Updated: Oct 22, 2021
Inside the life of a DSPD high-performer
Setbacks and failures make for the most interesting storytelling, especially in the age of social media where our feeds are often curations of chest-beating success. (I got a promotion! We're getting married! I'm flying to Barbados!) The underdog is a relatable character we all root for, and by sharing our vulnerabilities we show the more human side of our personalities, giving way to higher relatability and deeper connections with each other.
I don't see DSPD as a setback. In fact, I use it so well to my advantage that the term "sufferer" just lands wholly inaccurately with me.
But, it's an incredibly rare genetic condition people are usually curious about, so I wanted to share a bit about my version of the # 5AMClub.
DSPD stands for Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder, or - put more simply - living with permanent jet lag. Not only are DSPD sufferers on a different time zone to the rest of society, but their circadian rhythms are longer than everyone else's (significantly more than 24 hours, meaning our whole sleep/wake pattern is totally off-kilter).
The stigma of "sleeping in," the superiority of the early risers, and all the other social conditioning that getting up early equals a good thing and staying up late equals a bad thing stands in stark contrast to someone who is intensely ambitious, hard-working, and prides herself on a work ethic that's second-to-none. (Especially when her severity of the disorder puts her in >0.1% of the population that technically renders it a disability...)
So, what's it like to run a successful business with a condition like severe DSPD?
Firstly, DSPD is a genetic disorder - which medical professionals are still finding out more about all the time. (In fact, at the time of writing I am participating in a DSPD study by the University of Rockefeller in the United States. Also at the time of writing this blog post it is currently 02:46 GMT - I'm just getting going).
Researchers in 2017 linked DSPD to at least one genetic mutation.
Patke A, Murphy PJ, Onat OE, Krieger AC, Özçelik T, Campbell SS, Young MW (April 2017). "Mutation of the Human Circadian Clock Gene CRY1 in Familial Delayed Sleep Phase Disorder". Cell. 169 (2): 203–215.e13. doi:10.1016/j.cell.2017.03.027. PMC 5479574. PMID 28388406.
This means that I'm hardwired like this since birth. My poor mother, as the first-born she had no idea what was wrong with me as a baby. "Why wouldn't she sleep??" (Nota bene: I am not an insomniac; I actually need more sleep than most! I just get it at completely different times of the day).
So, growing up it was just "a thing" that I would wake up at night, struggle to sleep at the same time as everyone else, and just adopted the "night owl" label. When, really, "night owl" doesn't begin to cut it. Even descriptions of DSPD cite sleep time around 4am. lol try 6am. Try just going to bed because the sun is rising and you feel like you probably should when you could really keep going.
Getting up for school, for college, for uni, and then work, has always been physically horrendous. Literally nauseating. (Imagine having to get up at 3am for you?) And I would often wonder, "Is this normal?" "Is this what everyone else goes through?" "Do I just need to suck it up?" Worse still, "Is this my life for ever now?"
The times my inner activist would wake up, I'd go on rants in the office against having a specific time and place dictated to me by someone else. This is ludicrous. Don't you want better results for your company? Higher performance from your team? Happier staff and better employee retention? Then let me start later.
The funny thing is, I've always been a high-performer and most people would be shocked to discover this other side to me.
Now I'm running my own business, I'm in more control of how and when I work, but I'm so happy to see an increase in flexible working whether you're self-employed or not. I do have to be careful about getting into the groove (music, laptop, creative juices flowing... ) because I will blink and suddenly it's 5am). If I really, really need to get a good night's sleep, I'll resort to melatonin as a last resort. (This is the ONLY thing that works, but I'm hyper-aware of the risks of messing around with pill and sleep that I will just suck it up the next day and grit my teeth through a 36-hour awake run).
The well-intended recommendations to take magnesium, spritz my pillow in lavender, take a bath and read a book, get into a good routine, don't look at your phone before bed... are about as useful to me as a leaky bucket.
'Attempting to force oneself onto daytime society's schedule with DSPD has been compared to constantly living with jet lag; DSPD has been called "social jet lag"'
Okawa M, Uchiyama M (December 2007). "Circadian rhythm sleep disorders: characteristics and entrainment pathology in delayed sleep phase and non-24-h sleep-wake syndrome" (PDF). Sleep Medicine Reviews. 11 (6): 485–96. doi:10.1016/j.smrv.2007.08.001. PMID 17964201.
I often get asked how this impacts my cohabiting life partner (who does happen to be a natural early bird). At best, we'd joke if we had kids we'd easily be able to do 24/7 shifts with our complementary sleep cycles. At worst, he gets pissed off he doesn't have a girlfriend who can go to bed with him or who he can hang out with in the morning. (Truthfully I wonder whether NOT spending every second awake together is the key to a healthy relationship!)
Up until recently, I never had an explanation for this "weirdness." I would just say I'm a very extreme night owl, shrug, and enjoy the reactions on people's faces as I tell them I went to sleep at 6am that morning.
Now it has a name, there is research happening, there are some answers, there are explanations... It's immensely satisfying. I just need to make sure I don't treat this as a free pass to burn that midnight oil... See tomorrow afternoon x
If you're curious to learn more, there's good ole Wiki. If you think you may also suffer from DSPD, I'd LOVE to hear from you. You can get in touch with me directly on stephanie[at]bloomltd[dot]co[dot]uk.