Sunday, January 10, 2010

Running In The Night

I was a sleepwalker. It's a family affliction. At least one in every generation.

We are selective, though. We don't always walk in the night. We pick and choose. The truth is I always have believed the places where we don't rest through the night in one spot are haunted in some way.

I have settled down, at least. I can't remember the last time I woke up in the pitch, holding my breath, knowing that once again I was not where I was supposed to be. Holding perfectly still, listening for just one clue, hearing only the decimating clanging of my own heart. Straining to see the smallest shimmer of light. Shaking with cold even in the heat, holding tight against the panic. Where am I? Where is this wall my hands are tracing?

I think, I hope, those days are long over.

We have certain characteristics, the night restless. My sister, when she was taken for several years, mainly talked, frantic, upset about something drastic that had gone wrong or was about to go bad. Her husband would question her about her fears, which made her furious. In her sleep.

One night when he was in his early 20s, Uncle H. tried to climb from the second floor window onto the roof of the porch of the farmhouse, but his mother caught him. She screamed for my father and his brother to help her. They ran to the hallway and this tiny woman had her oldest by the ankle, holding on for his dear life.

I roamed. My father found me one night sitting on the carport, legs crossed, silent and still, looking out into the rural South night. I had unlocked the front door, opened the storm, and walked around the house, through the grass and onto the flat concrete. Where I perched. And waited. For what? He woke up and had a notion and went into the living room, finding the door open. He knew something was amiss. Generational memory.

From then on, relatives were on alert. My favorite aunt had her husband build what he laughingly called "an idiot gate" for the stairs leading to the basement. He insisted it was for my grandmother, not me. I don't remember ever sleep walking in that house, although he said he heard me one night, as a middle schooler, shouting from my bed and went to see about the commotion. I was sitting up, my hand raised in the air: "I voted for you Mr. Kennedy, I voted for you!" A reference to our doomed president, John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated a couple of years earlier.

When I was grown, my brother told me he got up early and went into the garage one day. The dog slapped her tail on the concrete floor in greeting. Odd, he thought, Daisy stayed prone on the ground in a corner, lying next to a doll, instead of running over to say hello. He walked over to check on the dog. He was startled. The "doll" was his daughter, 3, holding tightly to Daisy. The little girl was fast asleep.

He picked her up and she started to cry. She said she woke up in the garage, and couldn't get back in, the door was locked. I asked my brother, "What in the world happened?" And he said, "You're asking me that? You know what happened." And, I said, "Oh yeah. I'm sorry."

She's a physician now, married to her longtime prince charming, a Navy helicopter pilot, who keeps her grounded at night. But, at least one in every generation.

I seemed to have been the longest walker, duration-wise. Then I married JO, a light sleeper. When I moved at night, his arm would clamp down like automatic prison bars. If I needed to go to the "ladies," for instance, I had to argue my way out of the vise, prove I was awake somehow. In the early years, he was the sleepwalking police.

After puberty, my son became the sleepwalker in the house. An athlete, one night he ran in his sleep, swiftly from his bedroom, down the stairs, to the back door and out. In my sleep I heard him, somehow, the mother in me overruling my sleeping self, moving silently from the bed, fast and light on my feet, down the stairs I followed, calling his name before I was fully awake.

"Stop. Stop! Right now, you need to stop this second and turn around and come back in the house."

Finally, he stopped. "What?" "Come in, you're asleep." I took his arm. His sleepwalking self is ephemeral and smaller, somehow, almost as though he could slip through my hands into the ether unless I hold on tightly. He's there and he's not. Like some of the molecules making up this boy now towering over me are somewhere else.

So he's easy to guide once I have my hand on his arm, once he hears my voice. He does not resist. "Okay," he says, moving back into the direction I lead him. Then awake, he's fully there, all molecules present, dense, like me.

He has settled down too, lately. But the sleepwalking reappears when we visit his Iowa grandmother. She lives in a tiny cottage on the grounds of a huge old assisted living facility, where we stay. This is a wonderful service provided for the families of the people who live in these units. Rooms for guests are provided free of charge.

But my son tries to leave the room in his sleep all night. So I can't allow him to stay in a room alone. One of us, my husband or I, have to sleep in one of the twin beds to keep him in the room, keep him from roaming the halls.

Because an hour or so after lights out, it starts. He argues, gets up and rushes for the door, fast. Other times he'll slip quietly from the bed and sneak, trying to get out before I can wake up. He's urgent, upset, and he argues. All in his sleep. He is desperate to get out of the room, out of the building. This has happened everytime we have stayed there since he went into puberty.

The last time we were there, I was fed up after multiple escape attempts. Finally I said to this sleeping boy, "Okay, what are you going to do if I let you leave this room and the building? In the middle of the night in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere Iowa? How are you going to get out of here, out of Iowa, get back home?" Or words to this effect.

Quietly, calmly, in the dark winter night of the Midwest, he told me matter-of-factly, "Sarah will help me."

"Go to bed," I said. And he did. We don't know a Sarah, or we haven't since fifth grade, five years ago. This huge old, gothic nursing home/assisted living facility is full of ghosts. That's what I think.

Because at my mother's house, D. sleeps peacefully, all night long, not a peep from him. And always has. Mother built this house a year after my father died. No one else has lived there.

So many questions. No real answers. I used to bring up the sleepwalking to doctors. Who have no answers, no response, no solution. So I don't talk about it anymore. I have read and read. No real answers there either. Contradictory information. We generally grow out of it anyway. Eventually.

At least one in every generation. Calm and collected in the daytime, happy, well-adjusted. Yet desperate in the deep, dark night. Trying to escape a nightmare we don't remember, recognize or understand in the light of day. Which would be very upsetting except for the stories about the generations of us affected by this. We've heard them as long as any of us can remember.

At least one in every generation. Restless in the night. Running from something never seen and rarely remembered.


  1. I love this post. I have never had this issue, but my best friend in high school did. She used to sleep in only a t-shirt and her underwear. One night, when her family pastor was visiting her father, discussing something of import, Angie appeared in her underwear and sat down with them. I'm sure that pastor was quite surprised and not entirely dismayed. Angie was very pretty.

    Love you, Glimmer.

  2. Gah! What a writer you are! I can barely comment on your story for the way you have written it. I am so glad I've found you.
    I went through a period of sleep-walking and it was a very, very bad and hard time in my life. I was a child. I usually only got as far as the couch and it was in a house that no one but us had ever lived in. So I don't know. Sleep-mind is so different than awake mind.
    I am glad you are not so restless any more. And I am glad that the people in your family AND you, seem to have a sixth sense about the walkers and go to them to save them from trouble and harm. I find that more amazing than the actual sleep walking.

  3. Glimmer, I haven't experienced that. It has always mystified me though. My experience was guarding my wife who was a blackout drinker. She would get up and stumble about after an evening of drinking, and have no remembrance of any of it (not surprising). I'm glad that both of us sleep peacefully these days.

  4. Wow Glimmer, this was so fascinating, all the sleep walking stories and memories and of course, just the wonderful way you write about them.
    I esp liked the dog in the basement, protecting your poor, scared niece, your husband with his arm over you, you having to argue for a bathroom break, and your son RUNNING!

  5. SB: That is hilarious, of course the pastor was thrilled! That must have been his favorite pastoral visit ever. Like the time I got onto a bus in D.C. as a young thing and it took off way too fast which deposited me into the lap of an older gentleman. I was horrified and apologized, but he said, "This has been the best bus ride of my life. Thank you!" HA HA HA!

    Ms. Moon: I know that can happen, people walk "situationally," and that is understandable. I am sorry. I think I know the time you refer to. I think I did some of that too. Times I would wake up trying to find a way "out" tracing the walls with my hands. But there are so many of us, we think we're just plain ole normal crazy. And you are right, it's sweet to live with somebody with that kind of empathy when it has not been part of their experience.

    Syd: I know, a mystery, to me too! But there seems to be no real answer for it, it's not really understood. I'm glad for the peace too. Except for the Iowa trips. But they're only once a year. And we need to make them, the grandmother is very sweet and needs to see her grandson. I get pretty grumpy, though, because of the lack of sleep.

    Bethany: Thank you! The topic still fascinates me too. The scary thing is that my niece actually locked herself out in the garage. It wasn't dead of winter, but still it was cold and that dog kept the little girl warm by letting her snuggle up and staying there. They are animal lovers, but after that, Daisy was their hero. And my running boy. Let me tell you, even in his sleep, that boy is very fast. And quiet, he didn't even run into anything in the dark. Weird!

  6. This blog was captivating....I was most intrigued with the part about the nursing home! It makes you wonder about your son and the mention of a "Sarah". What goes on in our subconscious life? Can some of us see something in that world that others can't? My daughter use to sleep walk, have night terrors (screaming but not awake) and talking in her sleep. She never opened doors thankfully. It is just as interesting to note how we who live with those who walk feel / sense something before it happens which alerts us to check up on what we are worried about...
    Oh boy Glimmer ...I don't know you but I feel a kindred spirit somehow....I look forward to what you write about next!

  7. Ellen: Thank you for this comment! I love it when you, and others, include detail. Because I write and write and sometimes go back and delete paragraphs because I feel I've blithered too much. It is WONDERFUL to know what resonates. And why. And now I know to do the same thing for others.

    Re the nursing home, I keep meaning to ask who lived in that room where my son is so restless. The rooms used to belong to residents, before being switched to guest rooms. So I keep wondering whether there was some sort of transference. A Sarah? He did not remember the next day. So odd... I wonder the same thing about the subconscious and dreams will be another topic, as in significent recurring....

  8. Wow. What a great story, and so well written. I have a cousin on each side who sleepwalked, very scary when they would go outside. It never occured to me that they were trying to escape something outside their dreams. One cousin lived in a cottage built in the 1700's that was surely haunted. It was my Grandma's house, and I stayed there quite a bit, sometimes just me and Grandma, who was deaf and slept like a rock, and I used to be scared half to death and I never saw a trace of the ghost, but I sure was spooked. I only recently learned about the ghosts there, no wonder I was scared!

    I always thought the night wanders was a girl thing until my son had a period of night terrors and sleep walking when he was little. Scared the bejeezers out of me. He was always trying to get away from something too, and he would walk, sit, stare, talk and even eat before he could wake up. The worst one, I was home alone with him, and he screamed if I tried to touch him, so I sat at the top of the stairs in the middle of the night for over an hour until he stopped walking circles touching the wall in the bathroom, crying and mumbling. I finally got him to go downstairs and eat some cereal, and he ate with a blank stare, in a trance and finally turned to me and said it's ok now mom, the bad man is gone, we can go back to bed now. He was maybe 5, and I've never been so spooked. He doesn't do it now, but I'll keep an eye and an ear out after the scary stories of you and your son wandering. Our house is newish, and as far as I know not haunted or spooked, but you never know what mysteries lurk... for some reason I imagined my son's bad man as an Indian spirit, furious that subdivisions had defiled sacred land, can't explain why. Maybe it's the ancient oak trees in the yard.

    Well I just love your stories - it seems inadequate to call them blogs or posts or even articles, as they are memoirs, short stories and so much more. I can't imagine calling them blithering. I love detail.
    Thanks for sharing and for giving me goosebumps!

  9. Oh Mel, I don't mean to spook you or anyone, but I love your comment. No one would ever consider my family a spooky lot (well, me maybe). But the other sleepwalking family members made me wonder about an external source. That is amazing about your son, what he said about the "bad man." There are people who say children see far more than we do and are taught or shamed into stop doing that.

    Don't be spooked, you did the right thing. You aren't supposed to try to wake up sleepwalkers. Just lead them back to bed, if they'll go. I think I have "authority" having been one for so long. I'm matter of fact and bossy because I want to go back to sleep myself.

    The house I grew up in was built by us. But the woods behind it was very old. And I wrote about that Indian burial mound, with the old mansion built on it, and murders supposedly committed there. Lots of spirits roaming around. Or something. I do puzzle about this.

    Partly because of what you alluded to, and a quote supposedly from Chief Seattle in 1864: "When the last red man has vanished from this earth, and his memory is only the shadow of a cloud moving across the prairie, those shores and forests will still hold the spirits of my people. For they love this earth as the new-born loves its mothers' heartbeat." I can't help but think about that.

  10. Well, I'm hear from your gardening site as you mentioned.
    And wow. What a post!
    This is incredible, really.
    One of my daughter's friends suffers from sleep walking and is currently undergoing some treatments at a clinic.The family is desperate to find solutions as the father lost his brother when he was 19 when he tried to run through a glass door.
    Sorry to add this
    Two of my five had night terrors , but grew out of it. One walked around a bit , but it passed after a year or so. It seemed to occur when she was overstimulated during the day.

    I'll be back to catch up on some of your writing.

    deb @ talk at the table

  11. Thank you Deb for dropping by. And I appreciate the information about your daughter's friend. Doctors have not been interested in this so we just deal. No glass doors, thank goodness. And as Mother says, I sleep with "one eye open all night." Although with me it is both ears "on." Mother sense plus my own experience. I read recently that sleepwalkers used to be considered possessed, witches, demons, etc. and had to live in the country, isolated, in fear for their lives. At least we don't have to worry about that anymore!

  12. oh my son D. does this!! he talks and shouts and mutters and walks and once...he peed in the bathtub :)

  13. Maggie, someone told me once, "You don't never stop talking during the day, why would you stop just 'cause it's time to go to sleep?" Maybe it's just that simple after all! HA HA HA HA!

  14. My oldest and youngest walked about in their sleep, perhaps still do but they never did anything dangerous. I was found in my father's business one morning when i was 5. The shop was in our back yard. I can still remember how the odd door handle felt in my hand, never latched in our small safe town. One of the dogs learned to open it with a paw and did so for all the other dogs in the area. He was with me when they found me that morning, a big black and tan hound, tail thumping happy on the concert floor. I must remind my children to seal the house well for my grandsons.

  15. Where are you, woman? I miss your posts and comments. Is everything okay?

    You are loved.


  16. Spellbound: Isn't it strange, they do say it runs in families. Very quiet in my house lately. Thankfully. And yes, take care in your house for the boys, you never know. If you use a deadbolt, put the key somewhere else, not in the lock, but where YOU can find it. Sleepwalkers are very canny.

    SB: Thank you for checking up on me! I am fine, I will be "back" here this weekend, probably tonight. Several things have kept me away, none bad. Mainly computer issues, including lack of access to the thing when I want/need it! As I was saying about that teenager... ahem.