Taking Control of My Sleep to Help Me Manage My Bipolar Disorder

Author: Lee Formella

I’m swimming in a beautiful pool with my girlfriend, family, and best friends around me. We’re having a great time, but I decide to get out. When I do, a mysterious and extremely deep cut in my shin appears. I am surrounded by people from my past all of a sudden, yet couldn’t find a single person to look at me, scoffing at the idea of helping. It was like I was having flashbacks you hear of people experiencing as they die. I start panicking; thankfully, I wake up, it was just a dream after all.

I laid back down to go to sleep, but that was a pipe dream (ah, pun intended) in and of itself. There was a phantom pain in my shin and I couldn’t shake the images and emotions of the previous dream. I got up, drank some water and started reading. It was 5:30 AM, I had slept for 5 hours and was up until 7 AM. Now my day was delayed by two hours.

I honestly cannot tell you nor relate to what a lack of sleep does for a neurotypical human. Nor can I tell you how or if there is a struggle with sleep. What I can tell you is this, I had no choice but to sleep an extra two hours, until 10 AM to get my eight hours.

I apologize for all of the numbers, but I believe they are important. They represent the time taken from those of us dealing with mental illness because of a lack of sleep, a need for a nap, or the severe consequences when our sleep is off, even slightly.

This gets back to why I decided to, or better ‘had to’, sleep-in that day. Last summer, my odyssey with bipolar led to an extended run of stability, the best I had ever felt in life; I felt in control. I slept 6-6.5 hours a night, got up early, went to every family event, scheduled more and more for myself, worked out obsessively, and well… spent more money, a lot more. I slowly started losing control and began statements with “I just have to get through this, then I’ll slow down” or “I’ll catch up on sleep soon, I’m fine for now.”

Well, bipolar got there first. I was not in control. This time the tax was an overwhelming wave of major depression and credit card bills that took 4 months to pay off. It was nearly impossible to work and move for weeks, getting out of bed was my most feared task of the day. I slept 10 hours or more nightly. Eventually, a few weeks later, the fog began to lift and I finally found a new therapist. This time I had a renewed mission to get consistent sleep and some real stability, maybe not quite as enjoyable as last summer, but hopefully more lasting.

The ultimate realization was this: 8 hours of sleep. No more. No less. After medication, there is nothing more important to my stability. One could argue exercising and family support are on equal footing. To me, neither are as effective, enjoyable or of anywhere near the same quality as when I get enough sleep.

The reason? My brain slowly, then with a rapidly advancing pace, proceeds to shut down. My legs and arms become difficult to move, I start to trip, over my feet and over my words, eventually I get this pressure in my head like my brain is cramping, then double vision, random eye twitches (on and off the past two weeks) and just pure exhaustion. This happens after just two days of lacking sleep if I’m stable. It can also take weeks to recover from. Now, like last summer there’s always another option, I could lean in, get up early and hope the hypomania lasts forever. We all know how that ends, bipolar is real, there is an equal and opposite reaction and I don’t want to go through that again. Life will always come back with wave after wave of stressful moments and events, bipolar turns these into a tsunami of confusion and chaos of thought that can threaten our sleep patterns at every turn.

Instead of giving in to life, try to take control of one thing that can begin to change everything; your sleep. While the extreme range of emotions may never calm down or subside in the ways I might hope, I do have some control over how severe these may be. Relative stability in life is possible while living with bipolar; but not without enough sleep.

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