How my Faith Helps me Sleep at Night

"John Henry Fuseli - The Nightmare"

“John Henry Fuseli – The Nightmare”

I grew up in a home where PG-13 movies were out of the question until I was, at least, 14 years old. In this nice, home-schooling, Christian household, the PG rating stood for, “presumptively guaranteed…to be inappropriate.” And R-ratings? Well, I didn’t really talk to people who watched that “satanic nonsense.”[i] But there were these times where my mom and step-dad weren’t around and, coincidentally, I may have forgotten that God was watching me like an easily disappointed and emotionally fragile Santa Clause.[ii] On one of these rare occurrences, seven year-old me watched the 1990 Steven King psycho-horror movie called, “IT.”[iii] IT is a film about a demonic child-murdering clown who likes to taunt children with blood-balloons and can somehow communicate through your home’s plumbing network. IT was definitely rated R.

As a child, I always had trouble sleeping and often had bad dreams. After seeing IT, well, “bad dreams” would be a bit of an understatement concerning my bedtime process. Seven year-old me couldn’t be in a room with the lights off and hated being left alone at night. I had also experienced some significant trauma as a child and somehow, IT the clown had become a nocturnal manifestation of all of my other fears and anxieties. But, still, growing up in the aforementioned conservative Christian household wasn’t without its advantages—namely, my belief in an all-powerful, even if somewhat distant, God. And also, somewhere, I’d picked up that my Bible was some kind of spiritual sword.

And so, nearly every night—from age 7-13—I slept with a Bible under my pillow for protection. It was part of my three-pronged approach to avoiding bad dreams. I also remember praying that God would “fill the room with so many angels that no bad things could fit in the room.” Cute and sad, right? My third line of sleep-defense was quoting Bible verses that I had memorized just like the disciples did to the demons in the Bible—that’s in there right? Maybe because my childhood faith was a psychological crutch, or maybe because the Devil-clown really couldn’t stand hearing the word of God, or maybe cause I memorized more Awana verses than all the other kids combined, all of this really did seem to help with my nightmares.[iv] Or, just maybe, God heard my cries and responded with the compassion of a parent who loved so much it hurts. Whatever it was, whatever I had believed, however my faith worked, God met me there.

Fast-forward to my teenage years. I am a long-haired guitarist in a Christian rock band and working at a local restaurant called—you guessed it—Chicken Coop. I’m not dreaming about a clown anymore; that’s the good news. The bad news? I’m still having a hard time falling asleep due to my anxiety levels and my episodes of sleep paralysis are getting more frequent.[v] I also develop TMJ because apparently, for my unconscious body, sleeping is just so stressful. In my teens, I’d cope by sticking a night guard in my mouth to keep my teeth safe from my jaw, and I’d keep the TV on all night to distract my anxious mind. And again, I turned to my faith.

I would pray that God would empower me to “just get over this already” and I would think about all these Bible passages where people stood up to their demons and I would ask Jesus to give me that power, too. A quick fix—was that so hard, God? And maybe because my faith was still a psychological crutch, or maybe because my developing body decided to exert itself by growing a full foot taller in 11 months, or maybe because I was a successful youth ministry intern with inherent spiritual pedigree, I was able to get some good nights of sleep. Or, just maybe, the Spirit was present with me in my anxiety and interceded for me to the Father in ways I could not expresses. Whatever it was, whatever I had believed, however my faith worked, God met me there.

I am now a married, full-grown adult who is nearing the completion of a master’s degree and even watches my fair share of PG-13 and R-rated movies. But I still have nightmares and still see some scary stuff when I happen to fall prey to sleep paralysis. Today, I’m not dreaming about IT—though you still won’t catch me attending the circus anytime soon—but instead, my nightmares are more concerned with my fears about the deep darkness that can be found in humanity, and in myself. I still struggle with anxiety though I’m learning to cope. Counseling has helped me understand that my sleep issues are psychological not just spiritual and it has shown me how my childhood trauma might have led to so many sleepless nights. Even more, my friends in recovery from addiction and abuse remind me that there are no quick fixes, that healing is a life-long process, that parts of me might always be a bit broken, and that while there is a God, s/he’s not me. And, thanks be to God, my faith now leads me to contemplate on where I may witness God’s presence in my woundedness far more often than it tells me to start discerning the magical sword qualities of the Bible.

And I still pray, though much simpler these days. In fact, I’m pretty sure I pray today what I’ve been trying to pray my whole life—that I’ll be safe, that I’ll find rest, and that I won’t be alone. And maybe this prayer seems to work because I’ve finally become a rational adult who doesn’t believe in all of these non-empirically proven realities. Or, just maybe, I sleep better at night because I pray to the Spirit who knows that it is not good to be alone, to the Son who knows what it’s like to feel unsafe, and to the God who knows well the need for rest—like, you know, every Saturday and later on Sundays.[vi] Lately, I’ve even been praying for my future kids and I’m thankful that they will have a daddy who knows what it’s like to be afraid at bedtime. And maybe, because of the karmic improbability that two consecutive generations will have such difficulty sleeping at night, they’ll never have nightmares. Or maybe they will. But I’ll do my best to sleep at night knowing with deep certitude that despite whatever they believe or however their faith works at the time, God will meet them in their fears just like God’s always met me.

-Michael Wiltshire



[i] Please, good, normal-childhood people, note my sarcasm.

[ii] I resonate with a seminary professor of mine who once said, “I grew up thinking that God’s mood depended entirely on each one of my daily actions.”

[iii] It was re-released on VHS in 1998 but that’s not important. And don’t try to figure out my age.

[iv] It took most of the kids in my class 3-4 years to do a book or two. I did three in seven months and yes, they gave me trophies for it. Yeah, still working on the overachiever thing, too.

[v] Sleep paralysis. Noun: You know, the condition where you wake up in the middle of the night, only not enough to move or talk, and your body freaks out so much it starts hallucinating.

[vi] See: Acts 9:31, Matthew 26:36-46 Gen. 2:2/Exo.20:8.

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  • This was so good to read. Michael, I was captured and transported by your narrative to many of my own memories. Profound work. Keep posting.