“In the dream, I fall into the sleepless sea
With a swell of panic and pain
My veins are aching for the distant reef
In the crush of emotional waves
Alright, get a hold of yourself
And don’t fight it, it’s over your head
It’s alright, the rumble in your ears
It’s alright to feel a little fear
And don’t fight it, it’s over your head
It’s alright, you wake up in your bed”
King Crimson – Sleepless (1984)
Songwriters: Adrian Belew / Anthony Charles Levin / Robert Fripp /
William Scott Bruford
For people living with bipolar disorder sleep is an essential component to maintaining one’s emotional and mental wellbeing. Personally, for me, this couldn’t be more true. I rely on getting adequate sleep to function at my best, and when I don’t get proper rest, I suffer.
Case in point. Several months ago, I woke up at 2 a.m. and my mind switched on. I had been experiencing sleep issues that week and this was the culmination of a time fraught with the stressors of my work and personal life. In most cases I would simply plan on taking the day off, calling it a “mental health day.” But I had an 8 a.m. meeting at a local school to present the Youth Peer Advocate program services that the agency I work for, Mental Health Advocates of Western New York (MHAWNY), provides.
I had come out to the living room of my condo from the bedroom to listen to music on my stereo. This is something I do when all else fails and I cannot shut down my brain. Over the years I’ve learned to employ a variety of tools to help induce the sleep that I desperately need. Things such as repeating a mantra in my head with breathing (I use “Mind, Body, Spirit” on the in breath and “Thought, Word, Deed” on the out breath). I repeat the mantra, utilizing it in combination with my breath to follow a mindfulness-based approach and to keep my mind focused and not running amok. I also use another technique which is to inhale deeply through my nose for a count of 5, hold it for a count of 5, and slowly release it through my mouth for a count of 8. There are a variety of such “in and out” breath relaxation exercises that can be used to calm the mind and body. Another I’ve used is called “box breathing” which entails breathing in to a count 4, filling the lungs deeply into the abdomen, holding for a count of 4, exhaling completely for a count of 4, and then holding it again. This breathing technique should be repeated several times.
But on this particular night, nothing worked. For many years I would use Ambien, as needed, which was prescribed by my psychiatrist. But I recently decided to use melatonin, which is much safer and which I have found to be effective and a suitable substitute in most cases.
I lay on the couch, listening to my Spotify mix I call “Lullabies,” which is comprised of 5 hours of super chill songs, including tracks by such artists as Pat Metheny, Lamb, Seal, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, and Radiohead. And while I was unable to fall asleep, I was at least able to settle into a more calm state.
Eventually I got up,showered, and prepared to leave for the meeting The school was about 20 minutes from my home and consisted of driving on one of the area’s local highways. I was particularly vigilant and aware of my surroundings. As I exited I used the “talk to text’ feature to contact my supervisor, Melinda DuBois, who is the Executive Director of MHAWNY. I told her about my predicament and that I wanted to request the rest of the day off after the meeting to which she graciously agreed. There are a lot of advantages for working at a mental health organization that values its employees this way. I follow the same practice that Melinda extended to me with my staff.
I arrived and was greeted by one of the high school social workers. When we entered the small meeting room, there were about eight or nine other school support staff around the table, including other social workers and counselors.
In true fashion, I was able to summon the energy to come off like I was full of vim and vigor, however inside, I was feeling exhausted. I had to be “on” and I know from experience, that a big part of meetings such as the one I was in is having the ability to be engaging and energetic For me, as an extrovert, it’s automatic. The meeting lasted about an hour and I answered a lot of specific questions, none of which were brain teasers fortunately.
After the meeting I headed home and crashed.
I’ve been living with this thing called bipolar disorder for nearly 42 years and I know myself quite well. This is what is known as “insight,” Insight is a crucial element in unlocking the key to recovery for those living with mental health and/or addiction diagnoses.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to not panic when I can’t sleep. I had an experience in 2007 when while returning from a trip to China I was awake for nearly 40 hours due to a major flight delay in Chicago and where I didn’t have any of my medication available (another hard learned lesson).
What I’ve described is but one of many times that I have had some kind of sleep deprived experience. They’re no fun. And I also know, from experience, that If I go more than two nights with significant changes in my sleep pattern, I need to increase the dosage of the chlorpromazine medication that I take, as has been directed by my psychiatrist.
As I stated at the beginning of this post, proper sleep is essential for people who live with bipolar. I have come to understand that stress is a significant trigger for sleep problems for me and that I need to practice other self-care tools like regular meditation and exercise to create a better state of wellbeing. Undoubtedly, this demon will rear its ugly head again in the future many times, however I know what to do and this knowledge is invaluable.