I've Become Nocturnal
(And it's actually *helping* my mental health and priorities)
One of my New Year’s resolutions of the past has always been what I suspect is a real common one, right up there with going to the gym and eating better: wake up earlier.
The benefits of waking up early have been lauded from every mountaintop and lifestyle vlogger’s YouTube channel: You’ll be healthier, wealthier and wiser. Your depression will be cured. You’ll get so much done; you’ll be a productivity machine. Every successful person and multimillionaire ever wakes up at 6 at the latest. I can’t count the number of articles I’ve read or videos I’ve watched full of tips for getting up at 5 or 6 am every day- even days off! I stared wistfully at footage of people on their balconies watching the dawn, freshly showered, steaming coffee mugs in hand. I was convinced if only I could master this skill, I would truly begin to manifest the life I wanted.
And I tried, many times. A countless number of Januarys have begun with me setting an ambitious alarm for 5 a.m., and struggling through a day that felt endless. The mornings always felt so good (after the first fifteen excruciating minutes, that is). Dawn was my favorite time of day, and there was something so special and peaceful about being up to see it. But it never stuck. Thriving on six or seven hours of sleep wasn’t for me, and it was hard for me to regularly get to bed as early as nine pm- even if I was tired, there were often things to do.
2022 rolls around and for the first time, ‘get up early’ is not going to be on my resolutions list. For the first time, it’s not only hard, but impossible for me.
In November 2021 I got my first ever night shift job, more from necessity than choice. My average shift is from 6:30 pm until 5 in the morning. The first week was rough- I needed to down energy drinks constantly to stay awake. The lack of blackout curtains in my bedroom window was a problem that needed fixing, stat. In order to keep myself from really fucking up my body’s rhythm, I decided I would keep a nocturnal schedule even on days when I didn’t work. I was a little apprehensive about this. It was getting colder and the days were shorter, and as someone who already struggles with depression, I’d heard how a night schedule really exacerbated the issue in so many people.
So I was surprised when after a month of this new schedule, not only was I not any more depressed than the season normally called for (I started to suspect it was the cold rather than the dark that affected me, since I was only getting one or two hours of daylight), but I was actually reaping some benefits from my new schedule.
I can’t tell you how weird it is to show up for Christmas dinner with your morning coffee still in your hand- it’s something you just have to experience for yourself. And on the days when I met friends for dinner, it felt so odd to be eating heartier things like meat and potatoes shortly after waking. But as weird as it was, it’s ended up helping my digestion overall.
I’ve struggled with acid reflux at least a couple times a week for the past decade. Now that I often eat my most social and biggest meal of the day much earlier, I’ve been able to avoid having this problem- in fact, it hasn’t happened to me yet on the new schedule. Possibly adding to this is the fact that nocturnal me drinks a hell of a lot less. My old time to kick back a couple-or a few- drinks is now only a while after I wake up. When others are having their cocktails, I’m still working on my coffee. It’s too “early” for me- and somehow pouring myself a drink at 12 am hits a lot different than doing so at 5 pm. So most nights, the desire doesn’t arise at all and I go without.
There are mental benefits, too. Having a dependable creative time is so important to me. When I worked an early job, the only time I could dependably steal for myself that I knew wouldn’t throw up any barriers was the time before anyone else woke up. This was a huge factor in wanting to wake up as early as possible. If I had a story I was working on, or a project to work on, I felt like I had to steal my time- to make my day even longer in order to fit it in.
Being nocturnal, I find that all of my obligations and distractions are always over by midnight or so. Beyond the threshold of that time, no one’s asking me to go anywhere or do anything. I don’t even receive texts. And I still have hours to be awake. On my days off of my night job, this ‘twilight zone’ has become optimal creative time for me. But not only is it good production time, it’s good relaxing time. It’s guaranteed me time, five hours a day for half a week.
It’s weird how much of my day as a diurnal being felt socially pressured, formed by ideas of what I was ‘supposed’ to be doing even when I had no mandated schedule. There were appropriate times to do things; time was very real and always of the essence. If I woke up at 10 am instead of 8, it was a ‘wasted’ day, I missed my window. Now if I wake up at 5 pm instead of 3… so what? I still have my ‘me’ hours. Taking a nap at 2 pm used to feel lazy, like I was worried what others would think of me. Taking a nap at 2 am is…whatever, no one’s here to ‘see’ it. This restful ‘stolen’ time is like a liminal space for me in which I feel released from obligation. No one is ‘watching’, I am free. Time isn’t real. Ad nauseam. It makes me care less about what I ‘should’ be doing or how long I take to do it.
This loosening up around ideas of productivity and ritual frees me up to get out of my own way creatively. It’s also helped me to distinguish and to prioritize the pursuits I really want to focus on and throw out the rest. This New Year’s Eve was the first in as long as I can remember that I didn’t have an intimidating laundry list of resolutions to implement. I arrived at the ball drop (which I was WIDE awake for, ha ha) with nothing more than the vague resolve to be more present and intentional.
I know a schedule like mine would not be for everyone. I’m single and have few responsibilities outside of myself, which obviously makes it a lot easier for me to live this way. Nocturnal life is also a very isolated life, but I’m an extremely introverted person. And though I love the warmth, I’m generally unfond of the sun (so there will be no unanswered longing for a summer tan here). Eventually I’ll likely go back to a more normal schedule due to necessity- this ‘day’ job won’t be forever- but for now, here’s to a 2022 spent in the dark. A year of meditative time to myself while the house sleeps around me. A year of letting go: of doing less overall, but more of what matters.
Oh, and a year full of witnessing some truly breathtaking dawns before bed.