Through the drawn curtains, I could see the sky changing, the morning sun alerting the cockerels in the neighbourhood to do their thing. Soon they were joined by the call to prayer from the muezzin. When the alarm on my phone added to the noise of the unfolding day, I sighed in defeat and got out of bed. Once again, there had been no sleep that night.
I walked to the corner of the living room that was my office slash home-school slash home entertainment centre because of the wide screen of the desktop computer. On the whiteboard next to my desk there was a list of tasks to accomplish and I had to decide which one would have to wait as my body inevitably gave way to the sleep deprivation that was already causing a headache. Another sigh, as I unfastened the strap on my journal.
Why couldn’t I sleep?
According to the Mayo Clinic website, the common causes of chronic insomnia include stress, a disrupted circadian rhythm, poor sleep habits and late evening meals. Mental health issues such as anxiety disorders can also disrupt sleep. The website also mentions that some medications cause insomnia as a side effect. There are several medical conditions that also lead to lack of sleep.
I know most of this because, for years, I have scrolled through pages of sleep advice in an attempt to nail down the root cause of my chronic insomnia. Like anybody else, I have had several tough life seasons and the causes of this insomnia, I believe, have tended to relate to whatever is going on in my life. Grief, toxic work environments, financial stress, relationship blues, children’s chronic illnesses, depression. Any of them could be the culprit at any one time.
So what was the cause of this latest bout of sleeplessness?
To find an answer I turned to one of the personal development courses I am taking this year, and tried to see if any of the material we had discussed could help me sort this out. The topic that quickly struck a chord was one about dealing with fear.
Could the current bout of insomnia I was battling be related to fear and anxiety? I connected the dots: for some years now, every time I scheduled something important especially to do with work, I could not, for the life of me, get myself to sleep. Running scenarios in my mind of what could happen, all of them disastrous, ended with fatigue the next day and a lack of full engagement in my activities. Exhaustion became this annoying companion who wouldn’t take the hint to leave when I had had enough of its company.
I must say that the class on fear was immensely helpful. According to the facilitator, we are going to feel fear when we are stretching out of our comfort zone; when we are really using our authentic gifts in the world; if we are “leaving home”; or if we are facing potential criticism that comes from playing bigger.
She had introduced the topic by referring to two concepts of fear: the fear of projected or imagined things; and the fear that comes when we inhabit a larger space than we are used to.
In the first kind, when we feel afraid we tend to generalise based on a specific incident. During that class, my pen flew across the page as I answered journal prompts about this kind of fear. The needs of my child with psychological challenges often kept me awake at night, sitting alone in the dark living room, tears streaming down my face. Because our journey together had been traumatic, with little help, and little money to pay for that which was available, my mind was locked into a future of more of the same, until she and I lost the battle altogether.
Another fear was of the uncertainty involved in creating a thriving life for my family and pulling us out of this season of constant crisis. I had a whole plan laid out of what I needed to do to earn a good living, to educate my children, to cater for our health care. However so much was dependent on forces over which I had no control. I had a big dream for a bold transformation, but the ghosts of failures past haunted me into crippling anxiety. The voice of my inner critic was always present to remind me of what I lacked, the voices of my naysayers were even louder. Naïve, misfit, out of touch, too late, delusional, cursed.
The course facilitator described the second kind of fear as that which comes when we decide to play bigger, to be more authentic, to leave behind the things that don’t serve us. She described it as the fear that Moses in the Bible felt in front of that famous burning bush; he was in the presence of the sacred, being called to an incredible task. She also said that this fear sometimes comes when we suddenly come into possession of considerably more energy than we are used to.
“When we inhabit a larger space than we are used to”. I recognised this excited dread as one of the factors fueling my racing thoughts deep into the wee hours of the morning.
How was I going to move from the first kind of fear, the one informed by past pain, fuelled by uncertainty and lack of control, the one driven by the thought of my naysayers being proven right once again? It was urgent that I shift out of this fear because it would always be a misleading guide to my decision making, freezing my mind and stopping the flow of creativity and resilience I knew I possessed.
The answer was clear; every time anxiety threatens to overwhelm me I must learn to recognise and differentiate the two types of fear and respond appropriately.
To respond to the first kind of fear, based on pain, trauma and past failure, I have several tools to choose from. One is to follow the fear to the end game, imagine the worst case scenario and figure out what I would do. This is supposed to trigger an evaluation of my capability and resilience. After all, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13). The Lord my God is with me wherever I go (Joshua 1:9). Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil for my Shepherd’s rod and staff, they comfort me (Psalm 23:4). He causes me to know the way in which I should walk (Psalm 143:8). In quietness and trust is my strength, (Isaiah 30:15).
For the second kind of fear, I must lean into the excitement of the new, embrace what I am being called to do and be bold about wanting to play bigger. I should let curiosity lead me. After all, God has brought me out to wide-open spaces (Psalm 18:19), and I’ll stride freely through them as I look for His truth and His wisdom (Psalm 119:45). The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places (Psalm 16:6). For God has not given me a spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind (2 Timothy 1:7). I must be confident that my skills will bring me before kings (Proverbs 22:29) and that God’s plans for me are to give me an expected end (Jeremiah 29:11).
I will boldly face the future with my knack for creativity, a sense of adventure and a curiosity fuelled by faith.
And that is how I will get to sleep.