I have never had a time in my life where I lived with a schedule that resulted in a traditional, eight hours of sleep. For starters, I am what most people would call a "Night Person." I love staying up late working on this project or that. Adding insult to injury, I am also a workaholic; I have no concept of what a decent work/life balance should look like. (I never have; even when I served in the military I overdid everything.)
However, once I finish my career-oriented tasks for the day, that's when I work on my hobbies. Late nights are my "Me Time," and I love getting involved in something that might take me days or weeks to complete. That being said, I also have Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD), so I rarely finish most of the hobby projects that I begin. (But that's another story for another day.)
Anyway, as someone who has spent their entire life routinely abusing themselves where sleep is concerned, I thought that my life could serve as a warning to others of what they might have in store for their futures if they follow my example of habitual late night activities and poor work/life decisions.
This might seem counter-intuitive, but sometimes I work so much that I am too exhausted to sleep. I drag my sorry self around the house and eventually collapse into bed, but sleep never comes. I am genuinely tired, but I cannot bring myself to fall asleep. After an hour or so, I give up and drag myself back to my desk to continue working.
Another type of insomnia that I battle is caused by a combination of stress, workaholism, and ADD. When these three factors intersect each other in my life, they create a perfect storm of sleepless days and nights. I might lie down now and again, but my brain is constantly racing - I'm thinking of this detail or that, or this deadline or that… I think of a thousand things that I should be doing, and I cannot force my brain to rest.
I once participated in a sleep study (at the request of my doctor). The testing facility had several rooms, and I am convinced that everyone else in the facility was asleep by 10pm at the latest. In my room, however, 2am rolled around and I was still working on my laptop, reading reports from work, and watching a series of documentaries on the TV in my room. I was still wide awake and easily could have been up for a few more hours. The technicians from the sleep study eventually had to come to my room and inform me that if I didn't go to sleep, my entire test would be voided. I regretfully packed up all my things and climbed under the covers, but I still didn't fall asleep until 4am or so.
This is one of the most-terrifying experiences that you can imagine: you wake up, but you cannot breathe, you cannot speak, and none of your muscles will work. This scenario has happened to me on more occasions than I can remember, and based on what I have read about it, this condition is caused by a combination of stress and sleep deprivation. (Both of which are constant fixtures in my life.) What causes this condition is that our human bodies are paralyzed when we sleep, and this happens in order to prevent us from physically acting out during our dreams. (e.g. Sleepwalking, etc.) However, if you constantly impede your body's attempts to sleep naturally, you can run into a situation where the paralysis does not go away as you awaken, which quickly leads to panic.
As I mentioned earlier, I have lived through this experience more times than I can recall, and my method of breaking out of the situation feels like it takes a great deal of effort - both mentally and physically. When I wake up paralyzed and unbreathing, I immediately feel as though I am suffocating, and I panic. However, I cannot call for help, nor can I move any of my limbs. I have to force myself to think through the panic and concentrate on moving just one finger, and when I am able to do that, I work on a second finger, then a hand, then an arm, and eventually the paralysis begins to fade. All of this takes place in a matter of seconds, but it is a horribly agonizing period of time that seems like several minutes of intense suffering.
Thankfully, my sleep paralysis is not accompanied by hallucinations, but that appears to be a common problem. (See 15 People On Their Experience With The Sleep Paralysis Demon.)
A direct result of terrible sleep patterns and living with constant stress is that your brain will inevitably take out its frustrations on your sleep time. Sometimes this will simply result in less sleep or poor quality sleep, while at other times you will be tortured by nightmares or night terrors. People with PTSD tend to experience these same sleep disorders, and in my experience - living with constant stress and constantly changing sleep patterns eventually leads to a form of low-scale PTSD.
I used to be plagued with nightmares of falling, or drowning, or being the victim of a heinous crime, or being attacked my monsters. Thankfully, I learned to master Lucid Dreaming, wherein a person who is dreaming becomes aware that they are in a dream, and then learns how to control their dreams. It might sound like make-believe or a hokey fantasy, but Lucid Dreaming has helped me put an end to all of my nightmares. I can now fly in my dreams, I can breathe underwater, and I can pick and choose what gets to stay and what has to leave when I'm dreaming. (I wish I could teach others how to dream lucidly, but the truth is - I'm not sure how I learned to do it myself; all I know is that Lucid Dreaming forever changed my life for the better.)
I do not have actual narcolepsy, and I genuinely feel sorry for those who suffer from that disorder. However, I have - on occasion - experienced some of its symptoms.
For example, I was working on a project a few years ago, wherein someone had promised someone else far too much work for me to complete in far too short a time period. As a result, I was working around the clock for a whole week. I would work for hours until I would suddenly lose consciousness, then I would sleep uncomfortably for a few minutes wherever I was located and in whichever position I collapsed. When I awoke, I would continue to work for several hours until I lost consciousness again, and then I would repeat the whole process. When the project was over, it took me weeks to recover from the abuse, and I had to drop out of a Master's Degree program that I was attending outside of work. (As of today, I have yet to return to that degree program.)
Trust me - that was a horrible way to live.
Inverted Circadian Rhythms
After several intense work projects that have required me to put in a lot of long hours, I have eventually realized that my body clock was completely upside down. I wanted to head off to sleep around 6am, wake up around noon, and work until 6am the next day. Believe it or not, I can thrive and be extremely productive with that work schedule. The trouble with this scenario is that people keep scheduling meetings at 9am (or earlier), so even if I head off to bed around 6am, I'm still getting up in a couple hours to go back to work.
Thankfully I have not experienced this situation recently, but when I stay up for three days or more, I begin to hallucinate.
A story that I occasionally tell dates back to a time in the military when I was required to be awake for more than four days. After I had been up for around 90-100 hours, I was driving a HMMWV down the German autobahn with a friend in the passenger seat. As I looked at the road in front of me, I asked my friend, "Do you see dogs all over the road?" He replied, "No… maybe you should let me drive." We pulled over and changed seats, then we got back on the road. When we arrived at our destination, I managed to get two hours of sleep, then I went back to work.
There have been a few other times that I have suffered from sleep-deprived hallucinations, but that story was the worst.
All Of The Above
When working on a few intense projects, I have sometimes experienced all of the conditions that I listed earlier at the same time. Needless to say, this is awful when it happens. I quickly feel out of control, and utterly helpless to rectify the situation. On occasion I have gone to see my doctor, who prescribes something that will knock me out at night and force my body back onto a 'normal' sleep schedule, but I hate it. I feel as though I am losing half my life unless I can stay up until 2am or 4am. When I fall asleep at 10pm, I have no time for hobbies; I lose my precious "Me Time," and I sink into depression. So even though I can be forced through medication into a traditional sleep pattern, I will quickly fall back into a "Night Owl" schedule as soon as I am done with my medication.
It's after 4am. I should probably head off to bed soon.
ADDITIONAL THOUGHT: I have written in other blogs that I suffer with a disorder called Essential Tremor, which is exacerbated by both stress and a lack of sleep. In other words, my chosen lifestyle contributes to my unwelcome tremors. However, one question has recently occurred to me: my lifestyle currently contributes to my condition, but did my lifestyle originally cause my condition? I may never know the answer to that question, but it's something to think about.