When I woke up—or half-awoke—I was on the sidewalk, staring up at a tenement apartment building, and it was the middle of the night. I stood with my hands in the pockets of my pajama pants. The ground felt wet. Looking down, I saw that I was barefoot.
There was still some street life at that hour in lower Manhattan: A lady collecting a huge pile of cans balanced on a shopping cart, a man in a disheveled suit walking home from the bar. I stared up at the building, not recognizing it. I wasn’t sure where I was. But I did recognize that I was sleepwalking, something I hadn’t done since childhood. I walked around the block to get my bearings. Then, circling back to the building, I saw an open window on the ground floor that triggered a memory. This was my building. I crawled in the window of my first-floor apartment. Inside, my door was open, my keys and wallet strewn across the floor in the hall. I gathered them up and lay in bed, terrified. I’d never lived alone before and now I was going outside in my sleep. I couldn’t be trusted.
I decided to spend the next night at my boyfriend’s to make sure I didn’t wander outside again. I awoke clutching a stuffed bear, which I wasn't sure how I had gotten hold of. My boyfriend said that I had arose around 5:30 in the morning, taken a jug of his coconut water out of the fridge, and placed it in the toilet.
The next night I spent at home. I awoke inside, but with my medicine cabinet jumbled through, several items thrown away. What exactly was going on at 5:30 am? Then, as suddenly as the episodes had come on, they vanished.
A few months later—worried after a couple more episodes that had me waking up on the sidewalk again—I wondered if there was a way to put a stop to it. Apparently, going outside during a sleepwalking episode is pretty common, says Alcibiades Rodriguez, the medical director of NYU Langone’s Epilepsy Center–Sleep Center. What’s more, I fit a profile. For children that sleepwalk like I had, “Ten to twenty percent recur as an adult,” he said. Overall, four percent of adults in the United States sleepwalk.
Sleepwalking falls under the umbrella of sleep disorders called “non-REM parasomnias,” which are basically weird things that happen in your sleep. Non-REM sleep—which comprises 80 percent of your night—has three stages, each of them increasingly deep. Sleepwalking traditionally occurs in stage 3—the deepest stage of sleep. This occurs in the first half of your night.
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There are a variety of parasomnias, though, that don’t involve open-air jaunts: Sleep-eating is very common, especially as the sleep-aid medication Ambien has become popular. “Sleep-texting, walking into [a roommate’s] room, that’s not unusual. Sleep sex, too, although no one wants to talk about that,” Rodriguez says. “Sleep driving. Going outside, at least once a month, I do get those [cases].”
“Very little is known about sleepwalking in general,” says Andrew Varga, assistant professor of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at Mount Sinai. It is, however, believed to be set off by triggers—usually any kind of stressor. In my case, Varga cited a recent life change. I’d just moved from a comfortable, quiet apartment in Brooklyn where I’d live for nine years to a noisy ground-floor studio in busy neighborhood in Manhattan where it felt like the walls might as well not exist. It had been several months, and I still didn’t feel comfortable sleeping there. It made sense. “The move was very likely the trigger—the combination of the underlying stress and the different sleep environment,” he says.
Other common triggers for people are job stress, changing jobs, relationship problems—or changes—marriage or divorce, anxiety, sleep deprivation, another sleep disorder like sleep apnea. The list goes on. If a patient can’t identify a stressor yet continues to sleepwalk, Varga will send her or him to psychotherapy to figure it out.
A big part of at least attempting to prevent sleepwalking is identifying, then dealing with, these life stressors—although not necessarily through therapy. While there are tips to minimize sleepwalking, there doesn’t seem to be a cure (although children usually grow out of it). “In medicine, we don’t cure many things. For sleepwalking, I would say that it can simply be controlled,” Rodriguez tells me.
There’s medication—mainly long-acting benzodiazepines like Klonopin—which doctors use as a last resort. Doctors are divided on whether or not to use drugs such as Klonopin, which have sedative effects; some feel it brings the patient too deep into phase 3 sleep, which could trigger sleepwalking anyway.
In any case, medications, illegal drugs, and alcohol commonly make sleepwalking worse. Beyond identifying and dealing with stressors and monitoring what you put in your body, there’s not much left to do but practice basic sleep hygiene, says Steven Feinsilver, Lenox Hill Hospital’s director of sleep medicine. He suggests getting up at the same time every day; making sure your bed is used only for sleeping, not lounging or watching TV; and spending only enough time in bed as it takes to sleep.
The morning after I spoke with the last doctor, I recalled a dream I’d had the night before. I had been wandering the halls of my apartment building, trying to open various doors. I was in my sleeping outfit: underwear and a tank top. Finally, I went and stood in front of the door to my own apartment, waiting for it to magically open, as I had locked myself out. After half an hour of staring at my door, I kicked it open, scampered into bed, and promptly fell asleep. I was mortified in the dream, even though only one confused person in my building had seen me in my underwear.
As the facts of the dream added up, I realized it was actually a memory: I had sleepwalked again. At first I superstitiously thought that simply talking about sleepwalking with the doctor made it happen. But the trigger was likely two things I'd been warned about: I'd drank alcohol the night before and I'd gone to bed very late, disrupting my sleep schedule.
Soon after—for reasons unrelated to sleepwalking—I made some lifestyle changes. I stopped drinking altogether and started going to bed earlier. Four months later, and I haven’t yet had another incident. While I know I’m not cured, I did remove a few elements in my life that appeared to be stressors. Who knows when another one might pop up—new job? A breakup? The possibilities are endless, if you’re prone to sleepwalking.
Sometimes I wonder how many others in New York City walk in their sleep, wandering the stained, uneven sidewalks outside their homes in a dreamlike state. Some of us will end up in the hallway of our buildings in our unmentionables. At first glance, it will not be obvious that we are asleep. And we’re not, quite. “Actually, there’s an in-between sometimes,” Feinsilver says.
There’s nothing dreamy about this in-between state, however. I want to go through my days either wide-awake or fast asleep from now on. So I’ve taken all the good doctors’ advice. And with no cure for my nighttime ramblings, the only thing left do is hope for a really long winning streak.
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