Archive for the ‘sleep’ category

Sundowning and the witching hour

January 14, 2016

As the light fades, they become agitated. Freaked out, confused, angry. And it’s your job to absorb all those feelings and manage the consequences of those feelings, somehow without becoming agitated yourself.

In people with Alzheimer’s disease, we call it “sundowning”. In babies, we call it “the witching hour”. As far as I can see, it’s exactly the same thing: agitation in the late afternoon and the early evening, usually presenting in people who have an early bedtime and wake up early in the morning. An adult with Alzheimer’s might pace around or shout at their caregiver; a baby will just keep screaming.

The advice for dealing with both sundowning and the witching hour is eerily similar. Adjust mealtimes. Use soft music/white noise. Set the heating to a comfortable temperature. Speak in a reassuring tone of voice. Identify triggers for the behaviour so you can avoid them…wait a minute, is the internet really telling you that the daily setting of the sun is a trigger you can avoid? Well, no. But the “avoid triggers” advice, just like the “look after yourself and take breaks” advice, is a way of clueing you in that there’s nothing you can actually do to stop the behaviour, only stuff you can do to make yourself feel like you’re doing something, so you don’t go crazy.

In my post about the politics of sleep I wrote that it’s initially hard to understand why one person would try to control another person’s sleep patterns – until you realise that the person whose sleep is being controlled is work for the first person. Attempting to control someone else’s sleep patterns probably means that their very existence constitutes work for you. And vice-versa: if there is someone who can’t be awake without being work for you, of course you’re going to obsess about when they sleep.

And so the advice for dealing with sundowning old people and wailing witching-hour babies also includes stuff on not “letting them nap” for X hours before bedtime. Congratulations! You are now in charge of another human being’s circadian rhythms. It is your job to repeatedly wake them when their body and brain are telling them to sleep, because their body and brain are telling them to sleep at the “wrong” time. Oh, but it’s also your job to worry when they won’t sleep at the “right” time, because if they’re not well-rested they will supposedly kick off even more. (If you’re currently dealing with a old person wandering around the house turning all the taps on, or a screaming witching-hour baby, you might wonder exactly how it could get any worse.)

My hunch is that sundowning is linked to advanced sleep phase disorder (ASPD) and that advanced sleep phase disorder is itself an extreme manifestation of the tendency to become more of an early-bird as you get older. I don’t know where the cut-off point is between “natural lark” and “person with ASPD”; it seems kind of arbitrary to me. Human circadian cycles vary, but we’ve defined a specific range as “normal”, which means everybody whose body-clock is outside that range must be suffering from a disorder. (A bit like what happened with the BMI.)

The President of Starbucks is a successful go-getter because she sets her alarm for 4:30am, while an elderly person who wakes up between 3am and 4am is suffering from advanced sleep phase disorder. Is the difference between “person with a disorder” and “successful go-getter” really about the actual times they wake up, or is it about the context?

Maybe the real difference is that Michelle Gaas and Howard Schultz wake up early so they can do more work, while many of the elderly people with advanced sleep phase disorder become work as soon as they open their eyes.

When we obsess about a person’s sleep, we forget about the real problem: the work we have to do every moment this person is awake. We forget that sundowning and the witching hour are both emotionally draining ordeals. We say “He won’t settle” when we mean is: “Someone I love is screaming at an ear-splitting volume for hours on end, and there’s nothing I can do to console him.” We say “She won’t sleep and I need a break” when what we mean is: “My mother yells abuse at me all evening, using foul language I never thought she even knew.”

I don’t know what hell is like. But imagine being in a room where a fire alarm is going off at ear-splitting volume. Your body is saying: “Emergency! Run!” but you know you can’t leave because it’s your job to be in this room. And the alarm isn’t a normal bell sound. It’s been fine-tuned to a frequency that will upset you more than anybody else who hears it. Oh, and the message the alarm is sending is that you’re a shitty failure because you can’t stop the alarm. Well…that’s basically what we call “sundowning” or “the witching hour”.

(With sundowning, there’s also the possibility of being physically attacked or having a fire or flood in your home. The advice about adjusting mealtimes and getting fresh air is almost comically inadequate when you understand that context.)

The obsession with sleep is driven by the desire for a break from what would be called abuse or torture if it was inflicted by people who have full agency. What if we stopped talking about naps and mealtimes and lighting and started asking why we expect parents and carers to just take that daily abuse and bear all the emotional costs of it?

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The politics of sleep

July 28, 2015

When I was a child, my mum worked as a childminder for a friend. Once she was annoyed with that friend for something she’d done, and she got back at her by… letting the friend’s younger child have a nap.

I was utterly confused by this. How could letting a tired child sleep be an act of revenge, rather than an act of kindness? (And how do you get revenge on one person by doing something to another person, anyway?)

I categorised it as just one of those things that didn’t make any sense now, but might make sense later. Along with my mum’s fear that her kids might doze off in the car on long journeys. Why did she keep waking us up by clapping her hands? Why wouldn’t she just let us sleep when we were tired and sleepy and there was nothing else to do?

As a young adult, I began to think about it a bit more critically. I formulated the concept of a “politics of sleep” after being seated on a delayed plane next to a grandmother who was trying very hard to get a happy, alert toddler to sleep. She needed him to be asleep for some reason, even though he clearly didn’t need to be asleep. He was interested in his surroundings and his toys. It was the mirror image of the situation where my mum needed me and my siblings to be awake.

The grandmother kept saying “Freddie! Do you want your bot-bot?” to tempt him to drink from the pool of oblivion (well, a plastic bottle which clearly had some kind of sleepy-making substance in it). But he was having too much fun. I couldn’t understand why she was so determined to make him sleep.

Freddie and his bot-bot made it clear to me that when adults try to manage the sleep of the children in their lives, it’s not necessarily about the child’s happiness or welfare. I realised it was about control. But I didn’t understand why for a long, long time.

I didn’t understand, because I didn’t understand that I was work.

My mum was waking us up in the car because she knew that if we snatched some sleep there, we would be fresher in the evening and we would want to stay up later. Waking us up was a pro-sleep, not an anti-sleep action. Or rather, it was about controlling our sleep. Because when we were awake, we were work for her.

When you’re a kid, you don’t get that. And I think it’s kind of a shock when you realise that as a child, your existence constitutes work for someone else. I suppose it’s part of the general shock of realising the world doesn’t revolve around you. You realise that trip to the playground isn’t about you – it’s to give your parents a break from you. That organised activity you do, whether it’s violin lessons or Sunday school or Cubs or whatever – your parents look forward to it as a break. Giving you structured time is as much about giving your parents the luxury of unstructured time as it is about the actual activity you’re doing.

But of course, when you’re hanging out at home, playing with your toys, watching telly, whatever – you think you’re just being. You don’t know you’re being work for someone. I didn’t realise this until I was an adult myself. And I wonder if there are some people who don’t even realise it until they have their own children.

Readers of this blog will know that I’m interested in identifying under-recognised or invisible work. Well, the politics of sleep is at least partly about invisible work. We try to control the sleep of others when we perceive that those other people’s existence constitutes work for us.

How was your night?

March 17, 2015

P G Wodehouse says that the first thing house guests ask each other the morning after a party is: “How was your night?” That was probably true up until about 2007. Now it’s: “What’s the wi-fi password?

I miss the slowly-starting mornings where you’d wake up on someone’s floor and talk about the dreams people had last night, or maybe the crazy things people got up to last night. It felt like dead time, waiting for a hangover to subside or the bathroom to be free or breakfast to happen. You’d swig tea or coffee and interesting conversations would start up. I always felt it was a time when you weren’t obliged to be sparkling or interesting, and that meant people could get to know each other better.

Now every guest has brought their phone and probably slept with it within reach. When they wake up, the first thing they’ll do is grab that phone. Because it’s “dead time”, so there’s no obligation to be properly social. But of course, focusing on your phone means it’s no longer really “dead time”.

I guess the phone has replaced the cigarette as a fix for someone who’s just woken up and wants to feel better before they put in any social effort. But sometimes I miss that first-thing-in-the-morning quietness of just hanging out.

The cult of early preserves the sumptuary laws

May 18, 2012

There’s a complex class aspect to our expectations about circadian rhythms. When you read a lot of 19th-century fiction, you realise that “people who come in the morning” is code for tradesmen, workers, people who aren’t social visitors as leisured as you are. The expectation persists to this day. That’s why so many blocks of flats have a general buzzer that will automatically let you in up to a certain time of day (usually noon) but then stop working. It’s for postal workers, deliveries, people who’ve come to fix stuff: basically modern-day tradesmen. If you want to get into a block of flats in the afternoon, you’d better be visiting a specific person (or unafraid of ringing lots of strangers’ buzzers until you get an answer). In other words, unless you fit the 19th-century expectation that an afternoon call is a social call, you’re forced into antisocial behaviour.

So. The morning is for “real” workers, people who “get their hands dirty” and whatever other bullshit cliches you want to spout. That’s the cult of early for you. Yes, there’s grudging respect for people who do night shifts, but unless you live in a town where night work is very common, there’s no culture of trying to show this respect by keeping quiet in the daytime.

Personally, I have the white-collar privilege of being able to work from home a lot of the time and choose my own hours. Yes, being responsible for planning my own workload is mentally tiring, but I fully acknowledge it’s a privilege. I’m judged and paid on the actual work I do, rather than having a boss who plays power games about controlling when they get to see my face. That is most definitely a privilege, and I appreciate it.

Yes, working from home does involve mental effort and discipline, because there’s no longer an easy, spatial way of separating home stuff and work stuff. I’ve read endless blog posts about how you can get into work mode by dressing in smart clothes, setting aside a room of your house for work (because naturally, everybody’s house is big enough to do that) and performing little start-the-day and end-the-day rituals. That’s fine, but I’m coming round to thinking that perhaps the smart thing would be not to separate them at all, but just to get the most out of both of them.

I recently read a blog post on productivity and willpower that suggests you’d be better off not getting dressed before you start work. I accept what the author says about willpower being a depletable resource. I’m not completely sure that she’s right about willpower being at its strongest first thing in the morning – does that work for night owls? But assuming she is right, homeworkers like me should stop getting dressed and ready first thing. Why use up your precious, depletable willpower on choosing a suit or blow-drying your hair when you could be tackling your actual work – the thing that matters? You can do the face-the-world stuff mid-morning and treat it as a break from work rather than as stuff to be done before your work can start.

Great from a productivity and happiness point of view. But are you strong enough to withstand the cultural pressures telling you to get dressed earlier? If you’re still in your pyjamas at 10am, you will have to withstand loaded comments from every “real” worker you encounter. And no, of course you are not safe from these comments in your own home unless you never receive any deliveries, never have any work done on your house, never have the boiler checked or the meter read, never forget to put the bin out and have to rush out with it when the binmen are already there.

The comments are mostly light-hearted teasing. But the message is: you are a useless, pampered aristocrat and you don’t know what real work is. Those Superman pyjamas might as well be a smoking-jacket and a monacle. Your real income doesn’t matter. Your real working hours don’t matter. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done any number of back-breaking “real” jobs in the past. You are the idle rich and that’s the end of the matter. And as with many jokes designed to reinforce cultural pressure, it’s very hard to argue without looking humourless.

In other words, the cult of early has preserved the sumptuary laws. They don’t have any legal force, of course, but un-codified expectations are often even harder to challenge than codified, legally binding ones. If you want the status of a worker, you must put some real clothes on.

Of course, this is about preserving someone else’s right to feel better about themselves by judging you. That’s why there’s not much you can do to stop being judged in this way, short of jacking in the freelance graphic design work and becoming a miner.

A little story to illustrate this: I used to subscribe to the “get dressed early and smartly” school of thought, so one day I opened the front door to a delivery driver in my work-from-home suit. His face cracked into the usual leer of thoroughly relished contempt and his first words to me were: “You haven’t been out, have you?” It took me a while to work out what he meant, which was a bit slow of me given that jokes about my laziness are the main topic of conversation I get from delivery drivers. He’d spotted a spider’s web woven across the front door, which was hard evidence that I was a lazy stay-at-home. With this guy, my smart clothes made no difference. My explanation of the concept of remote working made no difference. He just kept repeating “You haven’t been out”, amused and accusing. The subtext was so very obviously “I’ve caught you slacking!”

I closed the door on him while he was still cackling and then remembered: I had been out that day already. But I’d left the house by the back door, because I keep my bike in the back garden and this journey was by bike rather than on foot.

But the thing is: it didn’t matter. The fact that I actually had been out was no more relevant than the smart clothes or anything I said or the fact that I’d finished a difficult conference call to someone in a different timezone minutes before he knocked on my door. Nothing mattered. When people enjoy judging, they will keep on judging in the face of a huge heap of evidence that judging is not required. This is one instance where the “never apologise, never explain” thing actually applies. Just put on your metaphorical smoking jacket and close the door in his stupid fucking face.

The cult of sleeplessness

April 12, 2012

I’ve written about the cult of early and how early risers get cultural credit just for starting their day earlier than other people, even if they also finish earlier and get exactly the same amount done.

This is a problem because attributing extra productivity and moral worth to a person for something which has nothing to do with their actual productivity or moral worth is unfair and stupid. It’s a problem because a culture that disproportionately praises early birds is a culture in which many night owls are forced to adopt the wrong circadian rhythms for their bodies. Fighting your body to become an early bird boosts your productivity and job satisfaction about as much as wearing the wrong size shoes.

But it’s also a problem because it overlaps with an even more problematic cultural issue: the cult of sleeplessness. When Margaret Thatcher boasted of only needing five hours’ sleep a night while she was Prime Minister, her message was: “I am stronger than you, I am better than you, I am made to be a leader.” And people responded admiringly or disbelievingly, rather than shrugging and asking what on earth her sleep requirements have to do with her ability to run the country.

But just look at the kind of people who find it easy to wake at dawn, the kind of people who “naturally” don’t seem to need much sleep.

  • Babies
  • Toddlers
  • Older people who have retired from work
  • Some older children
  • (Presumably) the binmen who have cheery conversations with each other outside my house at 6am once a week
  • (Presumably) the early starters I know in blue-collar jobs

What do these people have in common? Freedom from responsibility. These are not people who have to make difficult decisions on a daily basis. They are not spending their waking and working hours planning, juggling and worrying. They either don’t work at all or they have their workday mapped out by someone else. I’m not saying that doing a full shift lifting recycling boxes isn’t hard work; I’m saying that it’s relatively stress-free hard work because all the difficult decisions are made for you in advance.

Some research suggests that decision-making depletes your willpower, and that, as the New York Times puts it, “we have a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control.” In other words, if your day involves a lot of decision-making, you need to rest in order to refill your mental reserves.

Most white-collar jobs involve planning your own time, negotiating with clients, colleagues and bosses, making work-related decisions and justifying those decisions as well as a thousand other smaller decisions like “do I go for a run at lunchtime?” and “how do I interpret this email? Is this person being aggressive or does it just come across that way? How do I respond neutrally?” And if you have other responsibilities on top of that, decisions merge with each other in a messy, stressful way. “If I go for a run at lunchtime tomorrow I’ll have to remember to bring a packed lunch because the only good place to run is in the opposite direction to the shops, so I’ll have to buy the stuff for a packed lunch today, but that’s difficult because I’m going to an after-work PTA meeting and when it’s over all the shops will be closed except my local corner shop and that’s a Tesco and I’m trying to boycott Tesco… but I could solve the problem by driving to work tomorrow, then I’ll have the car at lunchtime, but it just seems so wrong to drive to work in order to go running, but it’s not my fault we don’t have good public transport here, but I guess it is partly my fault because there was that meeting about it and I missed it…” You’re exhausted before you’ve even put your running shoes on.

The more responsibility you accept, the more rest you need. If you’re the kind of person who sees broken things in the world and wants to fix them, you need more rest than the person who ignores them because “they’re not my problem”. People who don’t need much sleep, by and large, are the kind of people who either don’t have much responsibility or refuse to worry abut the responsibility they do have.

Of course a toddler is keen to start the day if awake-time means cuddles, attention and worry-free play. And of course Thatcher didn’t need much sleep when she was Prime Minister, because as far as I can tell without ever having met the woman, self-doubt was not a problem for her. Her agenda was to dismantle and destroy: the welfare state, the NHS, the unions, the UK’s manufacturing industry. She didn’t lie awake worrying about it any more than your average toddler lies awake worrying about bashing the furniture.

Imagine a game where Team A just has to run around breaking everything they can while Team B has to prevent them from breaking things and take responsibility for fixing or putting up with whatever’s broken. Clearly Team B doesn’t get to stop unless Team A has stopped, and even then Team B is still dealing with the consequences of what Team A has done. Team B is anxious, Team A is just fine (especially since it’s Team B who has to bring the half-time oranges). In other words, Team A has lots of fun and power, while Team B has lots of responsibility but is forced into a reactive position without enough control over the situation or time to do what needs to be done. Which team is going to need more rest at the end of the game?

Being a selfish, destructive arsehole with little or no understanding of responsibility is much less tiring than behaving responsibly. If someone doesn’t need much sleep, it’s probably because they’re not doing their fair share of the worrying or the real work. They’re not to be praised or admired for it. Thatcher was basically a giant guilt-free toddler with a wrecking ball, having too much fun to go to bed. Is this at the root of the left-wing obsession with when she’ll finally be laid to rest?

Early birds v night owls

April 4, 2012

The cult of early isn’t just about deadlines: it’s also about the hours in which we choose to be awake and do things. In fact, I would argue it’s more about our daily routines than anything else.

A fictional example: Luke works 7am-3pm while Tom works 10am-6pm. They both spend eight hours at work, so assuming they take roughly the same amount of break time, they’re equal, right?

Anybody who’s ever worked in an office with flexitime will know this isn’t the case. In terms of hours worked, yes, they’re equal. In terms of smugness about hours worked, Luke wins hands down.

When Tom walks into the office at 10am, Luke is socially sanctioned to make comments about Tom’s “lateness”, whether that’s a jokey “Good evening” or a sardonic “Oh, you’ve finally made it in.” If Tom challenges the comments, on the grounds that he’s not actually late but just working a different shift pattern, Luke will say he was only joking and Tom will look as if he can’t take a joke.

If Tom tries to get his own back by commenting “Leaving us already?” or similar when Luke leaves at 3pm, he will get a self-righteous response along the lines of “I think you’ll find I’ve been here since 8am!” Quite often the early shift pattern is for childcare reasons, which means that criticism of the office early bird is effectively criticising working parents: dangerous territory.

I don’t know where the cult of early comes from. I understand why culturally, we associate the hours of darkness with unwholesome things: crime, witchcraft, antisocial behaviour and so on. But I don’t understand why so many people seem genuinely to believe that being “early to bed, early to rise” makes you a better, more productive person.

There is no moral dimension to our choice of waking and working hours. Do I need to say it again? There is no moral dimension to our choice of waking and working hours. Whether you are “good” or “bad”, hard-working or lazy, is not about your circadian rhythms. It is about who you are and what you do.

There is a theory that lustratory rituals actually encourage bad behaviour by encouraging a false sense of righteousness, a feeling that you are super-clean and can do no wrong. I wonder if it’s the same thing with early birds. If you belong to a culture that values earliness for its own sake, are you starting your hideously early day with the assumption that you’ve already “won”, that you don’t need to be as productive or as friendly as the colleague who’s currently still snoozing?