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 neighbors have stunned me with ludicrously far fetched revelations of my secret nocturnal life. Like how I woke up my entire neighborhood at 3am on a Tuesday whacking a hockey stick on my neighbors’ doors – naked, of course – as if my actions weren’t humiliating enough. If you happen to live in the Sai Kung district of Hong Kong, you’ve probably heard rumors of that story before.
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 with insomnia, you are still you, or a pissed off version of yourself. You always have the option of getting up and doing something useful instead.
Whereas, when you’re sleepwalking, you’re somebody else entirely with a brand new set of values and skewed morality. An example from my own recent past: when I’m awake, I’m a vegetarian. When I’m asleep, I can more likely than not 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 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 hotels back to bed after starting a minor fire in my sleep, 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 after a seemingly non- eventful flight, woozily 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 a first class ticket – and here I was, trussed up in economy, the last turkey on the plane, 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 first class 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 child. I’d repeatedly attempted to break into the cockpit, presumably to emergency land the plane myself. Thanks to 9/11, this sort of behavior is now strictly forbidden. Whereas, in the 90s, everyone was at it.
Unbeknownst to me, one of my fellow passengers had accused me of openly taking cocaine in the aisles to the cabin crew. Now, I’m no expert. But if you wanted to snort cocaine on a plane, surely the aisles would be the last place you’d do it? So when the police boarded the plane to arrest me at Heathrow, I was 80% certain I’d been wrongly accused. After rigorously – and painfully – searching me and my luggage 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 that the pleasure was all mine. All I needed now was a nice cup of tea and a tube of Anusol.
As two burly police officers escorted me out of the airport, presumably to be absolutely certain of my departure, the female officer commented that 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 weeks later, I was arrested at Malpensa Airport in Milan.
I’ve only been rudely awoken from my sleepwalking once, when I woke up in a North London garage in February, barefoot and wearing a nightie that left little to the imagination. The garage attendant had astutely deduced that there was something decidedly off about my appearance and behavior. (Remarkably, for London.) He was shaking me rigorously out of my nightie when My Life Asleep abruptly ended, and I snapped back into My Life Awake.
Startled and furious, I hit him over the head with the packet of bacon I’d opened and attempted to devour (fortunately missing my mouth and using the rashers to carpet the floor.) The man was adamant 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 doormat at the communal entrance to my apartment. My early-riser neighbor would find me balled-up asleep on the doormat and graciously allow me to sleep in her bed until the locksmith could be rallied. 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 mat tangled in my hair – scarecrow chic – just exacerbated my shame.
It amazes me that I have the poorest sense of direction of just about anyone I know, including most four year olds, when I’m awake. I can literally get lost right outside my front door. And yet I always manage to find my way home in my sleep, or even to a random hotel I’d checked into only 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 bloody GPS chip work when I’m awake??
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 I, or anyone affected by sleepwalking, 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 only working late because I failed to accomplish what needed to be done in the day, not because I want to!) Never get stressed? (I never know if 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 that one of the most effective medications to reduce sleepwalking is lithium. I should probably mention that since I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar and prescribed a 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 propostorous nocturnal behaviors, whenever I am forced to listen to someone’s excruciating account of My Life Asleep, the impact is mind- shattering.
Each time it happens, it leaves a footprint on my waking life. Waking up with deja- vu, I become a bad impression of Sherlock Holmes, obsessively attempting to piece together the mystery of My Life Asleep. (No shit, Sherlock.) 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 is more powerful: instinct or rational thinking?
Sadie Kaye has since given up on the idea of being a vegetarian.