After three decades of struggling with ‘insomnia’, I discovered my sleep disorder was a little more complicated
"My sleep cycle was just out of sync with the rest of the world"
I haven’t slept well for over 30 years now. As a teenager, it was kind of dope to be the brat who slept late at night and struggled to wake up, but I hadn’t bargained for this to last my entire life. Once I began working, I was no longer able to catch up on my sleep in the afternoons—and starting a full day of work on two-hour sleep meant I came home and crashed, and was awake all night again. It was a brutal, endless loop.
Naturally, I diagnosed myself as an insomniac, and spent most of my youth staring at the ceiling at nights, until the smartphone revolution brought the internet into my hands. I was still staying up till about 4 or 5 am, but now at least I had something to do. But blue light is worse for sleep, you say? I knew that. I hadn’t been sleeping for years and years anyway, and it made zero difference to my ability to sleep for those two hours every night.
Then five years ago, I quit full-time work and yay!—for the first time in my life, after struggling through school, college and my 10-year job, I was now able to sleep in every day. Soon, increasing at about half an hour every week, my sleep time became a full eight hours. Trouble was, I still wasn’t sleeping at nights. Life as a freelancer has its advantages but you still have to work and, by 4 pm, when I was ready to start my workday, most of my colleagues were wrapping up theirs. I would wake up to several texts and emails and as a result I was waking up stressed and felt like I was always playing catch-up. This wasn’t working.
So I decided to get disciplined and set a work schedule that began at 11am. But this meant I was sleeping less again, except now I also didn’t have a salary. I found myself right back in that cycle of falling asleep in the afternoon and hence staying up later and later every night. Addictive Netflix series didn’t help.
One night last year, frustrated with the lack of sleep, I decided to look up my symptoms online again. This time, I chanced upon a new sleep disorder. Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS), according to the American Sleep Association, is a disorder when a person’s sleep/wake cycle is delayed from the usual day/ night cycle. One could sleep longer or shorter than the average sleeping hours but almost never at the ‘right’ time. This sounded closer to my condition than insomnia, which is an inability to sleep at all. My sleep cycle was just out of sync with the rest of my world.
Since the 1980s, several health organisations in the US and other western countries have been conducting research on the causes of this lifestyle illness without any conclusive results. The closest cause for DSPS was revealed in a research paper by Sleep Health Foundation, Australia, which claimed that “young adults often stay up too late and this moves the timing of their body clock”. With a dysfunctional body clock, your mind gives you the wrong signals for sleep time. This explanation made sense to me as I had spent a large part of my early life deliberately sleeping too late (argh).
In India, sleep clinics are focussed on severe disorders like sleep apnea or milder symptoms like snoring. So I reached out to an American sleep doctor. After I’d filled a questionnaire, Dr Michael Breus, diplomate, American Board of Sleep Medicine & Fellow, American Academy of Sleep Medicine, confirmed that I was displaying symptoms of DSPS. It was a revelation. All my life I have struggled to explain my debilitating condition to people. When you wake up in the afternoon everyone just thinks you are a lazy slob. Catching morning flights—I’m talking 11 am—still induces such panic in me that I can’t sleep at all. Finally finding the correct diagnosis was a starting point to feeling better. It is quite another matter that, just like the cause, there is no conclusive cure for DSPS either.
In the last six months, after trying out all combinations of sleep hours, I have decided that while I sleep best between 5am and 2pm, a more sustainable life solution would be to slowly advance my sleep/wake cycle to a more reasonable 2am to 10 am. To do this, I have to sleep and wake up at the same time day after day, including weekends, which hasn’t been easy to do. Dr Breus also suggests giving that snooze button a rest: “You shouldn’t use the snooze button more than once because you end up shocking yourself awake multiple times and the sleep you get in the bargain is not restorative.” So, instead, I’ve been trying to pull back my sleep time by 10 minutes every week, and waking up at the same time every day irrespective of the actual sleep I got. It’s a WIP and I haven’t given up yet, so wish me luck and in return I wish you a lifetime of sweet sleep. At the right time.
DEALING WITH DSPS
– Apart from trying to regularise your sleep/wake cycle, try a melatonin supplement. Melatonin is a hormone that gives the body a signal for sleep, and seems to have no side-effects or dependency, but do consult your GP first.
– Basic sleep hygiene—low lights, comfortable temperature, no screen time, food or exercise for two hours before sleep—is not a cure but is still good practice.
– Avoid caffeine after 2pm and don’t take afternoon naps.
– Follow the hashtags #delayedsleepphasesyndrome #delayedsleepphasedisorder and #DSPS on Twitter and Instagram for community support.
Photograph: Leenarts Justine
Photograph for representational purposes only