After being diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2011, my psychiatrist and I spent the next few years figuring out the right doses for my medication. At first, sleep was not a problem. My medicine actually made me too tired; I took both around 6:00 pm and would be in bed by 7:00. Since couldn’t be alone unsupervised, this caused problems when my parents had outings in which I invariably tagged along.
My psychiatrist solved the problem by telling me to take one with food, as directed, and the other right before bed. That did the trick, but unfortunately, by the time I went back to school in the spring of 2012, I couldn’t fall asleep on my own. I had to take Benadryl. I also wasn’t exercising because my attention span didn’t allow for it. I had gained close to fifteen pounds in four or five months.
My doctor prescribed Trazadone to help me sleep. I hated it. It knocked me out and made me a zombie until noon the next day, which meant getting up early to exercise before classes was out of the question. And it didn’t even work unless I took two Benadryl on top of it. I hated how I felt and how poor my sleep life was.
In high school and before, all I had to do was lay down to fall asleep. I didn’t think about it. It wasn’t a chore and I always seemed to get enough—even if I only got 4 hours.
In the wake of my manic episode and psychotic break, I felt like I couldn’t get enough sleep.
Sometime in the fall of 2012, I became aware of my body and I felt gross. I knew I needed to start working out again. I pushed past the drowsiness in the morning and did intense exercise for forty-five to sixty minutes first thing in the morning. That helped wake me up a little, but I was still dependent on the Trazadone.
That fall, I played intramural basketball, and one night after a game, I realized I was very tired before I even got back to my dorm. I went to bed without taking the Trazadone and slept like a baby. A new ritual was born. I lived in a four-story dorm, and I started running up and down the stairwell for twenty minutes before bed.
After I discovered this trick (something I never told my psychiatrist about because every time I saw him he asked if I was exercising and then told me not to do it before bed—I didn’t listen to him), I slept like a pro. I would go to bed at 8:00 and wake up at 4:00 am without an alarm.
Something about running those stairs was magical. I’ve tried other exercise routines before bed (because I don’t usually have access to a four-story dorm), and nothing works quite as well as the stair-running.
Once I stopped taking Trazadone and started working out twice a day, I lost all the unhealthy weight I had gained, and I started taking sleep for granted again. I don’t remember much about my moods in college. Generally, I was probably a bit melancholy and definitely lonely. I stayed to myself and didn’t make friends easily. I enjoyed classes and learning.
I know I had suicidal thoughts during my college years. They were bad enough I talked to my psychiatrist about them. I didn’t tell my parents. I suffered through them and didn’t tell anyone about my ideations. They were pretty mild. I thought about writing notes once or twice, but I never actually put together a solid plan for killing myself. I mostly just wished for death and didn’t understand why God didn’t put me out of my misery.
I don’t remember feeling particularly hypomanic at any point; of course, I may not have recognized it that early on.
Fast forward a few years later. I moved into an apartment and lived on my own. I could do whatever, whenever (I’d lived in a dorm or with my parents all my life). I’m a picky eater, and pasta is my go-to meal. It’s easy to fix and I love carbs. I ate pasta a lot when I first moved into my apartment. I would go to bed early on those nights and I’d sometimes wake up at 1:00 or 2:00 am. Wide awake. Unable to go back to sleep. (I asked my psychiatrist at some point why certain foods make me tired and he said fatty foods make my antipsychotic medicine metabolize faster, which can cause drowsiness).
I didn’t complain about these short nights—I asked my doctor about foods making me tired because I wanted to know the why behind it, not just the what (I didn’t tell him very much about the short nights). They were fueled by unfettered energy and productivity. I would exercise and clean and read and do whatever all before having to go to work. I could complete a day’s worth of productivity before anyone else even thought about waking up.
I eventually “diagnosed” these episodes as bouts of hypomania. And I loved them. I didn’t go out of my way to make myself hypomanic, and I didn’t try to avoid it, either. I knew roughly how to get there. Eat a lot of pasta/pizza for dinner, go to bed at 7:00, wake up at 2:00, congratulations, you are now hypomanic!
From what I could tell, there was absolutely nothing bad about hypomania. So much energy and industriousness. I am normally incredibly shy and quiet. I realized hypomania destroyed my insecurities, and I actually felt great being around people. Not just being around them; I felt outgoing and gregarious. I could do no wrong when I was hypomanic, and I felt like I functioned best, especially in social situations, in my hypomanic state.
Not so fast.
After many hypomanic episodes, I realized they did have downsides. For one, the irritability was terrible. I could fly high for hours and then one little thing would derail me and ruin the rest of the day, and maybe the next day as well. My hypomanic episodes were followed by what were probably mild depressions. I needed more sleep, and I wasn’t as productive or energetic for a week or more, at least until I got hypomanic again.
From the time I moved into my apartment at the end of 2015 until December of 2017, I’d venture to say I spent about forty to fifty percent of my time in hypomania. That’s a lot of time being hypomanic, and its frequency made me think I’d always have access to it.
In November of 2017, I got Harper, an adorable German Shepherd mix. Our first couple weeks were rough and neither of us got a lot of sleep. But once we got in our groove, my short nights just about disappeared. I would still wake up super early, and for whatever reason (Harper’s presence), I could often go back to sleep. This cut down the frequency of my hypomanic episodes. Something I was fine with.
The extreme productivity and energy is hard to beat, of course, but I found hypomania most useful in social situations. I started coming out of my shell a lot once I started experiencing hypomania. I realized I can be funny and eloquent—with some assistance from my illness.
I get really giggly when I’m hypomanic. I sweat a lot, but I’m also cold. I usually feel empty in my stomach and I often have a migraine. I can be a bit obnoxious when I’m hypomanic—my family would argue that’s an understatement. I think everything is funny—especially things I say and do.
At some point, hypomania turned into my good mood, and I lost the ability to discern if I ever simply had good moods. I felt like sometimes I was on point and funny even though I wasn’t hypomanic (I can usually physically feel it when I’m in that state) but other people assumed I was hypomanic because I was in a good mood.
This angered and frustrated me. People are always telling me my illness doesn’t define me, yet if I’m in a good mood, my illness gets the credit. That seemed unfair to me. I longed for people to enjoy my company without the stigma of hypomania hanging over my head.
Lo and behold, sometime in 2020, I completely lost access to hypomania. I wasn’t having as many short nights, and even when I did, I could tell I wasn’t hypomanic. I was not highly energetic or productive. I was very human. Three to four hours of sleep? Yeah, you’re gonna feel that.
Strangely, I lost hypomania but I gained the ability to turn my sociable and gregarious side on whenever I wanted. I finally had good moods without being obnoxious, and I could tap into it whenever I wanted to. I do not know when the flip was thrown or how it was thrown or why it was thrown. I thanked my lucky stars I didn’t need a form of psychosis to function well around other people.
If I needed to be around people, I could flip a switch and go into a mode where I was funny and personable. This probably has to do with therapy and a lot of maturity on my end. Realizing I have a lot of control over how I respond to things—all that mushy stuff.
A couple months ago, I went up to Tulsa to see my aunt, uncle, and their kids for Christmas. Christmas night, I was talking with my aunt and uncle about some of my experiences with having bipolar disorder, and I felt jazzed. That morning, I ran 12 miles, and I felt like I could’ve run another 12. It scared me how hyped up I was. I was afraid I wouldn’t sleep that night. I had some cookies (a trick I’ve learned for getting sleep), and I don’t even remember laying down. I slept great.
I drove the four hours back to my parents and didn’t think much of the day before. I slept well, so there was nothing to worry about.
A few weeks later, I had therapy. I had the giggles something terrible during our session. I’ve never had that problem in therapy, and it was one of the worst giggle moods I’ve ever had. My therapist chalked it up to hypomania. I brushed it off because I hadn’t been hypomanic in over a year, and what does she know, anyway? Plus, I really hate it when people tell me I’m hypomanic. I will diagnose myself, thank you very much!
Some more days went by. I went to my parents that weekend, and again, I had the giggles and was feeling (and acting) really obnoxious. Then a couple days later, I went to a movie with my brother and sister-in-law. A Marvel movie, which I don’t usually care for. Sure enough, the basic premise was just silly, and I disliked it. I told myself, Do not vent when they ask you about it. Just say it was pretty good and leave it at that. Don’t tell them how you really feel.
So, it ended, and my brother asked me what I thought. And boy, did I tell him. Very enthusiastically, I told him how silly it was and blah, blah, blah. He said, “You are pretty excited for something you say you don’t care anything about.” If that isn’t a good tagline for hypomania, I don’t know what is.
I gave what my therapist said about hypomania some thought before that evening, but after the debacle with my brother, I realized, Dang. I’ve probably been low-level hypomanic for a month!
I still don’t know what to think of this development. On one hand, it sucks because I wrote an entire chapter for my book about not having hypomania anymore…so I’ll have to alter that somehow. On the other hand, it’s nice to know it is still there. Some pretty cool things come from hypomania, and, this wave I’ve been riding seems to contain all of the good stuff minus the crippling irritability.
Hypomania without irritability has got to be the closest thing to heaven on earth; now I just need to motivate myself to use some of this energy to clean my house.