Thursday, July 30, 2009

Why the Hell Did I Wake Up at 2 A.M.?

Basic to the management of bipolar disorder is what health professionals call "good sleep hygiene." This consists not only of getting enough sleep but of observing habits that maximize the chances of getting a good night's sleep. Although I consider this a critical skill, I've found it difficult to master, and some of the things that work for me run counter to the usual advice. For instance, it's recommended that one not watch television before retiring and above all that one should not sleep with the television on. Television, observes the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of Maryland, "is a very engaging medium that tends to keep people up."

At the same time, the Center advises the aspiring sleeper to "leave your worries about job, school, daily life, etc., behind when you go to bed." In my experience, this has proven almost impossible. From childhood I've nearly always lain awake for at least an hour, worrying about this or that. A solution that has worked for me is a modification of the "no television" rule. I leave the TV on, but I have it play a DVD that I practically know by heart. It distracts me from worrisome topics and because I'm thoroughly familiar with the story line, it doesn't engage me enough to keep me awake.

Some DVDs work better than others. The most reliable, oddly enough, is a war movie, Twelve O'Clock High, I think because it consists mainly of dialogue and has almost no combat scenes.

Still, my sleep pattern tends to oscillate between a lot of sleep -- last week I found myself sleeping as many as twelve hours -- and comparatively little, generally only four hours a night. Last night was an extreme example. I slept only ninety minutes and awoke with the certainty that I would not be able to get back to sleep. In such instances the advice is not to force sleep but to read quietly or maybe take a warm bath. In no case should one do office work, housework, etc. This is a rule I nearly always violate, because once again it doesn't work for me. I have found it more effective to push through the day and then retire at an early hour but not too early -- say at 9 p.m. This usually results in getting sufficient sleep the next night, and I'll take an Ambien to try and make sure of it.

Although I don't become alarmed when I get too little sleep, I do start looking for signs of a potential hypomanic episode. As a checklist I use the relevant criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychiatric Association, which I have more or less memorized (and also own a copy).

The first question I ask myself is whether I feel refreshed, as if I had gotten a full night's sleep. That would be bad. Fortunately on this occasion I don't feel that way. I feel functional but kind of tired, and were it not for the proscription against taking naps during the day, that's probably what I'd wind up doing. (I sometimes take cat naps anyway. Even twenty minutes can restore a measure of vitality without compromising my ability to get to sleep that evening.)

Second, I ask myself whether I feel unusually creative and raring to go. Again, that would be bad.

Third, I look at whether I am easily distracted, which is another symptom of hypomania. If I can stay on task, whether it's doing dishes or paying bills, I'm less concerned.

Lastly, if the condition persists for four days, then getting a good night's rest becomes an absolute priority, and on such occasions my psychiatrist has authorized me to double the dosage of Ambien. This generally does the trick.

There are other criteria indicative of a hypomanic episode -- e.g., an unequivocal change in functioning uncharacteristic of the person when not symptomatic, and the disturbance in mood and functioning are observable to others -- but I seldom find evidence of the former and as for the latter, I am continually amazed by how rarely anyone picks up on a change in my mood and / or functioning, at least not on the "high" side of normal. Depressions, my principal bĂȘte noire, are more noticeable to friends, though not to colleagues (or if they do notice they rarely say a word).

In any event, the object is to avoid as many symptoms of a hypomanic episode as possible. And one thing I definitely avoid is the temptation to "ride the wave" of increased creativity that often characterizes a hypomanic episode. I have heard of writers, artists, etc. who firmly believe their creativity is inextricably bound to their hypomanic episodes and therefore resist treatment. I say the hell with that.

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