We get it from our mother. She was locally famous for the long, elaborate, and profoundly nonsensical conversations you could have with her while she slept. My dad liked to break out the reel-to-reel tape recorder with its little microphone (this was back in the day) and play the results later to general hilarity. There’s a particular laugh I know well and can recognize in my siblings—the hard, helpless, slightly panicky laugh that comes when someone reveals all the crazy things you’ve done in your sleep. It is the laughter of the comprehensively embarrassed.
My mom only talked, but we walked, too, and because there were five of us, the Miller household had many an unquiet night. On the way to the fridge for a glass of milk, you might run into my younger brother, shambling around on a “mission”; once I nearly tripped over him as he lay crouched like a sniper monitoring a potential target. Another night, as I was reading in bed, my 6-year-old sister sauntered into my room, sat down cross-legged on the floor, and grilled me tenaciously about my upcoming plans for a trip to the bank. Being only 10 myself, I had no such plans, and like most sleepwalkers and –talkers, she grew more and more irritable as I explained her error. What that feels like is this: You’re propelled forward, gliding on the perfect confidence of dream logic, and this naysayer is impeding you, generating friction and snags that threaten to drag you into a befuddled wakefulness. It makes you mad.
Most people who sleepwalk as children grow out of it, but my somnambulism continued into adulthood. I only got out of bed if I was alone, but my sleep-talking wasn’t the drowsy, eyes-closed mumbling you see in the movies. I’d sit bolt upright (“like Dracula in his coffin,” as an ex put it), stare at my companion, and say all kinds of weird shit. “You were trying to tell me something,” my college roommate reported, “and you were having such a hard time. You said, ‘It’s like … it’s like … it’s like when you meet … The Creature!’ ” One morning over coffee, my boyfriend gave me a level look and said, “Let’s talk about why you were kneeling in bed last night and scratching at the wall like an entombed lady in an Edgar Allan Poe story.”
All this sounds pretty gothic, but in truth, the dream world of my sleepwalking—at least what I can remember of it—is depressingly administrative. Every so often I’ll still find myself trying to put on a coat over my nightgown in the middle of the night, with the fading conviction that I need to perform some shadowy task right now. My mother’s sleep-talking had a recurring theme: that the pupils in the children’s swimming class she was supposed to teach at 1 p.m. had thought it was at 1 a.m. instead and were now lined up with suits and towels outside the house in the dark, their pale faces gazing in our picture window. My brothers’ sleepwalking lives seemed to be governed by issues of combat and strategy; we dreamed of errands.
If we dreamed at all. Once I tried to research the phenomenon, but it turns out that sleep researchers don’t know that much about sleepwalking for the simple reason that, unlike insomnia and sleep apnea, it’s not a disorder that drives many people to sleep clinics. (Probably the most common complaint is sleep-eating.) On a few, very rare occasions, sleeping people have performed complex actions (such as driving a car) or even committed crimes (such as murder). Last month, a 19-year-old girl in Denver woke up 9 miles from her home; she’d sleepwalked the entire distance in pajamas and socks.
One thing is evident: Somnambulism and somniloquy do run in families. A scientist assured me that sleepwalkers aren’t actually dreaming because dreams only occur during REM sleep, at which time the motor cortex shuts down to keep the body from acting out the dream. (This explains why dreamers may suddenly feel as if they are paralyzed; in fact, they are.)
But if my sleepwalking self isn’t dreaming, then what does she think she’s doing? I’ll never know. I might hear the echo of her thoughts as I rocket up toward consciousness, but despite occupying the same physical space, we can never actually meet. This seemed most clear to me at the moment I emerged from one of my oddest nocturnal escapades. I found myself standing at my desk writing a letter by hand. I’d only gotten as far as the salutation: “Dear Rainman.” What did it mean? Who was she trying to communicate with? Certainly not me. I could feel her resentment of me every time I moved to reclaim our shared body. It’s a little like living with a ghost, and not an especially friendly one. So maybe this is a gothic tale after all.
Read more from the Drift, Slate’s pop-up blog about sleep.