The 35 year old man sitting in David Avery’s psychiatric clinic was an engineer: “He liked to resolve issues,” Avery recalls. And the issue perplexing him when he was admitted to the Seattle psychiatric ward where Avery worked in 2005 were his moods, which swung violently from one extreme to another – generally involving suicidal fantasies or seeing and hearing issues that weren’t there. The person’s sleep pattern was similarly erratic, veering from close to total insomnia to getting 12 hours per night.
Being an issue-solver, the person had been maintaining meticulous data of these patterns, making an attempt to make sense of it all. Avery carefully studied these data and scratched his head: “It was the rhythmicity of it that intrigued me,” he says. To him, it looked very similar to the patient’s mood, and sleep patterns have been tracking the waxing and waning of the Moon.
Avery initially dismissed his hunch as lunacy. Even when the person’s mood cycles have been in synch with the Moon, he had no mechanism to clarify it, nor any concepts about what to do about it. The affected person was prescribed drugs and light therapy to stabilize his mood and sleep, and finally discharged. Avery slipped the man’s notes into the proverbial file drawer and closed it. Twelve years later, a renowned psychiatrist known as Thomas Wehr revealed a paper describing 17 sufferers with rapid-cycling bipolar disorder – a type of the sickness where individuals change between depression and mania more quickly than usual – who, like Avery’s patient, showed an uncanny regularity in their episodes of illness.