I recently wrote about how I’m managing my depression at the moment, and it made me think of another topic that’s equally as important: monitoring my depression. Depression is a sneaky bastard. You might be chugging along, thinking you’re doing okay and then one day you wake up and realize you’ve not gotten dressed or showered in a couple of days and that you’ve crossed the line from functional to not. It’s surprising how it can creep up on you when you aren’t paying attention. This happened to me in the early fall. I thought I was fine at the end of the summer, but as our Comic Con (which coincides with my birthday) approached at the end of September, I didn’t start to work on a costume or plan anything for my birthday even though those are both things I really enjoy. I bought fabric for the costume I wanted to make, but just… didn’t start it. For me, that was a huge sign that the seasonal depression was kicking in early, as well as maybe a bit of feelings about turning the age I am.
Everyone’s depression signs are different, so it’s important to know yourself well. I have friends for whom becoming anti-social is a major warning sign. Not so much for me. I didn’t (willingly) speak to a single soul or go out for most of this past weekend, and it wasn’t a sign my depression is getting worse. I just really treasure my alone time – I got a ton of chores done, caught up on some TV shows, ordered some food I love, read, and went to bed early. It was incredibly relaxing and I felt much better for it. If I had stayed in all weekend and still felt miserable, that would probably have been a sign that something bigger was going on.
At various times in my life I’ve been diagnosed with mild clinical depression, moderate-to-severe clinical depression, situational depression, and seasonal affective disorder (SAD). I’ve been on and off various medications for it, and while I’ve been lucky that it’s almost never made me completely unable to function, it does seriously impact my life, particularly this time of year when the SAD (most apt acronym ever) compounds whatever else is going on. Right now, I’m managing it without prescription medication and am doing OK, but before I talk about how, I want to stress that you should always consult a doctor before making any big changes to how you manage your depression, especially before going on or off any medications. I am not a doctor and am not providing medical advice or treatment. Got it? Fantastic.
Sometimes I think all I really want out of life is a good night of sleep. You know, a night where my head hits the pillow and I don’t wake up until at least seven hours later. A night where I don’t rise with aches and pains from sleeping the wrong way or tossing and turning and fighting with the sheets. A night where, come morning, I feel… rested. I know, it’s crazy, right? I understand that there are actually some people who just put their head down, instantly fall asleep sleep for eight hours, and wake up alert and refreshed. Every single day. These people are my natural enemies, and should be treated with fear and suspicion by all in our modern society.
It’s not that I’ve never had a good night’s sleep. In fact, I’ve had a handful of them in the past decade. Some nights, when it’s 3:37 am and my brain won’t stop playing the theme song from Steven Universe on repeat, I think it would be better for me to have never experienced these elusive restful nights. Then I wouldn’t know what I’m missing.
The most recent one of note was in June of 2012, while staying at a very fancy bed and breakfast outside of Rocky Mountain National Park (praise be to Groupon). The second night there I had an inexplicably delightful night of sleep, despite my spouse being cursed with a protracted case of the hiccups that rattled the deep, four poster bed until some time after I was out.
I’m sure the bed itself had something to do with it, soft and cool, and with exactly the type of thick, goose-down covers I’ve coveted ever since seeing Maria’s bedroom in the Sound of Music at the age of eight. Even then I was obsessed with sleeping. But the bed alone couldn’t be responsible, as the night before I had been comfortable enough but slept no better than average. Average for me being what most people would consider acceptable only for someone with a colicky newborn.
No, it must have been some eldritch combination of the luxurious bedding, lack of stress while on holiday, fresh mountain air, moderate exercise, and the correct balance of a meat-heavy dinner and alcohol that provided just the right circumstances for me to sleep like a normal human being for one Cinderalla-esque night (the main difference being that while Cinderella had to run home at midnight, I didn’t even want to know about midnight).
To fully understand what this means, I need to explain how I typically sleep. Ever since reaching adulthood, my sleep has vacillated between “generically terrible” and “I swear to my lord Satan I will trigger the apocalypse because if the world ends I might be able to get some fucking shut-eye”. When I’m sleeping “well”, I manage a total of about six hours per night, usually broken up into a chunk right when I first fall asleep and then dribs and drabs in the early morning hours. It doesn’t seem to matter that much whether I’m in bed for seven hours or for twelve, I always seem to get the same amount of actual sleep out of it.
But for me, six interrupted hours is good. I can function on that. Sure, I’m tired all the time and by the time I’ve gone to work and done the basic things needed to qualify as an adult human (eat, bathe myself, prevent my home from descending into total squalor) I don’t have much energy for anything else. Like interacting with people. Or any form of creative output. But I can pass for normal, particularly if I get a few long naps in on the weekend.
Unfortunately, this stage never lasts. At some point, for no discernible reason, my brain decides that six hours is way too much and we reach the apocalyptic sleep stage. This occurs when, for whatever reason, I am unable to stay asleep for more than 4 hours. This usually manifests in the form of waking up at pretty much exactly 3:30 am every morning and being unable to even consider falling back asleep. Although if I go to bed early to try and counteract this, I’ll just wake up at 1 am. Oh sure, I can nap, but that just worsens the situation at night.
When I reach this stage, I am a walking zombie. I can feel my IQ drop. At work I feel like a heavily sedated monkey with a typewriter who’s lost her Complete Works of William Shakespeare reference copy. I have the urge to burst into tears randomly. Literally all I can think about is sleep. The whole world feels less than real. Everything is on a delay. Questions and information feel like they are reaching me through a thick layer of gelatin. Even the slightest of tasks feel impossibly hard. I drop things, I put clothes on inside out, I forget to put my car in park before turning it off. And if I do think about anything other than sleep it’s, usually, cheeseburgers. For some reason only fatty, cheesy, processed food sounds appealing when I’m sleep deprived.
And before you ask, yes, I have tried X. My bedroom is dark and cool. I’ve tried cutting out screens before bed and using TV to help me fall asleep. I’ve tried teetotal-ling, drinking heavily, and everything in between. I’ve taken melatonin, magnesium, kava-kava, and l-thyanine. I’ve been on NyQuil, Benadryl, trazodone, Seroquel, and Ambien (the latter two actual worked but their side effects were deeply disturbing, they made me sleepy during the day, and, in the case of the Ambien, caused the embarrassing occurrence of having sex I didn’t remember). I’ve done light therapy and talk therapy, I’ve changed my diet and my exercise patterns (when I can scrape together the energy to exercise), and I’ve tried fasting in the evenings and snacking before bed. I’ve had sleep studies that ended with a lot of shrugging. These episodes of sleeplessness can occur during times of high stress or virtually no stress. At the change of seasons or in the middle of one.
Every once in awhile I find a sleep voodoo spell that seems to work to get me to the sunnier side of insomnia. It’s always different. For awhile, the answer appeared to be 100 mg of trazodone, 12 ounces of a very particularly type of beer before bed, and sleeping on our futon. I was clocking nearly six and a half hours straight some nights! But then, one day, for no apparently reason, it stopped working and the inevitable slide back into wee hour wakefulness began.
I blame my parents. Not in the nebulous “oh, they gave me a complex” kind of way I usually blame them for things. No, this one is definitely their fucking fault. I’ve never seen both my parents asleep at the same time – one of them is always awake. To my knowledge no adult in on either side of my family has had a decent night’s sleep since 1978. We’ve got sleep apnea, circadian rhythm disorders, night terrors, restless leg syndrome, straight up insomnia, and more running through my family in various combinations, all trickling down into the youngest and last of the generation. You guessed it. Me. All of these delightful maladies have recombined within my tender soul, like an array of viruses meeting and combining into the super-bug that will kill us all, resulting in a unique, pernicious, and largely undiagnosable, sleep-eating monster.
So, it’s entirely understandable that, when exposed to a healthy night of deep, fully restorative sleep for the first time in years, my body reacted somewhat like a puppy taking its first snort of cocaine. I sprang out of bed at the crack of dawn and went for a run. I ran five miles. At that point I could generally only manage about three, and there was significantly less oxygen where we were staying than at home. But I ran five, easily, and then soaked in the hot tub, had a steam, spend some time identifying the local wildflowers, and helped our rather bewildered hostess set the table for breakfast. After breakfast, in the park, I continued to feel amazing and had to be dissuaded from turning out little four mile jaunt through the woods into a 14 mile day hike to regions unknown. If I had met a bear I would have wrestled it into submission and driven my sleep demons into it. I felt fantastic. I was literally high on sleep.
Of course the next night was back to my usual death match against the Sandman, which went about as well as one might expect. Perhaps I should have begged the inn to keep me on as apprentice French toast flipper or something, working for free in exchange for sleeping in that bed, to see if the effect lasted. But I’m not that lucky. It’s probably better we left that day, before the magic wore off. Sometimes, though, on days like that, or on the slightly less infrequent days at home when my sleep quality cracks “decent” and I have a few hours of expendable energy, I get a glimpse of somebody very different from myself. Someone who is enthusiastic, fun, and sociable. Someone who is focused and productive and organized. Someone who gets a truly astonishing amount done which she puts her mind to it.
It makes me wonder who I would be if I got enough sleep on a regular basis. I’m not sure but I bet she’s pretty cool. And has a pony.