Let me preface this post by saying: I have not slept since waking up Wednesday morning, well over 24 hours ago. So this may be a bit nonsensical. You have been warned.
Here’s the thing: your brain starts playing weird little tricks on you when you’re sleep-deprived. Like instructing you to have about 25 Doritos in less than 60 seconds even though it will make you feel sick and heartburn-y, or urging you to watch Bridget Jones’ Diary. The truth is that I didn’t even know I owned that movie until earlier this morning. I had seen it, to be sure, but I’m not sure where the copy in my apartment came from. My tastes in Renee Zellweger comedies pretty much only cover Nurse Betty, but I decided to give it a whirl because — at 9:30 a.m. and after nine hours of watching movies I’d seen a million times — I thought maybe this would be something fun. Clearly not. I got about ten minutes into it before even my sleep-addled malfunctioning cerebral cortex gave up. The moment Hugh Grant’s character said (or wrote in an email), “P.S., like your tits in that top”, I was popping the eject button and reaching for my copy of Monty Python and the Holy Grail (again).
At this point, you may be wondering why the fuck I stayed up all night torturing myself by watching romantic comedies. (Apologies to those who actually enjoy the genre.) Or you may be wondering why I’m writing a whole post about it. The thing is that I don’t really have insomnia, not in the strict definition of someone being unable to sleep. What I grapple with is an unwillingness to sleep. It’s at this point where I brace for the questions of why I simply refuse to turn off my lights and laptop and maybe take a Tylenol PM, because the truth is that my answer won’t make any sense, unless someone can relate to living with either manic-depression or Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (or, in my case, both).
What happens a lot in my case is that I will get home semi-late, like I did last night. My class ends at 10 p.m. and by the time I’ve stepped on the uptown subway to get home, I’ve decided that I will refuse sleep for as long as possible and hopefully for the entire night. I have reasons for this, reasons that seem eminently sensible in the short term even though there’s a huge part of my consciousness flashing a red warning sign to try and stop me from doing this yet again. My reasons are neatly organized into three categories:
1- I have so much work to do! So much fun stuff I want to do! I’ll just make sure I don’t lose a minute of my time sleeping when I could be working.
2- I have been having the kinds of bad dreams that really screw with your head, and they sometimes override my sleep meds. So better safe than sorry, right? Skip the sleep meds, skip the sleep, skip the nightmares.
3- I have energy to burn and why let it go to waste?
There you have the trifecta of OCD, depression, and mania. I was diagnosed with OCD when I was seventeen, and I honestly just laughed when my doctor told me because I had known that about myself for years. Nor were my parents surprised, not after they had watched me spend my childhood free time compulsively making lists of words from the dictionary or names from the gigantic Manhattan phone book. By the time I was 13, I had moved on to generating my own random list of 100 girls names, and each and every day I would methodically replot every one of the names along the 100-point spectrum according to a system of mathematical probability. When the therapist explained that was called OCD, I just nodded and wondered why anyone would think it’s a big deal.
But it is a big deal. It’s been so crippling that I had to go on medical leave from college eight years ago because all I did all day was skip classes and write lists. I don’t have the kind of OCD that most people think of when they hear of the disorder: that repetitive hand washing germophobe variety made so famous by Howard Hughes and the Jack Nicholson character in As Good As It Gets. Mine is all about a numerical system, one that I like to pretend I have power over. And it gives me a false sense of power in a life where things often seem to come out of nowhere and upend your sense of self and purpose. It frequently reaches a point at which I wonder if I would have any self or purpose without the OCD. It’s been my companion for a good 20 of my nearly 28 years, and I have a long-running feud with my therapist because I don’t want to take any meds that would lessen my OCD.
So instead I stay up all night, several nights a month now, plying myself awake with coffee and Diet Coke even as my body and mind scream for me to just lie the fuck down and shut off my mind. But I won’t even turn off my laptop, instead staying up watching movies I have seen literally 60 times because it’s safe and feels like I have a handle on the situation. Lying in bed in the dark without my rituals, and with only my own mind for comfort, is really fucking scary to me. My mind races really fast; even when I’m engaged in full conversations with other people, my thoughts are still spinning off in at least two other directions. This is when things segue into mania.
I rarely have manic episodes, but it’s never pleasant when I do. I’m currently in the middle of one, and at least glad that I’m able to recognize it and seek treatment for it. (And I’m grateful that I have the privilege of receiving treatment.) Manic-depressiveness runs in both sides of my families, so it predictably hit me like a sledgehammer. The first time I was manic, I really just thought it was genuine happiness. The problem is that it doesn’t last, and when I’ve crashed in the past, I’ve just felt like an idiot for mistaking mania with happiness. I’m now doing what’s called “rapid-cycling”, where I go from severe depression to severe mania in the span of days rather than months. I know that a great deal of this is due to a fairly devastating trauma I experienced earlier this year, but that doesn’t mean I can simply exercise my rational mind and tell my mania or depression, “look, you’re in therapy! The pain from the trauma might pass in time! Give it a rest!” My rational mind and my manic-depression don’t like one another anyway, and I doubt this hypothetical cerebral civil war would somehow stop me from pulling all-nighters.
When all else fails and I need something to make me feel anchored to my mind, I still have my little numerical algorithms. They tell me which coffee cup to use, which pair of jeans to wear, which DVD to watch, which flavor of pizza to order. And yet, that somehow feels like control. Rationally, I know that it’s not control, it’s being controlled. It’s very similar to my issues with anorexia, and the two really tie together because of the control issue. I’ve used my mathematical system to determine exactly how often I can take a bite of food (approximately once every 10 minutes) or even a sip of my soda (once every 15 minutes) or coffee (approximately once every 6 minutes).
There’s no free will in the system, but that’s okay for some part of my brain, because I wouldn’t trust my judgment if allowed to indulge my free will. This is why dining with even my closest friends and family can be very upsetting to me: there is no way I can subtly look at my watch to figure out the equation that I need to generate the math sequence. The sequence is entirely self-devised and goes something like this:
Look at your watch approximately but not exactly every two minutes.
Food is determined by the 1-in-5 system. Today is June 4. If I look at my watch and the SECOND HAND lands on a number where the last digit is either 4 or 9, then I am allowed to take a bite of food.
Drink is determined by the 1-in-3 system. Because 4 is not a multiple of 3, but is one greater than a multiple of 3 (in this case, 3 itself), I can only take sips if the SECOND HAND lands on a number that is one greater than any multiple of three. So, if my watch lands on 57, I can’t take a sip. If it lands on 58, I’m good to go.
Yes, I am in therapy. Yes, I am on anti-depressants and a mood-stabilizer. Yes, I butt heads constantly with my therapists because a huge part of me wants to be left alone with these disorders because I feel like they’re as much a part of me as my height or my freckles. The thought of having free time that I couldn’t fill with making those lists of names every day (oh yes, I still do it even fifteen years after the tradition started) is enough to send my spiraling into a genuine panic attack. To be honest, just writing this post gave me one of those panic attacks.
But I’m not crazy. I’m human. I have my “issues” — as do we all. I suppose I could just bury them deep down and pretend they don’t exist, but I don’t know what purpose that would serve. If someone wants to think I’m a freak for struggling with this, then I don’t particularly care to be friends with that person. Hopefully, someone else with a misunderstood disorder might read this and feel the same way: that living with these kinds of disorders should never be cause for shame or stigmatization, no matter how “weird” your specific symptoms may be. I’ve been famously secretive about just what my OCD symptoms have been in the past (I don’t think any of the Harpies knew the details about the lists and the mathematical sequences), so writing this post was a huge leap of faith. Regardless of the reception, I’m glad I took the risk.