Consider the Night Owl: A Life Nocturnal

I love sleep. I really do. The feeling of your body slowly letting its limbs succumb to the exhaustion of the day, with the promise of a recovery. Your mind wandering out of reality into the rapidly firing neurons of your mind in that recharge, sending images and sounds and sensations over your subconsciousness. And after what feels like a lifetime, but in actuality is a mere six or seven hours(as is tradition, these are general timeframes), you awaken to see a new day ahead of you. Now, I’m not going to go Full Metal Keating, but a person’s typical day, whether they see it as being a gift or not, is filled with actions and thoughts and feelings. A person’s typical day can be built off a routine that allows them to be able to expand their ideas and thoughts past the day in and day out process. Or they reject the schedule as monotony and take to spontaneity and uniqueness. Who am I to judge a person’s day, but I merely bring all of this up to acknowledge that this “day” usually happens when the sun is in flight over us. But some people have a “typical day” like this shifted by about three to five hours later than what is considered normal. When the Sun begins to disappear and become an afterthought and the moon is the orb of light to guide them through their wakefulness. I’ll explain.

I can, typically, count all of the hours that I get restful sleep on one hand. Instead of me having trouble falling asleep, it’s more along the lines of staying asleep. This becomes more problematic because I decide to start sleeping later in the night than average. This causes me to sleep later in the day, when people begin to bustle around and annoying things like work, grocery shopping, paying bills, or letting someone know that you’re alive get in the way.

Because I am at my most active in the hours that “sane” people have long been in bed, my wakefulness usually solitary (a rather peaceful time for me to gather my thoughts and try to plan as much as I can before the cacophony of daylight and the stressors that it brings get thrown at me). I don’t mean to start my rumination me trying to get you to pity me (you shouldn’t and that isn’t my intention at all). I mean to start with that just so there is a sense of what being a Night Owl might entail. Of course, and as always, this is generalizing a group of good people that would rather see the clock flip to midnight than see the sunrise (it’s the same as a sunset, right?). But many people that I have talked to seem to feel that there is some kind of compulsion that might lead me to stay up past a reasonable hour. The way that they phrased it always kinda bothered me. I view a compulsion as something that may cause me severe mental harm if I change. My sleep habit isn’t like that. I would want to call it a ‘choice’, but the overall process felt too natural for me to feel that I had that much control over it. I started to ponder and search for a reasonable explanation.

It was an on and off research process. I started with just typing “Night Owl” into Google, leading to Wikipedia and review of albums by bands I don’t listen to. I didn’t take it very seriously. But after a few more awkward encounters of having to talk about why I am the way I am, which was ridiculous to try and fit in a five-minute conversation with someone I barely know, I went to the big guns. For a while, and with the help of good old WebMD (the big guns), I thought that there was a serious problem that I had that needed to be addressed. There was a lengthy list of various sleep disorders and anxiety disorders and, somehow/of course, WebMD told me that I had the Bubonic Plague because of this thing on my arm that I thought was something but just turned out to be a mole, which I did verify with my doctor and I have no idea why I’m talking about this. All of this research (panic reading) lead me to a Wikipedia page about Chronobiology

But just the name Chronobiology sounds cool, right? Even if it doesn’t, I don’t really care. I think it sounds pretty cool. What Chronobiology studies, and it’s not Time Lords (sadly), is the biological rhythms of living organisms and their adaptation to solar and lunar cycles. So, basically, it is from this study that we are able to define some animals as being diurnal (animals that are most active during the day like dogs, robins, most reptiles, etc.) and nocturnal (raccoons, opossums, bats, most World of Warcraft players, etc.). There even is a term for animals that are primarily active in dusk and dawn hours (crepuscular), like deer. Other things that are studied under the umbrella of Chronobiology are metabolism patterns, hormone cycles, and, most important, circadian cycles.  And that is where I make the shift back to my irregular sleeping decisions and SCIENCE!

Most of it is techno-jargon that I did not get a degree in, and quoting Wikipedia verbatim is pretty much cheating, but the point I’m making is that I fall into a chronotype of people who feel their most alert and responsive in the evening hours. Because of this, I tend to engage in activities that would keep me running past the hour that a “normal” person would want to go to sleep. I would exercise, drink coffee, engage in mentally stimulating activities like video games or reading. All of those, but not exclusively those, activities will trick your body into pushing past the normal time that it would start to wind down and want to sleep. And as much as this sounds dysfunctional, it actually is quite normal and common. Throughout history, there have been examples of the so-called Night Owls. Samuel Johnson, George Sands, Marcel Proust, and even some contemporaries like Michael Chabon. All of these names and just some overall studies showed that I wasn’t alone in my preference for the nighttime hours. But this doesn’t stop that decision from being problematic as my life continues on.

Other than the obvious example of “Waking up early after being up all night is difficult and could be professionally and personally damaging” (to which I say ‘you’re doing it wrong’), some of the biggest problems that may beset the Night Owl is a cultural schedule that does not follow, let alone respect, your nighttime escapades. Let’s talk about a situation. It’s about 12:30 in the morning. You ran out of k-cups and have no desire for bed, considering you woke up around ten that morning anyway. Also, you remember you didn’t eat anything for dinner because you were focused on working on a particular project, not really trying to specify, and didn’t have the time to cook. So you’re going to eat out. What would be your options? And really think about it… I’ll wait… You said McDonald’s? Maybe Taco Bell. Hell, maybe even Denny’s. Now, I’m not trying to sell those businesses short, but they do have a reputation of being typical late night food. Which, to a Night Owl like me, limits the quality, yeah I really do mean quality, of food that I’m getting. If this were, say, 12 in the afternoon, I would have the option of Subway or Chipotle or Chili’s or even El Cortez, a particularly delicious restaurant near me. But my options, in the night, are limited to pretty much any establishment that has a drive-thru window and Denny’s, which I’m still surprised hasn’t been at least tested regionally. And it doesn’t just end with food. Shopping and overall entertainment close before ten. There are the nightlife and clubs. But for those who know me, that really isn’t my bag. But regardless of your interest in that particular activity, it still remains your most viable prospect, which can be pretty frustrating.

If I only knew what my future would hold having to live my life in the shadows of night, I would have strived to at least make it more rounded. And I know that I could just start going to bed earlier and that would be the end of it. But the joy within the solitude of night is far from appealing for me to forsake. There is quiet that I don’t get during the daylight. There is stillness that lets my imagination flow through the absence of sunlight. There is music after the twilight. The music of the night! (Puts on a half mask and brandishes an opera cape.) I was grandstanding a bit, but the sentiment still rings true. I absolutely feel that I would not be the same if I had to make a change like that in my life.

Trust me, I’ve tried. The first year out of college, I worked a job that made me get up at almost 5:30 every morning. I adapted fine, but I felt like there was something missing in my life. The things that I enjoyed the most about the day were the things that I had to forgo to make sure I had enough sleep to do my job. I tried to compensate by staying up during the weekend and that still didn’t work. I always found something fascinating about the way our clocks flip from 11:59 pm to midnight. A whole new day, right at the start. Now, I don’t have to worry about an alarm that early, and I “start” my day when it actually happens instead of losing seven hours to sleep.

Being an early bird was hard. It was a lifestyle that the four previous years sort of messed me up by making me schedule sleep time in odd places so that I was responsible enough to study and read and write and attempt being a functional human being (still working on that last part). And considering the different benefits that I would have lost if I didn’t stay up (I am my most productive when everyone else is waiting for their alarm to go off), being the early bird isn’t worth the worm. Yeah, I would have better options for food and I wouldn’t miss the chance to renew my license for the seventh week in a row (just kidding), but I think a productive streak is worth the sacrifice of having to eat Hot Pockets three out of seven nights a week.

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