Not lazy, just different: Living with Delayed Sleep-Phase Syndrome

February 12 | Guest post by Ava Strange
Late
By: thevlueCC BY 2.0

For more than a decade I thought I sucked as a person and failed at life. I was met with confusion and anger by my parents on a constant basis — they couldn't understand why I would waste the day sleeping as late as 11am. In university, I got half my sleep during daylight hours, in the middle of class, or on the science lounge couch. I'm sure it contributed to my low grades and eventual dropping out.

As an adult the situation got worse, and my natural sleep cycle developed to mean going to bed at 4-6am, and getting up past three. Mornings have even been known to make me nauseous. I've only worked one day job, and I was often late coming in. It lasted for less than three months before I quit.

Despite the frustrations involved, I feel way more at peace since being diagnosed with Delayed Sleep-Phase Syndrome nearly a year ago. My doctor was one of few who are familiar with it, so I was lucky. Delayed sleep-phase syndrome is a sleep disorder characterized by having a different circadian rhythm, one often completely backwards from that of most people and leading to a more or less nocturnal lifestyle.

Now that I know there's a specific reason for the way I am I can be fully accepting of it. I don't pressure myself to conform to a day schedule anymore because I realize that this is not my fault.

Since then I've worked second and third shifts at a hotel, an online moderation company, a personal care home for the mentally disabled, and now I work in a call center for a large bank. Late shifts are unpopular, so I've not only gotten these shifts easily, but often couldn't have escaped them if I tried. Although, considering the health issues associated with living contrary to your internal clock, why would I?

Living on a day schedule would mean facing the same health risks that most people face when being forced to work nights. Depression, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and generally poor performance are just some of many. Industrial and traffic accidents are often caused by sleep-deprivation.

This doesn't mean that life has been particularly easy…

There's still the issue of trying to navigate relationships and a social life when everybody else is asleep. It's lonely.

And running errands and going to doctor or dentist appointments often means getting up relatively "early" to rush out before businesses close. Thank science and the flying spaghetti monster for 24-hour markets.

Then there's the lack of understanding sufferers face from those around them. We've heard it all: "You'll eventually adjust like everybody else." "Just go to bed and you'll fall asleep." "It can't be that hard, why would you want to waste the whole day sleeping?" We don't! And yes, it is that hard. It just doesn't work, and we're much better off when we don't have to constantly fight it, when we can be good to our bodies and live according to our natural rhythms.

For many years now, if work doesn't mean having to get up to make it in for my evening shift, I find myself eating breakfast at four or five pm, in front of my very expensive photo-therapy lamp. In the winter this sometimes means going days at a time, not getting any real sunlight at all. And you know what? It sucks.

There is no cure for delayed sleep-phase syndrome. All we need is some understanding, and maybe a shift-working friend or two to keep us company during the long, lonely nights.

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  1. This! All of this! My husband is a natural night owl who really suffers if he has to keep a 'normal' schedule. I'm no good at it either; left to my own devices, I wake up in the late morning and go until well after midnight. Discovering regular shift work that put me in an afternoon/evening shift saved my life. We no longer drive exhausted and sleep deprived, we're less irritable and I- who used to be chronically sick-hardly ever catches cold now.

    16 agree
  2. I have never been diagnosed, but I'm pretty positive I have this as well. I guess I never thought it needed to be diagnosed, though. I just have a different rhythm than everyone else, right? Everyone is different? I'm lucky that my family realized that even when I was an infant it was impossible for me to fall asleep before midnight, when infants usually fall asleep by 7 or so. They would still tease me on weekends a bit, but never really gave me too hard a time with it. School from elementary school to high school was like hell. I was sick and weak all the time because of the insane hours I had to keep, as our school district had unusually early hours- getting on the bus at 6:00am was not unusual. Then I started college, which was like heaven- I just scheduled everything later. I never had a class start before 11. Luckily, my schedule isn't quite as severe- naturally, if I don't take naps, I naturally go to bed about 2 or 3 and wake up about 11, so an 11am class isn't so bad. When I graduated, I also worked at hotels- the second shift was perfect for me, but darn was it lonely. I started getting really depressed and had to see a counselor because I literally never saw anyone when I wasn't working. The other issue with odd hour jobs is they usually pay crap. So, I got a job in marketing, and am dealing with a job that starts at 9. I am late a lot of the time, but luckily since it's project based, as long as I'm not missing a meeting very few people care. It sucks, but as long as I sleep a ton during the weekends and don't nap during the week, I'm mostly ok. If i dont get enough extra sleep on the weekend, though, I am like a horrible zombie the rest of the week. I feel bad that I have to miss a lot during the weekends. I'm religious, but I have had to tell church members that me being at church services are going to be extremely rare because they don't have a late service. No one understands. When I started dating my now husband, we would visit his parents sometimes on the weekends (they live far enough we have to stay with them), and they honestly thought I disliked them because instead of getting up and talking with them at 7 or 8, I would sleep until noon. Now that we are married I think they understand somewhat, but I always feel vaguely weird about staying at someone's house unless they know me very well. I'm hoping that I will get skilled enough in graphic design that I can eventually start my own business, take meetings in the afternoons, and work at night. For now it's the daily 9-5 and weekend catch up.

    8 agree
    • 9 to 5 is OK while you're young enough but it isn't wise to keep it up much past 30! Yes, I should know. About 4 years before retirement age I went first on 40% disability, then 60%, then 100% for the last 2 years. Many years before that I had to give up all social life & activities outside of my job. I didn't know it was a disorder. Of course it hadn't been "invented" yet when I was younger. There was no way to know. You younger ones must NOT do that to yourselves!

      3 agree
  3. Wow. This really resounds with me. I go to bed around 12-1am and don't feel very good if I wake up before 10am. 11 is much better. I get a lot of flak from everyone, including my boyfriend, who would sleep as much as I do or more if he weren't prescribed Adderall for his ADHD. I currently have to get up at 745 to be at my internship at 9. I've had to take classes that were at 8, and I was late every single time, which bummed me out because I loved that class! I try to schedule my classes at 11 or later, but this semester I have an internship to fit in, too. Plus a job. Where do I go to get checked?!?

    1 agrees
    • Your best bet is to contact a local sleep clinic, but I was diagnosed by my psychiatrist so you may be able to go through your GP or another doctor.

      1 agrees
  4. OH MY GOD THIS IS A THING?!

    I'm like 90% sure I have this. I didn't even know this existed, I thought I just had horrible insomnia for my whole life. Bless you for writing this post.

    19 agree
  5. So, I was just reading an article about this type of thing the other week and it was really interesting. Although nowadays we may categorize it as a "disorder," evolutionarily it makes sense that some people would have different sleep patterns. Basically, in a more tribal lifestyle or a small village or community, someone would always be awake and able to sound the alarm in the case of danger. In Western society that isn't the same type of concern, anymore, so it seems out of place. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be at times to be on a different schedule from much of the world, but as a different perspective on it all- at one point in our history, your sleep schedule needs made perfect sense! 🙂

    19 agree
  6. Wow, I always thought I was just an idiot because I couldn't make myself go to bed before midnight. That mild case of Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder sounds right on the nose for me. Getting up for high school that started at 7:45am was always a nightmare for me, even coming in to work at 9:30 is incredibly tough, and I always catch up on sleep during the weekends. When I complain to my husband about being tired, he always gives me the same response, "go to bed earlier." I worked night shifts at the front desk during college and even did so during a summer break at a factory, although my mother hated it, I think those were my best experiences in terms of matching some sort of schedule that worked for me. I also know that my mother said that getting me to sleep "at a reasonable hour" when I was a baby was nigh impossible, so they just ended up letting me stay up with them, but then I would sleep through the night.

    8 agree
  7. Damn. The "Mild" version describes me perfectly (though I would say that the 3 hour delay in the middling one was characteristic of me when I was a teenager and also in college). I never realized that this was actually a thing. I always thought my internal clock was broken (LOTS of people, my parents especially, have loved giving me the "just go to bed earlier!" line), and I would insist that it wasn't such as simple thing to "just go to bed." So glad I finally have a name (and some ideas for maybe how to improve the situation) for what has been a challenge to deal with my whole life! Thank you so much for writing this post!

    6 agree
    • Thank you so much i have been reading offbeat bride/home/mama for years now but this article actually made me cry because i have never heard of this and suffering thru it alone and misunderstood caused some real problems in my life i guess i would fall under severe dsps i sleep at 6am every day and wake around 12 to 1 everyday it's how i've always been my parents and friends would call me lazy i missed out on things i felt like i was sleeping my life away when i was a teen but i thought i would grow out of it but that never happened and trying to explain to people i don't sleep more then anyone else i get my 7-8 hr too just just reversed was pain staking a like the author i dropped out of college because of it. all i kept hearing was was lazy just go to sleep but i couldn't still can't but reading this article and the link you gave took weight off my shoulders that i thought i was doomed to carry my whole life as hear i am now 6.30am reading this article but i think this will be my first "Days" sleep in my whole life that i don't feel guilty crawling into bed at the crake of dawn so thank you for posting this thank you for the link this really helped and now maybe i can get some real help myself

      5 agree
      • Wow Tia, thanks for your comment! Reading that I've been able to help someone is definitely the best part about writing for me. I'm so glad I could help you feel better about yourself, and realize that this is not your fault!

        2 agree
    • it is not a disorder, it is completely natural for the 10% (give or take) of the humans with this circadian rhythm.
      I'll accept the term Syndrome, but please stop call it a Disorder.

      5 agree
  8. I don't have this sleep disorder but I can relate. Lifelong night owl (though much less now that I'm older) and I work overnight shift. Trying to change over to the rest of the worlds schedule when you have to make appointments or run errands just sucks – tired is pretty much my baseline these days.

  9. Holy fucking shit this is my husband. Wow. I feel bad now for constant "go to bed earlier." I mean, sometimes he just has to deal because we have kids and they wake up and someone has to take care of them, but yeah. Wow. Okay.

    3 agree
  10. My mother was always a night person and wanted to be a nurse, so she became a night RN. Perfect combo for her. Since retiring, she's been driving herself and dad crazy with her weird sleep schedule.

    I have a mild case of it myself, but I've forced myself to live a day-time schedule. Personally, I'd be happy if it was illegal for all jobs to operate before 10a. Having to be at work at 5a nearly drove me to a nervous breakdown.

    2 agree
  11. Holy. Shit. I am so excited that is a real disorder that I am actually crying right now! I struggled a lot growing up because of my sleep pattern: Nobody believed that I wasn't just being lazy and uncooperative, and eventually I dropped out of school. Recently, I asked a doctor if something was actually wrong with me, and he asked, "Would you say you feel more awake at 9:00PM than you do at 7:00AM?" And I started laughing because Um. Yes. Only every single day of my life without exception. He told me my body was probably releasing the sleep hormones at a different time than other people's bodies, but he didn't say there was a name for it. (Maybe he didn't know.)
    Seriously, so much of what's described in the link fits me perfectly: I've never been able to fall asleep earlier, even when sleep deprived; I've always slept great and woken up spontaneously when I was allowed to follow my own schedule; I even have ADHD.
    I feel so validated right now. I'm done fighting my stupid sleep pattern, failing, and feeling guilty about it. Bring on the shift differential.
    Thank you so, so much for sharing this!

    6 agree
  12. Yup. This is me. Unfortunately, my toddler does not seem to have this condition. I DREAD when I have to start waking up to get him to school. At least now he will frequently let me sleep until at least nine.

    Actually, once he starts going to school, I might just start staying up til seven and then sleeping the six hours he's in school.

    4 agree
    • That has been my nightmare for the past 14 years….three children in school. I'm a single parent so I am the only one to take them. And yes, many times I have stayed up until time to take them and then sleep while they are at school. I will be so happy when my youngest is old enough to either ride public transportation to school in a few years or graduates 6 years from now! It is incredibly depressing to have to sleep while they are at school and then try and race around getting errands done as things are closing. Also, it is embarassing to get an emergency call that you sleep through and your kid tells the office, " My mom is probably asleep." Not to mention the obvious poverty you would have to live through if you don't have a partner to stay with the kids while you work a night shift. I've had to find ways to be self-employed over the years to survive.

      1 agrees
  13. this is amazing information… I can relate to this situation and the feelings of frustration when people just don't get it. I've never been good at sleeping at night. even at the grand age of 5 I would watch the late show with Johnny Carson before drifting into a fitful couple hours of sleep and then running all day on nothing. Night shift jobs were always my favorite and i worked them for 9 years till i was forced to learn that i can function through the morning shift just not well. The drs would give me meds to "reset" my sleep cycle they never worked and just made me irritated.

    1 agrees
  14. I often wonder if moving to a different time zone would help at all. I have adapted a little since giving birth to two early risers that NEVER sleep past 730. Waking up that early sometimes feels like a small seizure or electricity zapps in my head, with nausea.

    3 agree
    • I feel like moving to a different time zone would only help until you got used to it. Then it'd be the same thing all over again 😛

      4 agree
    • Kids laugh in the face of your abnormal Circadian rhythms. My son has woken up at 7:00 am every single goddamn day since the day he was goddamn born.

      1 agrees
    • I have this, and we moved to a later time zone, and it got worse. When we lived in CA, I naturally wanted to sleep from about 3-11 or 12, but in TX my schedule is 5 or 6-2. Although to be fair, my husband's team is in CA so he has to work pacific hours, meaning he works 11-7 central time and so we have dinner around 8-9, so living in CA time "works" for us. Sort of.

  15. Boy, do I know this all too well. I am not the type to be able to sleep at night. I'm lucky if I am able to get to bed before midnight. Most of the time, both my fiance and I get to bed around 3 (well he does…4 for me). I end up having to get up to take him to work for 7 and then I come back home. Nothing is open at the time for me to do anything, so I go back to bed. While it helps me get my energy back, it doesn't help the fact that I am in a difficult class in college that takes me all day to do 2 chapters, when I am not catching up on sleep. So in hearing that I am not the only one makes me feel not so abnormal.

    2 agree
  16. oooh, so I was just clicking around from wikipedia, and found this old webpage: http://www.supermemo.com/articles/sleepchart.htm

    I'm mild delayed sleep cycle (3am – 11am), but my husband is all over the map. He'll sleep days, then nights, then something in between… he's also been diagnosed with moderate sleep apnea, but refuses to admit it, which I think contributes to his crazy sleep, but now in that link, his sleep matches "Asynchronous DSPS"!!

    It's hard, because I used to get angry if I came home and he was asleep, sometimes we'd go weeks without seeing each other awake. But that was years ago, now I just let him sleep when he's sleeping, and do my own thing 🙂 But then he gets annoyed he misses things due to sleeping, and then gets angry at me for not waking him… so I can't win!

    1 agrees
  17. I have lost so many jobs because I can't wake up in the morning. Left alone, I wake up after noon, no matter what time I go to sleep (unless I'm waking up every other hour from insomnia). I have no idea what time I'd naturally fall asleep because I've been on sleeping pills for so long, but it's probably closer to dawn than to midnight. When I was younger, I just didn't sleep that much at night and built up a gigantic sleep debt.

    1 agrees
  18. Yup, this is me. I was given coffee in the morning at age 11 when school suddenly started two hours earlier. The fact that others in my family had the same sleep patterns made things a bit easier for me. I used to use late nights as creative/study time, and nap after school. Lately I've been trying to identify my 'sleep windows', the times that my body is ready for sleep. For me, it seems like 3am, 2pm, and 8pm are the times I get drowsy. This makes me really interested in the idea of segmented sleeping. Like not sleeping for eight hours every night, but two or more smaller chunks every day. Apparently this used to be the norm, but I can't find much info on it. Lately, I take some herbal thing or another and fall asleep before one. If I wake later than 11:30 or so, I feel horrible and hungover. I figured out it was caffeine withdrawal. Even if I drink lots of coffee when I wake up late, I've got a headache all day. Ten years of an 8-4:30 job didn't change my natural sleep habits, now I work 2-10pm most of the time. The worst part is how hard it is to construct a social life. I've been known to make breakfast dates, then come home and nap before work. The most helpful thing for me is to not stress it. Your body will do the best it can with the sleep it is given, wether it's an 8 hour chunk or a couple of naps after a mostly sleepless night.

    1 agrees
  19. I have not been medically diagnosed, but am 99% sure I have Delayed sleep phase, but I don't consider it a sleep disorder. One of the second or third shift jobs I've bee able to get is security. It was on of those night shift when it occurred to me that just like now, our ancient, ancient ancestors, the "cavemen" where mostly all day people, but at least some of them had to stand watch for animals, so why not the ones who naturally stayed awake all night long, but slept just fine in the back of the cave during the day.
    It is only considered a "disorder" because we don't fit in with the 90%.

    3 agree
  20. "Mornings have even been known to make me nauseous"

    So its not just me! I have delayed sleep phase syndrome, and often, when I a forced to get up before 12pm, or force myself to i often experience actual nausea, for no logical reason. And that nausea always passes by round midday. So it was interesting/a relief to see that Im not the only one.

    Unlike you I dont have any peace from the diagnosis though. In my experience, most people dont take it seriously, and you are still considered lazy etc. Maybe thats why I also feel guilty every day that I sleep in, and almost every day, I will be telling myself how I am gong to "do better" tomorrow" and get up bright and early to make the most of the day.
    Its always so easy to imagine doing that, late at night, when I am alert and motivated. In the morning it ranges from feeling impossible, to actually being impossible (there are mornings where I physically cannot awaken, regardless of alarms, light, medication etc)
    Unlike some with dsps, I can sometimes fall asleep earlier than 3 or 4 am. However when I do so, I still wake up overwhelmingly tired in the morning, and will feel overwhelmingly tired, and battle a constant and very strong need to go to sleep all morning. This tends to start to fade around lunchtime. Other times I will fall asleep earlier if I go to bed early, but will wake an hour or two later and spend the rest of the night having broken episodes of crappy sleep (the kind of sleep where you are still aware you are in your bed and trying to get some sleep).
    It doesnt seem to matter if i go to bed early, or late, whether i get good sleep or not, regardless, i am always tired in the morning, overwhelmingly so.
    And likewise, whether i am well rested, or sleep deprived, come evening, I am always alert and awake. Any projcts I have been planning or thinking of, suddenly at dinner time all the motivation in the world is there telling me to get into them. And if i tell myself i will go to bed early and get a good early start tomorrow, feeling like I cant wait to leap out of bed in the morning and get started, come morning I have no motivation, am so tired I feel as though i am physically being dragged into sleep(unconsciousness) and can wake up and think Ill just nap for 10 mins, then straight away be dead to the world till I wake up 4 hrs later.
    i feel guilty for sleeping so late. Even though I know there is a reason, I still constantly battle with feeling lazy and guilt for getting up late)
    And i am frustrated with the fact that pretty much no one understands what it is like.
    Its been a frustration for me for ages.
    But even though it happens often, Id never even considered that feeling sick in the morning might actually be related to this. That makes me wonder exactly what physiological impact forcing ourselves to sleep and wake in line with the expectation of the 'normal' population might be having, if its making us feel physically sick?

    I wonder if other people with dsps ever experience nausea when forced to wake early?

    4 agree
  21. I'm like this. As a baby, I didn't feel sleepy until midnight. The first school (6 to 9 yo) was fine cause I was in the afternoon class, 1 PM to 6 PM. However, from then on, it was hard. It all started to go better when I started work as a scientist. Work is done by weekly or monthly goals and no one gave a shit what time I got to the lab as long as the work was done, so I worked 1 PM to 9 PM. My brain had never been so clear and I was really productive! But I had to emigrate and now work as a cleaning lady. I work (sigh) from 6 AM to 1 PM. I'm glad that I don't really have to use my brain much, it's mostly routine, because otherwise I'd be hopeless… but I'm tired ALL THE TIME. It's starting to affect my marriage. But we have a son now, and I totally get that when you have children, getting home from work by 10 PM can mean you never see your child awake… I still don't know how I'm gonna deal with this, because it's as unnatural for me as it can get…

    1 agrees
  22. Wonderful article – with great comments! Isn't it amazing how judgmental the neuro-typical world can be, and how little they realize how LUCKY they are to be "sleep-normal"?!

    I inserted a link to my own list of comprehensive sleep posts on my ADD/EFD-focused blog in the website portion of your form – you'll be taken there if you click my name above this comment. Once there, scroll down to click on the link to *Living with JetLag* for my own story. I'll bet you will relate – as will your readers!

    Be sure to say hi (and where you came from) if you visit to read. If anyone can add to the content from something you have written, leave us a link and I'll approve it. (No more than 2 or you'll be auto-spammed and I'll never see it TO approve)
    xx,
    mgh
    (Madelyn Griffith-Haynie – ADDandSoMuchMore dot com)
    – ADD Coach Training Field founder; ADD Coaching co-founder –
    "It takes a village to educate a world!"

    1 agrees

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