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Confessions of a Former Morning Person

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photo: Getty

Swellness is a monthlong series exploring the health and wellness stuff no one talks about.

Until a couple of years ago, I’d almost never used the snooze button. I’ve always been one of those annoying morning people, cheerfully chattering away and sometimes even singing first thing in the morning while my sluggish family member, roommate, or lover is still rubbing the sleep from their eyes and reaching desperately for the nearest source of caffeine.

But gradually, since mid-2021, my mornings have done a total 180. Now, instead of waking with the sun and waiting impatiently for the rest of the world to catch up, I can barely drag myself out of bed. It doesn’t matter if I’ve gotten five hours of sleep or nine — no matter how early I head to bed the night before, I’m fighting to keep my eyes open almost every morning. Worse, I wake up more often stressed about what’s ahead of me than excited about it.

There’s a particular idea of a “morning person.” She’s “That Girl.” Someone who wakes up at 4 a.m., immediately meditates and journals, drinks a meal-replacement protein shake, goes to the gym, reaches inbox zero, and gets some reading in all before 8 a.m. I never managed to cram in quite that much, but now instead of picking up a book or watering my plants or calling my parents, all I wake up to is the realization that I failed to wake up on time, again. It makes me feel hopeless.

The loss I feel is less about how much I produce — my early mornings weren’t uniformly productive anyway — and more how I feel. For me, being a “morning person” wasn’t so much about the act of waking up early itself. It was about how waking up didn’t feel difficult. I didn’t need a lot of time to gain clarity; I basically opened my eyes and reached full consciousness within a minute or two. I was waking up without a sense of dread. And because this usually happened earlier in the morning, as the sun rose, mornings were an expansive time to spend with myself however I chose.

These days, I set several alarms that manage to drag me out of bed between 7:45 and 8 a.m., when my workday starts. My mornings now, for the most part, involve getting in and out of bed to hit snooze because I’ve put the phone in a hard-to-reach spot to stop myself from hitting snooze. Or, on a few particularly bad mornings when my alarms have failed me, I’ve woken up, gained consciousness, and immediately activated my fight-or-flight because I’m late logging on for work. The whole day that follows feels harried and clouded by stress and exhaustion. At first, I compensated with long naps and earlier bedtimes or later wake times. But more sleep didn’t noticeably help, and I’d wake up from naps feeling disoriented and like I’d missed out on treasured daylight hours. Likewise, on weekends where I sleep in until I’m truly ready to emerge from my comforter, I end up feeling frustrated and sad that I missed out on the entire morning.

While there’s nothing morally better about waking up early, there are times of day that are practically better or worse, in terms of ability to function, for particular people. Dr. Ron Chervin, former president of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and division chief of the University of Michigan’s division of sleep medicine, pointed me toward the morning-eveningness quiz. The questions asked things like what time I would feel best equipped to take a test or do hard physical work in order to assess my ideal circadian rhythm. Once, I would’ve chosen all the earlier morning options — but now I mostly felt like putting “none of the above” (not a selectable choice, unfortunately). My most alert and capable hours weren’t replaced by another time of day; they just sort of slowly withered away.

When asked for guidance on how to wake up and not feel soul-crushingly horrible, Dr. Shelby Harris, a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in behavioral sleep medicine and the director of sleep health at Sleepopolis, emphasized “good sleep hygiene”: avoiding bright or blue lights in the two hours before bed, and in the mornings, getting in proper light exposure (natural light outside is ideal, but artificial light is better than darkness) and gentle movement. Dr. Harris also says good hydration, avoiding caffeine later in the day, and a consistent bedtime and wake time are also key.

Admittedly, my sleep hygiene is pretty terrible. I go to sleep at inconsistent times throughout the week, I am often too tired or too pressed for time to get any movement in when I wake up, and my current bedroom has a single, wall-facing window.  The darkness of my bedroom, in particular, has teamed up with wintery weather conditions to really decimate my mornings, and consequently, my days. The last three or four months have felt like a dark, cold blur.

For me and a lot of people, truly good sleep hygiene isn’t possible or practical. We live in a 24/7 world that didn’t exist until relatively recently in human history. The way we conceptualize what a day is has changed — lengthened, specifically — and is unlikely to shorten again. And more than ever before, we have the ability to be constantly bombarded with the world’s deepest horrors, first thing in the morning if we want. Sometimes, if I look at the news as soon as I wake up, that means shedding a few tears before my head has left my pillow. To that point, one piece of sleep hygiene I do feel able to change, without upending my life, is my sleep environment.

With the onset of spring and some attempts to get outside during the day, I’ve been able to get out of bed a little earlier on some days. Since my current bedroom is very dark, I also decided to try out two of the trendy sunrise alarm clocks, the Hatch Restore 2 and the Loftie lamp and clock. I was pretty floored by how much the presence of the right kind of light — and soothing sound that didn’t require my phone — at my bedside helped. The Loftie clock is made so you don’t need to use your phone, and in the evenings when I was winding down, I used it to turn on ambient noise, specifically campfire sounds, which helped me feel sleepy more quickly. Displaying red light on the lamp meant I could read a little but wasn’t disrupted by anything too bright.

And once I was ready to actually fall asleep, I tapped the Restore 2 to play a restful meditation that I had already set up as part of my wind-down routine on the app. I’ve noticed myself falling asleep more quickly and more deeply. In the morning, both the Restore 2 and the Loftie lamp mimic a sunrise by gradually getting brighter and hitting peak brightness at the time you’ve set your alarm for. This morning, at 6:30 a.m., awoken by a gentle but insistent song, I looked over at the lamp the way I used to look out the window in the mornings. I felt … reasonably awake.

This doesn’t mean my sleep is fixed by any means. I’m going to have more tough mornings and more late nights. I know that’s not a personal failing. But I am going to place rest higher on my priority list, and I hope I’ll have more good mornings than bad ones.

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Confessions of a Former Morning Person