December 06, 2020

Sleepless in Pennsylvania

The ebbs and flows of days, seasons, and life cycles all play into the functioning of our bodies and our minds. This From the Lived Experience story from Elise shares her journey with bipolar disorder, and reminds that issues of sleep and hormones can factor into our mental health. Seeking help and understanding all of these issues together was important for Elise’s journey.

By contributing writer, Elise Seyfried

I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in May of 2006. The summer before, I had put my 16-year-old daughter Rose on a plane to Thailand, where she would spend a year as an exchange student. A few weeks later, we welcomed a student of the same age from Switzerland. My two oldest sons were away at college, but I still had a houseful; in addition to our teenage guest there was my husband Steve, ninth grader Patrick, fifth grader Julie, and my 80-year-old mom. I’d been managing my very full life (including my job as Spiritual Formation Director at our church) for years. It never occurred to me that I was anywhere near a breaking point.

Shortly after Rose left, my sleep habits suddenly changed. I found I needed only a few hours a night, and felt unusually energetic and sharp the rest of the time. My productivity at church and at home soared, and I began experiencing the euphoria I would come to love so much. Life was beautiful, even if I often snapped at my family. Life was exhilarating, even if I was constantly cursing a blue streak. Life was incredible, even when I was maxing out our credit cards on impulse purchases. I swept my compulsive nastiness and very frequent mall trips under the rug, preferring to concentrate on the up side of things—I could now be productive 20 hours a day! Who needed sleep anyway? And, mostly, I’d never felt more intense happiness.

Periodically I would have crying jags that would last most of a day, but for the most part my mood remained elevated. As the year went on, my mother’s Alzheimer’s disease worsened. Though I had always been extremely close to Mom, now I couldn’t bring myself to notice, or care, that she was failing—I was too wrapped up in my “fantastic” self. I proposed more and more grandiose activities (who plans to take 40 teenagers to Alaska for a mission trip? Me!) and I started dropping some of the many, many balls I had in the air.

Finally, one day over tea, a good friend bluntly told me she thought I needed to talk to a therapist. While the suggestion was infuriating, I did call someone that night. By then my “highs” were much more frightening than delightful, and it was a huge relief to see someone, and get a diagnosis at last.

It took two doctors, four changes of medication, and many months of talk therapy, to turn things around. Even then, it was one step forward and two back. That Alaska mission trip happened in July, while I was still on the wrong meds and reacting badly to the 18 hours of sunlight there each day. That novel I’d wanted to write? I wrote it in October—and it took only eight days, with a mere two hours of sleep per night. It wasn’t until the beginning of 2007 that I really felt OK again.

During one session, my doctor asked me if I’d ever had another time in my life when I’d felt like this. Initially I didn’t think so. But then my senior year of high school came back to me–the agitation, the restlessness, the compulsive behavior. Always an excellent student, I stopped turning in assignments and focused solely on my love life. Steve and I got engaged on my graduation day, when I was still just 17. At the time I thought it was hopelessly romantic. Now I know how risky and impulsive that decision was (though we are lucky enough to have reached 43 years of happy marriage).

Why would I have been sick at 17, and then fine until my late forties? My psychiatrist explained the possible connection of hormones and the surfacing of mental illness. In my late teens, conditions were ripe for my bipolar disorder to appear for the first time. Then, during my childbearing years, every symptom subsided. Menopause seemed to be a significant factor in bringing them all roaring back—and my sleeplessness only intensified my issues.

This is My Brave Cast

Now, 13 years since my last mood swing, I can look back without feeling sad and embarrassed. I can look ahead, daring to hope that I will never experience bipolar mania again. I take my medication religiously, and try hard to get enough sleep–I am even napping. I now advocate for others with mental illness through my writing, producing shows for the incredible organization This is My Brave, and leading a support group. Life may not be ecstatic, but it’s good. And that’s enough for me.

I am so grateful to the family and friends who stuck by me when I was at my worst. I’m determined never to put them through another time like that if at all possible. But if I do notice symptoms returning, I know now not to ignore them. That is my message for others who are struggling: please don’t wait until things are totally out of control to reach out. And above all, don’t feel ashamed or alone. There are millions of us living with mental illness, and the stigma is lessening. Be kind to yourself. Get some rest. And get help if you need it. Your life is worth saving.