The time I tried polyphasic sleep and lost my mind

by Barbara R. Abercrombie
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It’s 3 am. I have no idea where I am. The past two hours have been an empty, unknowable darkness.

I hear it sounds like a medieval battlefield. Swords clash, horses gallop, and men scream. I stagger forward and try to orient myself. I’m so confused.

I am in an apartment, my apartment, I think. Completely dazed, hallucinating. I want to puke. I look at my cell phone: three missed calls, all from my wife, asleep in the bedroom.

I’m exhausted. What the hell is going on?

I stumble into the bedroom and wake my wife.

‘Did you call me?’

“I heard you were leaving the house. Where have you been the last two hours?’

I pause. I was shocked internally.

“I have no idea.”

Sleep like Superman

I set alarms. Lots of alarms.

Getty Images

It’s been almost ten years since I tried polyphasic sleep. It was a complete disaster.

Most people, myself included, these days, sleep in a “monophasic” pattern. Normal sleep. Chunks from seven to eight, followed by 16 hours of wakefulness.

Usually it’s a productivity hack: eight hours is a long time to put yourself out of service. Polyphasic sleep is designed to break that sleep pattern into more manageable chunks, reducing time spent napping.  If you can sleep less and be just as effective, why not try it?

There are different types of polyphasic sleep schedules.

The scheme “Everyman” is the simplest. It provides a three-hour sleep period, supplemented by three 20-minute naps during the day — effectively reducing eight hours of sleep to about four hours.

At the other end of the spectrum is the brutal ‘Uberman’ scheme.

polyphasic sleep

Uberman’s polyphasic sleep schedule allows no large chunks of sleep—just 20-minute naps. Days are divided into four-hour periods. You stay awake for three hours and 40 minutes and then rest for 20 minutes. Then you do that again… and again… as long as you can handle it. It adds up to two hours of sleep per day — if you’re sleeping every second of your naps, which you probably won’t.

That’s the one I tried. My plan: Do the Uberman polyphasic sleep schedule for a month.

It lasted a week.

The Rough Puppeteer

When it comes to polyphasic sleep, mileage often varies. There are stories of people getting it done. After a transition period of about a week, they claim, your body adjusts, and you get into a rhythm. Apparently, the 20-minute naps send you straight into full REM sleep, and you wake up energized again, ready for three hours and 40 minutes of hardcore productivity.

That didn’t happen to me. Not quite.

Well, it did, and it didn’t.

In the beginning, polyphasic sleep was relatively simple like going on a huge overseas trip, and getting little sleep on the plane. Do yDo you know that dizzying feeling of stumbling from customs to the baggage claim like a zombie searching for brains? That’s how I felt – at least for the first few days.

I regularly went to the gym in the basement and went for walks to stay awake.

Mark Serrels

It also felt a bit cool. I was waking up, playing video games, or working on side projects in the early morning hours, finding ways to ward off sleep, like having a small child stay up until after bedtime. I soon developed an unpleasant pride in what I was doing. These norms, dead asleep in their primitive patterns, could not comprehend what it felt like to have evolved beyond the need for regular sleep.

I was tired, but the naps seemed to sustain me. I had two small beds—one in the guest room of my apartment and one in the storage closet at work. I remember coworkers laughing at me as I trudged to my odd little cabinet, a worn-in brown sleeping bag in my hand. The whole production was a lot of fun.

Until it was no more.

The first telltale signs of struggle appeared about two days later. I remember walking across the platform on my way to work when I completely lost my balance out of nowhere. I tripped and almost fell on the railroad track. I left the station shaken. How did this happen? I thought I was cruising…

Later that evening, I walked in the pitch-dark darkness, exhausted and broken. I circled a local park in the middle of a closed road, bearing the weight of what felt like a full-blown depression. It was a strange, oppressive pressure I had never felt before or after.

Everything felt endless, impossibly huge. Insurmountable.

It is hard to explain. When you sleep normally, days have an end and a beginning. If you’re having a bad day, crawl into bed, pull the covers over your head, and write it off. “Tomorrow is another day,” you tell yourself. With polyphasic sleep, there is no other day. Days are endless. I greatly underestimated its impact.

I walked through the park, empty and empty, with a few dead eyeballs in a hollow, lagging brain. I wandered aimlessly through the darkness, trying to stop myself from sobbing.

For days I didn’t laugh at jokes.

I knew jokes were being told. I understood the point. But the synapses connected to the required physical output were broken. I’d tell my wife I loved her out of obligation and instinct, but it would take seconds for those words to resonate. I would look in the mirror and feel disconnected from my characteristics. My body was not mine. I controlled it like a rough puppeteer.

But then, around day five, I had a breakthrough.

I woke up. I felt better. At work, I saw a joke on Twitter that day and laughed out loud. I went home, hugged my wife, and felt satisfied. I was almost overwhelmed, euphoric to be reconnected to my body. I started laughing. Tears streamed down my face.

“I feel normal again,” I said. My wife shook her head.

“You’ve forgotten what’s normal.”

Fall apart

Just a few days later, everything fell apart.

I had a rough night. I was just very tired physically. The renewed energy I had felt a few days ago had evaporated. I wasn’t necessarily struggling with the psychological pain of it all; I just found it — on a very primitive level — impossible to stay awake.

My old apartment building had a shabby gym in the basement. It got so bad that I went downstairs and walked endlessly on the treadmill, trying to wait out the waves of exhaustion. I had only one goal: to get the next nap, get the next rest, and get the next rest.

At 2 am – somehow – I reached the next nap.

I was only going to sleep for 20 minutes, but my next conscious thought happened two hours later, around 4:30 am

I woke up with the energy of someone who knew – without even looking at the clock – that they were late for work. Immediately I stood up, disoriented. I looked at my phone. Three missed calls and two texts from my wife:

“Where are you?”

“Have you left the house?”

Both texts were received at a time when I was not consciously awake.

What the hell happened? Have I left the house in a fugue state?

I started to hallucinate. I panicked but calmed myself quickly. I can get through this, I told myself. I can reset it. I need to go to my next scheduled nap. To distract myself, I tried to record a video log.

During my polyphasic sleep experiment, I recorded a video log every night, discussing my mental and physical state. The video I shot that night is a tough one to watch. I stutter; I’m confused. I’m barely lucid, and I see myself — in real time — trying to figure out what the hell just happened.

During the video, an alarm I couldn’t remember setting started blaring at full volume.

Who set that alarm clock? Who the hell put that alarm clock?

I turned off the video log and grabbed my phone. Then I saw it. The alarms were all very different. Someone—most likely myself for the last two hours when I was unconscious—had gotten into my phone and changed all the alarms I’d painstakingly set to track my sleep.

Almost as if some Tyler Durden-esque secondary self had deliberately tried to sabotage me, Severance-style, in an attempt to turn this stupid sleep experiment on its head.

They were successful.

At that moment – vague, confused, sobbing – I decided to stop. At 5:04 am, I stumbled into my bedroom, curled up next to my wife, and fell into the deepest sleep of my life. I slept more than 13 hours. The relief was like nothing I’d ever experienced.

My sleep experiment was over.

Never again

In the following weeks and months, I often imagined trying polyphasic sleep again. It felt like unfinished business.

I’d made some glaring mistakes that, in retrospect, made it difficult for me to switch from a regular sleep pattern to the Uberman schedule. At the time, I was sinking about six cans of Pepsi Max a day. I didn’t give my body time to navigate caffeine withdrawals, which almost certainly made it difficult to nap on command.

But looking back, it all seems ridiculous. A pointless challenge is driven by male ego bull shit and an empty need for ‘body hack’. It has weaponized poisonous masculinity in its purest form.

It did make for a good story.

About five years after my experiment, a TV producer came across my live blogs and invited me on TV to discuss my experiences. It was an Australian panel show. They asked people from all walks of life to discuss 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 discussing my hallucinations, he held his head in horror.

There were men and women with real, real sleep problems on that panel. People with insomnia are teenagers who dropped out of school because of an abnormal sleep pattern they had no control over. Some people struggled with narcolepsy and nightmares. And then I was there: the LifeHack Bro who walked around laughing with sleep. I felt like an idiot and a scammer.

That night, after the show, I promised myself I would never try polyphasic sleep again.

Fortunately, I had no long-term effects from trying the Uberman scheme. Within a week, everything was back to normal.

But I never took sleep for granted again.

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