When I say I suffer from insomnia, it's more that, for a while there, insomnia completely took over my life. To fight it, I tried melatonin, over-the-counter sleep aids, cough syrup, you name it. Nothing worked. I found myself tossing and turning until 5 a.m., sleeping until 1 or 2 in the afternoon, sitting down for work around 3, then working well into the evening. Rinse and repeat.
And I'm not alone in this.
Twenty-five percent of Americans suffer from acute insomnia every single year, according to a University of Pennsylvania study. Seventy-five percent of these individuals recover without developing chronic problems, characterized by at least three sleepless nights a week for three or more months. But of the 25 percent who experienced "acute" insomnia, only 6 percent eventually developed "chronic" insomnia.
I found myself swallowed whole by chronic insomnia earlier this year. From February to July, my sleep patterns got progressively worse until I was exhausted, totally unable to concentrate, and subject to wild mood swings. My work and my friendships suffered. I was scared I might never be able to recover.
In one of my late-night YouTube binges, popping from cat videos to TED Talks and everything in-between, I stumbled upon a video: "Waking up at 5 a.m. is changing my life," made by witty, insightful YouTuber Jordan Taylor (known for his work on the Blimey Cow channel). "One day, I had just reached my breaking point. I had had enough. I couldn't do this one more day," says Taylor, who hadn't suffered from insomnia but was intensely addicted to his cell phone—so much so that it began to adversely affect both his personal and professional life. "I was starting to lose my mind," he said. "Honestly, I started to completely hate myself, and I realized, at that point, that the habits I had picked up over time needed to stop completely."
These words hit me hard. I had reached my own breaking point, and it was time to make changes in my life. I needed to hold myself accountable.
Taylor was a good guide. I began to reassess my bad habits, including being glued to my phone, and started to make conscious choices to end them. And then Taylor shared that in one of his own YouTube binges, he'd discovered a video of a Navy Seal named Jocko Willink. "Why would you not wake up at 4:30?" Willink says in the video, an interview with Business Insider. "No one else is awake yet. So that gives me the opportunity to do things that I need to get done."
I knew I needed to overhaul my sleep schedule to achieve eight hours, so I set my alarm for a brisk 5 a.m. that night. When the refrain of Hilary Duff's "All About You" rang in my eardrums that first morning, it wasn't even all that hard to get up. I sat up, stretched, yawned. "This is way easier than I thought," I whispered to myself. I turned off my alarm and rolled feet-first out of bed. It was as if my body and mind were already energized at the prospect of what an earlier day could bring.
Dolly Parton would be proud. I stumbled my way to the kitchen to make some coffee. I pulled my unicorn-and-rainbow mug from the cupboard and made my way to my front porch. Perched on the stairs, I took in the morning air with relish. The birds weren't quite awake yet, and I allowed myself to breathe in the scenery around me.
That first morning was life-changing. I hadn't gotten up that early, so willingly and without much complaining, since I mistakenly signed up for an 8 a.m. biology class my freshman year of college. It was like a lightbulb went off in my head. Five a.m. just makes total sense, and I began to wonder why it had taken me so long to make such a bold, drastic change.
When I sat down to prioritize my day, I realized I wasn't taking care of myself in meaningful, long-term ways. I had to closely examine bad habits, including not drinking nearly enough water, not eating proper meals, and ignoring my body's signals.
Over the course of the next six months, I learned to hold myself accountable. Keeping a tight—even strict—schedule hasn't been an easy transition, but it has given me more control over my life. I'm able to walk away from each day knowing I gave it my all. I'm not just surviving day-to-day; I'm building a life worth living through healthy thinking.
Now, I mostly wake up… happy. I feel more alive than I have in a long time. As Shonda Rhimes writes in her 2014 memoir, Year of Yes: "Happiness comes from living as you need to, as you want to. As your inner voice tells you to. Happiness comes from being who you actually are instead of who you think you are supposed to be."
If you want something to change, you have to change it. I began a new life more than six months ago, and I haven't looked back. Here's what my schedule looks like now:
5 a.m. Wake Up. Before the sun, even.
5-6 a.m. Coffee and Meditation. When the weather is warm, I can sit on my front porch and listen to the birds wake up. Even in the cold weather, it's still a blissful hour for caffeine and clearing my mind for the day.
6-6:50 a.m. Exercise. I begin my exercise routine with some simple stretches, jumping jacks, and yoga poses, followed by a few dozen loops around the neighborhood.
6:50-7:30 a.m. Reading. For the longest time, I sucked so hard at reading, and it's not like I wanted to. I never seemed to find the time to crack open those books collecting dust on my shelf. But getting up super-early has propelled me to plunge back into one of my favorite pastimes. A book a week seemed like a massive task, but now I find it actually pretty easy to accomplish.
7:30 a.m.-8:15 a.m. Get Dressed and Have Breakfast. I often cook up scrambled tofu on a bed of spinach, alongside a slice of toast with raspberry jam and/or peanut butter. I feel like a warrior armed to slay the day.
8:15 a.m.-Noon. Work and Projects. Stomach full and mental health in check, I can whip through projects with precision. My focus is clearer and stronger, and what was once a daunting to-do list has turned into a game. And now I take a water break between projects.
Noon-1 p.m. Lunch. Since I began eating at predictable intervals, my body has never been happier. And not feeling rushed to move on to the next task creates an extra sense of accomplishment too.
1-5 p.m. Work and Projects. Time is just less stressful when you wake up early. When 5 p.m. comes, I feel a sense of pride that not a single second of my day has been wasted. I can finally breathe.
5-7 p.m. Decompress, Make Dinner, and Cat Time. Once I made a vow to sign off from all work promptly at 5 p.m., I had even more time in the evenings for replenishment and self-care. That's where my three cats Jake, Olivia, and Fitz, come into the picture (also catching up on Orange is the New Black).
7 p.m. Do Not Disturb. To help soothe insomnia and stress from the day, I laid down a strict 7 p.m. "curfew." I either turn off my phone completely or put it on Do Not Disturb for the rest of the evening.
7-8:30 p.m. Tea Time. Honey vanilla chamomile tea is my jam. I also like to take some time to meditate and listen to vinyl records just before bed.
Bed by 9 p.m.
Look, a 5 a.m. wake-up isn't for everybody. Even if you vow to get up 15 or 20 minutes earlier than you usually do, you'll be shocked at what you can accomplish, and you can start your day with a calm, determined resolve to live your best life. Try shutting off a couple hours before bed—I mean, completely detach your mind and body from the tragedy in the world and what's happening online. Clear the clutter, remember that each day is a new beginning, and get ready to be made into someone even better. You can do this.
Jason Scott is a writer based in West Virginia. Itching for creative freedom, he founded his own music-discovery site called B-Sides & Badlands, which specializes in long-form writing and cultural criticism. If you enjoy kitty pics and being woke, follow him on Twitter.