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Reflections on Bipolar and Sleeping Schedules

It’s wild that as I’m finishing this blog, so much has changed. I started with an outline of this that I made in bed one night. I was just thinking and decided I wanted to share. Then, as most people in a depressive cycle feel, I felt like it was too hard to finish this blog. I put it on my to do list everyday and everyday I avoided it. It’s been about a month. I finally decided to chat with my psychiatrist about it. You see, since we found a good balance earlier this year, I’ve been scared to touch it. It’s a delicate balance. I remember two years ago I was in such a bad place that I cried all the time, seemingly for no reason. There was this day that Dave and I were at a Trader Joe’s. They had all these cookies out that were red and green and they reminded me of Christmas. Within 30 seconds I was sobbing. I was thinking of my love for Christmas and nostalgia which quickly warped into fears of losing Dave and him dying and thinking last Christmas was the last one we’d ever get. I was fixated and I had to leave the store to calm down. 

About a year later I’d worked to be at a much better place. My meds were slowly balancing as we played with dosages and different kinds. I went from that to feeling lazy and sleeping too much, or at least what I perceived as lazy. That’s something I always thought of myself before bipolar, so it stuck. Anyway, I was sleeping a ton. Way too much.

I slowly worked from there and became better and better. At the end of last year I was fully functioning.  I was working and sleeping better overall, but I started to slip into oversleeping again. I didn’t dare touch what I’d worked so hard for, so I let it be. 

A little over a month ago, Dave told me I was sleeping a lot. Too much. He was worried. I was starting to lose interest in my work and hobbies again. It can be so hard for yourself to notice. I’ve barely baked this year and it used to be my favorite thing! So, back to the psychiatrist. We did a little adjusting, like a magic potion. A little less of this, and little more of that, add this, etc. Now, finally, since a week or so, I’m feeling better. I’m waking up in the morning and I have enough energy to finish a work day. I can work on the apartment at night and do other activities and not feel like I’m lagging. It’s amazing! That’s where I am now. I’ve realized that so much of my mental illness status can be measured by my sleeping patterns. Watch those and you’ll know where I’m at. Let me give you some of my history though. I want to share a bit. 

When I started dating Dave and began sleeping over, he identified my disorder pretty quickly. I’d never known someone who understood mental illness. I never had someone look at my habits and say, “this isn’t normal. You need to see a doctor.” It was always, “that’s just the way she is” or she’s a procrastinator or lazy or weird.” He knew from my habits I was bipolar and a psychiatrist confirmed it almost immediately.

Let’s rewind and talk about my sleep history. I used to have this terrible pattern of staying awake for days and then sleeping for an entire day. I’m talking 48-72 hours and then 24 hours of sleep. It fucked up my entire life. I had to call in work sick often and I honestly didn’t understand why I was that way. I always made excuses and said I was sick, which was true in a way, but since I wasn’t sick like the flu I always struggled with wrapping my head around it. I beat myself up and was always so mad at myself. It made it really difficult for me to keep a job, let alone be successful.  I worked for the government for a long time and that helped. They really have to jump through hoops to fire people there and I worked in HR, so those things worked out in my favor.

I went through a stint where I was unemployed and that was probably my worst. With no one and nothing to put my schedule in check, I just let my body dictate how I’d do. I’d go from a week of manically cleaning the house and applying for jobs to two weeks of barely being awake. I could sleep for 24 hours if my body said so. Everyone would get so mad at me, especially my mom. She didn’t know what was going on, just that I didn’t answer her calls. I was never ignoring her, I was just asleep for days and too embarrassed to tell anyone.

When I went back to school and was working a job with hours I could generally set, it worked better because I could usually just stay up all night if I couldn’t sleep and do another day. I’d always make sure I didn’t have classes three days in a row because that was about my limit for how long I could stay up. It improved more when I graduated and started working as a photographer. Again, I could set my own hours and could do all my retouching and administrative work when I wanted. When I had a client in the morning and I had to be awake and I couldn’t trust myself to wake up, I’d stay up all night. Sometimes I’d ask my roommate to wake me up, no matter what it took. She generally had to come up with big lies for me like, “the house is on fire” or “Ribbon broke her leg”. Speaking of the dogs, you probably wondered how I could sleep for two days and take care of them. I had systems in place when I was at my worst. I’d always leave enough food and water out for days (I was lucky no one was an over eater). My cats had it easier, but poor Ribbon and Princeton went to the bathroom on pee pads or sometimes elsewhere and I’d eventually have to clean like crazy. Those aren’t times I’m proud of. To be honest, the inability to properly take care of my animals for periods of time will forever haunt me. It’s the biggest shame I’ll ever live with. I’ve always loved them dearly, but when I was in a depressive cycle I saw nothing, hence why I always had my home ready for when it happened again. It’s a wonder I never once thought to see a doctor or my close friends didn’t tell me to. I’m not blaming anyone. We’re just so ill-educated as a country that we can’t identify when someone is in trouble. If we could lift the stigma and educate, well, a lot of people would still be alive, a lot of people wouldn’t be shooting up schools, a lot of people wouldn’t be drug users and a lot of people would live a better quality of life.

That was a bit of a tangent, but I always want to be transparent and give some perspective in case you can relate or don’t understand.

That went a little dark, but the point of this is more positive. I’ve done research on how to help a bipolar person with their sleep cycle and this is what I found. I’ve really been working on these steps the last two month, and some for many years, and I can attest that they help. 

  1. Sleep sleep sleep! It’s probably the most important thing. You need to have a bedtime you stick to as best you can. I honestly live a better quality of life when I have a no nonsense bedtime and lights are out at that exact time every night. When I stay up late, I have to wake up at my usual time the next morning no matter what, whether I have a hangover or I’m just exhausted. When those times are firm I’m at my best.
  2. This ties into sleep; I limit my caffeine intake. No caffeine at all past the afternoon and no more than two caffeinated drinks a day.
  3. You have to manage your stress. I know that’s tough.  Be cut throat though. Eliminate bullshit from your life, whether that’s toxic relationships, too much clutter in your home, calls with your mother-in-law. Figure out your triggers and fix them, or even just little annoyances you can fix that will improve your quality of life, like finally adding a dish for your keys to that table in the foyer. If you can’t change those things, have a coping system in place. If it’s when your mother-in-law calls, drink some calming tea throughout the call. Make a game of it for yourself. Tally every time she complains about something or says something mean. Laugh at how ludicrous it is when you get off the phone. Eat a cookie. IDK! It’s unique to you and you need to work those systems out for yourself. For me, answering the phone stresses me out or calling people (especially strangers). I’ve found that smiling or giggling real quick lifts my mood and as I answer I think a happy thought, like some Peter Pan shit.  
  4. You can find information literally everywhere on how to have a happy life, and that’s a part of managing your disorder.  It’s called a wellness toolbox. It’s all those things you need to feel good on the daily that you can resort to when you’re triggered, but also keep in your routine as a safeguard. These things are sleep, a support system (always have a few people you can chat to when things are bad or a chat line number), have a psychiatrist and a therapist (if you can), do something you love every day, keep a journal to  track your moods, eat regularly, exercise, get outside everyday and try to keep a balanced schedule that includes the necessary daily tasks, but also things you enjoy. You need a structure that’s balanced. 
  5. Be mindful about your medications. One of the biggest things I continually forget is to keep ALL my doctors up to date on my scripts. These are my meds: birth control, heart burn meds, bipolar meds, anxiety meds, depression meds and accutane. The chemistry cocktail is different for everyone and all medications interact with other medications differently, so EVERYONE you see that medicates you in any way needs to be informed. Keep a document of your medications and your doses in your phone.

Those are my biggest tips, but if you’re a mental health sufferer, I encourage you to read as much as you can. Research and ask questions and create systems for yourself. 

Before I sign off, I want to clarify that having bipolar disorder does not necessarily present itself in this way for a person. It’s unique in a lot of ways for each individual. This is just my lived experience, which has continually improved since 8 years ago when I received my diagnosis. It’s still getting better, to be honest. I still have a rough go from time to time. I’ve also tested myself without meds and it’s a slippery slope that eventually goes downhill. My point here is to educate yourself, whether or not you’re a sufferer. Learn indicators. Learn about things like depression and anxiety and schizophrenia. Keep an eye out for your friends and family (and yourself) and take note if something feels off. Never accuse or demand mental help. Ask them how they’re doing. Lend an ear. Check in with them! Maybe gently bring it up and suggest help. The days are long gone of telling someone to, “just try harder” or “it’s all in your head” or “what do you have to be depressed about?” It’s 2021. We know mental health disorders exist and we know what they can do to people. Period. Don’t you dare do this. Better yet, call people out when they do. Correct them. We can do better for our loved ones and ourselves. And when in doubt, get a therapist. No joke. ANYONE can benefit from a therapist and there are so many resources if you can’t afford one. It could help you understand a problem and take a step toward identifying what you’re dealing with. Here are some:

https://www.healthline.com/health/mental-health/online-therapist-for-free
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