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The Social Ramifications of Insomnia and Some Saintly Responses

February 4, 2014

It should come as no surprise that the social life of someone suffering with insomnia would be affected by the inability to experience restful sleep.  How can one cheerfully take part in activities with others when all one wants is a bit of sleep? How can one help being irritable and on edge after tossing and turning hour after hour? But further how can this reluctance and irritability, day after day, not alienate family, loved ones, friends, and co-workers? The problem of insomnia is not just limited to physical and emotional factors, debilitating in their own right, the social effects of insomnia further aggravate an already difficult state of affairs.

Generalized perceptions of others concerning one’s “excessive daytime sleepiness” (EDS) as laziness only exacerbate feelings of alienation and anxiety.  In his dissertation, “Treating Insomnia-a Cognitive Behavioral Group Therapy Approach,” Alfonso Marino writes, “Before being diagnosed, such individuals come to believe that they are lazy.  This often results in low self-esteem, alienation from family, and immense problems with school and employment.” (Sleep/Wake Disorders, Canada, 1993)

The negative perceptions of others, especially those close relationships, coupled with low self-esteem become a double dose of anxiety and negative thoughts leading at times to feelings of hopelessness and despair. Such experiences are not limited to what society deems “people with problems.” Many saintly people have suffered with sleeplessness. Saint Anatoly of Optima once wrote a nun, “How am I going to get through the night? Even though I did not sleep tonight, I did not suffer either. I could not go to sleep. At 12:00 a.m., I began reading the service to the Angels, again I tried to sleep, so I languished all night. Now, thank God, I am alright” (A collection of letters to nuns). In his sleeplessness, he reached out to the angels; after a hard night sleep, he reached out to those looking for his direction. He admitted the difficulty, but still offered thanksgiving to God, providing a gentle, hopeful witness even in his difficulty.

Elder JustinThe esteemed Romanian Elder Justin Parvu provides us with another example.  In chronicling his life and confession of faith in the most difficult of circumstances (imprisonment and torture in communist Romania in the 1950’s and 1960’s), Simona Irime, writing for The Orthodox Word notes, “The beginning of 1947 was a time of great struggle for Fr. Justin also-he was struggling with depression:  ‘I was sensing something.  For two months I had sleepless nights and no desire to live, study, read, or pray.  I was alienated from myself, going through a grievously dark period, being distracted during services.” (Gratia Lungu Constantineanu, Parintele Justin Parvu, p.66)

Yet, in spite of these hardships of insomnia and depression, Elder Justin persevered through years of incarceration and torture.  It is not clear if Elder Justin’s struggle with insomnia and depression continued during those horrific years of imprisonment.  However, one thing is clear that may perhaps shed a light on how to cope with insomnia and suffering in our own lives.  During these times of internal and external suffering, Elder Justin never asked “Why me?” or asked God to remove the scourge of suffering from Him for, as he later wrote, “This is how history is written my dear.  Sometimes you arrange things for yourself and other times they’re arranged for us by others.  But nothing is done without God’s knowledge.  There’s a trial and a proof of God’s love in everything.”

This is not to say that we should avoid seeking remedies for scourges such as insomnia or depression.  However, when they persist in spite of the remedies, it is beneficial to stop and remind oneself that even this is not outside the purview of God’s love.  In Elder Justin’s life, his social support (family, monastery, and friends) were stripped away and he was left to face his accusers’ taunts and tortures.  Yet, he couldn’t be stripped of that inner light from God that allowed him to continue to persevere against the worst odds.

This is instructive in our own lives when we face the bitterness of suffering from such maladies as insomnia.  We have a duty to seek out remedies to cure the insomnia.  However, when those remedies fail to release us from the grip of insomnia, we still have the love and mercy of God abiding in our hearts.  When life’s circumstances make it so that that is all we can cling to, even then, we are blessed indeed for we still possess the one thing needful, God’s love and mercy that can soften our irritability into a gentle peacefulness, that can give us the strength to do what we need to do, and that can give us the courage to turn towards others who may need our love and mercy as well.

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7 Comments
  1. Father…this was very consoling and contains much truth. There are days…many…when I have done all I can to relieve the symptoms…but the insomnia persists…and I cling to God even though it feels as if it is only a thin thread ready to snap at any moment. I look back on the many years I have been dealing with this and I am always awed by God’s amazing grace and how He has bestowed many graces through the days I was suffering immensely.

    Your writings are a great blessing to me now during this period.

  2. And that thin thread, Theresa, is so very precious in God’s sight that He weaves around us in every way possible the net of His love to catch us when we fall. That you can see that net in the graces He bestows is truly wonderful indeed!

  3. Insomnia can certainly be very socially isolating as you say in your first two paragraphs. I used to (and still often do) find that work was little more than an exercise in pretending to be alert. Being a nodding dog at 11:00am when your employer wants you to be alert and lively is a one way street to unemployment.

    • Thank you for your comments and your input on this series. We will eventually get to some positive steps one can take for dealing with this problem, once the problem is laid out in full. And, yes, it is hard to fake alertness after a sleepless night. One can simply do one’s best. On Mount Athos, some fathers would have a great struggle not nodding off during the long vigils. Some would go outside to the fountain and splash some water on their faces, then return in a bit more refreshed. It’s not a solution, but it helps.

  4. It sounds like the fathers on Mount Athos did have some will power. It is often easy to fall asleep by accident when you are tired. I do find that recognising when I am soon to fall asleep and getting up and going for a walk is a useful technique. Do you know how long the vigils were and is Mount Athos cold at night?

    @Teresa, I recently bought something called an oximeter that measures blood oxygen levels during sleep. I was also diagnosed with depression but the oximeter shows a very different issue. My blood oxygen levels drop to as low as 70% during sleep (95% is the recommended). I also have hypopnea (lowering of oxygen levels) up to 10 times per hour. This seems to be a functional definition of sleep apnoea which can often not be detected by the sleeper. If I did not buy the oximeter then this would NEVER have been diagnosed by my GP. It has been 17 years that I have been visiting them and I as I am not really overweight (BMI of ~25.7 and when I was younger much lower) then they would not test for apnoea. Anti-depressants, sleeping pills and therapy are no use in this situation but it was all the GP would offer.

    You may want to get an oxymeter and see if that is your problem – the bad news is they cost about £100. I hope that is not an issue for you. You may be able to borrow one from your GP. It is infuriating (an understatement) that my GP does have them, but they never suggested lending me one! I hope the Father does not mind a link to my forum where I post the charts and the link to the specific model (CMS-F50) that I bought. You cannot use most of the cheaper models as they will not stay on the finger during sleep.

    The link is http://goo.gl/iz8Es8.

    Good luck Theresa and keep pushing your doctor to the point of obnoxiousness. There is a reason for the problem, unfortunately it is up to you to push for the solution which is very difficult when you are almost permanently exhausted. Get the help of a friend if you can for moral support – even better if you have a partner who can verify that the problem really exists and push the GP on your behalf.

    Thank you for letting me post Father and I look forward to reading anything else that you post in this series.

    • Thanks so much for all the info…it is so much appreciated. I find it extremely interesting and will look into it. I do have a good psychiatrist that is open to suggestions, thankfully.

      Blessings~

  5. And thank you for the additional information that may help others.

    I was in the Monastery of Karakallou. The usual vigils were 9 hours, but the patronal feast was between 12-13 hours. The longest vigil on the Holy Mountain is for the feast of Saint Athanasius at Megisti Lavra and it lasts about 17 hours.

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