On the phone, Sawyer, 23, is open, outgoing and funny. He was also diagnosed seven months ago with bipolar disorder, a diagnosis that can cover a lot of territory.
Like diabetes, there are different types of bipolar disorder.
Mayo Clinic describes it this way on its website:
- Bipolar I disorder. You've had at least one manic episode that may be preceded or followed by (milder) hypomanic or major depressive episodes. In some cases, mania may trigger a break from reality (psychosis).
- Bipolar II disorder. You've had at least one major depressive episode and at least one hypomanic episode, but you've never had a manic episode.
- Cyclothymic disorder. You've had at least two years — or one year in children and teenagers — of many periods of hypomania symptoms and periods of depressive symptoms (though less severe than major depression).
- Other types. These include, for example, bipolar and related disorders induced by certain drugs or alcohol or due to a medical condition, such as Cushing's disease, multiple sclerosis or stroke.
Sawyer said he falls into the Cyclothymic category: He tends to stay more on the up side, with milder mania and infrequent bouts of serious but not major depression.
He spends time every summer at his grandmother’s cabin on Pelican Lake. He grew up in Colorado Springs and now lives in Denver, but through the ups and downs of life, he has always loved that family lake time.
“It’s unanimously the place for every single grandkid,” he said. “It’s like going home for Christmas every year -- you never miss it.”
Early troubles with anxiety, insomnia, depression
He said his troubles began in high school. “I started having really bad insomnia and depression,” he said. “I started going to a psychiatrist.”
A musician in high school, Sawyer was “a privately trained classical percussionist,” he said.
“I went to college to learn how to write music,” he said. The University of Northern Colorado in Greeley “has a great jazz program,” he said. “The jazz program teaches a lot more about chordal harmony and how chordal harmony works than the classical program does,” he said. “The jazz program is more about how the music works together.”
So he went for it, even though he only had two years of jazz drum set under his belt. “I was not particularly great with the drum set,” he said.
He’s good now, but at great cost. “Music school was great, it taught me a lot,” he said. “But it was also very mentally destructive to me for a while.”
He was glad to master the drum set, but his first love was writing music, and it never jelled in college. “I loved writing music on my own, but every time I was writing music in school, it was different, it felt like I was doing the wrong thing,” he said.
'I figured either the fever would kill me or ... college would kill me'
The situation became intolerable, and “I developed a bad (self-)cutting habit,” he said. That led to treatment in a psychiatric hospital in sophomore year in college.
“I learned some techniques for getting over that cutting and got on some good medications,” he said. “Everything was good for two or three months -- I learned to accept the fact that I had depression and felt better about being on meds. When you have a cold, you take meds to feel better, and psychological meds work the same way.”
But then he started corrupting that idea, telling himself that since he would never be off medications, illegal substances might as well be part of the picture, too. “I started a really big drug habit,” he said. “Alcohol and weed were a big part of it, but I was always doing acid and coke, with booze and weed on top of that.”
Although he did a lot of drugs, he said he was never into the drug culture. “I just used them to cope,” he said. “Obviously I had a pretty poor friend group for 18 months. I lost touch with friends who would help me.”
The next stop was detox, and after that he stopped using hard drugs, although he still drank and smoked marijuana occasionally.
He stopped the marijuana, too, after getting seriously sick with a major infection his senior year of college. “They had to remove a quarter of my lung and a rib,” he said. “I had five tubes coming out of my chest for five days, but I managed to graduate.”
He performed his senior recital with a 104-degree fever, and took his last finals on a hospital bed with those tubes in his chest.
But he knew he had to get it done. “I figured either the fever would kill me or one more semester of college would kill me,” he said.
Going over 55 hours without being able to sleep
He graduated in January, right before COVID-19 hit. His car got smashed in a Walmart parking lot, so “I had no job, no car and I was living in my parents house (in Colorado Springs),” he said. He was battling severe panic attacks, and “depression was swelling up and blowing over,” he added.
He finally got a car and found an apartment in Denver, but “insomnia got really bad,” he said. “I went over 55 hours without being able to sleep.” He jogged to tire himself out, running over 12 miles during those 55 hours, impaired lungs and all, but it didn’t work, and he ended up in a crisis center.
“I spent five days in-patient and that doctor knocked it out of the park,” he said. “He got me on Lithium, he got me into therapy -- I’m doing pretty good now. I’m completely sober now.”
The music business pretty much shut down because of COVID-19, but he found a full-time job outdoors in Denver that he really enjoys, working with plants, landscaping and design and serving about 30 businesses.
He said some people seem to operate fine using marijuana to give them energy and keep the depression down, but “I can’t smoke anymore because of my lungs, and edibles remind me of acid too much. Alcohol may give you a lift at first, but it’s a depressant, it definitely cancels out your anti-depressants, and the after-effects really plummet you.”
Support from family
His parents and four brothers have been incredibly supportive, he said. “That’s why I’m OK today -- my family,” he said. “The most supportive thing in the world. In every situation they have been there to help me.”
He is the second-youngest in the family, and one of his older brothers went through a mental health crisis six or seven years ago. “He’s highly educated (about mental illness) and has helped me a lot,” he said. “My parents really did an incredible job on educating themselves on how to help,” he added.
One of the trickiest things about treating bipolar disorder, Sawyer said, is that “people love the mania. They love the feeling of being so completely high, god-like.”
The reverse side, he said, is the low: “I am nothing, I can't even get out of bed. No inspiration to do what I want to do, just this void, ‘oh no, I am no longer inspired and I will no longer be inspired again.’”
Nobody likes to rein-in the highs
Everybody hates being depressed, but it takes experience and discipline to realize that the mania needs to be tamped down before it gets out of control.
“Manic episodes feel really good,” said Amber Deere, a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner with Northwestern Mental Health Center in Crookston. “An elevated sense of self feels really good, they think they can conquer the world with all this energy.”
But mania can cause people to “get so out of control they end up in the hospital, or jail sometimes,” Deere said. “It forces them into a place where they’re medicated down to a normal mood.”
It’s important for people with a bipolar disorder to understand what’s going on in their brain, she said. “There’s this rapid-firing of all these different chemicals in the brain and that is not reality, it’s not sustainable, and it’s actually not good for the brain to be in that manic state --it can turn into a psychotic state, which is a break from reality.”
Mood-stabilizers, certain antidepressants and some antipsychotics are used to treat bipolar disorder. “The goal of the medication is to avoid manic and depressive episodes,” Deere said. “There will still be ups and downs, of course, but they won’t go to such extremes.”
Being open helps family and friends be supportive
Sawyer said he likes to be as open about mental health as possible. “It lets kids know what’s going on,” he said. “If they see you have a broken leg, they can see you need help. But if you stay in bed all day, and every single thought tells you you’re worthless, it’s good to have backup.” And it’s hard for people to back you up if they don't know what’s going on, he said.
Finding the right therapist and the right combination of meds is key to successful living with bipolar disorder, but so is getting enough sleep every night, avoiding non prescribed drugs and alcohol, eating at least fairly well, and getting moderate exercise. A solid support system of family, friends and professionals is also helpful, Deere said.
“It’s a lifelong condition, but it’s possible to have remission of symptoms and lead a full, healthy, productive life,” she said. “But it does take many different pieces, and self-care is extremely important.”
(This story was based on a phone interview with Sawyer and video interviews of Sawyer and Amber Deere that are posted on the Becker County Energize website as part of its Inside Out series on mental health)
Get into “Inside Out”
The 9-part series kicked off Nov. 30 and continues through January. Watch the videos on local station TV3, online on the lakestv3 YouTube channel, or at beckercountyenergize.com. Videos launch every Monday. Read the feature stories in the Tribune, in the Wednesday print editions every week of the series as well as online every Wednesday at dl-online.com.
The series schedule is as follows:
Generalized Anxiety During the Pandemic/Current World Stressors
TV3 video: Monday, Nov. 30 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 2
TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 7 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 9
Farmer Depression and Suicide
TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 14 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 16
TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 21 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 23
Addiction/Recovery and Mental Illness
TV3 video: Monday, Dec. 28 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Dec. 30
Borderline Personality Disorder
TV3 video: Monday, Jan. 4 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 6
Mental Illness and the Judicial System
TV3 video: Monday, Jan. 11 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 13
Mental Illness as it Relates to Domestic Violence
TV3 video: Monday, Jan. 18 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 20
Mental Illness in the Elderly and Final Panel Wrap-up
TV3 videos: Monday, Jan. 25 / Tribune story: Wednesday, Jan. 27