Portrait of a Sleepwalker

Published September 10, 2015

ABOVE: KATHLEEN FRAZIER. PHOTO COURTESY OF HANNAH DAHM

In her brave debut memoir, Sleepingwalker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist (out this week via Skyhorse), actress and writer Kathleen Frazier recounts a life of dangerous sleep-stumbling and night terrors. As a child growing up in Albany, New York, the monster in the bedroom was her. As an adult, sleep disorders interfered with the waking world and true intimacy. Turning toward her fears meant plowing through a family history of addiction and mental illness with the idea of sweet dreams seeming high fantasy.

SARAH HERRINGTON: What made you tell this highly personal story?

KATHLEEN FRAZIER: Necessity, really! I was coming off of the medicine that I’d been on for over five years, which had kept me still in my bed andâ??along with therapyâ??had abated the sleepwalking and sleep terrors. I wanted to conceive a baby and there was a heightened risk of birth defects associated with that medicine. I was basically willing to do anything to keep the sleepwalking at bay. My mentor, Ellen Burstyn, suggested that I write about my experiences. As I wrote, “the more I wrote, the better I slept.”

HERRINGTON: That was one of my favorite sentences in the book, actually.

FRAZIER: Thank you. As far as really sharing my story publicly, I couldn’t do that for many years. It was too personal and I was too ashamed of the sleepwalking and sleep terrors. It wasn’t until 2010 when The New York Times reported on the tragic death of a young art designer Tobias Wong that I knew I had to tell my recovery story. He was a sleepwalker and had sleep terrors. His death was ruled a suicide, but it’s quite possible he was sleepwalking at the time.

HERRINGTON: Was revisiting memories like passing through dreams?

FRAZIER: Revisiting my memories was like revisiting nightmares! Another reason why it took me so long to write and share my story. Even though it was at times very difficult to revisit these periods in my life it was also extremely healing, cathartic, and sometimes magical. We process our emotions while sleeping and my sleep disorders robbed that from me for 20 years. I’m very interested in the connection between dreams and intuition, so passing through my life, reframing my experiences creatively, led me to one of my core truths: the body doesn’t lie. While I would never want to have sleepwalking and sleep terrors again, I feel they were my best effort to get my attention and to find recovery around the emotional issues behind them.

HERRINGTON: You mention your mother had sleep terrors, too, and was “a banshee in the night.” After your brother’s nervous breakdown and suicide attempt, your own sleep disturbances grow. All of this takes place against a backdrop of Irish Catholic guilt and your father’s own disturbances, his alcoholism, his “worry gene.” How much is inherited, and how much is walked into on one’s own?

FRAZIER: I like that, “walked into” pun… did you intend that, Sarah, or was that unconscious? It’s an interesting question and visits that age-old debate of nature versus nurture. The first study on sleepwalking in the United States in over 30 years and the first national study ever was released a few years ago from Stanford University and they noted, first of all that, the prevalence of sleepwalking was much higher than anybody realized, with a lifetime prevalence rate of almost 30%. One third of individuals with a family history of sleepwalking experienced it themselves, although the genetics are not understood.

I certainly seemed to come into the world with a fretful personality. I definitely inherited my father’s worry gene. While sleepwalking and sleep terrors are two distinct disorders, they are often paired and I did inherit both from my mom. Now how much I inherited them genetically or how much they were learned behaviors remains a mystery. I’ve often wondered if sleepwalking and sleep terrors are like alcoholism in that respectâ??when people seem to have a predisposition or strong history of it in their family. Yet why some siblings in a family with alcoholism become alcoholics and others don’t is not understood. There have been research studies on the connection between being bullied, domestic violence, and heightened occurrences of sleep disturbances and in particular night terrors. Night terrors are often a symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder and I’ve been recovering from that my whole life.

HERRINGTON: I was fascinated by the scene where you talked about your first drinking experience and blacking out, and how blacking out was like sleepwalking to you.

FRAZIER: With sleepwalking, part of the brain is awakeâ??the part that generates complex behaviorsâ??and the part that usually monitors what we do and records memories of what we have done is asleep. I would imagine it’s a very similar physiological process with blacking out from alcohol. I had started drinking as a way to self medicate the sleepwalking and sleep terrors but that failed miserably. The drinking exacerbated by sleep problems and there came a time when I didn’t know if I was waking up from a blackout or in the middle of a sleepwalking episode.

HERRINGTON: I grew up in the Albany, NY area, too, and recognized a lot of the blue collar, deep woods-dreaming backdropâ??down to the cameo of Hoffman’s Playland, a place where I rode a ferris wheel in small loops for several summers. What role did place play in this story for you?

FRAZIER: Creatively, when I first put pen to paper, sense memory exercises I learned at the Actor’s Studio provided a portal to my memories and place was very often my first exploration.

My little suburban neighborhood of identical Cape Cod’s was a place where my family, like many others, moved to as a sign of upward mobility from the city of Albany. My parents were Depression babies and my father had fought in World War II. My family was not uncommon in hiding the devastating effects of what they had lived through. My father was definitely traumatized by the warâ??his insomnia was a symptom of thatâ??and my mother was traumatized by growing up with poverty, alcoholism, and mental illness. But the whole country, including my little neighborhood, was hiding all these kinds of things and putting on a happy face. Sleep disturbances were the last thing anybody would ever share.

HERRINGTON: In the midst of all that secrecy your high school friend’s sister gave you a copy of Psychology Today with an article on “sleep attacks” …and then later as an adult you write about your sleep disorder in Psychology Today, which launched this book. How did that article happen?

FRAZIER: It was amazing and synchronistic … my “two-minute memoir” essay in Psychology Today was a miracle for me as a writer. I’d taken Sue Shapiro‘s essay writing class. She’s a wonderful writer and teacher here in New York City and has an exercise called ” the humiliation essay,” where you write about just that. So I wrote about meeting my husband just after I had the sleepwalk accident that finally brought me into recovery. The lead line was, “I wasn’t afraid of going to bed with him, I was afraid of going to sleep with him.” Sue is brilliant at point of view and she was the person who helped me to really get the connection between my sleep disorders and my fear of intimacy, and what a strong role my husband’s love and gentleness played in my recovery. The essay got the attention of Jill Marsal who became my literary agent, we started working together, and the project was sold to Skyhorse Press.

HERRINGTON: I was really interested in how performance, acting, helped you heal but also sometimes allowed you to hide from truths.

FRAZIER: As a teenager, acting helped me to separate from my family even while I felt guilty about that. So, I guess that was a protection of sorts. For a while I could hide behind my talent, which is a kind of masking, but that didn’t last for long. I was never somebody who could be in serious emotional trouble and still perform beautifully. My creative choices called out for my attention and mirrored my inner life. This was a revelation of sorts. But my work deteriorated as my mental health deteriorated. It was very isolating. Yet it was my community of actors and teachers, who intervened and pressed me to seek help first for my drinking. Community busted my isolation. Creativity is a kind of alchemy and helped me to transform the experience of sleepwalking and sleep terrors into art. Acting and writing healed me.

HERRINGTON: Was there any fear of passing this on to your own daughter?

FRAZIER: Yes. I was afraid of that. Very afraid. She did have some sleep-talking and agitated movement when she was a girl if she was overtired or stressed. It’s pretty common with kids and she’s outgrown it. The legacy of alcoholism, mental illness, and sleep disorders is a real thing in my family… but so is our health and recovery. I hope to be a power of example. It seems to me that life is not about avoiding these kinds of problems but rather leaning into our creativity and our communities, embracing our humanityâ??the good the bad and the uglyâ??one day and one night at a time.

SLEEPWALKER: THE MYSTERIOUS MAKINGS AND RECOVERY OF A SOMNAMBULIST IS OUT NOW VIA SKYHORSE.