Requiem For a Sleepwalker

A family seeks help after a sleepwalker's tragic drowning.

Posted Feb 18, 2018

Zimmerman family, used with permission
Mike and Patrice Zimmerman
Source: Zimmerman family, used with permission

Only five months after publication of my memoir, ''Sleepwalker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist,'' I received a Facebook private message:

Dear Ms. Frazier,

I feel compelled to write you after reading your book. My family and I are in search of answers after my stepmother [Patrice Zimmerman] died on December 15th, 2015. We still don't have a ruling from the police but we believe that she was sleepwalking. If you don't mind, I would like to share our story.

A week before Christmas, I received a call from my sister, Erika, who lives in Troy, New York. She told me that our stepmother was missing. My dad, Michael, was in Florida at the time and Patrice was at their Latham, New York home.

Things unraveled quickly as my dad called the police when he couldn't reach her for their daily check-in at 6:45 AM. The police found blood in the basement—on the landing at the bottom of the stairs. It appeared that she fell headfirst as she was going to go up the stairs.

From what we have pieced together, she laid there for awhile, went upstairs and then back to bed. She then got up, ate and left the house at 4:30 am (the neighbor has a camera in their house). She was barefoot, in her pajamas, no purse, no phone and no glasses. She drove 15 minutes away to Waterford where she normally kayaked.

Cameras on the other end of her trip showed that she was alone. She backed her car into a spot where she often parked when kayaking. And that was the last we see of her.

Patrice was missing for 24 hours before the police found her in the Hudson River. Patrice was a vibrant and glass-half-full type of person. She had everything set out for the next day and was making plans for the coming Christmas holidays. 

The autopsy showed no traumatic brain injury [from the fall] or other health concerns and the toxicology report came back negative for any alcohol, drugs or pills.

But Patrice was a longtime sleepwalker. She was 59 when she died. According to my dad, her sleepwalking episodes happened several times a month. She never hurt herself, never left the house and certainly never drove… The only conclusion we could make is that she was asleep. But how could she not wake up when she hit the cold water or when she hit her head? A sleep doctor met with the police and he said that the sleep is so deep, it is common not to wake.

As we are trying to wrap our heads around what happened, your book was a very eye-opening story. … Would love any thoughts you have. Thanks, Lori Mayer

Having suffered from sleepwalking (also called somnambulism) and night terrors (a separate condition often coupled with sleepwalking) for 20 years, I wept while reading Lori's message. Parasomnias are disorders characterized by disruptive events that occur while entering into sleep, while sleeping, or during arousal from sleep when the central nervous system activates the skeletal, muscular and/or nervous systems in an undesirable manner.

My somnambulism began in adolescence in the same suburb where Patrice Zimmerman resided at the time of her death—Latham.

I am recovered from both of my sleep disorders (one night at a time) but could have died upon many occasions. Growing up, I feared bed and developed chronic insomnia. As I matured, exhaustion and shame colored every aspect of my life. I self-medicated with alcohol and there were nights when I didn't know if I was waking from a blackout or from a sleepwalking/night terror episode. After getting sober at 25, the severity and frequency of my parasomnia episodes increased. At 30, I injured myself badly while sleepwalking and finally surrendered to a sleep clinic and to therapy. Most somnambulists only seek help after hurting themselves or someone else.

The dangers of sleepwalking are minimized, even trivialized in our culture. As a teenager, in my childhood home, I once leaped out of bed during a sleepwalking/night terror episode, ran to the stairs and missed the first step from our second-story landing. I woke up free-falling, and if it hadn't been for my brother, who'd heard me scream and was running up the stairs two at a time to catch me, I would have tumbled the whole way down.

Another time, as a young actress in New York City, I dreamt a rat had crawled up my arm; terrified, I sleep-ran across the enormous expanse of an Upper West Side living room, awakening just as I was about to fling myself out an open, fifth-story window. I was alone, and if I had fallen to my death, my actions would have been construed as suicide... just as 25 years later Patrice's death was being weighed as a possible act of self-destruction.

When I first spoke to Lori on the phone, her voice was thick with suppressed tears. We went over the details of the night of Patrice's death. The more I heard, the more I concurred with the family's opinion that, in her sleepwalking state, Patrice had probably set out to go kayaking. She kept her kayak in the basement. Patrice did not carry her kayak up the basement stairs, but she probably imagined she did. Those stairs turned at the bottom with a one-step landing upon which she apparently tripped. That's where police found traces of blood along with her broken eyeglasses.

Her car was found at Peebles Island State Park, where she and her daughter Katie often kayaked. "Patrice never drove without her glasses," Lori told me, her voice breaking, "and yet she drove 15 miles from Latham to Waterford without them that night." Lori's own mother had also died suddenly, in a car accident, when Lori was 25 years old.

"I'm so sorry for your loss," I repeated, "your father must truly be in shock."

"He is," she whispered sadly. To have been away during his wife's death was especially hard for Michael to bear. Even within the medical community, there is little recognition of the gravity of parasomnias.

The first national sleepwalking study ever was released in 2012 by Stanford University researchers. Almost a third of Americans will sleepwalk in their lifetimes. Disordered sleep often runs in families, but it's unclear whether the condition is genetic, learned behavior, the result of some form of trauma or a combination of all three.

Dr. Mark Mahowald, co-founder of the sleep disorder research center Sleep Forensic Associates and retired professor of neurology at the University of Minnesota Medical School, was a researching participant in the Stanford study. He describes the physiology in layman's terms: "The brain of a sleepwalker is half-awake and half asleep. The part of the brain responsible for physical movement is active, while the part of the brain responsible for executive functioning is asleep. Therefore, the sleepwalker can perform activities that require tremendous agency, even injuring themselves or others, without being culpable for their actions."

Mahowald and his associates have coined the medical term, parasomnia pseudo-suicide, to help educate professionals who regularly misdiagnose death by sleepwalking as suicide — with often devastating social, religious and financial consequences for the victim's loved ones. Life insurance companies and long-term care insurance companies often won't pay on policies if the death is ruled a suicide or attempted suicide.

Patrice Zimmerman did not have a life insurance policy. However, the family felt strongly that she died while sleepwalking and did not want her memory tarnished by suggestions of suicide.

Ten months after Patrice's death, Lori texted me. The medical examiner had finally ruled: "Asphyxia due to drowning consistent with somnambulism." I cried and called Dr. Mahowald, longing to talk to someone who would understand the depth and mix of my feelings. "Hats off to the medical examiner as well as to the sleep doctor who reviewed Ms. Zimmerman's case," he said. "So often, even sleep specialists only know about sleep apnea and haven't a clue about sleepwalking." That's why he believes that more deaths than we realize—in particular, those that occur under strange circumstances, such as people disappearing from cruise ships or falling from heights in the middle of the night—are not suicides but the result of sleepwalking. Even with the medical examiner's opinion, Chris Chapman, Patrice's biological son, feels her death was a tragic accident.

After 20 exhausting, isolating and often terrifying years as an active sleepwalker, I found the help I needed. Through, first, diagnosis and treatment with an accredited sleep clinic, and, subsequently through an active mix of hypnosis therapy, nutrition, acupuncture, Reiki, meditation, neurofeedback and writing I have kept my sleep disorders at bay. My heart goes out to Patrice's family at their loss, yet all the condolences in the world cannot bring Patrice back. My hope is that by continuing to tell my story, and by encouraging other recovered sleepwalkers to tell theirs, we might break the cycle of denial and ignorance that can quite literally kill. 

This article was originally published in the Albany Times Union.