Every evening each of us, alone and in the light of our own circumstances, surrenders to sleep…or tries to.
Sleep accounts for about a third of our time. Yet, according to the National Sleep Foundation, 48 percent of Americans report occasional insomnia, while 22 percent experience insomnia every or almost every night. Women are 1.3 times more likely to report insomnia than men.
I grew up in a family of terrible sleepers. I inherited somnambulism (sleepwalking) and night terrors from my mother and insomnia from my father. Each condition exacerbated the other. For years, I hid or minimized my sleep disorders. I was isolated, alone and exhausted. I felt that my somnambulism in particular was a rare phenomenon that needed to stay hidden.
But was it, really?
The first study on sleepwalking in the United States in over thirty years was released a few years ago by Stanford University. With more than 15,000 participants, it revealed that “with a rate of 29.2 percent, lifetime prevalence of Nocturnal Wandering is high.”
People who got less than seven hours of sleep per night ran a higher risk of nocturnal wandering. One-third of individuals with a family history of sleepwalking experienced it themselves, although the genetics are not understood. In fact, the medical community has been in the dark regarding most aspects of sleepwalking and is only just beginning to catch up to its true perils.
Most somnambulists are too embarrassed to seek help until they hurt themselves or someone else. Some have mistaken their bed partners for assailants and physically harmed, even murdered them. Others have fallen out of windows while fleeing an imagined terror and their deaths have been mistaken for suicide.
During sleepwalking and sleep terrors, the part of the brain that generates complex behaviors is awake, while the part of the brain that normally monitors what we do and records memories of what we have done is asleep. The brain is left in a mixed wake/sleep state, capable of wild behaviors without conscious awareness and therefore without culpability.
As a child, aspects of my awake life affected the way I slept. I was bullied—a study in Pediatrics shows higher rates of nightmares and night terrors amongst victims of bullying. Violence in my home left me with post-traumatic stress disorder that put me at an even higher risk for night terrors. I discovered drinking as a way to pass out at bedtime, but my efforts to self-medicate with alcohol failed miserably.
My family has a long history of schizophrenia and I was terrified of being institutionalized in the middle of a nocturnal episode. My maladies affected every aspect of my life, especially my relationships. Imagine being my bed partner at the height of my distress—waking from me screaming or fleeing the bed in an effort to escape whoever chased me from my nightmare.
When I was 30, a severe sleepwalking accident finally convinced me to visit a sleep clinic. At first a small, nightly dosage of Klonopin and regular Gestalt therapy abated episodes. The medicine immobilized me while sleeping, and psychotherapy healed the PTSD. At the same time, I met a gentle man and fell in love. I truly believe that facing the intimacy of sleep is what allowed me to enter an intimate relationship.
We process our emotions during sleep but, due to a lack of real rest, I was emotionally stunted. Committing to another person had been out of the question. As I learned to love myself, sleep disorders and all, I relaxed into vulnerability and intimacy. I became a different person, steeped in my search for health, and was finally able to offer true partnership.
We married and I came off the medicine free of side effects while we conceived our daughter. I’ve continued healthy sleep through a combination of meditation, nutrition, exercise, therapy, and hypnosis.
If I learned one thing from all that nocturnal wandering, it’s that the body doesn’t lie.
Before my recovery, I acted out my trauma nearly every night, which led me to avoid my bed out of fear. If sleep disturbances or insomnia are keeping you from a good night sleep, educate yourself about good sleep hygiene. If problems continue, I urge you to seek help from a sleep specialist.
I am grateful to have faced my fears and survived my long, dark night of the soul. My path to sound sleep included the surprise of romance and, from this intimacy, I learned the link between comfort, trust and peaceful slumber.
This article was originally published in MindBodyGreen.