I didn’t want to write this. I avoided writing it. When I had set apart time to write, my fingers hovered over my keyboard. I changed the font. Changed the color. Changed the size. Looked at a news website. Pondered grocery lists. Looked out the window.
What do I want to tell you about but don’t know where to begin? Insomnia. Last fall and winter, I had a season of insomnia.
You may have never had insomnia, but perhaps my experience with it will relate to something in your life. You will certainly, at some point, know someone who is afflicted with insomnia, perhaps my season can lend understanding to theirs.
I have had bouts of insomnia since high school. I can remember some terrible nights in college, when the whole campus was sleeping (or so I wrongly thought) - even the huge oak trees - irrational, I know. I remember some nights as a younger mother with a house full of husband and children sleeping, and me: awake in the night. Hearing them all sleeping - breathing beneath blankets - the house wrapping them in peace and safety. And me: awake.
I’m generally a light sleeper; the bumps and bruises of life disrupt deep, restorative sleep. Stress and exhaustion can make sleep flee instead of providing a respite. Anyone who has had insomnia knows this all too well. And often it seems - the more we need sleep, the more it evades us.
Last autumn, with both of our last kids pretty much launched, my schedule was cleared for the first time in my life, really. I had graduated from 27 years of homeschooling. I was going to get a little job (a coffee shop or Apple store - anything but teaching!) and start the culling process - the first step in getting our home ready to sell. And we were going to commence with the large projects: carpeting, painting, kitchen update, etc. And house-hunting! Sounded absolutely delightful to me.
I had been sleeping quite well in the previous year - not always great but very acceptable - with the help a small amount of medication (which I’d been using for years and had weaned way down). With no teenagers in the home (or their friends or their music or their video games or their movies or their pizza!), I expected to even go off that small dose. But no big deal if I didn’t.
But at the end of September, I was struck by insomnia. I wrote it off to the huge life change. I couldn’t sleep deeply or sufficiently. And it got worse and worse - some nights getting just an hour of fragile sleep. No amount of relaxed thinking could change the reality that sleep wasn’t coming. And when that pattern grips a person the very fear of not sleeping causes as much stress as any normal life stresses can. I know if you’ve experienced it, I don’t even need to put words to this. If you have not experienced insomnia, no words I type here can evoke the consuming stress/fear/terror of not sleeping.
Sleep is usually taken for granted. We exert physical and emotional energy through the day. By evening, our bodies need the physical and emotional restoration of sleep. God has designed the darkness to come signal to us: the day is done. With our modern dependence on electricity, we’re often pretty unaware of day turning to night. But imagine the world as God created it. When darkness came, people slept. There was not much that could be done by the flicker of an oil lamp or the light of the moon. God has designed the natural world cycles of day and night and our corresponding circadian rhythms to coax us into sleep at evening and to nudge us awake in the morning.
But when that rhythm gets upended - by physical pain or emotional stress or whatever - some people find they sleep longer and more deeply - others find sleep virtually impossible. That was where I was last fall and winter.
It was a dark, bleak, terrifying time.
I’ve told my kids that God doesn’t waste our pain. Here are some of the things I learned in the dark. In telling you this, I’m not suggesting I have THE formula for curing insomnia. I’m just saying this is some of what I learned - perhaps it might be helpful for you.
SOME LESSONS LEARNED:
1. Don’t freak out. When some sleepless nights happen, don’t assume they will last. Everyone has those occasionally - for most people sleep patterns normalize. Just push through, cut back on caffeine, get some outdoor exercise, expect to sleep.
2. If the disrupted sleep lasts more than a week, review your habits. Look at sleep hygiene lists online. I say this with a bit of an eye roll. The websites all say things like: make sure you get up and go to bed at the same time every day, make sure you cut out caffeine, make sure you limit screen time in the evening, make sure you exercise, make sure you don’t nap, make sure the temp in your bedroom is right (not too hot, not too cold), make sure you have a relaxing bedtime routine (hot bath, cozy bedding, etc.), etc., etc. We all know that many people (and even we poor sleepers, at times) break all those rules and sleep fine. But, for the person struggling with poor sleep, those lists can make one feel they need to crack this problem - they need to MAKE SURE that they are doing it right - find the formula - if not they will never sleep again. So - I say: peruse sleep hygiene lists for anything glaring that you might be overlooking. But, frankly, there is no to-do list for effective sleep. Just as we rarely fully know what is disrupting our sleep, we can’t pinpoint how to fix it.
3. See a medical doctor. You thought I’d put this at the end of the list, didn’t you? Nope. If effective sleep eludes you for three or four weeks, see your doctor. He or she will certainly ask you about your sleep hygiene. That’s his job - be patient and don’t wring his neck! Ask for bloodwork to see if there is an underlying cause. And, failing that, ask for medication.
I’m not going to tell you what medications I’ve tried and what I’ve continued to use. That wouldn’t be helpful to you because each person is so different. Suffice it to say, my doctor and I tried six different medications in various dosages, combinations, timing. Some that were sure to help did nothing. One that was supposed to help at bedtime didn’t but helped in the morning (go figure). I had some naturopathic testing done and started taking a natural supplement. After tweaking for two months, I gradually started sleeping. My body seemed almost reluctant to give in to sleep.
Sleep is crucial. Sleep is the only thing that cures lack of sleep. I will gladly take medication for the rest of my life if it helps me sleep.
I know, I know - we don’t want to take medication to help us sleep. HOW WELL I KNOW! My sense is that this is so not because of the stigma attached to medications but to the fears of them not working or working oppositely of how they’re supposed to or of possible side effects or of becoming addicted. For an exhausted person, this is one more thing to figure out. Trying a new medication can raise hopes, only to have them dashed when it doesn’t work. Then one feels even more despairing and desperate. I have felt all of that. But if we work with a patient, experienced doctor, we are almost sure to find some medication or combination that will bring sleep.
A season of insomnia is a season of survival. Medication will not make it all better but sleep will. Medication will give support necessary to survive; some sleep will provide some clarity to think rightly and to get through the dark. Without it, everything is murky and confusing and terrifying. And will possibly get worse.
The doctor will probably suggest you go to a sleep clinic if she thinks your sleep problems are serious and intractable. If so - make the appointment. They’re usually far in the future. You might be sleeping better by then or you may be worse and more in need of it.
4. See a therapist. If you have things brewing that you know to be interfering with normal life stability, see a therapist to talk it out. Even if you can’t pinpoint what is churning in your mind, please consider this. The more sleep deprived you are, the more tangled the threads all become. Granted, finding someone who speaks your language and with whom you connect can be very hard but it’s not impossible. It may take more energy than you feel you have - both to find someone and to start investing yourself in counseling. But it should be considered as one prong to your restoration. Ask around - someone might know someone.
You may have a supportive family and friends to talk to but it’s better for them for you to get some emotional care and counsel from someone other than them. Someone who will deeply care about you but who don’t bear your burdens daily and can see or say what others may not. It’s good. It’s biblical. We all should expect to seek professional counseling at some point in life!
HERE'S HOW I SURVIVED:
I cut back on most activities. I had to - partly because I was in no condition to be with people and partly because I simply couldn’t do most events. I had the luxury of not having a job or busy family demands. If I had had a job, I have no doubt that I would have had to take a leave of absence or quit.
I took medication - prescription and natural. I took three prescription medications and one natural supplement and even CBD oil. Did I mention CBD oil?! Yes. I can’t say you should, but it was part of what helped me to regain sleep. Please do your research. Feel free to contact me and I can tell you what I used.
I didn’t make big decisions. My thinking got foggy - night and day. Don’t make decisions in this dark night. If deciding which restaurant to go to seems an insurmountable decision, I probably shouldn’t be deciding big stuff - like what house to buy!
I sang hymns - or at least listened to them. Hymns are a staple in my life - I have many, many memorized. They are often the background music in my mind. One night, I was thinking of our morning song - the one that I sing automatically when I put the car into reverse to drive out of the driveway. I couldn’t think of some of the words. It terrified me. The words came to me the next day, but in the night, they had evaporated. Another time, I couldn’t remember a favorite family board book: The Going to Bed Book - it has such a comforting cadence - I don’t have to read the words, I can normally just rattle it off. But I couldn’t remember one of the pages - the one that said: “The day is done, they say ‘Good-night.’ And somebody turns off the light” although I could remember all the preceding and following pages. So frustrating! Weirder: I can’t tell you why it mattered to me!
Caffeine: I did cut back on caffeine. Due to my sleep instability, it was always my pattern to not drink caffeine after noon. At all. Pretty much. The sleep hygiene lists would say to omit caffeine, but last fall I allowed myself coffee in the morning, just not past 10:00 a.m. I needed the normalcy of that habit. Then I switched to decaf. With cream and stevia, it can trick me into thinking I feel more awake!
Exercise: Most days I took a little walk outside - some days only ten minutes. Some 30. But never intense. It IS hard to make that effort - to even think of doing it. But breathing outside air can be so helpful - maybe not for sleep but to feel part of the world. As I walked my driveway, I would break off a little piece of pine branch and wonder at its beauty and crush it between my fingers to smell the sharp aliveness. And ponder the fact that God hid its startlingly sharp aroma - only by bruising or crushing the stiff needles could its unmistakable scent be really smelled.
I got dressed. I found that if I didn’t get dressed in the morning, if I stayed in jammies and robe because I was tired and want to take a nap and don’t feel like getting dressed, then I’d feel worse all day - as if I was trudging through - as if I was a real mess. As if I was sick. But by getting dressed first thing - doing my usual morning stuff (making the bed, etc.) - I felt like more a survivor than a mess. That I was going to get through this. Insomnia is not an illness, in and of itself. It can certainly come from illness or cause illness. Even serious illness. But save jammies for when you’re sick! You don’t need to do hair and make-up every day (or any day) unless that makes you feel more alive. But by ALL MEANS: brush your teeth. It makes you feel cleaner and more awake, obviously, more pleasant to talk to.
I did some work. Some days I did the bare minimum but I did some of what had to be done. Vacuuming the whole house might seem almost impossible but at least a room - ok. The vacuum could sit out as a reminder to finish it later. Cooking was hard to face but some had to be done. I made things once that could feed me more. Remember: I had no kids home and Randy travels a lot. I made a week’s work of oatmeal. Or pan-roasted veggies and fish to portion and freeze. Or a crockpot of chili. One small cooking chore every day or so was enough cooking. The cooking of the oatmeal: combining ingredients, stirring with a wooden spoon, watching it bubble - can be oddly calming. Little chores that used to be tucked into larger work were now the main thing to do. Routines are soothing.
I ran errands - even though it took a lot of energy, it felt good to GET OUT!
My bedtime habits: Sleep specialists are divided about whether a sleepless person should stay in bed or give it a certain amount of time and then get up and do some non-energetic thing. I don’t get up. I foster the hope that sleep may sneak up on me and I don’t want to be fully awake and miss it!
Sleep specialists are also in disagreement about napping. I’m a firm believer in napping (whether in an insomnia season or not). Sometimes, if I hadn’t slept, I took my nap at 10 a.m.! Sometimes, even napping didn’t happen and that made me more frantic for sleep. Napping didn’t seem to make nighttime sleep worse, as one would expect - there was really no way to make it worse.
I got kind of particular. Some fabrics made me cringe. I wore cozy, soft jammies, slept in my fleece bathrobe and fuzzy socks AND slippers.
I removed the battery from clocks. I usually find the gentle tick nice - a steady reminder of life. But I couldn’t handle it! Even in the day.
I know it’s not good to look at a glowing clock when trying to sleep. But during those months of little sleep, I would get plagued to know what time it was. Silly, I know! It didn’t help me to sleep knowing that it was 3 a.m. - but it made me more restless to wonder. So I use an Apple watch that I can tap and see (on a darkened screen) what the time is. And I got a weighted blanket. It felt good. I’m not sure if it’s what the hype says it is.
I had a very specific bedtime routine. If Randy was home, he would tuck me in and bless me. I took my medicine at the exact same time every night and morning. I read a little bit while it took effect. And then waited - sometimes expectantly - sometimes nervously - for sleep. There were many times I fell asleep but woke up 30 minutes to an hour later - and was awake for the rest of the night. That was my usual pattern. But sometimes I didn’t sleep at the beginning of the night at all but might doze around 5 am.
Ironically, reading - my very favorite thing - was almost impossible. I finally had time to read without squeezing it into a busy schedule, yet I couldn’t concentrate at all on plot lines. Or follow characters. I quit book after book.
Other people: Don’t alienate people who care about you. Your insomnia takes a toll on anyone who cares about you. And stresses your relationships. There are some people who are going to continually ask how you’re sleeping. Don’t be annoyed when they ask. It’s just them saying they care. They’re more helpless than you are in this. It’s similar to having people ask how you’re feeling when you’re pregnant. That’s all they can do! Don’t get irritated.
Decide with whom you’ll share all of the details and how to share minimally with most people. The details don’t help them and it doesn't really help you to rehearse them. But you do need to let people around you know something so they’ll understand you're pulling back or your tenseness or your emotionalism. I missed church for about seven weeks last fall. Then I went sporadically. I joked to one of the old faithful gentlemen that I hadn’t left the church or left my husband. He gave me a huge hug and said: “Randy told me. We’ve been praying. You come when you can and stay home when you should.” That is the perfect thing to say to an insomniac. Such a balm to me.
People who have never gone through insomnia can’t fully imagine it, any more than I can understand having chemo or an eating disorder or miscarriages. I can’t fully understand those terrible trials but that doesn’t mean I don’t care. My lack of experience with a given thing doesn’t limit my compassion and concern.
When we’re so tired, it can feel disorienting to look at the world - to be almost surprised it’s still going on. To feel so outside of it. One’s world spins very small. No one knew the grit it was taking to just go to Aldi. Finding a quarter to put into the dang cart. But, truthfully, that’s pretty arrogant of me. EVERYONE is going through something. If not now and if not urgent, ok then. Does that make me resent them? Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.When sleep-deprived, our view of people gets very skewed. We need to know that about ourselves. Our view of people always probably says more about ourselves than it does about them.
The people closest to us are likely exercising great patience with us. We are emotionally taut. We are jumpy (I still literally shrink away from sudden loud noises). Our jangled nerves can cause us to be sharp with our dearest ones. The crushing fatigue can make me self-absorbed - because I am! When I was at a social get-together, I was often keenly aware of what time I needed to leave in order to complete my bedtime routine. We’re not who our dear ones are used to us being. We need to know that or we’ll damage relationships. We need to appreciate their support and faithfulness. These people matter too much! These relationships are just too important.
My spiritual life: Over the years, I have developed personal spiritual habits that are life-giving. In difficult times, personal habits get strengthened or fade away. Even when my heart is not in it, I usually still turn to my Bible. I look at my Daily Light the first thing and last thing of every day. I can honestly say I did my daily Bible reading program almost every day during the insomnia season. But I can also honestly say my heart often wasn’t there. It just wasn’t there. My heart also wasn’t in the cooking I was doing or anything else! I was dulled. Sometimes I would just skim the previously highlighted portions in my Bible - being comforted in the steadiness and unchangingness of those words. Remembering that this verse must have meant something to me because I highlighted it at some point. IT IS OK to read to the Bible because that’s what we do: we read the Bible. And it is OK to let it lapse. I DO know that - even when it isn’t mattering to me as much as it did - it’s probably mattering more. Even the holding of that precious book and the turning of those beloved pages can be strengthening. And I do know that it’s much harder to re-establish a good pattern than it is to try to keep or modify habits that have been life-giving in the past.
But if it seems too hard to read chapters of the Bible - try to get a nibble. Read a Psalm - or a portion of one. Read the same one over and over. I grew to LOVE Psalm 18:1 last year - I read it over and over - I kept my desk Bible and my kitchen Bible open to it: “I love you, O LORD, my strength.” What more is there to say about God and about me? Some days I wrote “18:1” on my hand to remind me. That verse the only place that I can find in the Bible where someone tells God they love Him. It says it all.
My favorite non-Bible quote is: "Don’t doubt in the dark what God showed you in the light." Of course, it IS truly in the Bible: “Even the dark is not dark to [God]; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light with [Him].” (Psalm 139:12)
The memorized Word can be a real help in a dark season. For me, it came in phrases, not in chapters. Psalm 121 - where does my help come? Romans 8 - nothing can separate me from the love of God. Matthew 11 - come to Me all who are weary. Psalm 62 - find rest, O my soul, in God alone. When you memorize the Bible in the “good times” - you’re actually doing it for the bad times. It’s like canning food - you’re doing it for a time in the future when you won’t have fresh peaches or tomatoes.
I find that visuals like this catacombs painting can speak to my heart and set me to peace sometimes as much as reading the Word. Sometimes more. Someone painted this masterpiece in the catacombs in Rome 2000 years ago. It’s the woman touching Jesus’s fringe - believing He would heal her. Stunning.
Often I write on my palm with a permanent marker. A symbol, a word, some initials (I find that praying for someone else gives purpose to my weakness) - a tattoo that lasts a day but ever before me for that day; just as my name is on God’s palm - ever before Him forever!
Rest and be thankful. There’s a place in Scotland called that: Rest and be thankful. It’s the highest point on a road that was made in 1750. The soldiers who built it stopped at that point and erected a stone that said “Rest and be thankful.” A place to look back at what it took to get there and a vantage point to look at what was coming. And to rest.
When one is sleep-starved, that is enough to do: rest and be thankful. We can always do those two things. Our hearts might not ring with thanksgiving, but there are always things for which to be thankful. I remember once, sitting in my chair - searching for gratitude - I saw my legs and feet stretched on front of me - and thanked God for them - they are short and stubby. But imagine not having use of them? If we can’t stir ourselves up to notice things for which we are (or should be!) grateful, we will become bitter and resentful. We already are prone to being inward when we’re so exhausted. But we dare not affirm that in ourselves - to wallow in the woe is to make ourselves more despairing.
Our dearest ones are sensitive to our plight so they don’t preach at us. Thankfully. But we MUST preach to ourselves, gently, but firmly, just as the psalmist did when he said: “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? [seriously?! - I could give you a million reasons] and why are you in turmoil within me [what?! - do you KNOW what I’m dealing with here?!]. Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God. [pause - just that hope in God]” (Psalm 42:11) A lament and an exhortation.
The honesty: I am downcast. I am in turmoil. I’m not a drama queen. I’m not seeking attention. I’m sleep-starved.
The only task at hand: to hope in God.
The surety: I will praise Him again, one day. I will. This implies that I’m not praising Him now - it’s not even a confession of sin - just a fact.
The bigger reality: He is my salvation. He is my God. He is.
While in survival, hope is all I have. Hope is part of survival. The very urge to keep on surviving while not thriving is pure evidence of hope! And we hope for what we do not see, right?
A passage that has been most helpful for me, in the sleepless season and many others, is Psalm 62:5-8.
For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him.
He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress;
I shall not be shaken.
On God rests my salvation and my glory;
my mighty rock, my refuge is God.
Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him;
That “waiting in silence” - that can be prayer. Resting in God, waiting in silence - not speaking. We may have no energy to pray. And no words. And nothing to say. But even that silence - that waiting - is prayer. Prayer doesn’t depend on us saying the right words - or any words at all. God is there as we wait for Him. He understands us. Truly, we may be downcast and in turmoil so we prod ourselves to remember what we’ve known:
- He is our salvation.
- He is our rock.
- He is our refuge.
- He is our fortress.
The fact that He is our rock is mentioned twice, for emphasis. That IS fact. That is a bigger fact than our sleeplessness. MORE THAN WE CAN’T MAKE OURSELVES SLEEP, WE CAN’T MAKE GOD OUR ROCK. AND WE CAN’T MAKE HIM NOT OUR ROCK. He simply IS. What is a rock? Solid, still, steadfast. Something to hide behind. Something to lean against. Something to climb onto for safety or for a better view of possible danger or possible beauty.
Praying takes energy that the sleep-deprived person may not have. Stringing together coherent thoughts may take too much out of us. But God knows. We can rest and be thankful. Even being thankful that we don’t HAVE to pray in words. We WILL again pray. We WILL again praise Him. But now: we rest. Knowing that God does not need us. We need Him and we have Him. We have Him in the same measure when we are weak and worn and fragile as we do when we are healthier. Because we don’t have to do anything to have Him. We just need to be something: needy. He has us.
I’m not going to die of sleep deprivation. Although it may feel as if I’m dying, I’m not. Many of my heroes were similarly afflicted: Elizabeth Prentiss, Charles Spurgeon, Charlotte Bronte, and others. I know - as the night goes long and still and my mind is frantic for sleep - I feel as if I’m the only one on the whole planet who is awake. But it is DAY on the other side of the planet. People are awake there and working there and tending children there - and being born and dying there. And on my side - while it is night - there are mothers up with children (some of whom I know) and nurses tending patients in the dark and people driving trucks and people serving food. I am here - awake. That’s ok. I’m probably not going to die tonight. Psalm 102:7 describes the sleepless one: “I lie awake; I am like a lonely sparrow on the housetop.” But we know how much sparrows matter to our Lord. And we are worth more than many those precious, fragile birds!
How did I start sleeping more effectively? What worked?!
I have no idea. My nails were shredded, my hair was damaged, one eyebrow went kinda bald, I gained weight, my muscles atrophied, I got behind in stuff, I missed people. The relatively short duration of this season left me marked. But that’s what living does; we go through things that leave us with scabs that will heal over time. And scars that will fade but will remain. As reminders. As medals. This is the way to glory!
We go to God through what He carries us through in this life. It is God’s way.
My sleep is mostly restored. I am still zealous about my medicine and my habits. Sleep comes most nights. I don’t know what changed things for me - to what degree it was medication or sleep hygiene or just the passing of time - I’m sure a mix of it all. But this I know: GOD WAS IN THE MIDST OF IT. AND HE WAS WITH ME.
I don’t know what dusk or darkness you might be in. But remember: Don’t doubt in the dark what God showed you in the light.
The lessons that I learned in the dark season of insomnia were not new lessons. They were the same mighty truths God had taught me in the light. They were just brighter and more real because I needed them more. Because He had my full attention.
I want to share one more memory with you. When my earthly father dies, this will probably be the single most precious memory I’ll have of him…
I was about five. We lived in a parsonage in Connecticut. A very large colonial house next to our church. I had been reading The Happy Hollisters before bed. Riveting adventure fiction! But I was awake in the night. The moon shone into my room and tree branches were shadowed on my wall - the wind was moving them gently. I remember my head was on my pillow and my hands were above my head. My fingers were wiggling while I was watching the branches move. My fingers touched - and I freaked out. I ran down the long hallway (it seems long now - it probably wasn’t) to my parents’ bedside. My Dad got out of bed and picked me up. Mom was probably trying to sleep due working many nights as a nurse. Dad walked with me downstairs and through the house. I can remember the large, smooth slate pieces on the foyer floor - then we went into the living room. Dad didn’t turn on the lights. He said something like: “see that - that’s the sofa - it might look like a big bear - but you know it’s the sofa - this is just what it looks like in the dark.” He carried me outside - we looked at the small pine trees on the edge of the yard - he said something like: “this is what the yard looks like in the night - it’s still exactly as it in when you play here in the day - you know what it’s like to run around those trees.”
I don’t remember anything more about that little walk or of going back to bed. But it’s a powerful memory for me even 55 years later - partly as a model of good parenting. My father didn’t just switch on the lights and tell me that there was nothing to be scared of. He came into my darkness and fear and was light. Thank you, Dad!
THAT IS WHAT OUR FATHER GOD IS TO US IN THE DARK. He is with us in it. He is light.
By day the LORD commands his steadfast love,
and at night his song is with me,
a prayer to the God of my life.
~ Psalm 42:8
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