Off the Clock: Embracing My Abnormal Circadian Rhythms

Brianna Albers avatar

by Brianna Albers |

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balance, normal, resisting, intersectional disability advocacy, self image

I’ve always been a night owl. It’s a running joke in our family: My dad and I stay up until 11 p.m. or midnight, while my mom has a strict schedule comprising 8:30 p.m. bedtimes. She gets far too much enjoyment out of our morning grumpiness. If she’s in a good mood, we avoid her, knowing she’ll sing and dance and generally be far too awake for 9 in the morning — all to get a rise out of us.

The overachiever in me, the one who thrives on the Pomodoro technique, to-do lists, and a lingering sense of accomplishment, yearns to get up at dawn, but I’ve long since given up on that notion. It’s just not how I’m wired. My friends get up at 7 a.m. to start their workday, knowing I won’t be around until noon — 11 a.m. if I’m feeling motivated. People take jabs at my sleep schedule — I don’t know what I’d do with myself if I could sleep 10 hours straight — but I brush it off. They don’t know what it’s like to live with an illness.

Over the past few years, I’ve settled into a schedule. Get up at 10 a.m. and go to bed at 11:30 p.m. — midnight if it’s a holiday. My body loves it. Occasionally my brain throws a fit — I feel like a child, staying up late and sleeping in. But it works for me. It’s my optimum, so I’ve tried to embrace the abnormality of my circadian rhythms — “the physical, mental, and behavioral changes that follow a daily cycle.” My lungs are weak, my muscles atrophied — I don’t know why I expect my biological clock, of all things, to function regularly.

I’m out of school for the next couple of months, so I’ve been experimenting with schedules. A book I read recently encouraged exploration of circadian rhythms. An individual’s rhythms are controlled by the biological clock and can influence sleep-wake cycles, hormone release, digestion, body temperature, and more. The author argued that instead of trying to shape your biological clock into something it’s not, you should pay attention to your body’s natural rhythms.

My circadian rhythms are, in a word, abnormal. I sleep in and stay up late. I struggle with fatigue and chronic pain, so my energy levels are limited — my workday looks nothing like my mom’s. I don’t have as much flexibility during the school year, but now that I’m off for the summer, I’m leaning into my rhythms and embracing my body’s second nature. I still have things to do, but I’m not as picky about when it gets done, so long as it does.

Take this column, for example. I wanted to submit the draft around 2 p.m., leaving me several hours to work on my book, but I didn’t sit down until 5 p.m. As much as I hate to admit it, I never write my column in the afternoon; it’s always in the evening, before or after dinner. But it still gets done! So why am I fighting my creative rituals? Because they don’t align with my preconceived notion of work in the 21st century?

My goal this summer is to finish my book. I’ve spent the last week berating myself for mornings wasted online. Instead of writing, I’m replying to emails (necessary), or networking (necessary), or curating Pinterest boards (less essential, but still an important part of my creative process). Finally, after hours of dragging my feet, I get started around 2 p.m. Even if I cross everything off my to-do list, I’m still angry about the lost time when in reality that time is simply part of my rhythm. It takes me a couple of hours to wake up; I do my best work between 2 and 6 p.m. I should be utilizing that, instead of grieving a biological clock I never had in the first place.


Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today, or its parent company, BioNews Services, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.


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