At some point in the '90s, Howard Stern took pity on the kids of Pelham, New York. Or maybe he mocked us. Regardless, we got his attention. Before the shock jock restricted his uncomfortably candid interviews to Sirius, he and other New York morning-show hosts let tri-state area students know which school districts had snow days. For the K-through-12 crowd, no three words fostered a state of bliss quite so well as “Pelham is...closed.”
We didn’t hear those words a lot. Our two-square-mile stretch of suburbia was too small for a school bus system. And those yellow vessels of bullies and bologna sandwiches, we learned, came with at least one perk: more snow days. Unless a blizzard immobilized the region, we grabbed our scarves and jester hats and headed to homeroom. Our track record was sad enough for Stern to pause during one snow-day status update and point out, with a chuckle, that of course Pelham was open. Predictability aside, I was always disappointed.
Perhaps that's why “it’s a snow day” became my aspirational justification (some would call it a “lie”) for not getting out of bed. Through a slurred voice and fastened eyelids, I’ve sworn to people, to my dog and even to myself (or to no one, depending on how you see it), that class or work was canceled due to inclement weather, regardless of the season.
I’m not a transparent, indiscriminate liar. I’m just a lifelong sleep drunk.
Until I plant my feet on the floor and stick contacts in my eyes, I operate under a fog thick enough to put San Francisco to shame. If I think I can steal another minute tangled in my comforter, I will say whatever seems like it might buy me time.
I’m already up.
I showered last night.
I have breakfast plans (?)
Trust me. I don’t have to go.
Of course, no one should trust me. With such a diminished regard for facts, logic and the welfare of others, I’m no more committed to the truth than a Trump-in-the-headlights. Instead, I’m a Theresa-in-the-morning, with delusions of resuming sleep, not becoming president.
The term for this state of exaggerated grogginess, disorientation, confusion and poor coordination is sleep inertia. I prefer the cheekier name “sleep drunkenness” because the discombobulation that consumes my mind and body after my alarm blares so closely resembles inebriation.
Who but a drunk person gets dressed, puts a leash on her dog and walks a block in 30-degree weather before realizing she needs her glasses? The same person, it should be mentioned, who can't read anything on her computer screen from more than six inches away.
Sleep inertia, research suggests, happens when people wake up during deep sleep.
The grogginess, some experts believe, is a product of leftover adenosine, the drowsiness-causing brain chemical that builds up over the course of the day. Caffeine drives down adenosine levels — hence the concept of a “coffee nap.” By most estimates, the sleep-inert drag for 15 to 30 minutes, but some experts put the upper limit at two hours. My inertia typically renders me incompetent a half hour before it lifts.
I’m well aware of the behavior that sleep drunks should avoid. I’m not supposed to press snooze. Or wake up to the ear-deafening brrrrrrings of four scattered alarms. I know that I should get enough, consistent sleep. And that I need to time naps strategically — no more than 15 minutes! — or avoid midday dozing altogether. Waking up after the 20-minute mark, when people start falling into deep sleep, increases the likelihood of rising into inertia. But it's harder than you think.
Thanks to the crafty human brain, I can get pretty far on autopilot. Sometimes, I snap into lucidity while I’m brushing my teeth or applying mascara, only to discover I’ve successfully performed my morning routine with minimal cognizance. From years of fighting the A.M. affliction, I’ve picked up a few (entirely non-scientific) tricks:
1. I don’t do black-out shades.
If sleep (or adenosine) is the booze, light-blocking curtains are the car keys. I have trouble falling asleep, and find that I sleep most soundly in the early morning. When the sun rises, I’m less than primed to perk up. Sun streaming through my window hurts my eyes and makes me sweat, but it also helps me leave my bed.
2. I go to bed on a somewhat empty stomach.
When I fall asleep dreaming of breakfast, I tend to wake up psyched for a smoothie, and find it easier to forge through the inertia motivated by the taste of strawberry and protein. It’s all about incentives.
3. If I’m exceptionally underslept, no snooze for me.
I typically scatter my alarms and press snooze liberally. But, when I’m run ragged, I pick one ringtone and leave my phone just far enough out of reach that I need to uncoil my body to turn it off. This works when I’m severely exhausted for three reasons: I’m tired enough to fall asleep despite feeling anxious that I haven’t set backup alarms. Without said backup alarms, I’m fueled by just enough panic to overcome the inertia. And, when I’m operating under extreme fatigue, I tend to incorporate extra beeps and buzzes into my dreams, “answer” my phone alarm and unknowingly silence my phone (or even unplug a separate alarm).
Yes, I’m well-aware that tricks can’t change my natural disposition. When I first wake up, I have roughly the same drive to take on the world as a Beanie Baby. But, tricks can help me combat it.
Once the adenosine clears away, I’ll readily admit that I never thought today was a snow day. But I can’t speak for tomorrow. Ask me in the morning.