Finding rest

insomnia Finding restThe comments to my last post reminded me of an interesting moment I had in my recent interview with Nona Aguilar for the National Catholic Register. She surprised me when she asked about something I’d never really tried to articulate before: what the biggest changes are in my daily life since my conversion. We ended up having a long discussion about the countless ways my day to day life is different now, but when she initially asked me the question I was caught off guard, and just blurted out the first thing that popped into my mind.

“I can sleep at night,” I replied.

I was surprised by my own answer. I’d never thought much about it until the words left my mouth, but one thing that is really different about my life since becoming a Christian is that I no longer struggle with the chronic insomnia that plagued me for years before my conversion. I still have bouts of sleeplessness occasionally, especially if I’m under stress, but it’s nothing like what I experienced before.

Other than a period of a few years where I struggled with serious depression, I was generally happy as an atheist. I went through my days like anyone else, taking pleasure in good friends and an interesting job, dealing with frustrations as they came, overall feeling good about life.

And then nightfall would come.

Some nights were better, some were worse, but every night that I found myself lying in a dark room without distractions, I felt some combination of fear, loneliness, helplessness and discord. I quickly learned to avoid the situation altogether, alternately reading or watching TV until my eyes glazed over, or staying out drinking all hours with friends. But this behavior left me with an elephant-in-the-room situation where my odd sleep habits only reminded me that there was something I was trying to avoid.

On the nights that I didn’t have any distractions handy, the specific thoughts and feelings that would keep me awake varied: sometimes it was worry about specific problems in my life; sometimes it was a whirl of thoughts about everything that could go wrong; other times it was just a vague feeling of psychological discomfort; and, every now and then, I felt the cold terror of fully understanding the implications of my own mortality. Underneath it all, though, was that “something,” the elephant in the room that I tried so hard to avoid. And when the lights went out, I could begin to hear it move and groan beside me.

The sensory deprivation of lying awake in bed at night let the silence shout at me of my utter insignificance in a vast, lifeless universe. Any worldly trappings that might have given me feelings of worth or importance were stripped away in the stillness of the night, reminding me that all life, including my life and the lives of everyone I loved, would one day flicker out, returning to the dead nothingness from which it came. It was then that I would understand that the only kind of legitimate hope that was available in the human experience was short-term hope; in the end, we would all perish.

Though I wouldn’t have thought of it this way at the time, it was an uncomfortable place to be. Insomnia was just one of the symptoms of the state of psychological distress that resulted from not understanding the truth about myself and the world, from not knowing my Creator. As I once described here, my soul was suffocating, cut off from its source of life like a limb deprived of bloodflow. And a soul gasping for breath is not — can never be — at rest.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened,” Jesus says in Chapter 11 of Matthew. “And I will give you rest.” Three years ago I was weary. Weary from lack of sleep, from almost three decades of carrying the burden of a desolate and incorrect worldview. I have now found the truth in Jesus Christ, and, in more ways than one, he has given me rest.

photo by rcolonna

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Enter the Conversation...

17 Responses to “Finding rest”
  1. cindyhan111 says:

    This is my first visit to your blog and it is really, really cool. I would think, you will be able to write your book well…
    you carry a nice conversational tone that entices the reader to identify, even when you don’t! very nice. cindy

  2. Anonymous says:

    This answers Abby’s? question yesterday:How can you write a book and not include ” all the details”.
    I think you can without descending into the fine print. Here, for example, you mention serious depression. That’s it. No extended
    analysis and detail. You don’t need to, I don’t think. Leaving some details back is respect for yourself and for your reader. I like the discretion which seems to come to you naturally. I don’t think you have to bare everything to write a meaningful book. I mean, one of the reasons I love your blog ( It is the only one I read daily.) is this sense of decorum combined with honest soul revelation..but a refusal to go ” Jerry Springer” or ” Oprah” on us.! PTL.

  3. Shelley says:

    Again, Jen, I love your last line. Really beautiful and so true!

  4. Tune says:

    God has a good sense of humor. I mean, I have been having insomnia lately, and lo and behold, here is a post on “Finding Rest.” Coincidence? Maybe. God’s providential hand? More likely.
    On a more serious note, I think I can attribute my insomnia to me slowly losing my ground on my own belief. It struck me as true that when I started to not put God first, the restlessness in me ensues. St. Augustine is right when he said, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless, until they rest in Thee!” Thank you for sharing!

  5. bluberrigal says:

    This was a great post. Forwarded to me by a good friend on Facebook. I forwarded it to my mom, who recently overheard some of her co-workers complaining that they couldn’t sleep, and were so tired all the time. She asked them if they would like to know her secret for falling asleep at night – which they did – and she said “PRAYER”! They actually listened, tried it, and reported that it worked! I love my mom for being such a powerful witness for Christ in such a genuine, normal person kind of way.

  6. Jasmine says:

    Wow, Jenn… I hadn’t considered that specifically, but you are exactly right! I didn’t struggle with insomnia before finding the Church, but I always had a certain unease. I didn’t know what would happen in the future, and life felt so short! Mistakes felt so permanent!

    It’s a whole different world, now, living with faith and love.

  7. Lady of the Lakes says:

    This post really struck a chord with me, especially this line:

    “every now and then, I felt the cold terror of fully understanding the implications of my own mortality.”

    I can really relate to this. Although I also can sleep easier since I converted, I still struggle with this at times. The main difference now? Now I have hope.

  8. Abigail says:

    I’ve also noticed a difference in my insomnia between simply being Catholic and then starting to regularly say the Night Prayer, from the Daily Hours.

    “Protect us Lord, as we stay awake: watch over us as we sleep, that awake we may keep watch with Christ and asleep, rest in his peace.”

  9. Abigail says:

    “I can finally sleep at night” sounds pretty funny coming from a Mom whom the Lord gave 3 kids under age 3!

    Of course, we know what you mean. “I can sleep in peace because the sounds of nightly discontent come outside my mind instead of inside it.” :-)

    Have a beautiful day!

  10. Michael says:

    Christ is Risen!

    What is life without Christ?

  11. Christine says:

    I sleep as sound as a teddy bear after I examine my conscience and say some prayers.

    A clear conscience is a great piece of mind.

  12. Roxane B. Salonen says:

    Jennifer, this is really interesting. Recently, I was having a conversation with someone who is not a believer, to my knowledge. At one point, he mentioned a newly emerging pattern of insomnia, of waking up feeling very disturbed, but he can’t figure out what it might be. Nothing in his life would indicate undue stress. In fact, by all accounts, things are going extremely well. He pondered a few vague possibilities for this repeated disruption. But my first thought was, I wonder if it’s God tapping him on the shoulder? When I hit the pillow, generally I’m out cold, so I could not identify. Of course, I can’t know the soul of another, and I didn’t suggest this out loud, but I have wondered about it since, and now, even more so since you’ve expressed your own experience of pre-Christ and post-Christ make it seem very plausible. With this in mind, I am newly inspired to keep him in my prayers. Thanks, as always.

  13. Anonymous says:

    I’ve found I have the same sleep issues without my faith as I did with them. I’ve come to the fairly mundane conclusion that I’m just a natural night owl.

  14. Anonymous says:

    I wish belief in God were a cure for insomnia!

    I absolutely believe in God and sometimes (when I can’t sleep) spend my those annoying wide-awake periods thinking about God, meditating on some of aspect of a saint’s life or Christ’s life, etc., etc. My new favorite focus: St. Joseph. I’ve recently come to realize just how great a man he was.

    Those thoughts and meditations help a bit, btw.

    A friend (and convert) who is also an apologist has lots of problems sleeping through the night. He finally spent the night at a sleep lab and learned that he has sleep apnea. He’s getting a special mask and machine to assist his breathing. I’m thinking of trying a night in a lab too.

    All that said, I think that Jen offers valuable insights into the mind of some atheists in terms of “final” things, i.e., how they confront reality and the emptiness that some might feel or experience. Atheism is a chilly spiritual world….

    ~ Nona

  15. Antique Mommy says:

    Love this post and the way you articulate these matters of faith. I have been thinking a lot lately on this very topic.

  16. Stephanie says:

    Beautiful!

    Sleep is truly a gift from God. It’s one we so often take for granted – until it doesn’t come easily.

  17. Therese Z says:

    Going through menopause, I sleep very poorly and I’m tired all the time (it will all end some time or another, I am told – bleh). But at least I don’t feel alone. I have never felt ALONE since I came back to faith.

    Beautiful postings. Thank you for sharing your heart.