Posted on December 20, 2017 by Jenn Zatopek
When I’m sleep deprived, I feel like everything in my immediate environment is too garish, as if the blades of green grass or the sheer coral trumpet vine near my house dance in front of me, and I’m completely overwhelmed by the enormity of life. Often, I get like this when I’m too tired to rest, and sleep feels like a battle I must win. But I’m learning that in those moments early in the morning, when I’m wide awake and wondering, when my mind is whirring with the excitement or fear, that God is there and holds space for me.
This is a bold idea for a girl like me, a girl who grew up in a household in which I was forbidden to talk about God. I joke around with my friends when I say I was raised by an angry Communist, but the hard truth is that I was. My father’s worldview irrevocably shaped my early life and how I came to understand God; to ask for God’s help in the darkness now feels subversive and holy.
Darkness is the time when my mind (often) wakes up and whirs with activity. I call it “busy brain” but others call it racing thoughts or worry. I have suffered from it since I was a little girl and sleep came only fitfully then. Now, though, it comes more easily thanks to some tricks I have learned over the years.
The other night, after several nights of restless sleep, I finally emerged from my bed to meditate on God’s love using a guided meditation produced by The Liturgist’s. I was angry and afraid but after twenty minutes or so, my mind calmed down long enough to allow me to go back to bed and rest, and then I finally fell asleep, calmly and quietly. (Dear reader, take note: this does NOT happen every single time I have insomnia. When it doesn’t happen, and I stumble to work in a daze, I cut myself a lot of slack because, after all, sometimes sleep is hard to come by.)
However, the sleep I got the other night did feel like a small miracle, that in the midst of the madness of insomnia, I found an oasis of peace and rest. Miracles are often thought to be enormous, like a burning bush or the parting red sea. We often discount the so-called ordinary miracles like falling asleep, practicing self-care, or laughter, but they are no less amazing than the big miracles like the Incarnation and the Resurrection, a loved one getting off drugs or alcohol, your birth or mine.
Sometimes I wish I were normal, that I could sleep peacefully and wake up feeling refreshed and restored daily like some sort of magic sleep fairy. What I do know is this: I am not that person, and, most likely, never will be. I remember the universal truth that all of us are a great big mix of mess, power, addictions, beauty, and mental illnesses. Life is weird and sometimes we can’t sleep. I avoid analyzing myself too much these days and offer myself self-acceptance (grace) because sleep is not something that we can command our bodies to do. It is truly an act of surrender.
Having insomnia has given me a strange and beautiful empathy; after all, I am the girl who wakes up scared and prays, who knows what suffering is, who can relate to her counseling clients who have poor sleep and lament their imperfect bodies. I tell them, honey, I understand. I get it. Not sleeping totally sucks but here’s where I’ve found hope and you can too.
Here are some of my favorite go-to strategies for dealing with a sleepless night.
1. Take a break from technology two hours prior to bedtime. Being hooked up to our computers, iPhones, and tablets are fun and engaging, but our brains need time to disconnect and relax. In fact, some research suggests that the light from our phones and tablets keeps us awake, which only increases our risk of insomnia. Practice detaching from technology as an act of resistance to our culture of frenetic productivity and rest. (See article in the UK’s Telegraph for more information.)
2. Make a quiet space in your house to go to and listen to a guided meditation when you awake in the middle of the night. In my house, I go to the study with a small nightlight to see by and listen to a collection of guided meditations on my computer. The meditation called “Centering Prayer II” on the Liturgist’s “Garden” album has relaxed me many times. See www.theliturgists.com/garden and check it out for yourself.
If Christian meditations are not your jam, then check out Dr. Kristin Neff’s self-compassion guided meditations. A practicing Buddhist and research psychologist, Dr. Neff wrote Self-Compassion, a much-needed treatise on cultivating self-kindness, and her guided meditations are a relief for those of us who struggle with a propensity for self-criticism. Check out Dr. Neff’s guided meditations and experience some peace of mind.
3. Practice staying in your bed and reciting the ABCs of gratitude in your mind. This practice is straightforward, and I find that I usually don’t get to the end of the alphabet when I’m up at night and my mind is flinging things to get me worried. Here’s how you do it. Think of one word that begins with the letter A (or perhaps all the words you can think of) that you enjoy, repeat the word internally, and your mind will send forth an image of the word. Then move on to the next one! It’s sort of like giving your thoughts a chance to exercise and most of the time this wears them out and then you can rest. Gratitude is a go-to balm for those of us with tiny issues with fear or anger or sadness, which (of course) is really every human being on the planet. I’m not naming names or anything, but this one really works for me.
4. Get creative. Jenny Lawson, the fabulous comedic writer and blogger from the Bloggess, often shares her late-night dramatic dress-ups on Instagram. If your brain will not let you sleep, journal, dress up, write or sing to yourself and see if you can get out some of the energy that is keeping you awake. Sometimes I get my best writing done at 4am. See Jenny Lawson’s latest post on insomnia and writhe with laughter.
5. When all else fails, and I mean you have tried to meditate, pray, write, get creative, and you have been suffering from insomnia for longer than one month, go see a doctor and consider taking a sleeping pill. As a therapist, I can’t prescribe medications (much to my clients’ disappointments), and I’m not in favor of medicating EVERYTHING, but not getting consistent sleep is a serious problems and can increase the likelihood of recurrent depression, anxiety, car accidents, manic episodes, and a host of other problems. I certainly won’t judge you as I know from personal experience how bad it feels to get poor sleep. There is no shame for taking good care of yourself and if someone is doing that, then consider taking a break from the friendship or critical voice that’s beating you down.
So how do you deal with insomnia?