The Social Ramifications of Insomnia and Some Saintly Responses

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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