on sleeping (with) disorders

Sleeping, waking, and everything in between

I typically can’t fall asleep until 3am. But this is nothing much – many students are nocturnal animals. The issue is what happens after: I find it extremely difficult to wake up any time before 12pm. I am able to force myself awake for key commitments, but that comes with anguished rumination and compensatory naps.

If we were to quantify “difficulty waking up” on a scale from 1 (awake before the alarm) to 10 (bed is a black hole), on most days I would lie at a solid 8. My performance on an “refreshing sleep” scale is the opposite – all I feel is a cloud of irration and lethargy in the morning, and I can hardly function. Nothing much works as an antidote to this… maybe except the fear of my Prof’s disapproval.

For years I’d wondered why it seemed so darn easy for everyone else. I could breathe in the same room and my mother would wake. My boyfriend flies off the bed at the first ring of the alarm (I don’t hear it). Any of my peers who have had the misfortune of having early classes with me, or worse, who were tasked with waking me up in the morning, will know. On school trips, the entire class would be fresh and gathered while my poor friends were shaking my unconscious body hard enough for me to concuss. Bless them. After I announced my diagnosis on Instagram, I got replies saying “everything makes sense now”. Yes indeed, my friends!

The disorder probably doesn’t sound like much to you. After all, I’ve survived almost a decade with it. The tricky part about things like sleep is you can’t compare and therefore it’s hard to relate to. It’s a bit like pain – you can tell someone else you’re hurting a lot, but maybe your pain tolerance’s just low? The onlooker can only infer the intensity of that pain by observing its physical consequences. Either way, the explanation that it’s a defect of your willpower or personality continues to linger in the background because you can’t rule it out.

Speaking of physical consequences, I’m a textbook case of DSPD. Consider:

the audacity of this to be so accurate

Everyone in my life at some point, including myself, has attributed my symptoms to some variant of “lacking motivation” or “irresponsibility and laziness”. If everyone else has no problem with sleeping and waking, but you do, then the problem must be you. Truth be told, even I wouldn’t discount this explanation entirely – I think there’s always more I can do to improve. And speaking as a person with a lot of experience with sleeping (poorly), waking up is a mixture of motivation and biology.

Still, that feeling that you’re inherently lacking, combined with the quiet social disapproval for being this way, eats away at anyone’s sense of self over time.

To construct my best defense, suffice it to say that if I had a general problem of lacking motivation and responsibility, I would not be here. (Hmm… maybe not such a great defense after all.) When sleep’s not in the equation, I do just fine. The issue is that sleep is such a definitive aspect of living that it has a domino effect on everything else, including one’s mood, diet, work, time, and relationships. It’s in the little things like being most productive from 10pm-4am, but your roommate tells you that you’re disturbing their sleep and you have tutorials at 9am. Nobody’s at fault here, but everyone is inconvenienced.

My condition does make for some funny imaginary scenarios, though. Imagine telling a prospective employer that I find it hard to wake up for work or I’m not efficient in the morning. You’d sound like a fool.

Diagnoses and treatments

Apparently, one reason my condition persists is because my body stopped recognising sunlight as a cue to wake. (If anything, morning light is an emergency sign that I should go to sleep pronto, LOL.)

The proposed treatment? Chronotherapy. In brief:

  • Wake up at 7am every day (I think the only time I was awake at 7am this year was the day I pulled an all-nighter in an attempt to reset my body clock. That is, I was awake because I did not sleep.)
  • Have blackout curtains. Upon awakening, stare at the sun to absorb its rays.
  • No caffeine after 12pm (including bubble tea!?!)
  • NO naps and NO exceptions
  • Sleep only when tired and don’t count the hours

She was sure to emphasise that the above requires a firm commitment. If you want to put yourself in my shoes, this is asking you to wake up 6 hours earlier than you naturally do for the rest of your life. She also estimated that it would take 6 months to recalibrate my circadian rhythms to that of a thriving, healthy person if I am particularly disciplined.

I guess that means I will take years, haha.

Endings and beginnings

I’m happy because I’ve found closure on this part of myself that has troubled me for years. Put bluntly, it was comforting to have my long-held suspicions verified by an authority, because it legitimised my suffering. It’s a cynical view but I frankly doubt anyone would take my symptoms seriously otherwise for the reasons described above.

I foresee challenges moving forward. I’m not really concerned about this disorder defining me (honestly: it’s better than being thought of as lazy), though perhaps it’s too soon to speak. At the same time, it could be seen as a condition that holds me back. Is there anything more limiting to one’s potential than others believing that you are limited? There’s more, but there’s no point diving into this rabbit hole.

On a more optimistic note, my doctor’s prescription suggests that my situation is not a lost cause (I hope I’ve conveyed through this post that I don’t believe I’m the problem). With some effort and luck, I might just be able to live like everyone else even if it means leaving this part of me behind.

Would that be for the better? Who knows. Maybe it doesn’t matter.

To quote a legendary statement from my friend, made years ago in polytechnic class when he presented on the topic of sleep:

Good night, sleep tight, and don’t let the bed bugs bite.

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