The time I tried polyphasic sleep and started hallucinating
I check my watch. 3 am, I don’t know where I am. The last two hours: pristine, unknowable darkness.
I hear noises, like a medieval battlefield. Swords clash, horses gallop, men howl. I stagger forward, trying to find my bearings. I’m so confused.
I am in an apartment; My apartment, I think. Completely dazed, mind-blowing. I want to vomit. I look down at my cell phone: three missed calls, all from my wife, asleep in the bedroom.
I am exhausted, physically broken. What the hell is happening.
I stumble into the bedroom and wake up my wife.
“Did you call me?”
“I heard you leave the house. Where have you been for the past two hours?
I’m taking a break. Inside, I’m freaking out.
“I have no idea.”
Sleep like Superman
It’s been 10 years since I tried polyphasic sleep. It was an absolute disaster.
Most people, myself included these days, sleep on a “monophasic” pattern. Normal sleep. Slices of seven to eight hours, followed by 16 hours spent awake.
Polyphasic sleep is designed to break up this sleep pattern into smaller chunks, reducing the time spent dozing. Usually it’s a productivity hack: Eight hours is a long time to get out of commission. If you can sleep less and be just as efficient, why not give it a try?
There are different types of polyphasic sleep schedules.
The “Everyman” program is the simplest. It allows for a three-hour sleep period, supplemented by three 20-minute naps throughout the day, effectively reducing eight hours of sleep to around four hours in total.
At the other end of the spectrum is the brutal “Uberman” program.
With Uberman’s polyphasic sleep program, no big chunks of sleep are allowed — only 20-minute naps. The days are divided into four-hour periods. You stay awake for three hours and 40 minutes, then take a nap for 20 minutes. Then you do it again… and again… for as long as you can bear it. This equates to two hours of total sleep per day — whether you sleep every second of your naps, which you probably won’t.
This is the one I tried. My plan: do Uberman’s polyphasic sleep program for a total of one month.
I lasted a week.
The rude puppeteer
When it comes to polyphasic sleep, the mileage tends to vary. There are testimonials of successful people. After a transition period of about a week, they say, your body adjusts and you get into a rhythm. Apparently, 20-minute naps send you straight into complete REM sleep and you wake up refreshed and ready for three hours and 40 minutes of intense productivity.
It didn’t happen to me.
Well, it did and it didn’t.
At first, polyphasic sleep was relatively easy. Like taking a huge trip overseas, taking small amounts of sleep on the plane. You know that groggy spaced-out feeling, stumbling from customs to baggage claim like a zombie looking for brains? That’s what I felt, at least the first few days.
He also felt just a little cool. Being awake, playing video games or working on side projects in the wee hours of the morning, finding ways not to sleep, like a small child allowed to stay awake past bedtime. I quickly developed an odious pride in what I was doing. These normals, sleep dead in their primitive patterns, couldn’t understand what it felt like to have evolved beyond the need for regular sleep.
I was tired, sure, but the naps seemed to sustain me. I had two small beds. One in my apartment’s guest bedroom and a setup in the storage closet at work. I remember co-workers laughing at me as I trudged towards my strange little closet, clutching a lived-in brown sleeping bag. The whole production was great fun.
Until that is no longer the case.
The first telltale signs of a struggle came about two days later. I remember walking along the platform of the train on my way to work when – out of nowhere – I completely lost my balance. I tripped and nearly fell on the train tracks. I left the station shaken. How did it happen? I thought I was sailing…
Later that night, I went for a walk in total darkness, exhausted and broken. I did laps around a local park in the middle of a closed road, carrying the heaviness of what felt like a full-blown depression. It was a strange, oppressive pressure that I had never felt before or since.
Everything seemed endless, incredibly huge. Insurmountable.
It is difficult to explain. When you sleep normally, days have endings and beginnings. If you’re having a bad day, get into bed, pull the covers over your head, and write it down. “Tomorrow is another day”, you say to yourself. With polyphasic sleep there East no other day. The days are endless. I greatly underestimated the impact of this.
I strolled through the park, vacant and empty, a pair of dead eyeballs lodged inside a sunken, retarded brain. I walked aimlessly in the dark, trying to stop myself from sobbing.
For days I didn’t laugh at the jokes.
I knew we were telling jokes. I understood the punchlines. But the synapses connecting to the required physical output were broken. I told my wife that I loved her, out of obligation and instinct, but it took a few seconds for those words to resonate. I looked at myself in the mirror and felt disconnected from my own features. My body did not belong to me. I controlled him like a rude 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 bursts out laughing. I went home, hugged my wife and felt happy. I was almost overwhelmed, euphoric to be connected to my body again. I started laughing. Tears were streaming down my face.
“I feel normal again,” I said. My wife shook her head.
“You forgot what normalcy is.”
A few days later, everything collapsed.
I had a difficult night. Physically I was fair very fatigue. The renewed energy I had felt a few days earlier had evaporated. I wasn’t necessarily struggling with the psychological pain of it all, I was just – on a very primitive level – unable to stay awake.
My old building had a crummy gym in the basement. Things got so bad that I went down there and walked endlessly on the treadmill, trying to wait for the waves of exhaustion to pass. I had only one goal in mind: to get to the next nap… to get to the next nap… to get to the next nap.
At 2 am – sort of – I made it for the next nap.
I was supposed to sleep only 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 checking a clock – that he was late for work. Immediately, I stood up, disoriented. I looked at my phone. Three missed calls and two text messages 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? Did I leave the house in a runaway state?
I started to hallucinate. I was panicked, but quickly calmed down. I can handle this, I told myself. I can reset. I just need to go to my next scheduled nap. To distract myself, I tried recording a video diary.
During my polyphasic sleep experience, I had recorded a video diary each night, talking about my mental and physical state. The video I made that night is a tough watch. I stutter, I’m clearly confused. I’m barely lucid and I can see myself – in real time – trying to figure out what just happened.
During the video, an alarm, an alarm I had no recollection of, started going off at full volume.
Who triggered this alarm? Which hell set this alarm?
I turn off the video diary and grab my phone. It was then that I saw him. Someone – most likely myself in the last two hours that I have was unaware — entered my phone and changed all the alarms I had painstakingly set in order to keep track of my sleep. The alarms were all completely different.
Almost like a Tyler Durden-esque secondary self deliberately tried to sabotage me, Severance-style, in an effort to stop this stupid sleep experiment in its tracks.
At that point – flustered, confused, sobbing – I decided to stop. At 5:04 a.m. I fell into my bedroom, curled up next to my wife, and collapsed into the deepest sleep of my life. I slept for over 13 hours. The relief was unlike anything I had ever experienced.
My sleeping experience was over.
In the weeks and months that followed, I often imagined myself trying polyphasic sleep again. It was like unfinished business.
I had made a few glaring mistakes that, in hindsight, made it difficult for me to transition from a regular sleeping pattern to Uberman’s schedule. At the time, I was pouring about six cans of Pepsi Max a day. I didn’t give my body time to process the caffeine withdrawals, and it certainly made it difficult for me to nap on command.
But in hindsight, it all seems ridiculous. An unnecessary challenge driven by male ego bullshit and an unnecessary need to “bodyhack”. Weaponized toxic masculinity in its purest form.
It made for a good story, though.
About five years after my experience, a TV producer stumbled upon my live blogs and invited me on TV to discuss my experiences. It was an Australian panel. They invited people from all walks of life to discuss their bizarre sleep experiences, alongside experts in the field.
When it was my turn to tell my story, a doctor – a 20-year veteran of sleep studies – began shaking 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 with real sleep issues on this panel. People with insomnia, teenagers dropping out of school because of abnormal sleep they couldn’t control. There were people struggling with narcolepsy and night terrors. And then there was me: the LifeHack Bro who messed with sleep for a laugh. I felt like an idiot and an impostor.
That night, after the show, I promised myself never to try polyphasic sleep again.
Luckily, I didn’t experience any long term effects from trying the Uberman program. Within a week, everything was back to normal.
But I never, Never again took sleep for granted.
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