Living with insomnia as a youth worker

For as long as I can remember I have struggled with sleep.

Most nights I’ll drift off nice and easily, but then I’ll wake up at the smallest sound, and usually I’ll be wide awake by about 3am, only to have my tiredness return by 7am. This is always fun.

When I’m asleep I grumble, mutter, and grind my teeth. Sometimes I tell full-blown stories. In fact, this was one of the first things that my wife discovered just after we got married. One time, while fully asleep, I opened my eyes, leaned up on my pillow, looked at my wife and said to her:

“Harry Potter… He’s an angel… and he’s got these wings… and he flies around… but he gets really really tired about every fifteen minutes.”

With that I dropped back onto my pillow, but my wife was laughing so hard that she woke me up!

I average about four hours of sleep per night, but that’s not consistent. Some nights I’ll get two hours and some nights I’ll get ten. In fact there really is nothing consistent about my insomnia.

I’ve taken meds, tired therapies, and I’ve talked to doctors. The last doctor I talked to , however, spent most of the appointment telling me about a recurring nightmare of his wherein a giant set of chess pieces were trying to kill him. Fun, but not really very helpful. I haven’t exhausted the entire list of medical options, but I have dug pretty deep.

The thing is, I just don’t sleep well.

For the tech-heads among you, I spend far too long in REM, nowhere near long enough time in NREM, and I tend to only complete the first few sleep cycles, leaving the latter cycles (which mostly deal with cognitive function) incomplete and disturbed. It’s not good for organ recovery, and it always leaves me a little groggy.

Enter the world of youth work

Other than the shadows under my eyes, which I mostly hide with framed glasses and eye-cream, you wouldn’t necessarily know this about me. I don’t talk much about it for fear of the ‘I’ll fix it’ crowd. I’m also slightly onto the ADHD scale, and I’m rarely visibly short of energy during my youth projects. But boy do I feel tired a lot!

I think if I really had to pinpoint when this cycle of poor sleep began, it was when I had a series of operations in my early teens and spent a month in hospital, and no-one sleeps well in hospital! Not long after this I entered into the church youth work scene, first as a young person, then a young leader, and finally a professional youth pastor. It’s all I’ve ever really known.

My introduction to and growth into youth ministry happened on a parallel track to the setting in of my sleep disorder. The two grew together.
The general patterns of youth ministry are simply not well suited to someone with diagnosed insomnia. There are inconstant hours, late nights, early mornings, spontaneous events, overlong meetings, high-energy projects, deep one-to-ones, all-nighters, back-to-back camps, locks-ins, and then reports. If I hadn’t grown into youth ministry while developing insomnia, I never ever would have learned the energy management to go with it.

So what do I do / what should you do?

I honestly have no idea. I’m constantly trying to ‘work on my sleep.’ This is frankly one of the weirdest posts I’ve ever written because I have very little wisdom to give on the subject, despite actually having quite a lot of experience.

I mostly wrote this as a testimony to any other youth leaders who struggle with sleep. Hopefully it will be a little ‘you’re not alone’ post that might offer some solidarity.

I’ll say a few random things though:

  1. Youth leader – take your days off, book holidays, don’t distain rest, turn off when your home, don’t be an ‘always on’ leader.
  2. Insomniac – seek help, develop consistency as much as possible over sleep quantity (waking up a the same time tends to be more important than going to bed at the same time), make peace with the fact that you will just be tired. Life’s too short to care too much. Also – don’t underestimate the power of regular exercise and a good diet.
  3. Managers – Be careful how much you ask from a youth leader that isn’t on their job description, and take care over which meetings you invite them to.
  4. Nappers – if you nap, try to do it properly.
  5. Self-diagnosers – Please see a doctor before you announce to the world you have insomnia. Some of us really do.
  6. ‘Helpful’ people – I’ve read books, talked to doctors, and probably spent more time googling than you have… probably at 4am. Please don’t try to fix me. Encouragement, sympathy and prayers are much better! Thanks 🙂

4 replies
  1. Levi Phillips
    Levi Phillips says:

    “There are inconstant hours, late nights, early mornings, spontaneous events, overlong meetings, high-energy projects, deep one-to-ones, all-nighters, back-to-back camps, locks-ins, and then reports. If I hadn’t grown into youth ministry while developing insomnia, I never ever would have learned the energy management to go with it.”

    That paragraph is the perfect summary of unsustainable youth ministry and why most people burn out after 2 years!!

    Great post, thanks for sharing about your insomnia – hope you can reclaim a decent pattern soon.

    Reply
  2. Cat
    Cat says:

    I am so glad to know I’m not alone!

    I’ve been known to sit up in bed, with both hands imitating a duck whilst saying iggle piggle iggle onk, we are going to ride the ninky nonk… That’s the tame story… my parents and I have all got a leaning to nightly activities which have a sense of urgency and result in us being intent on completing a seriously important task whilst asleep (sometimes dangerous and usually embarrassing when you hear you’ve attacked someone or made a phone call…).

    Cutting out sugar, caffeine, blue light etc has made a difference. As well as doctor giving some pills that aid sleep – like you I never felt rested and was constantly exhausted. I’d also ask the Doc to check your vitamin levels… there are some which aid sleep and taking it has helped me (and I’m still quite low in it despite taking it as a supplement)!

    Reply
    • youthworkhacks
      youthworkhacks says:

      Thanks for your comment – that’s quite a nighttime performance!

      I guess this just shows that successful treatments are as varied as the people themselves 🙂

      Reply

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