People often ask me if I don’t sleep because I’m always doing so much. They’d likely be surprised to find out that I get more sleep than most people I know. To sleep or not to sleep is not really a question for me. I sleep.
The first night I spent in the hospital after telling my best friend and my husband that I was afraid I would take my own life was the single best night of sleep I’d had in years.
For the prior three years, I’d been pregnant for 18 months, and chasing after two toddlers for the remainder of the time. I practiced what they call attachment parenting, and the best thing (at least for me) was co-sleeping. I’d slept with both of my babies because it made breastfeeding so much easier, and I found that I would worry about them if they weren’t close to me.
After the first few months, though, I slowly started to experience the downside of co-sleeping: only one of us was actually sleeping. At first I was getting great sleep compared to what I would have gotten if I was getting out of my bed every few hours to breastfeed. But once the baby started sleeping through the night, and not waking every few hours, their movements would wake me up and I couldn’t go back to a deep sleep.
Insomnia breeds insomnia. I didn’t know this at the time, but insomnia can also trigger a (hypo)manic episode. So over time, instead of feeling sleepy, I felt a crazy energy. Everything that could be done, I did. Even if that meant I didn’t sleep. At first, it was awesome — I felt like I could do ANYTHING. Write my qualifying paper, sing with a band in Oakland, cook gourmet meals every night. But then I realized I was running, but on a hamster wheel. I was moving, but I wasn’t going anywhere.
I spent every Monday, Wednesday and Friday in Starbucks until it closed, constantly “revising” the same paper, which meant I’d really rewritten all 30 pages two or three times in the course of a few weeks. Tuesday and Thursday evening were spent driving an hour to Oakland to sing with a band for two hours and then an hour drive home. I’d get home, pull my babies into bed with me and then not-sleep. I’d also work in the cooperative day care two mornings a week. During the day, I’d clean my house from top to bottom. Every day. I felt so productive. Until I wasn’t.
Like many people with Bipolar II, for me, hypomania ALWAYS leads to depression. But I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know that what I was feeling was hypomania until I crashed. After spending a week in the hospital to stem the most crushing depression I’d ever experienced, I thought I’d taken miracle drugs because I felt so much better.
The doctor told me the drugs don’t work that fast. I felt better, she said, because I had relieved myself of a heavy burden and because I was well rested.
I’d always been a big sleeper. My college roommates can attest to how testy I can get when my sleep is disturbed; the pinging of Instant Messenger late on a weeknight or gospel music bright and early on Sunday morning is enough to make me want to hurt someone, or at least give them the evil eye. My children likewise know not to disturb Mommy from her sleep. But before I was hospitalized, I’d never realized how much sleep contributed to my ability to do the things I want to do. And how much it contributes to keeping me out of hypomanic and depressive trouble.
Now, I take a sleep aid every night. For most people, it’s not a good idea to take a sleep aid daily because your body comes to rely on the drug and you won’t be able to sleep without it. But a lot of people with bipolar disorder take sleep aids because of the potential for a lack of sleep to trigger an episode. My friends often ask me how I have so much time to sleep. I don’t really have the time, but I have to make the time. That means not hanging out late at night. It means driving myself to a party so I can leave when I need to go. It means not procrastinating on projects because I cannot pull an all-nighter. It means being honest with my kids and husband and my friends about my need for rest. It means that maybe my term paper is not the best. But it’s good enough given my need for sleep.
Not everyone needs 9-10 hours of sleep like I do. Some people can get by on 5 or 6 hours. But they NEED something. It may be time to draw or write something other than a dissertation. It might be time to sing or read novels or garden or dance. For many people it means exercise or meditation. Defining it as a need means it isn’t optional. Like all things we need — water, food, clothing, shelter — we can go for a little bit without them. You won’t die from not having water for a day. Or two. But get closer to 72 hours and you’re in trouble. That’s me and sleep. I have other needs, but none as essential as sleep.
What is your essential need? How do you know it’s essential? How are you making time for that thing every day?