The truth about sleepwalking


It's the stuff of jokes, but for 10 million Britons who sleepwalk it can be a nightmare. Just what is the truth about this bizarre - and dangerous - illness?

Here, we speak to three people with sleep disorders to find out how they cope with their bizarre and unpredictable condition.

Schoolgirl Katie Yates, 13, lives with her parents and three sisters Nicola, 17, Sarah, 19, and Emily, five. She says:

As long as I can remember, I have been a sleepwalker. At the age of three, I would walk downstairs, get into a cupboard and just stand there. My parents would guide me back to bed.

Since then, my sleepwalking has become more frequent and elaborate. I sleepwalk around five times a week - sometimes every night. I might walk downstairs, open the patio doors and run around the garden.

Because I'm asleep, I have no awareness of what I'm doing. Whether my eyes are open or shut, I don't see what's around me. It's as if my mind has gone into automatic 'zombie' mode - I know where everything is, so I do things robotically.

I must have some sort of awareness because I recently started calling people randomly on my mobile phone and having conversations with them. The next day, I've received calls from strangers, but I've no idea who they are or what I've said to them. My parents now look after my phone at night.

Episodes last between five and ten minutes. Recently, I woke to find I was sitting bolt upright in my bed shouting 'Forward!' over and over. At other times I spout complete nonsense.

The worst thing I've done happened three months ago when I accidentally killed my goldfish, Sharkie. I sleepwalked downstairs, fished him out of his tank, wrapped him in a duster and left him in a drawer.

I'm on a waiting list to see a paediatrician who might be able to advise me on how I can manage the condition. But it doesn't upset my lifestyle too much. I don't mind it and my family think it's funny.

Susan Cope, 47, a primary school teacher, is married to Graham and is a mother of two. She began sleepwalking aged nine. Her daughter, Emma, 17, also sleepwalks. Susan says:

As a child, my parents used to hear me talking to myself at night. The light would go on and I'd wander around. They would tell me to get back to bed and I would do what they said - all in my sleep.

Children often grow out of sleepwalking, but i t's become more pronounced for me: I might get out of bed several times a night.

When it happens, I feel I am living a dream, but it is so real I think it is reality.

One of the things I do most regularly while asleep is to make food. I think it's a comfort thing, particularly if I've been living out an anxious dream. The next day I find toast crumbs on the kitchen table.

It's difficult to go on a diet because I will sleepwalk to the freezer and help myself to a chocolate ice cream.

Security isn't a problem, as I seem to be able to move safely around the house. But on holiday we have to be careful about locking windows. Once in Benidorm, we were staying on the 10th floor when I tried to open the balcony doors. Luckily, my son Mark woke up and put me back to bed.

I sleepwalk far more than I realise. When we had TV cameras in our bedroom for five weeks for a BBC programme on sleep disorders, out of 15 sleepwalking episodes, I could recall only two.

In one, I walked downstairs backwards, went to the kitchen and ate a banana. Then I went back to bed and fell into a deep sleep.

My daughter has inherited my disorder. She's a receptionist and sometimes in the night she opens her bedroom door and says: 'Hello, I'm Emma, can I help you?'

Though there is no cure, I have developed ways of managing the condition. Three years ago, I went to the Oxford Sleep Disorders Centre because I was sleepwalking three to four times a night and felt exhausted the next day.

They wired me up to an ECG machine and monitored me at night to watch my sleep patterns.

Doctors noticed my sleepwalking was linked to anxiety and suggested I use relaxation techniques and that I organise my mind before going to bed.

Cheese, chocolate, coffee and wine seem to make my sleepwalking worse so I have stopped buying them, to stop me bingeing in my sleep.

Melvyn Sharpe, 65, a dentist who is married to Beryl, suffers from REM Behaviour Disorder in which he lives out lucid dreams. He says:

The first recollection that I was experiencing hallucinatory dreams was six years ago when I dreamed I was on a golf course.

I'd just started playing when I looked back to see a friend, who had passed away several years earlier. I told him not to tee off as I was still on the fairway, but the next minute a golf ball was flying towards my face.

The next thing I remember was my wife Beryl asking me what I was doing on the floor with blood pouring from my nose.

In my dream, I had dived off the bed to evade the ball but hit my face on the dressing table. But I felt I had really lived the dream: it was every bit as real as the living world.

I've been experiencing lucid dreams two or three times a week ever since. Often I act them out through sleeptalking.

But the episode that concerned me most was one night when I dreamed I was being attacked and ended up struggling with my wife. In April, worried that I might do something to hurt her, I started attending the Sleep Clinic at Papworth Hospital. I was referred there after agreeing to become involved in a BBC programme on sleep disorders.

Sleep specialists monitored my brain waves and heart rate. Because of the stage of sleep I am in when I have these experiences, they believe I have REM Behaviour Disorder.

Unlike sleepwalking, which is a sort of automatic pilot that occurs when you are sorting out the day's events, in this condition you act out dreams associated with deep sleep.

According to the consultant, this disorder can become more pronounced with age. The problem is that if you are having a violent dream, you might act it out with absolutely no awareness.

To control the disorder, doctors suggested I take sedative medication similar to Valium to help me get uninterrupted sleep. I take them two or three times a week at most, as they are habit-forming. While they haven't cut down the number of episodes, they have calmed them down.

The Trouble With Sleep is on BBC1 tonight and next Tuesday at 9pm.

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now