Insomnia and Powerlessness

Getting through the Night without Losing Your Mind

Several hours after having my first colonoscopy, the hospital called my husband to communicate that they could not wake me up.

He replied, “Wake her up? What are you doing? Let her sleep. She never sleeps.”

According to the National Institute of Health, I’m in good company. At least “40 million Americans suffer from chronic, long-term sleep disorders each year, and an additional 20 million experience occasional sleeping problems.”

Maybe it’s a misery loves company thing, but I do feel comforted when I’m awake at 3 AM and see my neighbor’s living-room light on. We have joked about playing Wingspan during those long, dark nights but it turns out that trekking across the yard in the dark, while in PJs is a real impediment.

I’ve not slept straight through the night since I was pregnant with our eldest son, twenty-eight years ago. Prior to that, sleeping was never an issue. I could sleep on planes, trains, or in a public park under a tree. The summer I biked down the west coast, all I had underneath of me was a small tent and thin sleeping bag. I slept great.

Now, I sleep (or try to) on top of five layers of foam, with seven pillows, wax earplugs, and a white noise machine.

Aside from the incessant fatigue, there are two challenging components of insomnia: how it bends reality and how powerless it makes me feel. Regarding the former, one writer friend confides, “Insomnia makes me feel crazy. It takes all the things that I ‘know’ as certain, and all the things that ‘work’ to make life bearable and then suddenly I feel like up isn’t up and down isn’t down and truth isn’t truth.”

If you’ve ever had insomnia for a few nights in a row, you get it.

I assure you, I have impeccable sleep hygiene. Essentially, my “sleep routine” starts as soon as I wake up. I do not consume any caffeine and hardly any sugar, exercise for at least an hour every day, take several breaks to do deep breathing exercises, turn off all electronics by 7 PM (this really reduces the possibilities for our evenings!), and make the bedroom cool, dark, and media free. There’s nothing more I can do.*

I used to get angry. On a regular basis. Most of that anger was directed at God. My night-time tirades followed a predictable pattern. After being awake for several hours, I would pray for a bit but then the tears would start and gradually the prayers would morph into ranting: “Why don’t you help me fall asleep? You are all powerful. You can do miraculous things. The Bible tells me that you grant sleep to those you love. So what does that mean for me?” As the questions increased, so did my pulse, which, as you can imagine, did not help the issue at hand.

Because I believe that God does care about our pain and does intervene in the world, and since I was doing everything within my power to solve this problem, I kind of hoped that he would meet me half-way. And he did—but not as I expected.

One night, a few weeks into an intense insomnia jag, I was near hysterics when a question broke through: “What if instead of blaming God, you simply ask him to be with you and comfort you?”

That I immediately stopped crying revealed my relief at having another viable option.

I thought, “Yes. I can try that.”

Since then. I’ve mostly stopped blaming God for my sleeplessness. (It still happens sometimes but it’s far less frequent.) I still have to live in the tension of not understanding why he does intervene when asked, repeatedly no less, but my friends with cancer and mental illness have to reckon with that one too.

In fact, to one degree or another, all of us have to face the reality that no matter how virtuous, faithful, smart, well-educated, or humble we are, we will seomtimes come face-to-face with issues beyond our control. Like the pandemic. Or aging parents, sick children, untenable work situations, systemic racism, insufficient health care, etc.

How we respond to that powerlessness and how we treat others in the midst of it says a great deal about the state of our souls. Will we lash out and blame, as I did? Will we cave in to despair and futility? (Guilty there too.) Will we attempt to manipulate situations and people in an effort to alleviate the anxiety that emerges when we face our limitations? You do not have to battle insomnia to find yourself in this space.

Franciscan priest Richard Rohr writes, “Our lives are a spectacle of helplessness.” This is not my preference. But as I age, I cannot argue with this reality. My spiritual work is to discern where the limits of my power lie and what God wants to do in and through me in these spaces.

The nights when I am fully awake, though desperately wanting not to be, require a level of submission as well as a willingness to fight. I have to push back against the despair and hopelessness that descend upon me. I do this by actively choosing to believe in God’s goodness and then speaking that reality out loud. Praying the rosary might be an option for those of you who meet Jesus in the Catholic Church (the physicality will help you to get out of your head). Reading the Psalms takes the pressure off my need to come up with the right words. I’ve also learned that not expecting the worst case scenario (i.e., that every single night will be this awful) knocks down my anxiety a few levels. After the demons have scattered, I typically read for a bit and then drift in and out of sleep until the sun rises.

If you suffer from insomnia or chronic sleep problems, after you have dismissed the possibility that any health issues might be contributing, try this: ask God to comfort you with is presence. He will come—even when the sleep doesn’t.

Alternatively, you could always text me to see if I’m up and I’ll pray for you. Or maybe we could play Words with Friends. Or complain together.

*I have tried medicine, which actually helped me sleep, but it soon created another problem: depression. Given the choice between being tired and being depressed, I’ll take the former.

Photo credit; iStock/demaerre

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