Every evening each of us, alone and in the light of our own circumstances, surrenders to sleep… or tries to.
Sleep accounts for about a third of our time. Yet, according to the National Sleep Foundation, 48% of Americans report occasional insomnia, while 22% experience insomnia every or almost every night. Women are 1.3 times more likely to report insomnia than men.
I grew up in a family of terrible sleepers. I inherited somnambulism (sleepwalking) and night terrors from my mother and insomnia from my father. Each condition exacerbated the other. For years, I hid or minimized my sleep disorders. I was isolated, alone and exhausted. I felt that my somnambulism in particular was a rare phenomenon that needed to stay hidden.
But was it, really?
The first study on sleepwalking in the United States in over thirty years was released a few years ago by Stanford University. With more than 15,000 participants, it revealed that “with a rate of 29.2%, lifetime prevalence of Nocturnal Wandering is high.”
People who got less than seven hours of sleep per night ran a higher risk of nocturnal wandering. One-third of individuals with a family history of sleepwalking experienced it themselves, although the genetics are not understood. In fact, the medical community has been in the dark regarding most aspects of sleepwalking and is only just beginning to catch up to its true perils.
Most somnambulists are too embarrassed to seek help until they hurt themselves or someone else. Some have mistaken their bed partners for assailants and physically harmed, even murdered them. Others have fallen out of windows while fleeing an imagined terror and their deaths have been mistaken for suicide.
During sleepwalking and sleep terrors, the part of the brain that generates complex behaviors is awake, while the part of the brain that normally monitors what we do and records memories of what we have done is asleep. The brain is left in a mixed wake/sleep state, capable of wild behaviors without conscious awareness and therefore without culpability.