— Life with DSPS



“Are you abnormal?”

Delayed Sleep Phase Syndrome (DSPS), like Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), is a disturbance of the body’s processing of serotonin.

It’s been the bane of my existence.

The current Wikipedia article is pretty good.  There are a half dozen other articles on similar topics — “Morningness,” “Eveningness,” “Lark,” “Night owl” — that are all hopelessly naive.  The one I’ve linked to includes frank indications of the difficulties people face with this disorder.

The common trait of these people is that it’s exceptionally difficult for them to keep any appointment earlier than 10:00 a.m.  Actually, “exceptional” is an understatement; it’s more like “off the hook.”

It is rare, and it’s hard for most normal people to believe any such disorder exists.  I myself never supposed it has a physiological basis, until my brother gave me the book No More Sleepless Nights, by Peter Hauri and Shirley Linde, which has a short chapter.

Some quotes from the Wikipedia article:

  • “About 0.15% of adults (3 per 2,000) have DSPD.”
  • “Persons with obsessive-compulsive disorder are also diagnosed with DSPD at a much higher rate than the general public.[50]
  • “Practitioners of sleep medicine point out the dismally low rate of accurate diagnosis of the disorder, and have often asked for better physician education on sleep disorders.[19]

My past

The teacher

In my years teaching school, it was absolutely mandatory that I arrive no later than 8:30; I normally arrived long before.  I did it, but there was a price: throughout this time, I had severe issues with authority.  For me, the two are somehow linked.

I constantly felt that my immediate supervisor was persecuting me.  Now, colleagues would respond to my distress by accurately pointing out features of that person’s incompetence; but this only served to obscure that the real problem was mine.  My supervisor changed; the scenario did not.  I moved to a different school, and the problem moved with me.  Now I could not avoid admitting that I’d carried it with me.

My supervisor at the new school was known to be abusive towards certain kinds of people — to the extent that she had a 60% turnover of staff from year to year.  Knowing this did not equip me with the wisdom to change her darkness into light.  I became utterly emotionally disabled, walked off that job, and did not try to work again for two years.

I could not imagine myself teaching anything, anywhere, ever again.  I sought work in a wholly different field.

The secretary

The employer with whom I had longest tenure as a direct hire, tolerated my chronic lateness because my performance otherwise was so outstanding.  I was there for ten years.  The next ten years that I worked for temporary agencies, many clients made clear that they’d tolerate my lateness as a “temp” for the same reason; but that until the lateness were corrected, I could never be a direct hire.

The permanent worker makes 50% more than the temp, for the same performance.

Typical of those performances:

On one long-term temp assignment at a major, prestigious law firm, I was assigned to its Corporate Department.  In a pinch, one day they moved me, for the day, to Creditors’ Rights.  I finished my first batch of letters and put them on the ledge.  The lawyer came out of his office and signed them all, just like that.  I was astonished.  I said, “Aren’t you going to proof (that is, proofread) them?”  He said, “Your reputation has preceded you.”

My first day working for a different agency, at a different major, prestigious law firm, the agency called me at mid-morning to say someone had complained that I was half an hour late.  Well, they hadn’t yet seen my work product.  In the event, I was half an hour late to that assignment every day for the next nine months, and they ever complained again.

I won’t dwell just now on the guilt and shame involved with being late to work like that every day; the extraordinary lengths I went to, to try to correct it; the resentment (Who can question it?) of co-workers who, after all, scrambled every day to get to work on time — and succeeded — whereas I could only scramble likewise every day and fail.

Thus the scenario of “A short route to agony.”

The grad student

Christmas 1990, age 35, I left Baltimore to attend graduate school out-of-state.  Faculty and classmates learned that for an 8:30 class, I would typically appear at 9:00.

It was during this time that I was first medicated, with Prozac, for depression and OCD.  For several weeks, all those symptoms disappeared, as my DSPS did also.  Other issues appeared.

One morning I was running to get to an 8:30 class, and would have been on time; but on the way, I had explosive diarrhea.  I was compelled to go back to the dorm and change clothes and wash.

When I arrived in class at 9:00, only one seat was left, immediately to the right of the guest lecturer.  I took it.  He turned to me and said, “You don’t need to be here.  You’re half an hour late.”  He didn’t know: after all I’d gone through to get there, nothing was going to dislodge me from that seat.

A female classmate answered him, “For him, that’s normal.”

He turned to me and said, “Are you abnormal?”

Lips sealed, I merely nodded quickly.

The job search

Those who fully adapt to life with DSPS typically do one of two things: either they become self-employed, or they find night work.

I did not have the personality for self-employment.  I needed to have tasks given to me.  If I tried to employ myself, I’d starve.

Now, I actually love night work.  Such was my first job out of college.  It’s a joy to see dawn break just as I’m leaving the job.  Moreover, the support centers (secretarial pools) of many major law firms actually operate around the clock.  But no such opportunities — or any other suitable night work opportunities — appeared in my job listings.

Present and future

DSPS has not been an issue during my homelessness.  Life at the shelter where I stay is highly regimented: you will get up at 4:15, whether you like it or not, though I usually manage to cheat until 4:30.

I still make no appointment earlier than 10:00 a.m.

I could worry a lot about whether it will reappear once I get my own place; whether it will interfere again with my employability.  But who knows what sort of job I’ll get, and what its hours will be?  I am best and wisest to focus on the here-and-now, and what I can do for myself today.

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