In her 2016 Modern Love essay “The Night Girl Finds a Day Boy,” the writer Amanda Gefter explains what it is like to live — and date — with delayed sleep phase syndrome, a circadian rhythm disorder.
For most of her adulthood, Ms. Gefter has lived a nocturnal life: She wakes up around 4 p.m., works as a freelance physics writer throughout the night, and goes to sleep around 8 a.m. For the most part, this schedule worked well — until she fell in love with a man who kept more traditional hours.
Daniel Jones and I recently caught up with four writers whose essays inspired episodes in the new season of the “Modern Love” television series on Amazon Prime Video. Below is my conversation with Ms. Gefter, whose episode stars Zoë Chao and Gbenga Akinnagbe. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can also read my interview with Katie Heaney (“Am I Gay or Straight? Maybe This Fun Quiz Will Tell Me”), and Daniel Jones’s interviews with Mary Elizabeth Williams (“A Second Embrace, With Hearts and Eyes Open”) and Andrew Rannells (“During a Night of Casual Sex, Urgent Messages Go Unanswered”).
Miya Lee: When did you notice that your sleep cycles were different from other peoples’?
Amanda Gefter: My parents noticed it first. When I was an infant, I would sleep until 11 a.m. while most babies, I think, are up at 7 a.m. My mother was excited to have a baby that would sleep in. But as I got older, I was forced on to a normal schedule because of school and everything, and I was tired all of the time.
I recently went back through my diaries and found an entry from when I was 9 years old. I wrote, “I can’t wait to grow up and live on ‘Alter Hours,’” as in “alternative.”
When did you get the official diagnosis of delayed sleep phase syndrome?
I didn’t get the diagnosis until I was 33 and dating Justin. It never struck me as a problem until then.
It wasn’t a problem because you had the flexibility to live on “Alter Hours” as an adult?
Yeah. College was the beginning of being able to live on a much more natural schedule for me. I remember looking at the course catalog and only choosing classes that met after 3 p.m. And I didn’t seem weird because everyone in college was partying at night anyway.
My father and his mother — my grandmother — lived very nocturnal lives. When my father was growing up, my grandmother would get him and his sisters ready for school in the morning, and then go to bed. Then she would wake up when they got home from school. So she was on a schedule very similar to mine.
How did you make social connections as an adult, on your nocturnal schedule?
It worked itself out for a long time. Almost everyone I dated before Justin was either a bartender, D.J. or someone that worked late. And my friends skewed toward people who stayed up later because that’s who would be around.
Does Justin work 9 to 5?
Yeah. When I met people out in the world, I met them at night, but I met Justin on a dating app. So it was like meeting someone from a foreign land who lived on a drastically different schedule.
Did you say that you were nocturnal on the dating app?
I used the phrase “extreme night owl.” He saw that, but I think he interpreted that as what seemed extreme to him, which is not extreme to me. And his profile said, “Message me if you want to talk until the wee hours of the night.” So I thought, “Great!” Ha. I think we each went into our relationship with slight misconceptions.
And when did those misconceptions come to a head?
Things came to a head somewhat quickly because Justin loves being out in the day, getting breakfast and walking around in the sunshine. I can manage that for a day or two but then I’m exhausted and I need to sleep. In the beginning, he tried to stay up late and I tried to get up early. And we ended up a little resentful and a lot tired. We didn’t know if we could make it work.
How did that feel?
It was heartbreaking because we are so compatible; we connect so deeply on an intellectual level. That was the only big problem that we had. And it’s a strange problem to live, you know, two subway stops apart and feel like you live in different worlds.
So what did you do?
When it became clear that it was going to be an issue, Justin asked, “Well, is it possible to change your schedule? Like, could you go to bed early or could you get up earlier?” And that’s when I started truly asking: Why can’t I? What’s actually happening? So I went to sleep specialists and doctors. And that’s when I got the official diagnosis of delayed sleep phase disorder, which was very clear. It was the most textbook case.
Do you think there are any major misconceptions about your syndrome?
I think the main misconception, even by people who know it’s a disorder, is that on some level you could change it if you just wanted to go to bed early. After I published my essay, I heard from a lot of people with delayed sleep disorder who felt seen.
It makes me realize that there are so many people who have this disorder who can’t live on their own schedule, who just have to conform to society’s schedule. And they are walking around massively sleep deprived and miserable. There’s a lot of understanding in the world for certain disabilities, but this is an invisible one.
What actually prompted you to write your essay?
I wrote my essay the day after Justin proposed. We had moved in together at that point — and that had made all the difference. I give Justin all the credit for that. He sent me this beautiful email which said, “Let’s stop trying to force this. Let’s just take advantage of the times when we overlap.”
And living together allowed you to overlap more?
Living together is a way to have our lives intertwined and to let each other live the way we need to live and love each other from different ends of the clock.
He proposed on a beach and it was 2:00 in the morning, and we were basically the only people there. It was so meaningful to me that he had proposed during my day — that this thing that had almost broken us, the biggest challenge in our relationship, had led to this beautiful moment where it felt like we had the entire universe to ourselves.
How has married life been? What have your schedules been like?
I go to bed around 9 a.m., sometimes later. He wakes me when he’s finished with his work day. We actually bought two wall clocks set to our own times to remind each other where we are in our days, because we often have very different energies.
We eat together — his dinner, my breakfast. I could be in my pajamas chugging my morning coffee while he is in his work clothes pouring himself an evening glass of wine. Then we hang out together until he goes to bed and I start my work day.
Because our time together is at night, we often sit outside and watch the stars. The other night we saw the rings of Saturn and the moons of Jupiter through our telescope. We take walks through our neighborhood in Somerville, Mass. and see coyotes and night-blooming flowers.
It’s all rather magical, but it remains a big challenge too. There are so many simple things that we can’t do together and it can be hard and lonely. But I’m not sure our challenge is fundamentally different from anyone else’s: It’s about how to love each other and at the same time remain true to ourselves.
Amanda Gefter, a physics writer in Somerville, Mass., is the author of “Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn.” Miya Lee is an editor of Modern Love and co-host of the Modern Love podcast.
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