For me, and several other bipolar people I’ve encountered, MANIA has an unwanted and dangerous side-effect: SLEEPWALKING. In fact, for months at a time, I have led an exhausting double life: My Life Awake and My Life Asleep. One of my lives makes no sense at all. And the other only occurs when I’m asleep. But before I give you some examples, I should assure you there is NO PROVEN SCIENTIFIC LINK between sleepwalking and bipolar disorder, unlike bipolar mania and insomnia, so don’t panic that because you’ve recently been diagnosed as bipolar, your neighbors will stun you with ludicrously far fetched revelations of your secret nocturnal life. Like how you woke up your entire neighborhood at 3am whacking a hockey stick on your neighbors’ doors, naked, of course, and – whoops, I’ve piled straight into a story, having said I wouldn’t – but yep, that happened to me, not that long ago. If you happen to live in Sai Kung, you’ve probably heard that tale before.
Backtracking swiftly, it’s widely accepted that insomnia is as natural to we bipolar types during manic episodes as eating figs naturally relieves our bowls (strange analogy – and I, too, don’t believe it works in this context), but for many of us, it’s much worse than that. If insomnia is natural to the manic individual, sleepwalking, or my experience of it, is supernatural. At least while you’re tossing and turning with insomnia, you are still you, or a pissed off version of yourself. When you’re sleepwalking, you’re somebody else entirely with a brand new set of values. An example from my own past: When I’m awake, I’m a vegetarian. When I’m asleep, I can more often than not be found standing by the fridge scoffing slathers of raw bacon straight from the pack. What does it taste like? I can’t tell you. I was asleep. Chicken, probably – rooster testicles, raw.
My boyfriend, alerted by the fridge, which was bleeping warningly, attempted to tug what was left of the raw bacon away from my greasy trotters, which led to an argument. You’d think conversation would be limited when you’re in the land of Nod, but I am quite the barrister when I’m asleep – lucid as Lucifer. I can hold detailed conversations about subjects I know nothing about – or assume I don’t when I’m awake. Quite often, it’s really hard to tell if I’m asleep or not, even to those who know me best. If confronted on the topic, I will vehemently deny that I’m asleep in my sleep. I’ve ordered confused staff at 5 star hotels back to bed after starting a minor fire in the hotel kitchens, dangled off fire escapes in my sleep, literally walked for miles around foreign cities in my sleep, driven a boat in my sleep and woken up on a 747 plane after a non-eventful flight, congratulating myself on sleeping the entire journey, to discover myself straightjacketed to an empty row of economy seats. My reaction was understandably furious. I had manically purchased myself a first class ticket – and here I was, trussed up in economy, the last turkey in the shop, remembering nothing. Open mouths and pointed fingers, now my friends are dead and gone.
I was subsequently arrested by the police at Heathrow. I’d apparently caused quite a commotion, refusing to return to my seat during turbulence, taking childish delight in being thrown around the aircraft like a grenade. I’d also repeatedly attempted to break into the cockpit, presumably to land the plane myself. Thanks to 9/11, this sort of behavior is now strictly forbidden, whereas in the 90s everyone was doing it. One of my fellow passengers had accused me of openly taking cocaine in the aisles to the police, which was undoubtedly an easy assumption based on my behavior. I was 90% certain I’d been wrongly accused, although I wouldn’t have put it past me to order a gram or two of coke in my sleep, or perhaps steal it from the cabin crew. After rigorously (and painfully) searching me and my belongings for evidence of cocaine, the police eventually branded me a liability and released me without charge. The cabin crew apologized for their role in my arrest and being British, I replied the pleasure was all mine: All I needed now was a nice cup of tea. As two burly police officers escorted me out of the airport, presumably to be absolutely certain of my departure, the female one commented she’d never arrested a passenger who’d reacted with such blasé indifference to drugs charges before. I confessed, truthfully, that this sort of nightmare happened all the time. Sure enough, three weeks weeks later, I was arrested at Malpensa Airport in Milan.
I’ve only become conscious of having been sleepwalking – rudely awoken, if you will – once, when I awoke in a North London garage in February, barefoot and wearing a flimsy nightie. The man in the garage had astutely decided there was something not quite right about my appearance (surprisingly, for London) or my behavior. He was shaking me rigorously out of my nightie when My Life Asleep abruptly ended and I snapped back into consciousness. Startled and furious, I panicked, hit him over the head with the packets of bacon I’d opened and attempted to devour (fortunately missing my mouth and using the rashers to decorate the floor). The man informed me I had to pay for the bacon. I still wonder where he thought I was hiding my wallet. Explaining“No cash – sorry mate!” I sore-footed it back to my apartment. I’d locked myself out, naturally. But my boyfriend eventually woke up and let me back in. I was less fortunate with similar situations that arose after we split up. (Yes, he dumped me.) When my nocturnal meanderings regularly led me to awaken on the filthy, festering door mat, to the communal entrance to my apartment. It amazes me that I have the poorest sense of direction of just about anyone I know when I’m awake. I can literally get lost right outside my home. And yet I always manage to find my way home in my sleep, or even to a random hotel I’d checked into hours earlier. Does a chink of my bipolar brain function as an inbuilt GPS when I’m subconscious? In which case, why doesn’t the GPS chip work when I’m awake? My early-riser neighbor would find me balled up asleep on the communal doormat and generously allow me to sleep in her bed until the locksmith arrived. The smug expression on my dog’s face, as he gently stretched his paws and lifted his head from my pillow to watch me stumble in, bits of straw doormat tangled in my hair – scarecrow chic – was infuriating.
So, after rambling on for a while, possibly in some kind of sleep-writing auto-pilot (it wouldn’t be the first time), what can we realistically do to prevent ourselves sleepwalking? Go to sleep at the same time every day (I’m not a machine!), don’t work too late (i’m working late because I failed to do what needed to be done in the day, not because I want to), never get stressed (I never know I’m stressed until the stress has magically been removed), relax (boring!), meditate (this I do consciously find very stressful). My shrink (but he’s a liar) tells me one of the most effective medications to reduce sleepwalking is lithium. I should probably mention that since I’ve been diagnosed as bipolar, my sleepwalking misadventures have occurred less frequently (but just as severely). Although I try to laugh it off, whenever I am made to listen to someone’s excruciating account of my life asleep the impact is mind-shattering. Perhaps I’m lucky. I rarely suffer hallucinations that are not sleep-induced. But each time it happens, it leaves a footprint on my waking life. Waking up with deja vu, I become a bad impression of a super-sleuth, obsessively attempting to piece together the mystery of My Life Asleep: Why am I compelled by impulses to wander? And what does it mean? Is my subconscious mind smarter than my conscious mind? I already know it’s got a superior sense of direction. Which should I ultimately trust? Instinct or rational thinking?
Are you bipolar and an occasional or chronic sleepwalker? Share your stories!