intention is not to mock all the amazing activism that queers and other groups do, not at all. But this isn’t an attempt to rally people to the cause of defending night owls from oppression either, per se – though I certainly have experienced it, and many others have likely had a far worse time than I.

I guess I’m trying to point out that societal response to individual difference, and the reactions of groups on the butt end of that societal response, are amazingly predictable. And while single-interest activism can be effective when you get enough people together, this kind of thing makes me wonder if perhaps, rather than opting for the currently favoured strategy of gathering as groups to push for equality, we should just try to expand our understandings of what “difference” can look like, and endeavour to be  bit more flexible, a bit more understanding, and a bit more welcoming of difference as a whole.

And on that note, now it’s 1:30 in the morning and I have an editing job to work on…

4 thoughts on “night owls unite!

  1. Thank you for this article!!! I really had a bad time struggling with achieving “normal” hours of sleep … now I think, I might just let my body tell me what to do and feel okay about it :-))
    And those musings about a DSPS resistance movement put a very big smile on my face – so: thanks!

  2. My normal bedtime is 7am. My normal wake time is 4pm. I have a job where I am expected to work from 7:30am to 5pm. My supervisors have chastised me for my chronic tardiness. I can usually force myself to be to work by at least 9am, but on the weekends and when I am on vacation (like now), I instantly slip to the 7am to 4pm sleep schedule. It doesn’t feel strange to me. I prefer it. Nightime is so peaceful and I just think more clearly.

    I don’t see this as a disorder. I think it is simply another variant of human existence, like being homosexual or a vegetarian (smile).

  3. You almost have it right.

    From the International Classification of Sleep Disorders: DSPS is a disorder, in which the major sleep episode is delayed in relation to the desired clock time that results in symptoms of sleep-onset insomnia or difficulty in awakening at the desired time.

    Note the very important word repeated twice: desired.

    It is only a disorder when it is a problem.

  4. Hey Stuart! Thanks for the note! Yeah, I get the “desired” thing… I think my point is, whose desire are we talking about? When someone’s desire for a sleep schedule that feels good to them conflicts with everyone else’s desire for that person to have a sleep schedule that fits with the dominant society’s parameters, then problems do arise regardless of the person’s individual preference or “wiring”. In other words, the “problem” is often one imposed from the outside, rather than one intrinsic to the person’s state or felt by the person with regard to that state in isolation from its societal repercussions – but that doesn’t make it any less of a problem, necessarily, just one that can be very difficult for an individual to resolve. The parallel to queer issues, while it doesn’t hold up from a practical standpoint in terms of the intensity of oppression one might face, is nonetheless quite striking.

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