Ever since I was a teenager, for periods of 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.
Frequently, my friends and perfect strangers have startled me with far-fetched revelations of my secret nocturnal life. Like how I woke up my entire street at 3am on a Tuesday whacking a hockey stick against my neighbor’s metal grille front door – naked, of course – as if my actions weren’t embarrassing enough.
I have bipolar disorder and it’s widely accepted that insomnia is a common symptom of manic episodes. But for me, it’s much worse than that. If insomnia is natural to the manic individual, sleepwalking – or my experience of it – is its supernatural sister from Hell. At least, while you’re tossing and turning, you are still you. Whereas, when you’re sleepwalking, you’re somebody else entirely, with a brand new set of values and skewed morality.
For example, when I’m awake, I’m a vegetarian. When I’m asleep, I can likely be found standing by the fridge scoffing slathers of raw bacon straight from the pack. What does raw bacon taste like? I couldn’t tell you. I was asleep. Chicken, probably – Rooster Testicles Tartare.
My boyfriend, alerted by the fridge, which was beeping warningly, attempted to tug what was left of the raw bacon away from my greasy trotters. Naturally, this led to an argument. You’d think that conversation would be limited when you’re in Nod. But I am quite the barrister in my sleep, lucid as Lucifer. I can hold conversations on 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, even to those who know me best. Confronted on the topic, I will vehemently deny that I’m asleep in my sleep.
I’ve ordered confused staff at the Shangri La hotel ‘Back to bed!’ after starting a minor fire in my sleep, driven a dinghy in my sleep, walked for miles around my own and alien cities in my sleep (always miraculously managing to find my way home, or even to a B&B I’d checked into hours earlier). Most memorably of all, I’ve woken on a 777 after a seemingly non-eventful flight, woozily congratulating myself on having slept the duration of the flight, to discover myself handcuffed and strapped tightly to an empty row of economy seats. My reaction was understandably furious. I had purchased a business class ticket. And here I was, trussed up in economy, remembering nothing, cast adrift in a sea of open mouths and pointed fingers.
The cabin crew point blank refused my pleading requests to return to my original seat. I’d apparently caused quite a rumpus, refusing to return to my seat during turbulence, taking childish delight in being thrown around the aircraft like a grenade. My sleeping maternal instincts had inadvertently caused me to sit on a sleeping child. The child woke up. I didn’t. I’d repeatedly attempted to break into the cockpit, presumably to emergency land the plane myself.
Unbeknownst to me, one of my fellow passengers had accused me of taking cocaine in the aisles to the cabin crew. Now, I’m no expert. But if I had wanted to snort cocaine on a plane in my sleep, and presuming that I’d been able to score in my sleep, I knew the aisles would be the last place I’d do it. So when the police boarded the plane to arrest me at Heathrow, I was 75% certain I had been wrongly accused.
After rigorously – and painfully – searching my belongings and me for evidence of smuggled cocaine, the police branded me a liability and released me without charge. The cabin crew kindly apologized for their part in my arrest – and being British, I replied that the pleasure was all mine. All I needed now was a cup of tea and a nice tube of Anusol.
As two burly police officers escorted me outside the terminal building, presumably to be absolutely certain of my departure, the female officer released her monkey grip on my arm and confessed she’d never before arrested a passenger who’d reacted with such blasé indifference to drugs charges. I confessed, truthfully, that this sort of nightmare happened all the time. Sure enough, three weeks later, I was arrested at Malpensa Airport in Milan.
So, after rambling on for a while, possibly in some sleep-writing auto-pilot (it wouldn’t be the first time), what can I – or anyone affected by sleepwalking – realistically do to prevent ourselves doing it? Consume a milky drink at bedtime? (I hardly need more than one reason to get up in the night!) Go to sleep at the same time every day? (I’m not a machine!) Don’t work too late? (I’m only working late because I failed to accomplish what needed to be done in the day!) Never get stressed? (I never know I’m stressed until the stress has been magically lifted.) Relax? (Boring!) Meditate? (This I do consciously find very stressful…)
My shrink tells me that one of the most effective medications to reduce sleepwalking is lithium. I should probably mention that since I’ve been diagnosed with a mild form of bipolar disorder and prescribed a small quantity of mood stabilizer, my sleepwalking misadventures have occurred less frequently (though just as severely when they do). Although I am, by now, an expert in (fake) laughing off my outrageous nocturnal meanderings, whenever I am forced to listen to someone’s excruciating account of My Life Asleep, the impact is mind-splintering.
Each time it happens, it leaves a footprint on My Life Awake. Waking up with déjà vu, I become a bad impression of Sherlock Holmes, obsessively attempting to piece together the mystery of My Life Asleep. Why am I compelled by the impulse to wander? And what does it all mean? Is my subconscious mind smarter than my conscious mind? (I already know it’s got a vastly superior sense of direction.) Which is more powerful: instinct or rational thinking?
Sadie Kaye has since given up on the idea of being a vegetarian.
Are you bipolar and an occasional or chronic sleepwalker?
This article was written for and published on UK mental health charity SANE‘s website. It was republished in Art Saves Lives Magazine, on MENTAL IDEAS and in Sai Kung Buzz.