It’s 3:30 in the morning. Well, it won’t be when you are reading this. By the time you read this, I am trusting that I will have snagged a few more hours of sleep, woken up feeling refreshed, enjoyed a deliciously nourishing breakfast smoothie, and put in an extremely productive morning in the office! That is the story that I am hoping for in this moment. But my anxiety and obsessive compulsive thinking would tell you another story right now.
You see, I have been given the amazing gift of an exceptional imagination. Truly, I do believe it is a gift, and I can’t imagine living life without it. God has granted me the ability to dream in technicolor and to imagine the impossible in ways that bring delight to my heart. But just like everything good in this world can be twisted into something vile, my imagination can become my worst nightmare… particularly in the middle of the night when I need sleep the most!
Have you ever read the Voyage of the Dawn Treader? In it, C.S. Lewis tells the daring tale of Lucy and Edmond, along with their cousin Eustace, sailing the Eastern Ocean in the land of Narnia. Along with Narnia’s King Caspian, the seafarers have set out to reach the “utter east”, the eastern edge of the world (evidently the world of Narnia is flat). Along the way, they come across a host of different islands and adventures, but one comes specifically to mind in this moment. Dark Island. Dark Island is a place where dreams come true. But not daydreams. Not the kind of dreams that you wish would come true. No, at Dark Island, all of your worst nightmares become a reality. As you enter the thick of the foggy darkness, you start to recall the sinister images that have woken you in the night. And as you think of them, the magic of the island brings them to life before your very eyes.
The more I think about this, the more I can’t help but see the striking similarities between Narnia’s Dark Island and my late night experiences with anxiety. It’s almost as if C.S. Lewis was specifically writing this section of the book as a creative retelling of my 3 a.m. battles with fear.
I don’t know if you have ever experienced anything like this, but for someone like me with an out-of-this-world imagination, my fearful thoughts can almost become reality in my mind. Here’s what I mean. Two weeks ago I woke up in the middle of the night from a nightmare about a snake (what I like to call a ‘snakemare’). And let’s just state, for the record, that when you wake up in the middle of the night from a snakemare, and you already struggle with anxiety and fear at the best of times, you are not exactly in your right mind. And I certainly wasn’t on this particular night. My imagination was suddenly filled with the worst kind of possibilities… the kind of things that would make you get down on your knees and thank God that Dark Island isn’t a real place!! But for me, that night, it was almost as if it really were, because I was genuinely convinced that I was going to get eaten by a snake! It’s amazing what my imagination can do when it runs wild.
I did not wake up from a nightmare tonight. Nor did I wake up feeling particularly afraid. In fact, in the past week and a half or so, since God started this new work in my life around my fear, I haven’t had any nightmares at all. My anxiety has been at an all-time low, for which I am extremely grateful. But I know that, in its sinister nature, it is still there hiding beneath the surface, waiting for the vulnerable moments to come out and pounce.
When I am awake at 3:30 in the morning… that is a vulnerable moment. How do I know? Because I’ve been here before. I know what happens when I wake up at 3 a.m. and start imagining. Tonight, as I laid in bed, confident and ready to fall back asleep, one of those sneaky, fearful thoughts, ever so quietly snuck past the gatekeepers of my mind and then suddenly leapt into full view. Ryan has bronchitis at the moment, and a few nights ago he took it upon himself to move into the guest room so as to not keep me awake all night from his coughing. Yesterday he finally saw the doctor and got some medication, and as I was trying to fall back asleep I thought to myself, “I haven’t heard him coughing at all tonight. I’m so glad that the meds are helping and he is finally getting some sleep.” And then it hit me. This sudden, shocking fear, that maybe I wasn’t hearing anything because he was lying over there dead. I can look at those words right now and realize how crazy that seems. But anxiety is no respecter of logical thinking!
So this is how it would normally play out for me. I would lay here trying to talk myself out of it. “It’s okay. He’s not dead. This is an irrational thought. I am experiencing anxiety. I can get through this.” I would fumble through a timid, desperate, silent prayer, hoping that God would swoop in and just turn off my consciousness like a light-switch so that I could simply sleep it off. But here’s what would happen next. The thought would come back. And this time it would be louder. And more convincing. And now compulsion would start kick in. And I would lay here so convinced that Ryan is dead, and so compelled by the obsession of that thought, that I might eventually get out of bed at 3:30 in the morning, walk into the other room and wake him up from the peaceful sleep that he is finally having, just to make sure he is still breathing.
But I have taken a different approach this time. I have decided that I need to be prepared for the vulnerable moments. I have accepted the fact that it is time for me to stand up for myself against this thing and face it. Last week my psychologist and I worked on some strategies to get me through moments like these. And it’s all well and good to make those plans, but then when the rubber meets the road, you actually have to put them into action. And that takes discipline. It is a lot easier to lay there in the dark like a victim. It is a lot easier for me to feel sorry for myself in that moment, wishing it would just go away. But doing that is an invitation for the fear to spread and take more and more ground on the battlefield of my mind.
Here are some of my strategies:
- Quote, out loud, relevant and comforting verses from the Bible that I have memorized outside of the anxious moments in preparation for the anxious moments. My verse for nights like tonight is Psalm 4:8 – “I will lie down and sleep in peace. For you alone, oh Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
- Take a bit of time to establish myself in the moment. Listen deeply for 5 sounds that I can hear right here in this room. Look around and identify 5 colors that I can see and describe the texture of the objects they represent. Not only will this take my mind off the anxiety, but it will force me back into the present and out of the world of my terrifying imaginings!
- Write about it! Writing has always been how I process life best. And writing forces the thoughts out of the highly intense, “fight or flight” powerhouse of my brain, and brings them into the area of logic, rational thinking and reason. Luckily my laptop was right next to my bed, and Ryan was in another room, so although I don’t think I’ll make this my go-to option in the middle of the night, it worked out this time!
So here I am, some time later, feeling at peace. For me, that is a victory! And just as Aslan sent the strong, sweet voice of an albatross to strengthen Lucy with the words “courage, dear heart” as her ship struggled through the “inky blackness” of Dark Island, I too feel that Jesus—my Aslan—has whispered a little bit of courage and peace into the ears of my heart tonight. For this I am so thankful. And I am so ready for some sleep!
What are some of your strategies for facing nighttime anxiety or irrational fears? Leave me a comment and let me know how you handle the Dark Island moments in your life!