Sleep and Bipolar Disorder – How I Cured My Insomnia – Guest Post

The Bipolar Burble welcomes Leslie Smile for today’s piece on how she recognized that sleep was affecting her bipolar disorder and how she worked to cure her insomnia.

  
I’ve lost many hours holding the wall up with my glazed stare. Unable to calm my mind yet unable to focus my thoughts clearly, I’ve been sleepless for days on end. I would go on through my days like a zombie. “Just keep going,” I’d tell myself. Some days I would come home from work and collapse on my bed until the next morning. I would wake grouchy, confused and still tired. Insomnia doesn’t keep you awake permanently… just until you crash.

Insomnia’s Effects on My Life

[push]I’ve always envied people who sleep easily. Their brains must be cleaner, the floorboards of the skull well swept, all the little monsters closed up in a steamer trunk at the foot of the bed. ~ David Benioff[/push]

The tired feeling morphed into a bone deep lethargy; an energy sucking, crippling fatigue drained me. I began to feel like I could barely survive. I had begun the dip into major depression and bipolar behaviors. I don’t blame my mental illness on my poor sleep nor do I blame my sleeplessness entirely on my mental illness but as I’ve come to learn bipolar disorder and insomnia affect each other in such a way both deserve the attention and respect of proper self-care and good sleep hygiene.

What Didn’t Help My Insomnia and Bipolar Disorder

I had no concept of proper sleep hygiene. First I tried over-the-counter sleep aids, then doctor prescribed sleep aids. Some worked briefly but didn’t give me any sense of being in control of my mental health as their reliability was sketchy at best. Band-Aid solutions were not enough. What could I do?

How I Changed to Help Cure My Insomnia

I rarely gave myself the time for all the things my morning contained. This meant I constantly woke feeling rushed (a very anxiety inducing way to start the day). Focused on getting past insomnia, I started by taking my medications at the same time every day. I made my mornings peaceful waking experiences without coffee. (No coffee?! This was initially a cruel form of torture advised by my doctor, naturopath, and various sleep information rich websites alike.)

Mental Health and Sleeping ProblemsI Had to Want to Cure My Insomnia

At bed time, calming a worrying mind takes practice and effort. Quieting a busy, synapse-firing brain is tricky and left me feeling hopeless at times. Staring at the wall, numb and dissociated from wakefulness and sleep alike is dangerous. I had to want to change before my sleep habits started to improve. Maybe out of desperation or out of new found knowledge I wanted to change.

Training my brain to shut down and wake up at the same time every day is hard. Setting an unwind time alarm and a bedtime alarm felt a little silly at first. I didn’t want to go to bed at 10:30 pm when House was only half over. But I do want to be able to sleep well most nights. My health is more important than House.

More Ways I Cured My Insomnia

I added more artillery to my sleep war chest over time building a stronger defense against insomnia:

  • I removed the clock and any direct light from my sleep area. So many gadgets to hide with their tempestuous glow. No more looking at the clock and being exasperated at the hour I find myself *still* awake.
  • I take my relaxation techniques to bed. Deep breathing, and deep muscle relaxation exercises help put me in the sleep zone.
  • I eat breakfast. It helps keep me from going back to bed and helps my mood too.
  • I start my day with a big glass of cool water instead of fake fuelling myself with sugar and caffeine (did I mention that really sucked at first?).
  • I get out of bed after nine hours. Many people operate fine on seven hours of sleep. Good for those people. If I get up before the ninth hour I’ll take a cursed nap. These are terrible things that I love.
  • I don’t nap. Or I try not to. If I’m tired I try to be aware of that as I continue through my day/evening but it’s good to finish the day tired. That’s an almost guaranteed good night’s sleep. I skip the nap when I can.

Insomnia, Sleep and Me Now

I fall asleep a little easier these days. With the addition of the help of a new medication I’m on for my other mental health issues, I find myself drowsy near the same time nightly.

I still have to force myself many days to get to the kitchen and drink that glass of water. It takes time to make habitual changes. For me, insomnia really is a result of the culmination of habits surrounding my sleep (known as sleep hygiene). I’m sleeping more often than not these past couple weeks and that is an accomplishment. I’m finding the will to start doing the things I love again. I’m learning to follow my bliss in life. It’s the simple things that make the difference, like a good night’s sleep.

Leslie is a mental health patient in Atlantic Canada. She voices her experience getting healthy on Twitter, @SaltySmile. She is passionate about social justice issues, reading, writing, learning and sharing. Contact her at mysaltysmile@gmail.com.

 

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  1. I have had depression for so many years that I cannot count! I feel guilty because GOD is my source of
    strength or should be but I have this disease. No one understands except my husband. He is MY BLESSING!
    Most days I wake up and struggle to get up and it may be 3:00 before I even get dressed for the day!
    I avoid going a lot of places, I cannot seem to get my house de-cluttered and clean even after day to day
    attempts and that makes me feel even more guilty because my mother, sister are great housekeepers; so
    is my son and one of my daughters. I am embarrassed for anyone to visit. What has happened to me?
    My sister just thinks I am lazy! That is SO untrue. My overall health also includes chronic pain issues as well.
    Does anyone else know what I am talking about? The housekeeping problem??????

  2. I have never read someone else’s post who is Bipolar, that talk about their Insomnia. I have had Insomnia for all my life. Right now my Psychiatrist has me on Lithium, Seroquel, and Klonopin. I have been wanting to get off the Seroquel, but I have been afraid to. I don’t want to be on medicine for the rest of my life. I wonder if what you do to get you through the night and also how you feel in the morning would be worth it for me. I have 3 children and of course my husband to take care of. I don’t like feeling so drowsy that I can’t function. Also, with me having anxiety, I don’t want my feelings to throw me into a panic attack because I didn’t sleep. Do you have any suggestions?

  3. Although I appreciate you sharing your experience, I have not had luck with “sleep hygiene”.It is pretty bad when you resent people for being able to sleep.I only recently began taking taking a medication for Bipolar having been unable to receive a diagnosis for years.It is to my chagrin that beginning Depakote did not result in ceasing taking Tamazepam.I can only see my general practitioner who is not comfortable treating Bipolar.I have read dozens of books on treating Bipolar and insomnia, including several written by the terrific Dr. Jay Carter.Thanks for letting me share.

    • Important: Be VERY careful with Tamazepam!!! It has been outlawed in many places in Europe and is only to be prescribed here in the U.S. to be taken for no longer than 2 weeks. I had a doc several years back who prescribed it to me for six months and that nearly killed me. It depleats your brain of its natural chemicals which give you the ability to fall asleep. I reached “tolerance” (where the Tamaz no longer worked), but then I could not fall asleep AT ALL! My body felt electric and my senses were heightened to the point that it was torture. A naturalist Doctor gave me a prescription for some prescription grade L-Tryptophan and that helped me come back to a natural brain chemistry.

  4. I’ve found that Seroquel knocks me out but a few months ago I started doing stretching at night and in the morning, in bed. Slow stretching kind of relaxes me at night and in the morning it just makes me feel better.
    Still, the occasional 48 hour eyes wide open hits. I just go with it.
    I had about a year of hallucinations (hypnagogic) that begin just as you’re almost asleep and they scared me so much that almost a year later I still sleep with the lights on. I’m not sure I’ll ever get passed that.
    Hallucinations can happen when it’s light but very rare. At least, for me. It seems that a hallucination would bring its own dark or light but I’m not ready for any testing in that area just yet.
    It’s good to hear that you found a way to get sleep. I’ve had insomnia before and I know that it sucks.

  5. Excellent piece. Excellent for its clarity and honesty. I have always maintained that ‘trying to sleep’ is irrational, that for me sleep is one of those binary things, that even thinking in those terms is self-destructive, something that is bound to fail like trying to relax. I have tried booze but if nothing else, my bladder wakes me up. Correct nutrition is important as is the water everyone needs to flush toxins away. My fall-back is the twenty connected breaths I learnt from Rebirthing practitioners. Like most things, good sleep takes time and self-discipline. And self-kindness.

  6. Excellent ideas on getting to sleep-and I hope you reach a wide audience of bipolar sufferers who will follow them. You’re quite right about the reciprocity between sleep and mood–just too little sleep for even a few days can potentially set off a manic episode [see the research I just did at http://candidaabrahamson.wordpress.com/2012/01/31/knitting-up-the-raveled-sleave-of-care-sleep-and-bipolar-disorder/). Keep up the excellent sleep hygeine, and be well-rested and well, Candida

  7. A wind-down alarm is a GREAT idea.
    Deep breathing is also surprisingly effective. I am not one who gravitates towards yoga or breathing exercises but I have found that focusing on a few deep breaths at night when I am sleepy can sometimes be what it takes to push me over the edge (ok, while riding an Ambien wave, but still).
    My big challenge with a insomnia and sleep is I am very much a night owl (is this a tendency of bpII?)–so around the time I should be getting to bed is the first time all day I feel awake and alert and ready to do something remotely productive, and it feels as though I am cheating myself to go to bed then. Maybe some of us have 36 hour body clocks instead of 24 hour ones, eh.

    • Jenn,

      Great point on the deep-breathing. It’s amazing just how many situations in which deep breathing can help. Anxiety, insomnia, anger, irritation – it’s practically a free, side effectless cure-all!

      I’d say it’s not that you have a 36-hour clock it’s just that your circadian rhythm is a mess. It happens to the best of us and to people with a mental illness quite commonly. There are ways of helping your circadian rhythm back to normal but the easiest one is just to maintain a strict routine.

      Unfortunately though, some people seem to have a wonky circadian rhythm no matter what. (It’s pretty common in people with ADHD.)

      – Natasha Tracy