Two-Minute Memoir: Creature of the Night
How I put my dangerous side to sleep.
By March 13, 2012 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016published
I wasn't afraid of going to bed with him, I was afraid of going to sleep with him.
Mark and I had enjoyed a few rendezvous, and each encounter had ended with an excuse and a quick departure. Here we were in the middle of another languid make-out session on the couch in his Manhattan apartment. I kissed him with tender lips still swollen from my recent fall. He gently traced the outline of my bruised mouth and whispered, "What really happened?"
I had evaded his questions so far. My injuries had mostly healed, the residual swelling concealed to the best of my ability with makeup. I was a 30-year-old actress, skilled at pretending. So I replied, "Like I said, you should have seen the other guy."
This time he stared at me with concern in his dark eyes, encouraging me to say more.
"I've got an early day tomorrow. I should go." I stood up but he caught my wrist playfully and pulled me back.
"Not tonight." He cupped my face in his hands. "Why won't you stay with me?"
It was a good question. He was a 33-year-old businessman, handsome and smart, available and interested. "You want me to pay this idiot a visit?" He pointed to the fading bruises on my face.
I closed my eyes, steeling myself. "There was no guy. I..." Tears spilled against my will. I was scared Mark would find them unattractive but he comforted me, and the storm passed. We sat on the couch, facing each other, awkwardly holding hands.
I took a breath and confessed, "Nobody did this to me. I did it to myself." His brow furrowed.
"I'm a sleepwalker. It's..." I searched for a word, "...serious. I had an accident." The few times in the past I'd revealed my malady, I'd felt like a freak. People laughed in disbelief or, clearly uncomfortable, babbled "funny" family stories about siblings who'd sleepwalked as kids.
I told him how I'd been in a deep sleep when I was struck with the certainty that someone was coming to get me. I'd felt the rush of adrenaline necessary to flee my dream attacker. In reality, I jumped out of bed and ran smack into my dresser. I must have head-butted the hardwood drawers (which gave me a concussion). My jaw hit the floor, my bottom tooth pierced my upper lip and I broke my nose. For a moment I was stuck between two worlds, between the urge to pass out and a counter-pull toward consciousness. Somehow I woke up. I was kneeling and staring down at a puddle of blood. The floor swayed beneath me. When I looked up, I was startled by my mugged face staring back at me from the mirror on my bedroom wall.
Mark, blessedly, said nothing. I explained that I actually remembered only a few details of what happened; the rest I had to piece together from physical evidence, like the blood on the floor. "That's true of all my sleepwalking episodes. Unless there's a witness. Someone...in bed with me."
"So, this accident," he glanced at me shyly, "were you alone?" The answer he wanted was obvious. Fortunately, I didn't have to lie. "I was. Now you know why I hate sleepovers." But even as I said that, I had the feeling something had changed for me.
I grew up in a suburb of Albany, the youngest of five in an Irish-American working-class family full of drinkers and terrible sleepers. My parents were like cars speeding out of control, brakes slammed on, spinning wildly in an effort to right themselves against the pressure of generations of drink and mental illness.
I was the "good" girl. My mother used to say, "Kathy's so quiet you wouldn't even know she was here." I started sleepwalking at 11, after my oldest brother's failed suicide attempt, a sort of nocturnal mirroring of his waking pain. One night in my teens I screamed and woke the house. My other brother caught me just as I was about to fall down a flight of stairs.
Maybe I was seeking a bodyguard when I married at 20. My young husband and I thought it would be fun to get a waterbed. Bad idea. His tossing and turning set off mini-tidal waves that could trigger an episode. I woke screaming at visions of sea serpents dragging me under, his hands gripping my wrists to keep them from flailing, the terror on his face a reflection of my own. I drank to ease my emotional pain. Within two years we divorced.
I moved to New York City, hoping for a life in the theater. What I got was a run of nightly sleepwalking performances, sometimes with a shocked audience, sometimes solo. By 25 I was sober but the sleepwalking was becoming worse.
Mark encouraged me to get help. After a stay at Columbia Presbyterian Sleep Clinic I was diagnosed with sleepwalking and sleep terrors, two different conditions, often paired. I was prescribed a small dosage of Klonopin at bedtime. It worked, in conjunction with therapy, meditation, and nutrition.
I also had the pleasure of witnessing Mark's healthy parenting of his son, who was 2 when we met. From them, I learned the link between comfort, trust, and peaceful slumber. We married, and I came off the Klonopin when we conceived our daughter. I worried about a relapse, but it never came. Today, my bedtime rituals include a moratorium on stressful topics, lots of hugs, and the donning of ear plugs as well as an eye mask.
In 2010, The New York Times reported on the suicide of a young, successful art designer, Tobias Wong. He had a lifelong history of severe sleepwalking. I guessed he was in a somnambulist state when he hanged himself. As I read the article, the paper shook in my hands. I wept for this young man.
It could have been me. I confessed to Mark one last sleepwalking secret: A few years before the accident that brought me into recovery, I'd awakened in the middle of an episode just as I was about to jump from a fifth-story window. If I hadn't come to just then, I would have fallen to my death. I'd been fleeing a nightmarish rat.
For me, sleep remains a never-ending exercise in trust and in letting go, a challenge that can only be overcome by meeting it face to face—not a bad metaphor for life itself.