Years of working nights taught me everything I need to know.
If you ever want to totally step outside society, get a job on the night shift. For years I went to my TV news job at 1:30 am, passing drunk people stumbling out of night clubs in full swing. Sometimes I went to work at 3:00 am, walking through a city of 8 million people and never seeing another soul.
At 5:00 pm I covered my head with a pillow to block out the light, the smell of pizza from the next room, the clink of beer bottles, and the laughter of my roommates as they watched “Friends” with the pretty girls downstairs.
As a daysleeper, even after a full eight hours, I never felt rested; I felt sick and wrong, like an elephant shot with a poisoned dart. I fell forward through my day, fueled by bitter coffee and the cigarettes I’d started smoking.
When work was over, the sickness persisted through an exhausted, joyless dinner and dry-eyed TV watching before I proclaimed emptily that I was going to sleep. I felt ill and it would be hours before my wife was ready for bed. Sex was out of the question.
If I got a drink after work, it’d be at 10:30 am or noon. Serving me a beer, one bartender remarked, “You should be drinking coffee!” Alcohol had dizzying effect, sending me reeling into sweaty, listless sleep and taking a punishing toll on the following workday. Swearing off weekday drinking, I hit Friday night like a freight train, taking vengeance in my emancipation from the prison of a 5:00 pm bedtime. My friends were awed, and a little scared.
Saturday and Sunday were the only days I felt rested, really alive. But as a consequence of normal rest, Sunday afternoon brought a mounting sense of dread. I knew sound rest would be almost impossible. Perhaps an hour into deep sleep the 1:30 am alarm would buzz. I heard R.E.M.’s “Daysleeper” in 1998 and it captured the feeling perfectly.
“I cried the other night / I can’t even say why
I see the day in newsprint fray / my night is colored headache gray
Don’t wake me”
Being on the graveyard shift did make me and my fellow shifters amateur experts in the psychology of sleep. Though unscientific, the lessons I learned still help me sleep every night.
Here are the best ones.
There’s a time and a place.
The time is 10:00 pm – 5:00 am. That’s when science tells us we get the most restful sleep. Try to get as much of your sleep during those hours as you can. Daylight tells your brain it should be awake. So do mobile screens, which are tinted blue to look like the sun. Staring too long at them can wake you back up again. A cool app called f.lux addresses this, by removing the blue light from your screen during nighttime (or whenever you tell it to).
You can bank sleep.
My big sleep nights were Friday and Saturday, when there was no alarm set and I was getting that sweet 10–5. That rest could see me through at least until Tuesday; sometime midweek I’d need to come home and just collapse until it was time to get up for work again. I stored good sleep like a chipmunk stores nuts. I also learned I could operate at full efficiency with no sleep at all for 24 hours (but not longer).
Don’t fuck with sedatives. They can cause depression and worse. Melatonin, on the other hand, is a hormone your body actually makes but sometimes needs more of. It’s a godsend, but you have to understand how it works. It doesn’t make you sleepy?—?it tells your brain that the time to sleep is NOW, when circadian rhythms are trying to tell you that bedtime is several hours away. You don’t need much. I started on just 1 mg, then backed off to 0.5 mg. I only go above that if my brain needs major recalibration, due to time zone change or a change in shift. I used sublingual tablets, which are quickly absorbed by the blood vessels in your mouth. They can be hard to find, so I just take a normal pill and put it under my tongue. In addition to the hormone itself, it’s a physical cue to my brain that it’s time to feel tired.
Not long-term, anyway. Coffee’s never kept me from sleeping, but nicotine sure has. Four hours before bed, stop doing all of it. Getting drunk might help you sleep for a few hours, but then you’ll either wake up, or you’ll have a hangover.
Space rock and white noise.
I bought a white-noise machine in 2009 and it rocked my world. Not only did the sound of rain or waves block distracting noises, it was the same noise every time?—?another cue to my brain that it was time to sleep. Now every phone has a white noise app. I’ve tried most of them. Relax Melodies is the best. You can even mix the sounds: My killer combo is rain, heavy rain and thunder.
Space music is a genre of ambient music pioneered by Stephen Hill. It has hypnotic melodies, no distracting words and no beat. The best part is that if you wake up for a drink of water, it’ll keep you in that fuzzy state until you fall back into bed again. The best station is Soma FM Deep Space One. They don’t run ads.
Seek and destroy distraction.
If a thought is flipping back and forth in your brain, it’s keeping you awake, Just get up and write it down. Or book the ticket, or send the message. Once you resolve it, that thought will be gone. Trust me: It’s what I’m doing right now.