My Greatest Fear #32: Drowning in My Sleep

People do weird things in their sleep, don’t they?

When I was a young boy, I used to sleepwalk when I had to go to the bathroom. My parents once found me climbing up a bookshelf; they always asked me what I was doing. I think that time I explained to them that I was trying to reach higher ground due to some sort of bad guy on the ground.

My favorite story happened when I was around 11 or 12. In the middle of the night, my mother found me sitting at the top of the stairs. She knew I was sleepwalking, and because I’m partially conscious when I sleepwalk, I actually remember this exchange.

She said, “Hey Jamey, what are you doing up here?”

I briefly explained the obvious: The horses were coming for me, and it seemed like the best idea to strip naked and run out into the yard to hide. (Apparently even back then my default plan of action was to get naked and panic.)

In a calm voice, Mom said, “Jamey, horses can’t come up stairs. You’re the safest up here. Come on, let’s go to the bathroom.”

The explanation made perfect sense at the time. It wasn’t until years later that I learned that horses are perfectly capable of walking up stairs. They just usually choose not to.

In my adult life, I’ve become more of a sleep talker instead of a sleep walker. Girlfriends have commented on this, and I always wished they could have recorded some of these conversations, just in case they could give me some deeper insight into the way my brain defragments information as I sleep.

That brings us to two nights ago. I was sleeping on my stomach, and I felt a sharp pain on my right thumb. I didn’t completely wake up, but I also wasn’t completely asleep. I specifically remember these thoughts:

Wow. That really hurt. But it can’t be that bad. I’m sleeping, after all. There’s no way I’m bleeding. I could dab it on the sheets to check just in case. Nah, I’m really comfortable. I don’t want to open my eyes. I’m sure it’s fine.

I woke up the following morning to find little splotches of blood all over my sheets. Yuck.

That brings me to the crux of this blog entry. The human body is fully capable of hurting itself while your mind sleeps. Isn’t that just a little bit scary?

The scariest situations to me is suffocating in my sleep. I wrote “drowning” because that’s what’s happened in my dreams the few times this has happened. I’m drowning in the dream, and I wake up a little bit, but not enough to know that I’m not actually drowning. The cause of the dream is that my face is buried in the pillow, so I truly can’t breathe. Of course I’ve always figured it out in time, but there’s always a few seconds of panic. Fortunately that hasn’t happened in a while.

Am I alone here, or have you ever been caught in that dangerous space between asleep and awake?

22 thoughts on “My Greatest Fear #32: Drowning in My Sleep”

  1. I think your body would wake yourself up if you were suffocating. You have an automatic instinct to breathe, so I would think suffocation would wake you up.

    Although now I wonder if Biddy is secretly planning your imminent demise and has been practicing while you sleep.

    • Ansley–Oh, Biddy’s just a little cuddle munchkin at night. As cute as it would be to wake up with his little paws over my mouth and nose, I don’t think it’s going to happen.

  2. Actually folks, sleep apnea is a sort of suffocation while sleeping. So Jamey, I would have to say see your doctor if you have had difficulty breathing.

    Now, my mom sleepwalks, but she denies it.

    My problem is that I sleep through nightmares. Weird, I know. Almost Edgar Allen Poe-ish even. I remember the dream but I always have to go through it the whole way through. In fact, I was afraid it was catalepsy. lol

    Anyhow, I’ve been chased by vampires and psychos in my sleep. lol So far, I’m still alive and kickin’.

    Have you started a dream journal? Are your recent ones more lucid? Usually dreams are puzzles meant to be solved, ya know? Hit me up if you have a recurring one. I am good with deciphering that stuff.

    • Orianna–I know a little about sleep apnea, but not much. Do you really think it’s worth checking out even though this “drowning” thing has only happened a handful of times in my 31 years of life? I think apnea is when you stop breathing at night even though the air passages are clear. I’m talking about when I’ve rolled onto my face and truly can’t breathe.

      Sleeping through nightmares is really scary. It’s much better if you’re able to wake up!

      Dreams occasionally inspire short stories–in fact, one of the few short stories I’ve had published stemmed from a dream.

      • Well, what’s the worst your doctor can say? That your due for a checkup. lol And yes, if you have sleep paralysis like Elaine and myself, then you take care of two things.

      • Hey Jamey,
        Your drowing suffocating dreams sound awful, but not like sleep apnea.

        Sleep apnea is episodic stoppage of breathing during sleep. There are two basic categories: central apnea (rare in a non brain-injured adult) and obstructive (pretty dang common). Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA) is caused by the soft tissues of your upper throat/tongue/posterior mouth collapsing down and blocking air from passing to or from your lungs. It’s MUCH more common in overweight or obese people, but it can still happen in a slim person. The person is rarely aware of the apneic episodes.
        – Do you snore?
        – Does your snoring suddenly stop for a few moments then restart with a big gasp or snort?
        – Are you exhausted in the morning every day despite getting several hours of sleep the night before?

        • Sarah–Thanks for your doctoral questions and analysis. I do indeed snore, but I have not been told I gasp or snort. I’m completely energized in the morning and get out of bed the second my alarm goes off–although I’m grumpy from lack of food, I’m very rarely groggy. I don’t drink coffee. And yes, I use a loofah in the shower.

          • Well, perhaps the loofah explains why your nails look gorgeous. Anyone who loofahs probably also gets a regularly scheduled mani-pedi. (Likely at the same salon that does your bikini waxing…or loincloth waxing, as the case may be.)

  3. I’ve had problems with sleep paralysis over the years ( – scary stuff) and there were articles about it recently that tried to explain why it happens (a lot to do with REM and being stuck in a part of the sleep cycle for your body, but your mind wakes up).

    It’s terrifying, though, to have my mind awake and alert about what’s going on around me, but my eyes won’t open and I can’t get my body to move. It takes all of my strength to jerk myself out of this and wake up. I’ve noticed it usually happens when I faall asleep on the couch for a nap, so I try to avoid doing that now.

    • Elaine–It has a name! So it’s official. Although no less scary. That’s such an odd disconnect between the mind and body.

  4. I used to sleep walk. My most memorable sleep walking escapade was when I was about 6 or 7 and my mom was up feeding my baby brother. I walked into the living room and I told her there was something cool I needed to show her. She followed me into my bedroom where I sat on the edge of the bed and in dramatic fashion (as if I had any other type of expression, I mean really) buried my head in my hands and said, “I can’t do it, I just can’t do it?” In which she engaged me and said, “What sweetheart?” And I cried back: “Fly upside down!”

    Yeah. She tucked me back in, and that was the end of it.

    • Melanie–That’s amazing. Flying upside down is indeed quite tough.

      Do you remember that story, or has it been told to you?

      • Oh no, I have no recollection, but my mom loves that story. And tells it. Often. Very often. 🙂 I have had lots of flying dreams and falling dreams though. And have woken up feeling kinda dizzy…

        • Melanie- What a surprise, Mom telling a story over and over…Strangely, I’ve never heard that one. 🙂

          I’ve never had the sleepwalking happen, although I wouldn’t be surprised to find out I had, since I once rolled out of bed and underneath it (as a child) without waking up.

          I have had the sleep paralysis many times, and it’s truly terrifying to wake up (or really only half wake up) that way. The last time it happened I think (I may have dreamed it) I tried to scream for help, but not even my voice worked.

  5. Count me as a fellow sleep walker! Apparently, it’s fairly rare for adults to do it; kids usually grow out of it at a certain age. I remember sleepwalking a little when I was very young, but for me, it got quite bad in junior high and beyond. I found that I go through cycles; I’ll be good for a few months and then sleep walk almost every night for a while. I think stress is a big trigger for me, and sometimes I can tell when I lie down if it’s going to be one of those nights. I’ve found a few ways to counteract it, but they aren’t foolproof. Before that though…the stories I have.

    I’ve had my dad knock on the bathroom door to ask why I’m taking a shower at 3am. I’ve woken up in completely different clothes than those that I wore to bed. I’ve woken up friends during sleepovers and whispered, “There’s someone in the room! Look at their eyes staring at us!” I’ve flipped back the covers in my bed to search for a check that a customer handed me because I thought I was at work while sleep walking. You’d think the fact that I was searching through the covers would have tipped me off to the fact that I wasn’t at work, but it didn’t. I could probably retire by now if I’d been paid for all of those hours I’ve “worked” overnight!

    The worst part is how absolutely exhausted you are after sleepwalking. I’ve really struggled through the times when it was so prevalent. It had a huge impact on my ability to do well in high school and college, and I think it even led to a little bit of depression at one point. It’s been while since my last cycle though, so maybe I’ve finally conquered it for good…or maybe I’ve just jinxed myself!

    I’ve had the paralysis happen before too, and fairly recently. It doesn’t freak me out though when it happens; I find it frustrating yet fascinating at the same time, and usually I just let myself fall back asleep after a few amusing minutes of half-consciously trying to move my arms. I know better now than to think I can snap myself out of it!

    • Katie–You sleepwalked into the shower? Now that’s impressive.

      The exhaustion makes sense–your body and mind are working overtime while you sleep. I used to have a lot of flying dreams, and in the dreams, flying took a huge amount of concentration. I’d wake up exhausted and headachy.

      Does Charlotte sleepwalk? I wonder if it’s genetic in any way.


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