Real Stories

Fluctuating Struggle of Sleeping & Staying Awake

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

by Christi Anne Ng

People always say your illness doesn’t define who you are, but honestly I completely disagree. I am my disorder. I am bipolar disease. I wouldn’t be who I am today without it. And at several points in my life it controlled me, but I am happy to say today it does not have as much power over me. I don’t think defining myself by my disease is a bad thing. I think it gives power to how much I have overcome.

Hi, I’m Christi Anne and I’m bipolar. It’s a part of me. It’s my friend and it’s my foe. On my bad days, I am insane and psychotic. On my sad days, I am depressed and bed-ridden. On my good days, I am unstoppable.

Mental illness has never been unfamiliar to me. I started seeing a psychiatrist when I was 7. My mom always says I was her easiest child until I started going to school. So 7. I started going crazy at 7. ADHD was the first diagnoses. I remember certain days in 5th grade when I was bouncing off the walls and just would not shut up, my teacher would pull me aside and whisper, “Did you take your medicine today?”

Of course, I didn’t.

I’m 10 and I want to be bouncing off the walls.

Little did I know, these were the earliest days of mania. But I actually don’t remember much about my childhood. Another lovely side effect of my beautiful disease, memory inhibition. And what I do remember, I only think of negatively. I remember the anxiety so high that my heart would be beating out of my chest and my muscles would feel stiff. I remember depression so low that the floor of my bedroom was the only place I could be, wailing until my tears turned dry. I remember rage. Oh how I remember rage. I remember kicking a hole in that wall. I remember screaming at the top of my lungs. I remember my vision being blurred with red.
I wasn’t even diagnosed with bipolar disorder until I was 18. It took me moving to Chicago, spending a total of 2 days on my new college campus, then running away to get the diagnose. I don’t blame my doctors though. I’ve had very good doctors. I’m just a really complicated patient. Plus, I didn’t ever understand myself enough to express to the doctors what I needed help with. I didn’t think the anger and rage was unusual. I just thought the anxiety and mania was normal because I didn’t know otherwise. So in those therapy sessions, I only talked about the depression. I only discussed the intense sadness that overcame me and the times I felt like killing myself.

It wasn’t until my “brief college experience” did I open my eyes to the intense high followed by crashing so low. Even then, it wasn’t that clear to me. All I knew was my mind was racing and I felt totally and completely insane. I called up my parents begging for someone to save me and give me a break from my mind. I couldn’t handle being with my thoughts anymore. So they flew me out to their house and signed me up for psychiatry again. It was then when the doctor said, “It’s called mania. You’re a manic depressive.”

And oh I wish it was a quick fix then and there with the diagnosis. It would’ve prevented a whole lot of broken relationships and damaged souls. But again, I’m not that simple. It’s been 6 years and I’m still battling this disease. But now I can confidentially say I am surviving.

I take six different medications on a daily basis. Yes, six. And I wouldn’t hesitate to add more if needed. I dedicate my life to my medications. They have saved me from my mind. I have found a mental illness cocktail that works for me. And after 6 years and 6 medications, I finally feel hope. I see a bright and successful future down the path. And I am excited. And I am happy. Yes, happy.

If there is one thing I would want people to understand about me, it would be that every day I have to make the decision to get up and be stronger than my illness. That rolling out of bed and getting started with the day takes immense amount of energy. Because every day could have the potential for mania. Honestly, there is not a night that goes by that I don’t wish I could close my eyes and stop my mind forever. But the morning always comes and I always decide to wake up.


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