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When ‘Bipolar Exhaustion’ Makes Me Feel Like a Zombie

We’ve all been there. Maybe you worked too many hours, and you come home as a zombie version of yourself. Perhaps you played too hard — ran too fast, hiked too long, swam too far. That feeling you get after a marathon, or after pulling an all-nighter, cramming for an exam… That’s pure exhaustion at its finest.

For those of us with bipolar disorder or other exhausting mental illnesses, however, there’s a little bit more to it.

As someone who has also worked too many hard hours in construction jobs, who has hit a wall at the gym and come home with jelly for muscles, and who also experiences bipolar depression, anhedonia and bipolar exhaustion, I can say definitively: Bipolar exhaustion is, by far, my least favorite.

It can start at any time, with little warning. It can come whether I’ve slept well or not, whether I’ve had enough to eat or not, and whether I’ve taken my medicine or not. It often follows after an emotionally draining experience — a difficult date, an argument, a performance review at work. It’s a slow-acting response, and it takes just as long to leave. It lingers, persistent, like smoke from a burned cake in the oven, or fog on an otherwise sunny day.

When it hits, I can feel it slowly creep through my system. I feel tired. I walk slowly. I open assignments on my computer, turn on the TV or start any other small task, and it’s like my limbs are weighted down by an invisible net. I literally cannot function enough to do or enjoy even the most basic of tasks or activities.

It becomes difficult to do virtually anything. Sleep is the only escape. And although sleep is often the best coping mechanism for bipolar exhaustion, it isn’t always effective. 

I’ve had to leave work early or call in sick because I knew I couldn’t drive if I let it go on a few more hours without sleep. I’ve canceled plans with friends or stayed home from family gatherings. 

But I wish our world had a better way of accommodating this particular challenge. How can I say to my supervisor that I’m staying home because I’m “just tired?” How do I explain that it sucks all of the life out of me, even when there is no apparent cause? Because of my condition, I seek work that is flexible and jobs that have generous sick policies. I never know when I’m going to need a three-day weekend just to catch up on sleep. 

I was once approached by a friend’s mother when I was younger. She had noticed my exhaustion, and asked if my medicine was making me a “zombie,” because some psychiatric pills were making her son “totally out of it.” The more I think on it, the apter the analogy is. But instead of slowly lumbering toward my unsuspecting victims for a taste of their brains, I’m a much less interesting zombie. The shuffle walk? Yeah, I got it. The slow moaning and seemingly purposeless existence? That’s me. The soulless pits in my eyes revealing a complete lack of motivation or ambition? That’s how I feel.

It is pervasive, but I’m just glad it’s not too constant. If there’s one nice thing about the mood swings, it’s that change is pretty much a guarantee.

Photo by Nathan Wright on Unsplash