Sleep Cycle

People without mental illnesses often have real difficulty understanding a lot of what goes on when you have one. It’s hard to describe, for example, what real, long-lasting depression feels like to somebody who has never experienced it. But depression is not the only major symptom of a depressive disorder, just the most prominent. One of the others is one I’m having difficulty dealing with right now, and as the title might suggest, it has to do with sleep.

With depression, a lot of those who have it are either suffering from hypersomnia (sleeping way too much) or insomnia (not nearly enough). Both cause problems. But another common issue for people suffering from depression is that a standard sleep cycle can be very difficult to maintain. For those of you who can go to bed at 9 or 10 PM, waking up between 5 and 7 AM for your day, I know (from questioning others, mostly) that people on a schedule like this wake up refreshed, and gradually start getting more tired, both physically and mentally, as the day goes on. So, when the day is over, their bodies and minds are ready to sleep, and then the cycle continues.

For me, and several other people with depression I know, sleep works very differently. I wake up tired – probably about like many people would feel if they skipped sleep altogether. A lot of that tired feeling is mental; it takes my brain a lot longer to get up to running at full capacity than people who have a more normal sleep cycle. And so over the course of the day my body gets tired, like a regular person, but my mind wakes up. So I feel the most awake and aware – at least, mentally – at the time most people tend to be going to bed. This is, not coincidentally, when I do most of my schoolwork – writing papers and the like – because it’s when I feel the most coherent. Of course, my body has been up all day, and it needs sleep, but my mind runs the show, and so keeps going. This, of course, leads to me staying up far later than I should, because it is when I get the most productive time out of my brain. So I go to sleep, and then sleep less than I should, which leads to my body being more tired… and this goes in a cycle.

On days off, I’ll often get a couple hours of sleep in the middle of the day, because my body needs it and my mind isn’t working on all cylinders yet. But once my mind starts being active, I can’t really go to sleep until it runs down – literally. I can try to go to sleep, but my mind tends to be working overtime, and when your brain is working that hard it’s hard to get to sleep. I can sit in bed for hours, but until my mind gives the OK, no sleep will be had. So jobs that require use of my mind early in the day tend to not go so well, because my mind is not up to speed yet, and won’t be for a while. I can work doing physical things – like lifting, sorting, and packing or unpacking boxes at my last job – just fine, but if someone wants me to talk about social work policy or attachment theory, or how I would handle a particular case, my response is going to be sub-par. For some jobs, this is obviously a problem – working someplace at a 9-5 job, where my brain needs to be constantly in motion, is going to be messy for me, because my brain just won’t work that well when I arrive. There’s not really a way around that; even arranging my schedule so that I sleep directly after such a job, my mind still tends to get going around 10 or 11 PM. And when that happens, my body gets up, too.

You can see how this might be a problem, because there aren’t a lot of jobs that start at times like that, and the ones that do are third-shift jobs which are often more physically than mentally demanding. And while my mind is plenty willing to work at that time, my body generally isn’t. So it’s an interesting and annoying tightrope to walk, finding the place where both my mind and body can operate efficiently and get enough rest while still maintaining a life that allows me to be something other than a pasty vampire. And this is an issue that persists even without my depressive episodes being active; even when I’m not suffering through an episode of depression, which could be weeks or months long, my mind and body still function like this. It’s difficult to retrain your body to a more normal way of working when the body is willing, but the mind is not.

So just imagine that your situation was this – that instead of being exhausted when you go to sleep, you are exhausted when you wake up. And when you should be going to sleep, you are instead wide awake, and your mind is working at peak efficiency. But you still have to deal with a job that works regular hours, and may require relatively regular use of your mental acuity. What do you do, hotshot? What do you do?

That is part of what depression does to me.