The Truth About (Sleep) Walkers


By Mikayla Walton, Associate Editor

Photos from Google

A body shambling around with glassy eyes, outstretched arms, and clumsy movements… It sounds a little creepy, doesn’t it? Rest assured, this isn’t the next episode of The Walking Dead,  but rather Hollywood’s interpretation of a phenomenon: sleepwalking. If this is the common interpretation and often people’s thoughts on it, then what is the reality? Well, we should start first with this question: what is sleepwalking? 

Sleepwalking or parasomnia is a sleep disorder where the person basically straddles the border between being asleep and awake. Sleepwalking begins during the REM cycle, more commonly known as deep sleep. Though, it is an important thing to know, sleepwalking is not just limited to walking. A sleepwalker may sit up, talk, or even do routine things from their daily lives such as get dressed, cook, eat, clean, and possibly engage in sexual activities. In the most extreme of cases, they may even operate vehicles. 

These examples not often showcased in Hollywood or through our television shows when one does opt to cover sleepwalking. Rather, the person is mostly incoherent when it comes to speech, has glassy eyes (or in some cases, walks with eyes closed), speaks in a monotone or robotic type of voice, and runs into objects. This is not typically the case, though many of these are reported on articles of sleepwalking. Why? Well, sleepwalking is not very common. So, I’m here to give you the snooze on what it’s really like, or rather, what it’s like living with a sleepwalker. 

Comedian, Mike Birbiglia, in Sleepwalk with Me

My husband, Matthew Walton, is a sleepwalker, and so I am going to share some of my own personal stories with you. Feel free to laugh, it’s perfectly acceptable. To start this off I want to explain that no, my husband does not have a glassy look in his eye, nor does he run into things or shuffle like a zombie. In fact, he doesn’t appear asleep at all, and it can be kind of scary to witness if you are someone who has never witnessed a sleepwalking episode. To break the ice, I’ll start with telling you my very first experience with his sleepwalking. 

It was six years ago during the first couple days of July. We were not married, but we were dating and my parents were staying at the hospital with my sister who was there due to pregnancy complications. At the time, they didn’t want me home alone, so Matt stayed. I slept in my parents’ room, and my husband slept in mine. There is a bathroom between the bedrooms. I had just eaten a spoonful of peanut butter (a guilty pleasure of mine), brushed my teeth, kissed my husband good night, and went to bed in my parents’ room. As per usual, I didn’t go to sleep immediately. I like to read articles on my phone before sleeping and this is what I was doing when I registered the bathroom light being on. I just figured he had to use the restroom and would go lay back down and so I resumed my reading. When I glanced over and saw a dark figure standing in the doorway, I jumped violently. Now, what is said next may creep you out, but it may also make you laugh, so fair warning. The dialogue is as follows:

“Matt?”

“You better spit out that gum before falling asleep. I do not want to come in here tomorrow to find a cold dead corpse on that mattress.”

“What gum?”

“Oh right, you said you had peanut butter. I’m sorry baby, goodnight.” 

He had then turned around, turned the light off, and bustled back to my room and laid down. Keep in mind, this was my first incidence with sleepwalking, and I was immediately creeped out. I hadn’t really seen his face, as he was just a dark figure looming in the doorway, but he didn’t talk without emotion or anything like that, and he hadn’t clearly remembered it the next day. A few questions I’m sure you have may include: what causes his sleepwalking? What causes sleepwalking in general? How many people are affected by sleepwalking? Does he ever remember sleepwalking? Is he aware of his actions? Can sleepwalking/walkers be dangerous?

Woman trying to eat in her sleep

The causes of sleepwalking vary based on the sleepwalker themselves. I’ve noted for Matthew that his sleepwalking often stems from things such as big life changes such as moving to a new place or getting a new job. I asked him for his input and he has noted a few other instances that have caused it as well. 

“I often sleepwalk if I eat something that I don’t typically eat, or if I make radical changes to my diet,” Matthew said, which I can confirm to be true. 

I once caught him after eating chocolate covered twinkies in his sleep. It has only happened once, but it is an occurrence that happened when he was trying to remove processed sugar from his diet. 

How many people are affected by sleepwalking?  Well, only about 3.6% of the United States population sleepwalk into adulthood. This means it is much more common in children. Numbers vary by report for children, but the percentage reported is the same for adults. It is very rare for a person to sleepwalk into adulthood, but I happened to be a person to marry someone who still does it. Although, I did ask my mother-in-law, Michelle Walton, about his sleepwalking habits. 

“He started sleepwalking when he was two and the first instance was when he was talking to Mickey Mouse,” she said, smiling as she recalled the instance. 

Michelle, who often prefers to go by Micky, also managed to marry a sleepwalker, something not uncommon; sleepwalking tends to run in families. Matthew had inherited sleepwalking from his father, Kenny, and his sister Emily is also affected. 

Remembering sleepwalking is often a hit or miss. There are times when Matthew will remember sleepwalking and laugh about his antics with me, or times where he will sit and listen with his eyes going wide when I tell him what he did or said. There are times when he will wake up in the middle of sleepwalking and usually this is when he is having a conversation with me, such as the last time he was sleepwalking. He quite literally ran down my stairs to talk to me in the living room to apologize for locking me out of the bedroom. Then he went on to ask if my best friend needed a ride home. She hadn’t been to my house at all that day. When I told him that, I could see the realization dawn on his face as he woke up. He then said goodnight to me, apologized, kissed me goodnight, and headed back up to bed. Now, this leads me to danger.

A man driving while asleep

Yes, sleepwalking/walkers can be dangerous. Sleepwalking is dangerous, but more specifically it is dangerous for the sleepwalkers themselves. They can put themselves in very dangerous situations, such as dreaming an intruder is in their home, then waking up halfway out their bedroom window (yes, this did happen to my husband as a teenager), or even trying to drive a car (this is not something that has happened in my household).

Sleepwalkers can also be dangerous, but there has to be a number of factors that do go into this and I won’t personally go into detail with the story. Just know I am in a safe environment, but if a sleepwalker is exposed to certain media and they fall asleep thinking about it, it can create environments that aren’t safe. This is because you aren’t always the same person to a sleepwalker. They are dreaming when they engage in conversation or anything with you, which may mean you could be a stand-in for someone else.

Now, it is incredibly rare for them to be violent, so don’t let me spook you too much. They aren’t always violent in the way you think. “Threatening” may be the better terminology. Also, never try to wake a sleepwalker with physical force. They may assume you are trying to fight them. Rather, you should just tell them to go lay down, and typically they will listen. Just be wary of the media they consume before they sleep. It really isn’t as scary as Hollywood makes it out to be.

If I hadn’t married a sleepwalker, my life would be incredibly boring and I wouldn’t have any fun stories to tell. Really, I’m a hoot at parties. I have so many good and funny stories of my husband to tell. I didn’t even fully scratch the surface here. If you’d like to hear one, go ahead and ask. I’ll also give advice on dealing with sleepwalkers. Just because it’s an uncommon phenomenon doesn’t mean it can’t enrich our lives in some way, right?