Is This Why I’m Nocturnal?

I’m home, back in Detroit until early April. It’s 8:30AM. I haven’t slept yet. My brother joked earlier, “it’s because you’re in Japan time.” So as I wondered if it really was jet lag, I got on an interesting train of thought.

The first time I went to Japan, I also did not experience jet lag. At least, if jet lag includes something other than a disruption of normal sleep cycles, I didn’t have it. I never felt like crap, I never felt different than I would if I were just sleep deprived. In other words, I felt that I wasn’t as alert as I could be, I could feel my brain taking longer to think about things, but I didn’t have headaches, irritability, problems digesting, or anything else. So today I wondered, “what if I don’t feel the jet lag because I’ve been ‘jet lagged’ all my life? Is there such a thing as permanent jet lag?”

The easiest way to answer any of life’s questions is to go on Wikipedia. So I read the “jet lag” article, then looked up “nocturnality,” which led me to “night owl,” and finally, to delayed sleep phase syndrome.

The quote that got me: “Attempting to force oneself onto daytime society’s schedule with DSPS has been compared to constantly living with 6 hours of jet lag; the disorder has, in fact, been referred to as ‘social jet lag.'”


Of course, I can’t really diagnose myself.  But everything seems to fit.

I became nocturnal when I was fourteen years old. Rather I should say, I was finally able to express my nocturnality at that age, as that was the first time I had my own room. But as I child, I always had a tremendously difficult time falling asleep with everyone else. When I was in first and second grade, I had a night light that I would plug into the wall between my bed so as not to disturb the others, and I’d read into the night. When I got older (and less afraid of the dark), I would toss and turn for hours before falling asleep. So, I started making up stories in my head not to be bored. I’d lay there in my action/sci-fi/fantasy/comedy imaginings until I fell asleep. To this day, especially if I’m trying to go to sleep earlier than when my body wants to, I cannot fall asleep without thinking up a story.

As a college student, I was able to somewhat live more on the schedule my body wanted because I could pick my classes so I didn’t have any in that ungodly thing called the morning.  It was inevitable some semesters.  But I could tell that, seemingly, without reason, I would all of a sudden feel more awake around 10PM.  I got my best drawings done between midnight and 4AM.  I also wrote most of my essays in the wee hours of the morn, and I always got good grades.  The only time in my life that I’ve been able to lose weight was right after I graduated from college; Detroit’s job market was (and still is, unfortunately) horrible and I was idle for 9 months before finding part-time work, and later, City Year. But those 9 months were the best thing that could have happened to my health!  I was finally able to sleep when I wanted to; at the earliest, from 2AM to 10AM, and at the latest, from 4AM to noon.  It became so easy to exercise and eat right.  I lost 40 pounds. I was glad to be just “large” instead of “extra large.” Then, when I started working on a daywalker schedule, my weight loss stopped.  I was sleep deprived most of the time because I was still staying up late, but had to get up at 6AM to go to work.  By my second year in City Year, I’d regained 20 pounds.  Now, it’s incredibly hard for me to stay on track with weight loss.

The phenomenon of me doing better in academic pursuits in the middle of the night remains.  When I was trying to be responsible, going to bed at 11PM so I could get eight hours of sleep by the time I got up at 7AM to go to work, I scored 74% on Test 1 of the JET Japanese Language Course.  Yet I got 100% on Test 4, which I started at 1AM and finished around 3AM.  Sure, it could be that my Japanese just got that much better, or that by then I’d figured out the mechanics of the test that have nothing to do with the content (for example, if a question’s possible answers include material from previous books, the correct answer is usually whichever one comes from the current book). I also noticed that while I felt less groggy at work on days when I had slept at least 7 hours the night before, I was making stupid mistakes nonetheless.  Really, the “feeling better” part was just that my eyes were rested.  My brain hadn’t slept like it wanted to.  In any case, that “responsible” behavior lasted about a week before I lapsed back into going to bed past midnight, getting 5-6 hours of sleep a night and feeling awful until I had my Coke.

Another thing that stuck out at me from the Wiki article was from the Treatment section.  One of the things it said to do was dim the lights several hours before sleeping.  I think in general, people dim the lights, or use softer light, in the evening than they do during the daytime.  Then again, I’m making this statement based just on what my own family does, maybe it’s not a general thing at all.  Anyway, whether everyone does it or not is irrelevant, because when I first moved to Japan, I didn’t have any way to dim the lights or have soft light, as the apartment’s light fixtures are all fluorescent and my predecessor had kept it spartan, so no mood lighting.  I was having a very difficult time falling asleep.  I put it down to just my body being disrupted by the move in general, and to the fold-down sofa that was no match for my cushy Sealy Posturepedic, but finally one day about three weeks after moving, I couldn’t take it anymore and went out to buy a lamp.  It helped a lot.  On nights when I did try to go to bed without having that “in between” period of soft light, even if I was tired, I wouldn’t fall asleep.  One time I was incredibly exhausted, so I did fall asleep with the lamp on.  But I haven’t been able to sleep without first having been in the lamplight.

So, I think I’m going to try adding putting on sunglasses in the evening, and seeing if that helps me go to sleep earlier than past midnight.  The methods for chronotherapy also seem like they would help.  I’ve already tried going to bed earlier and failed, I’ve already tried getting up earlier consistently (meaning, on weekends as well), and failed at that too.  I can get up when I have to go to work because, well, I have to go to work and while I feel like crap, I have no choice.  In any case, these things aren’t really cures.  The best “cure” would be to have a job that allowed me to work from noon to 8PM. I need to become a freelance illustrator! Though really, I don’t want to work from home, not because I enjoy traveling out to a workplace, but because home should be a no-work zone.  Even if I love my job, I don’t want it to invade my sanctuary more than it absolutely has to.

Anyway, I’m getting off topic because it is now 9:49, nearly six hours past my latest good bedtime.  So, I will leave it at that.  Good morning!