For me, sleep is more complicated than just being the biological mechanism of rest and recovery. It’s not even as simple as defining it by my sleep disorder diagnosis of a condition that closely mimics narcolepsy. The sleep patterns I experience are probably almost as transitional as my moods.
The most signature manic sleep cycle I experience is little to no sleep. Things like staying up all night writing or painting. Or in the days of high school, studying until 2 am and getting up for swim practice at 5 am. And most often, just battling repetitive thoughts and tossing back and forth. That’s pretty common for bipolar people, though.
On the other hand, the trademark depressive sleep series is sleeping too much. Just being so sad or so anxious, you’d rather close your eyes than be awake with your thoughts. There have been times I’ve slept for over three days straight without showering, eating, or changing clothes. At those times, it’s pretty easy to recognize I was depressed.
And the most challenging sleep struggle of them all, staying awake and battling a “nonspecific sleep disorder.” Knowing there’s no explanation for why your mind won’t enter the REM cycle at night is beyond frustrating. Having your neurologist tell you the only solution is popping amphetamines like candy feels illogical, especially when it only kind of helps. It’s excruciatingly painful to fight the urge of exhaustion every waking minute of the day. This sleep disorder that infringed on my life for many years dominoed into many other problems, so much that I actually came to fear my tiredness. Waking up after over 15 hours of sleep and still feeling like you haven’t slept in 2 weeks is one of the worst reoccurring experiences I’ve endured. And then there’s the fact that people judge you for falling asleep standing up at work…
Sometimes, sleeping is used as a momentary escape in times of tension. It’s hard to differentiate when I’m using sleep to hide or when my sleep disorder is acting up. Maybe it’s a combination.
A few years ago, my grandmother fell ill and my family made quick moves to embrace her last few weeks of lucidness. My siblings, parents, cousins, etc., were regularly traveling to Pennsylvania to my grandparents house. All the people and the task of saying goodbye felt cumbersome, so I slept instead of being present like everyone else. Let’s be clear, I didn’t ever consciously think to myself, “this is too hard so I’m going to bed.” I really wasn’t aware of how watching my grandma decline was affecting me. When I was awake, I felt nervous and anxious. I avoided conversation and eye contact. Those few moments I was not sleeping, I felt removed, like I was watching life happen from a distance. But majority of the time, I interpreted the weightiness of the situation as a foggy exhaustion. So I slept instead of existing in detached manner.
Then there was the week of her funeral. My entire family came into town. My siblings prepped a large family dinner at my grandparents’ house for all the extended family to attend. Everyone was contributing to the event, while I stayed nestled under the covers in the “blue room” of the house. My brother, who cooked a lot of the meal, grew angry with me for not helping. But I didn’t say a word because I just felt un-functionally tired and that seemed like a bad excuse.
Recently, one of my sisters expressed that she knows my grandma’s funeral was mournful and sad, but she wouldn’t have changed the joy and community experienced in the family time the days following. But for me, all I can remember is floating in a mist and wondering when I could go back to bed. Now I understand what I thought was extreme exhaustion, was actually how I coped with the loss. When my emotions are heightened, my mind takes flight and collapses into fatigue, then my body has no choice but to sleep.
I have since progressed into a seemingly healthier way to utilize sleep than those times. It’s a slightly more conscious decision I’ve discovered more recently. I have transitioned from using sleep as an escape to, instead, using it for recovery, less in the physical sense and more of an emotional recovery. After intense human contact or strenuous situations, often I take a day or sometimes a few hours to sleep and regenerate.
On a regular basis, interacting with people is hard work for me. I have to constantly be aware of mood and any shifts to prevent them from affecting people the wrong way. I’m very conscious of how frequently the way I carry myself is misinterpreted. When I’m excited or passionate, I speak loudly and quickly. When my thoughts are fast paced, I interrupt others talking and seem rude. When I’m frustrated or confused, I appear aggressive and agitated. When I’m sad or anxious, I appear unusually quiet and unresponsive. To sum it up, as much as I try, I am extremely unaware of my tone. So engaging with others is an exhausting balancing act for me. And that’s why a day of sleep is necessary for me after family gatherings, large events, or group trips.
Currently I am a so-called adult and am functioning somewhat normally. I have obligations like work and paying bills. But still, waking up in the morning seems extremely burdensome. I regularly set 3 to 4 alarms, alternating between car horns and sirens. I know it just seems obnoxious (I’m sorry to my past and future significant others who have or will experience my morning routine), but I honestly have to leave an opening for 10 to 15 minutes of contemplation between each alarm. I have to debate with myself about what would happen if I just didn’t get up today. One alarm just allows me to roll over and say I give up, life is too hard, my thoughts are too intense. I have to convince myself that the world is really not that bad and I can survive.
If you enjoyed this piece, be sure to check out Social Anxiety is a Spectrum