I have parasomnia somnambulism—a.k.a., sleepwalking. I’m not your garden-variety non-sleeper: I’m a creative one. After falling asleep easily, half of my brain wakes up and tells me it’s time to start getting ready for company. I get dressed, make my bed, put away strewn clothes, and check to see if anyone has arrived. All the while, a part of me knows it’s the middle of the night. Eventually, my conscious brain convinces the other half that I’m not expecting guests and it’s time to go back to sleep.
This happens multiple times a night. I’m not dangerous, but I can be entertaining.
As a child, I would often sleepwalk into my parents’ room to give them a rundown of what we needed to do the next day. Once, Teen Hallie woke up mid-night standing on the dock of a lake in New Braunfels, Texas, at summer camp.
My mama was thrilled to find my freshman college dorm was designed as a labyrinth—supposedly to keep would-be suitors out of the girls’ dorm—and at least I’d be more likely to wake up or give up before leaving the building. But despite the anecdotes, sleep has been more nightmare than dream for most of my life.
The Difficulty of Anything
People often speak of their sleeplessness like they do a personal record at the gym. It’s a sign of strength, acumen, and a conversational hint that you are kind of a big deal. We laud self-sufficiency, especially when it’s our own selves that feel sufficient.
But good sleep is critical to basic functioning. Restoration of every kind—physical, emotional, spiritual, mental—is built foremost on physical rest. Our brains require a sleep state to download and store information, learn new skills, process waste, and create new brain cells. When an infant finally sleeps through the night you’ll find the previously sleep deprived parents giddy over the return of their vocabulary and an ability to make it through endearing commercials without crying.
For someone who isn’t sleeping, it’s pretty difficult to find the strength to do much of anything. So, I’ve tried every fix short of psychotropic drugs. Blackout curtains, sound machines, a twenty-pound weighted blanket, baths, sleeping pills, abstaining from caffeine and alcohol, juice cleanses, herbs, essential oils, freezing temperatures, and podcasts designed to induce sleep.
One night a few years ago, I “slept” with dozens of electrodes all over my body, monitors, and a mask to figure out what was going on in my brain. The diagnosis: my brain was over-active, and never really shut down. In retrospect, I should have just bought a melatonin farm.
Nothing really helps. I still walk, plan, host, and talk in the middle of the night. When morning comes, I’m physically spent and more frustrated than I can describe. This involuntary behavior feels very much like a personal failing, and a unique one at that.
I’ve pleaded with God for years to let me sleep. So have friends and family. We’ve prayed for complete healing and are confident that God can provide it. But countless mornings have found me cross-legged and tearful, asking God to let me sleep.
It’s been thirty-one years. I’m still waiting.
Nothing has been done.
For a long time, I was determined that my suffering would be righteous. Pray more. Ask with greater conviction. Deny the hollow ache of exhaustion. Wipe away tears of weakness and desperation. I refused to be tired, abused caffeine, and exploited my Pollyanna personality. Striving made it worse, like trying to convince myself and others that I was walking on water when we all knew I was drowning.
As C. S. Lewis reminds us, “Reliance on God has to begin all over again every day as if nothing had yet been done.” When it comes to my sleep, often nothing has been done. My reliance on God begins again as I greet the sunrise.
The power that enables me to do what God has called me to do—love him and love others—comes from a much greater source than my REM cycle. It comes from his Spirit. He tells me that I will be strengthened by the power of the Spirit (Ephesians 6:16), that he will do far more than I ask or think through the power at work within me (Ephesians 6:20), and that he knows everything that I need (Matthew 6:32). It’s not my job to secure my own provision. It is my job to seek him, and “all these things will be added” to me.
So as I’ve lived a life on half-sleep I have grown to trust him more fully. My prayers are less focused on demanding that God fix my sleep problem and more on pleading that God sustain my life as I hobble through it on less than I’d like. Never has he failed to answer the latter. Rather, he continually provides me with an infusion of energy, not like the jolt that comes from coffee or M&Ms, but a sturdy, steadfast, secure energy that comes from resting in the certainty that he knows what I need in order to do what he’s called me to do. No more, and no less.
Cover image by Matt Hawthorne.