by Eleanor Kelman

I recently listened to a talk by Dr. Michael J. Breus, also known as “the Sleep Doctor,” in which he discussed the science of sleep. He was one of the featured speakers on an externship I (and thousands of other people trapped in limbo between school and not being able to find work) have been participating in, and his talk really resonated with me in a way few talks do. Typically, when I listen to a presentation I’m constantly fidgeting and attempting to keep myself from multitasking–well, distracting myself by scrolling through my Instagram feed or perusing Reddit forums. Listening to Dr. Breus speak was different. I was fully, wholeheartedly engaged in what he was telling me to do to improve my sleep schedule, and not once did I think about turning on my phone. I was so surprised at my own sustained focus that I attempted to figure out why I was able to pay attention for the full hour.

Maybe it was just his manner of speaking, but that’s never really been much of a factor for me. Other than once falling asleep while a beautiful voice slowly lulled me into dreamland while discussing the rather un-dreamlike topic of physics, I’ve never noticed the tone of voice in talks. Perhaps he was just a wonderful orator in general? Well, yes, but even the most passionate of speakers can still make me lose focus (of absolutely no fault of their own, mind you!). No, I finally came to the conclusion that what he was talking about was simply so fascinating and pertinent to me.

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[My newest idol… who also looks quite a bit like one of my favorite college professors?]

Sleep has been a point of contention for me for a long time. I sustained myself on a solid 4-5 hours during weekdays in high school, which led to a lot of dozing off in class and some lunch hours devoted to a quick power nap. In college, my quality of sleep improved ever-so-slightly but still negligibly. A roommate freshman year took to letting her alarm sound for two hours straight every morning, which always gave me a very rude awakening with zero reprieve. I never established a true sleep routine, even during my sophomore year while living with my boyfriend at the time who turned off the lights at midnight each night (while I toiled away on the computer next to him). Senior year I made a valiant effort to go to bed at the same time every night, but that was squandered by two suitemates who would be up yelling and playing music until two or three in the morning much to my chagrin. I never really got that coveted “sleep schedule” thing down pat.

I no longer had any excuse once quarantine started due to the fact that my house is a couple hundred decibels quieter at 9pm than my suite on campus was at 3am, but I still managed to finagle an excuse or two in there. I was going to bed at around 12 am and waking up around 8am to 8:30am depending on how many times I hit snooze, but I still couldn’t shake that desire to get up earlier and truly spend the morning being productive. I am certainly my most productive prior to lunchtime so I wanted to prioritize that time. Unfortunately, a lack of drive got in the way of those well-laid plans, but I still continuously wished I could be a bit better in a number of regards. From drinking caffeine at 8pm to rolling out of bed at a snail’s pace, I kept avoiding achieving my personal goals of maintaining a true sleep schedule and becoming a certifiable morning person.

Listening to Dr. Breus’s presentation lit a fire under me so to speak. I suppose it wasn’t actually the presentation at all, but hearing someone else say, “Do this thing,” made me want to do that thing, the thing I had been putting off for so long because it was solely a “me” thing. I dove in headfirst.

Instead of trying the recommended method of moving your alarm back 15 minutes every week until you reach your desired wake-up time, I went all in and jumped it to 7am and figured I would deal with the jetlag later. I also ended up setting two alarms: a digital alarm clock and my phone. With this, I had to jump out of bed to turn off the second alarm after the first one sounded. In addition, I made a pledge to myself to not just lie back down and fall asleep. I spend the first couple of minutes every morning in a hazy stupor but I allow myself to go back to sleep if I’m still tired half an hour after I wake up. Interestingly, I’m no longer tired by that point.

Returning to the Sleep Doctor, I’m supposed to fall asleep at 11:10pm to wake up at 7am every night. While I do attempt to fall asleep at 11pm, I ensure that I’m up and making my bed at 7am no matter when I fall asleep–thankfully, it’s never crossed 12:30am, a terribly late bedtime for me now that I’ve ascended to being a grandma. I’ve also stopped drinking a latte too early in the morning, which is an easier task than expected because I’ve replaced it with chugging water while I work out (I need to drink a concerning amount of water during the summer).

Who knew that presentations could be useful outside of getting participation credit for a class?

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[Herbal teas have replaced my nightly latte habit, a worthy companion to my bedtime routine.]

I won’t pretend that I’m not browsing the web at night or that I no longer engage in any unsavory nighttime habit, especially as nearly every night I’m on a video call with a friend, but I’ve been able to do just enough to achieve a goal I never thought really possible for me. On a very small level, waking up at 7am and not bemoaning my situation is amazing. It has represented for me such strong discipline that allows everything else to fall into place once I’ve gotten out of bed and started to get moving. On top of that, I can finally say with utmost certainty that I know I’m getting enough sleep, something I couldn’t say without crossing my fingers behind my back for most of my life.

Sleep may be for the weak, but I’ve got a real weakness for it.