Welcome to It’s Complicated, stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships. (Want to share yours? Email pitches to firstname.lastname@example.org.)
At 8:30 p.m. on New Year’s Eve, my husband Jack lobbed a couple of throw pillows at my head as I reclined on our couch in a manner that must’ve looked suspiciously like the beginning of a nap. He wasn’t being mean-spirited — it was part of the plan we’d agreed upon to keep me awake. I’d already exhausted my usual, big-night-out strategies: doing a shot of tequila (science doesn’t confirm it’s a stimulant, but, hey, the placebo effect is powerful), stealing extra glances at my cell phone for its supposedly insomnia-inducing blue light, even sporting my tackiest pair of faux-leather pants, all the way on the other end of the cozy spectrum from my usual flannel PJs.
“Oh, hell no,” said my cousin Justin, visiting from San Francisco for the holidays, when he saw me fading. He shoved a thermos of coffee my way and I gulped it down, even though I hate the taste. We’d made plans to attend a party at a beachfront bar in Cape May, New Jersey, with the works: live music, sand on the floor, a fire pit, and an open bar. “There’s no way we’re letting you fall asleep tonight.”
It’s something I hear from friends and family often: You need to wake up. I’m 32 years old, with the sleep schedule of someone much older, or maybe 30 years younger: As soon as the sun sets, I feel compelled to go down with it (and get up with it, too). It’s not that I get a kick out of turning in early. It’s that anything else feels so difficult.
* * *
My sleeping patterns haven’t always been problematic. When I was a little kid, my parents were all about early bedtimes — by the time 7 p.m. rolled around, my sister and I were already tucked in with teeth brushed. In high school, I was emphatic enough about making good grades that my desire to stay up socializing was never that strong.
As a college student, I waited tables on and off, often wrapping up shifts at midnight or 1 a.m., which helped better align my body clock with the majority of my peers’. On those nights I did pass up a party for my PJs, I didn’t feel lame; I’d internalized the idea that turning in early is a tenet of the most industrious early-bird set. And I got a secret thrill out of being awake and productive while everyone else in my dorm was nursing a hangover.
It wasn’t until my early 20s that it really began to make a meaningful difference in my life — around the same time that I began to suspect my sleeping patterns weren’t a preference so much as my body’s default setting. I was quickly blowing through my savings on travel, studying in Australia, surfing in the South Pacific, and hostel-hopping around Europe; once, in New Zealand, I fainted in an RV-park shower from the adrenaline rush of skydiving, bungee jumping, and whitewater rafting within a 24-hour span. But no matter how thrilling the day, I had trouble staying up to relive it that night with my amped-up travel companions — I fell asleep sober in the middle of more than one party, including one where somebody took off with my lawn furniture. Friends nicknamed me “Sleepy.”
A while later, after returning home and starting a new job as a writer, I met Jack, 20 years my senior. I was intimidated by his journalistic résumé and the fact that his furniture consisted of something other than bean bags. Since I was still working toward those things myself, I tried impressing him with stories from my globe-trotting adventures. I left out the part about this badass alter ego of mine regularly nodding off just after sunset.
Shortly into our relationship, Jack discovered I wasn’t nearly as rock-and-roll as I’d let on. The biggest clue might have been when I fell asleep at a concert during one of our dates. (In my defense, it was jazz.) Once, on my birthday, he threw his hands in the air after I suggested forgoing a glass of wine at the bar for a mug of chamomile tea in bed. “I’m supposed to be the old one!” he said.
I can’t blame him for being annoyed. I regularly harangue him into 5 p.m. dinner reservations and often fall asleep before the end of movies. And I require pep talks — pep talks! — before a night out: I will outlast my two-year-old nephew; I won’t be out-partied by my 82-year-old mother-in-law.
But the problem isn’t just that my sleeping patterns irk my spouse — it’s that they’ve begun bothering me, too. Recently, while on vacation in Maine, I badgered Jack into attending a poetry slam at a bookstore-turned-pub in downtown Portland. I had an idea in my head — dark wood furnishings and tortured souls in tweed suspenders — and I wanted to see how the real thing compared. We arrived around 8:30 p.m. and claimed two overstuffed chairs near the makeshift stage.
But before we heard so much as a haiku, my eyes began to feel painfully heavy. My head started bobbing, and I could see the bartenders shooting me looks. I whispered to Jack that we needed to leave, and I was in bed a half hour later.
Fed up, I reached out to John Cline, a fellow at the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and assistant clinical professor at Yale University, who confirmed that I check all the boxes for a condition called Advanced Phase Sleep Disorder, or ASPD, a condition that leaves a person longing for bed unreasonably early. Sometimes, the body clock gets reprogrammed due to behavioral decisions, like regularly waking at weird hours to binge-watch Ozark. Other times — as is likely the case with me — it’s down to genetic mutations.
“We tell people who go to bed exceptionally early to simply buck up and fight through it,” he said. “But for people like you, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to do this.” Variations in my genetic makeup may be causing an altered sensitivity to the clock-resetting effects of light, Cline explained, meaning I can’t help but start eyeing up cozy pajamas as soon as the sun disappears. It’s also possible that my body may just be operating on, say, a 23-hour day (this doesn’t sound like a huge difference, but it has big implications for body rhythms), or that the ticking of my body’s clock doesn’t match with its physiological output, like the release of hormones meant to ready the body for sleep.
When I relay all this information to Jack (not the smoothest of pillow talk, I’ll confess), he only looks at me as though I’ve gone full grandma on him, just a few early bedtimes away from drinking prune juice and yelling at kids to get off my lawn.
* * *
Sometimes, miracles happen. On New Year’s Eve — perhaps due to the perfect confluence of coffee-buzz and pillows-thrown-at-my-head — I achieved the elusive second wind. Jack, Justin, and I went to the beach bar, where we danced in the sand, drank dark-and-stormies (and more tequila), and hooted and hollered when the ball dropped. I felt hip. I felt relevant. I felt alive! I spent the night running from friend to friend to update them on my accomplishments: It’s 12:15 and I’m still awake! It’s two-thirty and I’m still awake!
The next day, I thought I woke up with a terrible hangover, but as the hours wore on, I experienced body aches and chills. With a pounding head and sweaty palms, I headed to an urgent care clinic, where a doctor with the sniffles stuck a swab up my nose and diagnosed me with avian flu.
So I spent the first part of the new year laid up next to a pile of tissues and a vat of tea. And lying in bed, working through my fever-induced existential reflections about life, I found myself pondering why I insisted on fighting my body so hard in the first place.
There are methods available for resetting a biological clock so that it’s more in line with the culture, including light therapy, controlled sleep deprivation and, in my case on New Year’s Eve, lots of caffeine. But humans are a diurnal species, meant to be active during the light phase and sleeping after dark, social calendars be damned. Two hundred years ago, when most people spent their days outside in a field gathering something — and not surrounded by electronic devices — everyone would have been just a little more tuned in to natural-light cues, and staying up late would have been considered the oddball thing. Not to mention a gross waste of lantern oil. Just because my internal clock seems stuck in the 19th century doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
I’m not saying that screwing with my natural biorhythm is the reason I was besieged by flu right after the ball drop, but it couldn’t have helped. Perhaps if I’d listened to my body and bucked the peer pressure, I’d be able to take a deep breath right now without hacking a lung. Either way, with apologies to my husband, I’m taking it as a sign that I should give up on seeing another midnight anytime soon.