3 o’clock in the morning I have no idea where I am. The last two hours were empty, unknowable darkness.
I hear sounds like a medieval battlefield. Swords collide, horses gallop, people scream. I stagger forward, trying to figure it out. I’m so confused.
I’m in the apartment; my flat, I think. Completely dazed, hallucinating. I want to vomit. I look down at my cell phone: three missed calls, all from my wife, sleeping in the bedroom.
I’m exhausted. What the hell is going on.
I walk into the bedroom and wake my wife.
“Did you call me?”
“I heard you were leaving the house. Where have you been for the last two hours?”
I pause. Inside, I’m going crazy.
“I have no idea.”
He sleeps like Superman
It’s been almost 10 years since I tried to fall asleep in several stages. It was an unmistakable catastrophe.
Most people, including me these days, sleep in a “single-phase” pattern. Normal sleep. Parts from seven to eight hours, followed by 16 hours of waking hours.
Polyphase sleep is designed to divide this sleep pattern into parts that are easier to manage, reducing the amount of time spent napping. It’s usually a productivity hack: Eight hours is a long time to get out of gear. If you can sleep less and be just as effective, why not give it a try?
There are different types of polyphasic sleep schedules.
The “Everyman” schedule is the simplest. It allows for a three-hour sleep period, supplemented by three 20-minute naps during the day – effectively reducing eight hours of sleep to about four hours in total.
At the other end of the spectrum is a brutal “Uberman” schedule.
With the Uberman polyphase sleep schedule, large chunks of sleep are not allowed – just a 20-minute nap. The days are divided into periods of four hours. You stay awake for three hours and 40 minutes and then take a nap for 20 minutes. Then you do it again … and again … for as long as you can. That’s a total of two hours of sleep a day – if you sleep every second of your nap, which you probably won’t.
I tried that. My plan: Do an Uberman polyphase sleep schedule for one month.
I lasted a week.
When it comes to polyphase sleep, mileage tends to vary. There are reports of people doing this. After a transition period of about a week, they claim, your body adjusts and you get into a rhythm. Apparently a 20-minute nap sends you right into a complete REM sleep and you wake up, full of energy, ready for three hours and 40 minutes of hardcore productivity.
That didn’t happen to me. Not really.
Well, it is and it is not.
Initially, polyphasic sleep was relatively easy. Like a big trip abroad, sleeping in small amounts on a plane. You know that spaced sense of groggy, staggering from customs to picking up luggage like a zombie in search of a brain? That’s how I felt – at least for the first few days.
He also felt just a little cool. Being awake, playing video games, or working on side projects in the early hours of the morning, finding ways to wake up from sleep, like a small child being allowed to stay awake before bed. I quickly developed a disgusting pride in what I was doing. These norms, which the dead slept in their primitive patterns, could not comprehend what a feeling it had evolved beyond the need for regular sleep.
I was tired, of course, but the nap seemed to keep me going. I had two beds. One in the free bedroom of my apartment and an installation in the closet for storage at work. I remember my colleagues laughing as I crawled to my weird little closet, holding a live brown sleeping bag. The whole production was a lot of fun.
Until it was.
The first signs of a fight appeared about two days later. I remember walking along the platform on the way to work when – out of nowhere – I completely lost my balance. I stumbled and almost fell on the track. I left the station shaken. How did that happen? I thought I was cruising …
Later that night, I went for a walk in pitch darkness, exhausted and broken. I walked circles around the local park in the middle of a closed road, carrying the weight of what seemed like a complete depression. It was a strange, oppressive pressure that I had never felt before or since.
Everything was endless, incredibly huge. Invincible.
It’s hard to explain. When you sleep normally, the days have an end and a beginning. If you have a bad day, go to bed, put a blanket over your head and write it off. “Tomorrow is another day,” you tell yourself. With polyphasic sleep is no other day. The days are endless. I dramatically underestimated the impact of that.
I walked around the park, empty and empty, with a pair of dead eyeballs stuck in a submerged, retarded brain. I walked aimlessly in the dark, trying to stop myself from sobbing.
I didn’t laugh at jokes for days.
I was aware that jokes were being told. I understood the phrases. But the synapses associated with the required physical output were broken. I would tell my wife that I love her, out of obligation and instinct, but it would take a few seconds for those words to resonate. I would look in the mirror and feel detached from my facial features. My body did not belong to me. I controlled it like a rough puppeteer.
But then, around the fifth day, I had a breakthrough.
I woke up. I felt … better. At work that day I saw a joke on Twitter and he laughed out loud. I went home, hugged my wife and was pleased. I was almost overwhelmed, euphoric that I was reconnected to my body. I started laughing. Tears streamed down my face.
“I feel normal again,” I said. My wife shook her head.
“You forgot what is normal.”
Just a few days later, everything fell apart.
I had a hard night. I was physically fair very tired. The renewed energy I felt just a few days ago evaporated. I didn’t necessarily struggle with the psychological pain of it all, I just – on a very primitive level – thought it impossible to stay awake.
My old apartment building had a horrible gym in the basement. Things got so bad that I went downstairs and walked endlessly on the treadmill, trying to wait for the waves of exhaustion. I had only one goal in mind: to get to the next sleep … to get to the next nap … to get to the next sleep.
At 2 in the morning – somehow – I got to my next sleep.
I was only supposed to sleep for 20 minutes, but my next conscious thought happened two hours later, around 4:30 in the morning.
I woke up with the energy of someone who knew – without even looking at his watch – that he was late for work. I got up immediately, disoriented. I looked at the phone. Three missed calls and two text messages from my wife:
“Where are you?”
“Did you leave the house?”
Both texts were received at a time when I was not consciously awake.
What the hell happened? Did I leave the house in a state of fugue?
I started hallucinating. I was in a panic, but I calmed down quickly. I can get over this, I told myself. I can reset. I just have to get to the next scheduled sleep. To get my attention, I tried to make a video.
During my experiment with polyphasic sleep, I made a video every night, talking about my mental and physical condition. The video I made that night is hard to watch. I stutter, I’m clearly confused. I’m barely lucid and I see myself – in real time – trying to figure out what the hell just happened.
During the video, the alarm, an alarm I didn’t remember setting, began to ring at full volume.
Who set that alarm? Who is hell to set that alarm?
I turned off the video and grabbed the phone. That’s when I saw it. Someone – most likely me in the last two hours when I was was unconscious – got into my phone and changed all the alarms I painstakingly set to track my sleep. All the alarms were completely different.
It’s almost as if a Tyler Durden-style secondary self has deliberately tried to sabotage me, in the style of Severance, in an attempt to stop this stupid sleep experiment.
They were successful.
At that moment – blurry, confused, sobbing – I decided to stop. At 5:04 a.m., I walked into my bedroom, curled up next to my wife, and fell into the deepest sleep of my life. I slept for more than 13 hours. The relief was like nothing I had ever experienced.
My sleep experiment is over.
In the weeks and months that followed, I often imagined myself trying polyphase sleep again. It seemed like an unfinished business.
I made a few obvious mistakes that, looking back, made it difficult for me to switch from a regular sleep pattern to an Uberman schedule. Then I dipped about six cans of Pepsi Max a day. I didn’t give my body time to cope with the caffeine withdrawal, and that almost certainly made it harder for me to sleep on command.
But looking back, the whole thing looks ridiculous. A pointless challenge driven by male ego shit and a pointless need for a “bodyhack”. Armed toxic masculinity in its purest form.
She did create a good story though.
About five years after my experiment, a TV producer came across my live blogs and invited me on TV to talk about my experiences. It was an Australian panel show. They invited people from all walks of life to talk about their strange sleeping experiences, along with experts in the field.
When it was my turn to tell my story, a doctor – a 20-year veteran of sleep studies – began to shake his head in disapproval. When I started talking about my hallucinations, he put his head in his hands in complete disgust.
There were men and women on that panel with real sleep problems. People with insomnia, teenagers who dropped out of school due to abnormal sleep patterns they could not control. There were people struggling with narcolepsy and night terrors. And then there was me: LifeHack Bro who fucked up with sleep to make him laugh. I felt like an idiot and a fraud.
That night, after the show, I promised myself that I would never try polyphase sleep again.
Fortunately, I had no long-term consequences from trying Uberman’s schedule. Within a week, everything returned to normal.
but i never, ever again took sleep for granted.