Cheryl Downs McCoy is a working mother who has a lot to manage: “I need to call that guy about fixing the car. I think I’ve run out of my daughter’s favorite snack. Should I change the batteries in the smoke detector?” And she’s managing it all in bed, at 3 AM. To help her sleep, Ms. McCoy has gone to a sleep therapist and taken every sleep aid—prescription and non—available. Ambien, Lunesta, even low-dose anti-depressants.
Same with Susan Stoga, a mother of two. “Did I send that email to my client? Is the permission slip for pictures due today? Do Carrie’s dance shoes still fit? Is Girl Scouts on this week?” According to a 2007 study, “Women and Sleep,” three in ten women report using some kind of sleep aid at least a few times a week. Eighty percent of women surveyed said they felt too stressed or worried to close their eyes at night.
“Sleep-medicine practices,” the article said, “are overwhelmingly dominated by women.” But that’s hard to believe. I often struggle to sleep for the same reasons: I can’t stop thinking and thinking and thinking. What if? I can always imagine fifty things that could happen, upsetting my well-laid plans. Ana Maria Alessi, a single mother who gets up in the wee hours and walks the house, puts it this way. “I think so much of what drives it is our need for control. We feel like it’s our job to anticipate any variant on The Day—much less The Life—If it rains will I need to change my schedule so I can drop off my kid and he doesn’t need to ride his bike in a downpour? We try to ward off anything that can interfere with the Good Day.”
Control. It’s always there, always the trouble-maker. We just can’t let things go. We keep imagining that we must shape and fix and manage and superintend all these things that are mostly out of our control. That’s the pity of it all. We need to control all these people—and it’s a fool’s errand. Can’t be done.
Enter prayer. Not the juvenile gimme version of prayer, but the simple act of contemplation. Sitting quietly and letting our thoughts go, releasing them. They come, we let them go. They come, we let them go again. Over and over. Until there is that empty moment when we are alone with the Ground of our Being, and everything is Ok.
That, I find, sometimes helps me to sleep. The thoughts come at 3 AM; I examine them, take them seriously, let them have their say, then I let them go. They always come back of course. So I let them go again. The letting-go muscle is like the muscle that wiggles your nose: you have that muscle but you don’t know how to engage it. So prayer exercises that letting-go muscle. And at 3 AM it’s nice to be able to flex your muscle.
I am that person that wakes up and cannot go back to sleep at night because their mind is racing. I’m not at the stage where I need a sleep aid, but it’s because I have techniques that I use to wind my brain down so that I can go back to sleep. I remember you saying to me when I was a child, “Breathe in through your nose, out through your mouth. Deep breaths.” I still use that one. When I was young, I didn’t realize that that was a meditation of sorts.
Letting our thoughts go and releasing them is something I have been working on too. When my boys were little and I would tuck them in at night, I would find that one of them in particular, felt the need to unleash all the fears and thoughts inside his little head right at the moment I was leaving the room. We had already done snack and stories, prayers,hugs and kisses. I was ready to take off the mommy cap and relax alittle in peace and quiet. Of course I would listen, but at that late hour, I didn’t have then energy to come up with a constructive plan for all his worries. I told him to put each one in a little balloon and send it up to God and let him worry about it, and that him and I would talk tomorrow about how to tackle some of what was bothering him. Release and let go. Just the picture of little balloons filled with worries and thoughts, floating up to God, was enough to quiet him and allow him to sleep. It worked for him then and I still try to practice it myself when I find my head swirling with things. Release the balloons!
David Anderson says
Thanks, Pattie–that’s a beautiful image–of just releasing those baloons, laden with all our fraught emotions. There they go . . .
clark s johnson says
David, Contmplatioin needs a lot of proctice I feel One has to try and let those thoughts come and go After may many years of this I find myself faiarly quickly into a bluish area and can commune with our Lord in absolute silenceSo refreshing. Oh yes, and don’t watch the news except PBS News Hour at 7:00PM and be sure and remember the Mute button for even that! Blessings clark
David Anderson says
“a bluish area”–what a remarkalbe image for prayer.