Good in Bed

Studies show that the average American gets about seven hours of sleep a night. The author would prefer, oh, 12 to 15 (though she’d settle for 10). How a sleep lover learned to cope in this “rise and shine” world.

  • Julie Rottenberg
I have a problem. No, scratch that. It’s not a problem. I do not have a problem. I'm fine. It’s more of a passion, an obsession; some might even argue it’s a talent. For sleeping. Late. And I mean really, really, really late.

If left to my own devices―with all the phone ringers turned off, the doors and windows shut, and the doorbell intercom turned down―I can sleep until one, two, or three in the afternoon and often for stretches of 12 to 15 hours. I will do basically anything to be able to sleep late: lie, cheat, manipulate social plans and travel itineraries. I go through life the way I imagine a smoker in a nonsmoking world does: I’m constantly thinking about the next time I will be able to get my fix.

I am a superhuman sleeper.

As a child, I slept so late that when I went to slumber parties, all the other kids had already left by the time I woke up. I once slept so late at a sleepover party that when I awoke, not only had all the other kids been picked up by their parents but the guest of honor herself had gone roller-skating.

Even at my own sleepover parties, I woke up so much later than everyone else that my family was forced to pick up the slack. On one occasion, my older sister assembled my guests in her room and taught them geometry. At another party, my father kept the troops occupied by playing the banjo and singing folk tunes while I slept soundly in the other room. I remember my mother eventually coming in and saying, “Jul. People want to leave. I think you should get up.” 

As time went on, I started to wonder if I would ever find a friend who shared my insatiable need for sleep. Then, when I was nine, I met Elisa Zuritsky. We seemed to have everything in common, and on our first sleepover I discovered that she, too, loved staying up obscenely late and putting on talk shows and midnight musicals as much as I did. Still, I expected our newfound friendship to come crashing down the next morning, at which point my sleeping “problem” would surely be revealed.
 
I awoke the following day at Elisa’s house and checked my watch; it was just past noon. I prepared myself for the usual wrath of a nine-year-old who has been up waiting for hours. But then I discovered a shocking sight: Elisa Zuritsky was still sleeping. I stared at her, stunned, then checked the clock again. I looked back at her and made sure she was still breathing. Then I sat there, paralyzed, unsure what to do. I had never woken up before anyone, ever.

Elisa and I became best friends for life.

Some time after college, I started picking up the cues that sleeping late is not socially acceptable behavior. In fact, by now you’ve probably made all kinds of judgments about me, assuming I must be depressed or ill or a big slacker.

For the record, I am not depressed. Moreover, I have always been gainfully employed and am even occasionally required to wake up as early as five or six in the morning. And I do it. It’s upsetting―very upsetting―but I can do it.

In fact, in my waking hours, I’m not just awake, I’m hyper-awake. I walk fast; I write fast; I type 107 words per minute; I’m ambitious and highly motivated. But in the morning, lying in bed when the alarm goes off, I have no ambitions, no desires, no real reason to live. I am filled with hate and loathing, and the only thing I want is to sleep forever.

Over the years, my sleeping habits never changed, but my awareness of a stigma deepened, and I’m ashamed to admit I started lying to cover it up. For instance, if someone suggested meeting for brunch at 10 or 11 on a weekend, I might say, “Oh, I have to run a bunch of errands beforehand, could we make it later...much later?” 

But I soon realized that by covering up my penchant for sleeping late, I was perpetuating the prejudice my people have had to endure for centuries. So these days when someone calls and wakes me up from a deep sleep, I don’t feign a wide-awake “Hello?” I’ve never understood that. Why should the person who has been awakened―victimized, really―assume responsibility?
 
Instead, I answer the phone like this: “Hulllmph...?” dripping with as much outrage as can be conveyed in a single grunt. Invariably, the caller has the audacity to ask, innocently, “Oh, did I wake you?” To that I grunt back, “Yeah! You did!” and hang up. Because if I don’t teach these people, who will?

Now, as hard as it was to find a friend who shared my passion for sleeping, I knew it was going to be even harder to find that trait in a partner. When I first started dating Ben, well over a decade ago, he seemed mildly amused and even impressed by my ability to sleep so late.

All that changed on our first vacation together. Ben and I went to New Mexico and stayed in a bed-and-breakfast owned by a lovely couple. Upon our arrival, they informed us that they were famous for their delicious home-cooked breakfasts. All the ingredients, they boasted, came straight from their garden. Then they lowered the boom: “And breakfast is served from seven to nine.” 

“From seven to nine, from seven to nine” echoed in my head as Ben and I walked back to our room in silence. I shut the door, spun around, and glared at him, speechless. “Well, what do you want to do?” he asked. “What can we do?” I wailed and collapsed on the bed, moaning about what kind of deeply hostile, uncivilized people would stop serving breakfast at nine.

Ben, an incredibly patient and sweet man, suggested that I get up for a quick breakfast, then return to the room and go back to sleep. And that’s when I started to wonder if Ben and I would ever really understand each other. Because any serious sleeper knows that once the stream of sleep has been interrupted, it’s all over. There is no joy in going back to sleep once you’ve brushed your teeth and been forced to interact with the world.
 
Sensing he was hitting a brick wall, Ben suggested that I skip breakfast altogether, which, of course, is exactly what I wanted permission to do. But, oh, the shame and humiliation! To make matters worse, breakfast has long been one of my favorite meals. (Ironic, I know. Maybe because it is always the meal I am missing.) I was forced to reckon with dueling parts of my identity: torn between my love of sleep, my love of food―and did I mention my love of getting my money’s worth?

The next morning, at 8:58, I dragged myself out of bed and down to breakfast. In the end, I decided to sacrifice my precious sleep for the sake of a freshly baked muffin and my new relationship with Ben. And, as happy as I am to be with Ben all these years later (he’s now my husband), I still mourn the loss of those gorgeous hours of sleep. You can never get them back, you know.

After that trip, I vowed never again to compromise my relationship with sleep, and I’ve been a happier person for it. Friends, colleagues, and family members understand that this is simply a part of who I am, and aside from the occasional ribbing, they have come to accept it. More than a few have admitted to wishing they could adopt my sleep philosophy but claim they couldn’t live with themselves if they slept past 9 a.m. “That’s sleeping the day away!” they cry. Frankly, this sort of thing breaks my heart. It also reminds me of how vitally important it is for me to take a personal stand against the rampant sleepism in this country.

So when I find myself lying in bed on a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning, plagued with the feeling that I should get up and embrace the day, I do not. Instead, I abandon all guilt and shame, put on my sleep mask, roll over, commit to sleeping, and continue sleeping until I can sleep no longer. I firmly believe that only then, in the deepest of sleep, can true progress begin.