To sleep, perchance to dream…

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.

Insomnia

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.

Sleep Paralysis

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.)

Nightmares/Night Terrors

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.)

Narcoleptic Behavior

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.

Sleep-Deprived Hallucinations

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.

In Closing

It's after 4am. I should probably head off to bed soon.

Winking smile


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.

Burning the Candle at Both Ends

I tend to work late. A lot. Most of the time, in fact. I have done so my whole life - even during my years in the Army; despite being required to show up for formation around 6am every morning, (and therefore rolling out of bed at 5am), I still stayed up until 2am almost every night. It's simply the way that my brain is wired, I guess. To be honest - it often feels as though I'm living two lives at once, although I know of no other way to live.

That being said, it's not healthy. And I know that. I have written blogs about my experiences with Essential Tremors, and a lack of sleep makes my struggles with that disease so much worse. And yet, night after night I find myself back at my computer slogging through another list of issues that I feel I should have resolved a few days earlier. I just cannot seem to turn my brain on and off according to some other schedule - even if that schedule is being dictated by the rotation of the planet.

Out of frustration with my personal dilemma, I penned the following:

If you burn a candle at both ends
To slave throughout the night
It illuminates your toils
To your struggles brief respite

But its glow is a deception 
And does not dilute your plight
Its candescence will soon wither
As shadows reclaim their right

Two flames convey no solace 
For despite their pretty sight
Candles last for half as long
When they
burn with twice the light

burning-candle-both-ends


(H/T Edna St. Vincent Millay)

Mission Statements

A friend of mine recently sent me the following video from Weird Al Yankovic, who is one of my favorite geek heroes.

As someone who has worked in the business world for the past few decades, I have to admit: the corporate-speak in that video is much pretty spot-on for some division-level meetings that I’ve attended.

Open-mouthed smile

That being said, Weird Al's song reminds me of my days in a cross-site technical support team that I helped create at Microsoft, which was supposed to be an amalgamation of two commonly-used technical support roles of beta engineers and escalation engineers. However, the role of that team quickly spiraled out of control into something that was totally unrecognizable from what I had proposed. Our team was renamed by a corporate president as “Delta Force,” and despite the fact that everyone hated the name, we were stuck with it – because it came from a corporate president.

Getting back to the original point, I knew this team was screwed when Microsoft flew all of the team members to Redmond for a week when we were first starting out. The goals for the week were supposed to be creating the hierarchy and infrastructure that were required to organize and manage a large cross-site team, but we were bogged down for the first 1.5 days creating – seriously – our Mission Statement. It didn’t matter how many times I pointed out that we could be using our time and Microsoft’s resources considerably more efficiently if we tabled that discussion; I kept getting shot down by management, who continuously emphasized just how important a Mission Statement really is.

At some point during that week I marched into my new boss’s office and told him (in no uncertain terms) that I wanted off that team as soon as possible. (Although he begged me to stay, and I did – for 1.5 years. And I hated almost every minute of it.)

With that in mind, the video from Weird Al was a fun [sic] reminder of that time.

Soul-Crushing Meetings

A friend of mine posted the following image to social media… and as someone who has had to attend more than a few soul-crushing phone conferences, I thought it was hilarious.

Soul-Crushing-Meeting

That being said, I thought this play set was missing a few things that would add to its realism.

For example, why doesn't it come with a whiteboard and four dried-out markers?

In addition, the conference phone should come with dozens of lifelike features, such as Dropped Calls, Random Static, Open Microphone Keyboard Typing, Private Background Conversations, and 15 minutes of 'Can You Hear Me?' dialog. This would turn your kids' 5-minute meeting into hours of troubleshooting entertainment - every time!

Work/Life Balance

Some people I know should read this... not that I'm naming any names, of course. Winking smile

for_dummies_work_life_balance

Drum Circles and Conference Calls Do Not Mix

Earlier today our organization participated in a unique "Team Building" exercise: our organization hosted a Drum Circle, wherein a motivational speaker walked various members of our organization through a set of various polyrhythms with the intended goal of creating music as a "team." The idea seems plausible enough on paper, and I am fairly certain that if I was participating in-person I might have received something of value from the experience.

However, I work remotely, as do several dozen of my coworkers. Instead of hearing music and a motivational speaker, those of us who could not attend in-person heard nothing but noise. Lots and lots of noise. The entire experience was reduced to hours of mind-numbing cacophony for anyone attending the meeting via the conference call, and my only takeaway was that I had lost several hours of my life.

Shortly after the meeting had ended I put together the following animation to show my coworkers what the meeting was like for remote attendees:

Attending a Drum Circle Remotely.

With that in mind, please take my advice: take a look at https://binged.it/2s4KbLd for companies who offer team building exercises such as this, and avoid them as much as possible if you value your remote employees.

It's Never Too Late to Go Back to School

After two long years of sacrificing my evenings and weekends in order to complete homework assignments, I just received the following in the mail:

This obviously signifies that I have finally earned my Bachelor's Degree. This is traditionally a four-year degree, but I managed to complete my degree in just over 28 years from when I first started college. (So anyone who is currently on a five-year plan for their four-year degree, take my word for it - you could do a lot worse.)

By way of explanation, I had never finished my Bachelor's Degree; I dropped out of college during my freshman year when I got married and we needed the money. Our idea at the time was that I would work full-time while my wife went to school full-time, then we would swap roles when she completed her nursing degree. Unfortunately, our lives didn't work out that way. Shortly after I dropped out of college I joined the US Army, and that put a temporary halt on both of our college aspirations as the military continuously transferred us from one location to another.

After five years in the Army, I was finally at a time and place in my life where I could go to college in the evenings and do my homework during the weekends. Because of this, I received my Associate's Degree around the time that I finished eight years in the military; this meant that I had earned my two-year degree almost 9 years after I first started college.

A few months after I received my Associate's Degree I left the Army, and my plan at the time was to go to school and finish my Bachelor's Degree. But once again, my plans didn't work out that way. Sometime during my first year back in school, Microsoft offered me a job, and that opportunity was simply too good to pass up. This was ultimately a great decision, but it meant that my college goals needed to be put on hold again.

Sometime around my fifteen-year anniversary at Microsoft I decided that I was once again in a time and place in my life where I could go to college in the evenings and weekends, so I enrolled in an online program through Liberty University. (I chose this school because their online programs are very friendly to current and former members of the military.) My declared major was Multidisciplinary Studies, which is a fancy term for a program that allows you to split your major into two or three concentrated subject areas. (I chose Computer Science and Religion.)

Jumping ahead a couple of years, I found myself studying hard to complete all of my upper-division courses while putting three children through college, flying around the world to speak at various technical conferences, surviving the weddings for two of my children, and juggling a work schedule that typically comprised 50 to 60 hours a week.

In the end, I finished all of my courses at Liberty University in just over two years - and I managed to maintain a 4.0 GPA throughout my studies, thereby graduating Summa Cum Laude. (Which is probably Latin for "You really need to get a life.")

So if I do the math correctly, it took me 9 years to get my two-year degree, and it took me an additional 19 years to get my four-year degree. At this pace, I should have my Master's Degree 29 years from now.

;-]

Why I love my job...

I had originally written the following for a Facebook note, but I think that it's better as a blog post:

Let's face it, if you have known me for any period of time during the past two decades you would quickly realize that outside of church, family, and music, working with computers is my next biggest passion. Being been hired by Microsoft in late 1995 was one of those moments where I smacked myself on the head and questioned why I hadn’t thought of that before. It’s just great when it turns out that you can actually make a living doing one of your hobbies. (Making a living making music would be great, too, but I work with a large number of people who have all realized that having a normal day job means that you can actually afford your music hobby. Whereas trying to make a living at music often means wondering where your next meal is coming from. But I digress...)

Anyway, I’ve had several different jobs since I joined Microsoft, which always leads to the following question from friends and family: "So, what do you do for Microsoft?"

Over the past few years I have worked on a team with several gifted people that create several technologies that perform a lot of the behind-the-scenes work for the Internet, and these days I spend my time writing about these products and telling people how they can use them. With that in mind, I thought that I’d answer a little bit of the "What do you do for Microsoft?" question by way of illustration.

The following blog post that I wrote recently branches off into several links where I discuss writing a bunch of code to do a variety of things that many people would probably find... well... less than exciting:

MSDN Blog: Merging FTP Extensibility Walkthroughs

As I said, you might not find it exciting - but for me, this why I get up in the morning, and at the end of the day it’s why I still love my job.

;-)