I Can’t Sleep With or Without You (My iPhone)


The closest pic I could find to my own beloved phone and case

Sung to the tune of the U2 song “With or Without You.”

In some of my recent goals posts, I’ve mentioned a goal to sleep without my phone. This has been an ongoing struggle for me ever since I got an iPhone (and I was just telling a friend that I got one the day they became available to Verizon people), and in different iterations even before then. I thought it would make sense to give some background on this habit that I’ve struggled to break.

Because the thing is, I know all the things. I know that you’re supposed to get off electronics before going to bed. I know taking the phone into the bed with me, scrolling endlessly, listening to podcasts, having the blue light in my face (and I hold the phone much closer to my face than the average person, thanks legal blindness) is all bad. I know when I fall asleep with the phone, my sleep is worse. I don’t sleep as deeply. I wake up more often to pee or just to wake up, most likely because I’m still in the lighter stages of sleep. I probably miss out on a lot of deep sleep and all the goodies that it provides. I even read somewhere, years ago, that screens in bed has been linked to weight gain.

Usually, I’m swayed by evidence and rational arguments like this. I’m a science girl. The evidence about the importance of sleep is convincing, as is the argument against screens in bed. My own anecdotal experiments back it up completely. We’ve had many wellness lectures in med school about how fundamentally important sleep is, about how once you hit a certain amount of time awake it’s the equivalent of being drunk, about the importance of good sleep hygiene. I know from my experience that crappy sleep and being chronically exhausted derails a lot of my best intentions towards my goals and what I want to prioritize in life. I talked to a mentor about my struggles once and he told me the solution was to just stop doing it.

Yeah, obviously.

But it also wasn’t that easy. If it were, I would’ve done it ages ago. But I’ve really, really struggled with this. I think it probably goes back to childhood, where sleep was never easy to come by and I had a lot of fear around sleeping and tried to do anything to avoid falling asleep–reading by the light of a night-light, doing math problems (either on paper or in my head), sneaking into other rooms in the house to fall asleep, and so on.

As a teenager, I listened to the radio, especially a show called Love Phones on Z100, where people called in about all their love, sex and relationship problems. Or music radio. Or my CDs and tapes. Or stayed up talking on the phone until I couldn’t stay awake any longer. I think falling asleep has always had a charge to it for me. When I first moved out, not to college but actually permanently out out, one major thing I noticed is that I slept like I was making up for decades of lost sleep, and I was.

In my early 20s, I often fell asleep listening to Coast to Coast AM (which could be a whole slew of posts in itself, I have a lot of thoughts and feelings about that show) and then later, after picking this habit up from a boyfriend who lived with me, to TV shows, a habit that only intensified after it was over with us.

I used to have some seasons of shows that I’d fall asleep too, and this was before there was Netflix autoplaying the next episode. These were, ummm, pirated seasons of TV shows, especially House, Grey’s Anatomy, The Office and Private Practice. So I’d fall asleep to some episode and wake up to an episode much later in the season.

And then there was autoplay on Netflix and there were so many nights I fell asleep to that. Gossip Girl, Dawson’s Creek, Pretty Little Liars, One Tree Hill, Friday Night Lights, Scandal, How to Get Away with Murder, The West Wing, Gilmore Girls.

And then there were podcasts.

I started listening to them in 2008, and would often listen to podcasts on my iPod Classic (still have it) on my way to and from work, and then watch TV to fall asleep. Over time, that evolved to a mixture that more heavily favored podcasts. So I slept to the Breaking Bad Insider Podcast, the Better Call Saul Insider Podcast, replaying loops of Serial season one, a whole slew of Serial spin-off podcasts, Undisclosed, Gilmore Guys, The Baby-Sitters Club Club, a whole slew of Afterbuzz TV podcasts on all the different TV shows I loved, Dusted, med school boards prep podcasts like Inside the Boards and Med School Phys.

In the best circumstances, as in not doing all the other things you can do with an iPhone besides listen to podcasts like scrolling through so many websites and social media sites, it still wasn’t good sleep. I was always alert to skip ads, or knowing that the theme song at the end of an episode theme song was coming, and the intro to the next one and I couldn’t really sleep until that passed, or rewinding because I’d drifted off for a bit but then woke up and had missed something I didn’t want to miss. And it often wasn’t the best circumstances. Falling asleep was an ordeal.

I’ve been trying to break the habit for awhile but the habit is like a security blanket, and also like a habit, as in a little like a drug habit in that it felt like there was an addictive aspect to it that went beyond just a change in routine.

I tried all kinds of things. I tried white noise (don’t like it), I tried sleep meditations (yeah that is a HARD PASS from me, but I tried it anyway and it didn’t help at all and made things so much worse) and gibberish story podcasts that are meant to help people sleep. I tried all kinds of weaning with winding down sleep timers. None of these worked for me. I tried changing my phone settings and reading How to Break Up with Your Phone. The only thing that did anything was actually not sleeping with the phone. But it was so hard to do.

My first serious attempt to go without it, after several stints that failed quickly scattered over so many years, started in late 2016 and lasted almost two months, until I got really stressed about a research presentation and fell off the wagon. That next summer, it was similar. I’ve tried again and again, sometimes only lasting a couple of nights or even only one, sometimes getting to about two months and then caving. I’ve regaled friends (especially Claire, Tracy and Leo) with morning texts counting my days sleeping without the phone, and then falling off, and eventually starting over.

I tried to quit for the MCAT, for hard classes, for applying to med school and all the travel that involved, but always talked myself out of it when I was stressed and wanting my phone. Oh, it doesn’t make sense to break an entrenched habit while I’m also traveling, or if I start now I’ll have even worse sleep in the beginning (often true) and I can’t afford to have even worse sleep for an adjustment period because I have x, y, z coming up, or might as well keep things the same until I have time where I can afford some fucked up sleep patterns for a bit. I tried to quit for med school as I rearranged other habits to fit that new life, and probably again before, during and after every med school block.

I noticed some patterns. One was that I had a much harder time resisting the craving to sleep with my phone if I’d been social that night. For some reason if I’d had someone over, gone over someone’s house, or even had a really long phone call late at night, it was much harder for me to resist the temptation and I’d often say to myself that I’d just use the phone for that night only and then that one night turned into months. Oddly, I noticed the same pattern when I was extra, extra tired.

I also noticed what little behaviors were telltale signs that I might be about to slip off the wagon, like going for the phone first thing in the morning, or going for it an hour or so before my alarm went off, that sort of thing. So I noticed all these patterns and was conscious of them when making my latest attempts.

And then there was quarantine.

A few things changed that made this latest attempt different. One was that suddenly, there were no social gatherings. Another was that now that gyms were closed and we weren’t taking public transit, two activities that I used podcasts for on the daily, I was able to take the app off my phone. I took a bunch of other stuff off too, since I wasn’t going to be anywhere but home for quite awhile and didn’t need any on-the-go access for the time being. And since I didn’t need to be anywhere by any specified time for the foreseeable future, I could afford some weird sleep cycles during the adjustment period.

I started over on the night of March 22nd. It was the same day that I started Week Four in The Artist’s Way, a book that I’ve blogged about and will continue to blog about. Week Four has (what I consider to be) the absolute hardest task in the book – a week of reading and media deprivation. I’ve often gotten stuck at this point because I don’t want to do that but I decided to go all in, within reason. I did no TV, no social media, no podcasts for that week, and no sleeping with the phone, from then until hopefully eternity.

It’s been 136 nights since then, the longest streak I’ve ever had. I’ve added a bit more socializing back into my life, with weekly TV nights with one friend, and walks with another and still I’ve stayed the course. At some point, I don’t even remember when, I put the podcast app back on my phone. And stayed on the wagon, for now.

It’s still a struggle. Every night, I want it. Actually no, not every night; it’s more like it comes in waves. And I’m on a wave now. I see myself slipping and coming up right to the edge of throwing this streak out the window. Last night I took the podcast app off my phone again and turned on some other restrictions to try to curtail this slippage.

So, we’ll see how it goes. My sleep has definitely been better these last few months since starting this streak, but that too is slipping. It’s shaping up to be an ongoing struggle.


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