The Strange Ways I Sleep
By Andrew Looney

I keep really weird hours. I often think I should volunteer for some sort of sleep studies institute or something, since I routinely break all the standard rules of sleeping, and have been for years.

Basically, I have rejected circadian rhythms. i.e. the habit of going to sleep at a particular time each night and waking up at the same time each morning. Instead, I sleep at totally random times and I'm awake at other random times.

I frequently stay up all night. As an introvert living in a house full of constant distractions and activity, I discovered that the best way to have productive, quality alone-time is to stay up after everyone else has gone to sleep.

I also take a lot of naps. Like a cat, I'll often go to sleep at unexpected times and places. One of my theories is one's 8-hours-per-24 of sleep time need not all happen at once. I frequently take a nap during the night and then sleep more during the day.

Part of why I can do this is that I always wake up a few times during the night. Some people go to sleep and slumber uninterrupted for the entire night, but not me... even when I do sleep on the traditional timetable, I usually wake up and go back to sleep several times during the night. Sometimes I get up to visit the bathroom, other times I just look at the clock, roll over, and go back to sleep.

Are you a heavy sleeper, or a light sleeper? Actually, I think that's kind of a meaningless question. For me, it's not a matter of how heavy or light my sleep is compared with others, but rather, how heavily asleep I happen to be at the moment. I can be both a heavy sleeper and a light sleeper... it really depends on what sleep cycle I'm in when you're trying (or trying not) to wake me up.

We all know that some phases of sleep are better than others, that dreaming for example occurs mainly during REM sleep. Learning to control when I sleep, rather than letting the need for sleep control my schedule, demanded that I understand the phases of my own sleep patterns, and then learn to work within those patterns.


An analogy I like to use concerns swimming pools. When I'm deeply asleep, exploring the boundaries of an exciting dream-world and snoring so loudly that it wakes the girls but not me, I say I'm at the bottom of the pool. It took some time for me to swim down there, and someone standing at poolside trying to get my attention will have a tough time of it. Even when I realize that someone is up there shouting at me to swim to the top, it takes time to make that ascent, to stick my head above water again, and thus "wake up."

On the other hand, I'm often just sleeping lightly, not in the middle of any intricate dreams but just dozing. This can be the case when I first go to sleep, before I get down deep enough to dream, or later, on the way back up from another exciting adventure in dreamland. I think of these parts of sleep as being like time spent just swimming around on the surface of the pool, with your head just beneath the water. When I'm at the top of the pool, I can wake up easily, notice and digest the time or the activities of another family member in the room, and easily then go right back to sleep. But when I'm at the bottom of the pool, I can sleep through a ringing telephone.

For me, the passage from bedtime to morning is a series of round trips from the edge of the water to the bottom of the pool. To take the swimming analogy on step further, I've also observed that my sleeping tends towards the "cannonball" approach... I plunge rapidly towards the bottom, then gradually rise to the top.


As an example of this, I will now tell my "Where were you on Sept 11th?" story. Unlike most east-coasters, I have a boring answer to this question: I slept through it. I wish I hadn't... I kind of feel like I missed out on a defining moment of our history. But like I said, I usually stay up all night, and I had gone to sleep about 15 minutes before the events of that tragic morning began. Kristin woke me at about the same time that Bush was informed that a second plane had struck the other tower, and like Bush, I heard the news but just continued doing what I was doing. I remember Kristin waking me up, telling me that airplanes were smashing into buildings, but I was so deeply asleep that this news didn't seem meaningful enough to be worth getting out of bed for. I have no idea now of what I'd been dreaming about, but I think I wove this bizarre news into the fabric of my dreamworld, and didn't really realize (until later) that I'd actually been woken up. ("Airplanes smashing into buildings? I must be dreaming!") Since I was at the bottom of the pool and Kristin couldn't get to me wake up, she went back downstairs to watch the news... and I regret now leaving her to cope with those images alone. But after the two towers collapsed, Kristin decided to try waking me again, and this time she succeeded.


Having observed all of this. I've also come to realize that there's a big difference between waking up when I'm at the top of the pool and being forced to wake up while at the bottom. And this was the key to changing my sleep patterns.

I have observed that if you wake me when I'm at the bottom of the pool, I will have a much more difficult time of becoming conscious, getting going, and even having a productive day, than if I were to wake up more naturally at a time when I'm less heavily asleep. I have also observed that, if I get up on my own when I'm at the top of the pool, I can get by with fewer hours of sleep.

Given all of this, I've learned that if I wake up 20 minutes before my alarm is set to ring, I'm better off just getting out of bed then, rather than going back to sleep and being deeply submerged when that noise starts blaring. I've also learned that I can get up at 4 in the morning and have the house to myself, then go back to sleep later, after the rest of the household is awake. On other nights, I'll stay up until 4 in the morning, and must slip into bed quietly so as to avoid waking up the girls. Still other times, I'll stay awake all night (except perhaps for a short nap on the couch), talk with Kristin and Alison while they have breakfast, and then wander off to bed.

Another thing I believe in is catching up on sleep. When we've got a big trade show or other deadline coming up, I can push myself for many long hours, pulling an all-nighter (or an all-dayer, as I like to call it, when I stay up as usual all night but then stay awake working through the next day) but such stunts do catch up with me... eventually, I have to sleep, often hibernating then for 12 to 16 hours.

With all of these observations in mind, I have learned how to be awake when I want to and how to sleep when I need to. At this point in my life, my sleeping schedule is about as predictable as a game of Fluxx. I'll be awake all night one day, all day then next, and asleep on the couch somewhere in between. I tend to move towards day shift on the weekends, while I keep nights during most of the work week. I typically do some of my best sleeping around 10 in the morning, but the bottom line is, if you need for me to be awake for something at a particular time, just let me know and I'll be up. Otherwise, there's a good chance I'll be asleep... and please don't try to wake me when I'm at the bottom of the pool.


Like I said, I take a lot of naps. To explain a couple of the ways I end up taking a nap, I have to tell you of my preference for baths and our rules about cats.

Regarding baths: one of my other eccentricities is that I dislike showers and instead take a bath most every day. I find lounging in a hot tub relaxing and enjoyable, whereas taking a shower is like being caught out in the rain. More to the point, cold showers wake you up, but hot baths make you sleepy. (Alison calls this effect "bath coma," one of the trio of comas she's given name to, the others being food coma and sex coma.) Thus, I often take at least a short nap after my daily bath.

Regarding cats: we like lap-cats, you know, those friendly cats who will sit in your lap and purr. In order to encourage our cats to be lap-friendly, we long ago made it a rule that you can't push a cat out of your lap once a cat has decided to sit there (since doing otherwise would provide negative reinforcement). Because of this, I've taken many a nap because one or another (or even, in rare instances, two at the same time) of our cats have fallen asleep on top of me while I was reclining on the couch.


Well, that's about all I can think of... if you have any questions, or if you work for a sleep studies institute, feel free to try sending me email. (Don't call though... I might be taking a nap.)

Copyright © 2004 by Andrew Looney.

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