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Drinking to Alleviate Insomnia: A “Cure” that is Worse than the Ill

February 6, 2014

InsomniaStudies have demonstrated a troubling correlation between alcoholism and insomnia. While alcohol use may initially help someone to fall asleep, it will not provide a sound, restful sleep, but a fitful, fragmented slumber that fails to refresh the sleeper. The insidious relationship between insomnia and alcohol abuse is reflected in one study’s findings, which report that “the rate of alcoholism among individuals with insomnia is twice that of good sleepers (Kales, Kales & Bixler, 1984).” Alfonso Marino noted in his dissertation on the treatment of insomnia “not only that insomnia may precede the development of alcohol abuse, but also suggested that treatment of insomnia may reduce the risk of developing alcohol abuse” (Ford & Kamerow, 1989).

The fathers were well aware of the dangers of drinking and knew full well that alcohol was no answer to the problem of insomnia. Saint John Chrysostom referred to alcohol-induced sleep as “a sleep like unto death, a heaviness of head, a disease, an obliviousness, and an image of the condition of those already dead” (Homily 27 on First Corinthians). Elsewhere, he wrote that those who drink to excess “enjoy no sound pure sleep undisturbed by frightful dreams, and are more miserable than madmen and introduce a kind of self-imposed demon into the soul and display themselves as a laughing stock to the gaze of their servants, or rather to the kinder sort among them as a tragic spectacle eliciting tears” (Homily on No one can harm the man who does not injure himself).

It is understandable, although clearly not advisable, why someone suffering from insomnia might seek relief in self-medicating remedies.  The anxiety, the relational issues, and the vocational problems related to insomnia may cause the insomniac to seek “quick fixes” that do nothing more than mask the problem temporarily while creating even more serious problems in the long term. A sleepless night is a wearying trial that saps our strength, but drunkenness is far worse. It is  “the mother of dejection, the joy of the devil, and the parent of ten thousand evils” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 27 on First Corinthians), “for where there is drunkenness, the devil is there also” (Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 70 on Matthew).

If those suffering from insomnia are twice as prone to abuse alcohol as those who sleep uninhibited, vigilance is necessary in order that one issue does not beget another. Rather than turning to the bottle or pills for relief, Christians have a far better alternative.  In Alcoholics Anonymous, the alcoholic learns to surrender his will and his life over to God rather than attempt to face the daunting challenge of not drinking alone.  While getting a good night’s sleep is not a matter of the will, it would be beneficial to adopt the stance of surrender that naturally relaxes the muscles and induces a certain state of calmness. The person suffering the effects of sleeplessness is indeed “powerless” over the presence of weariness after a sleepless night.  In turning one’s situation over to the love and care of God we relieve ourselves of the responsibility and the burden of fixing something that may appear to be without any immediate solution.

Archimandrite John Krestiankin once wrote, “The world is governed by God’s Providence alone, and in this is salvation for one who believes; in this is the strength to endure earthly sorrows. My dears, the world is governed by God’s Providence and not by us mortals. I will tell you from experience that the sooner we accept what God has given us, the easier it will be to bear God’s good yoke, His easy yoke. It becomes heavy from our inner resistance. Such a time has come when only faith that God’s Providence orders life can overcome all the hardships of life.  Lord! You know all things; do with me as You will. Amen.  There are no forgotten people in God, and God’s Providence watches over everyone. God rules the world—only God, and no one else”  (Source: Pravoslavie). Letting go of inner resistance and becoming aware of God’s providence are intrinsically healing movements of the soul. They also can allow for virtue to blossom forth.

This reminds me of a similar passage from Saint Isaac the Syrian who wrote, “Virtues are connected with suffering.  He who flees suffering is sure to be parted from virtue.  If you desire virtue, give yourself up to every kind of suffering.  For suffering engenders humility.  Until we have attained true knowledge, we advance toward humility by means of trials.  He who rests on his virtue without suffering has the door of pride open before him” (Homilies 34). This does not mean that we are to seek punishment, which is certainly a psychologically questionable approach to life, but rather that like Saint Paul we need to realize that “it is hard for us to kick against the goads” (Acts 9:5). In that realization and that surrender, we find we are not alone, but that Christ is with us on our road to Damascus. And so in our humility, in our trials, and even in our sleeplessness, we can find God. These are wise counsels not only for the insomniac or the alcoholic, but for anyone who seeks the help of our humble God Who descended to us that He might lift us up to Him.  When faced with difficulties, our safe harbor is resting in the loving arms of the God who promises to see us through every hardship and lead us to a place of refreshment and peace.

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One Comment
  1. thanks for the article.
    very insightful.
    bless the Lord.

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