Growing up the good girl in an Irish American family full of drinkers and terrible sleepers, Kathleen Frazier was twelve when her seemingly innocent sleepwalking turned dangerous. Over the next few years, she was a popular A+ student by day, the star of her high school musical. At night, she both longed for and dreaded sleep.
Frazier moved to Manhattan in the 1980s, hoping for a life in the theater but getting a run of sleepwalking performances instead. Efforts to abate her malady with drinking failed miserably. She became promiscuous, looking for nighttime companionship. Could a bed partner save her from flinging herself down a flight of stairs or out an open window? Exhaustion stalked her, and rest and love were seemingly out of reach.
This is the journey Frazier illuminates in her intimate memoir. While highlighting her quest to beat her sleep terrors and insomnia, this is ultimately a story of health, hope, and redemption.
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DEAD TO THE WORLD
Once upon a time, long before my family reported episodes of sleepwalking and sleep terrors, there was the feeling of impending doom. Going to bed always carried with it a kind of animal fear. The despair I felt at leaving this world behind, of separating myself from the people I loved, was all-consuming. I am certain of these feelings, yet my earliest memories of sleep are watery, elusive. What do I remember — and what were stories retold to me by my four older siblings and parents over and over until they laid a track in my mind that mimicked memory? When was I awake and when was I asleep?
First there was the deep, dreamless slumber of a toddler, fingers curled and lips bowed. The complete surrender of physical exhaustion. Then the shock of unearthly screams and confusion. Panic, as I struggled from tucked blankets and fumbled for my crib panel just in time to see my mother fly past my doorway. A banshee in a nightie. Why was she fleeing? Who was taking her from me? Suddenly, the whole house came to life. My father's voice boomed from the other end of the hall — "Oh my God, Kate, no!" — and footsteps thundered down the stairway as my older siblings Patty, Mary Ann, and Billy ran from the second floor. I burst out crying and Danny, who was probably five, was out of his bed and at my side in an instant, hanging on to my crib's railing, howling along with me.
A banshee is a female spirit in Gaelic folklore whose appearance or wailing often presages a death in the family. And so, sleeping posed a fatal prospect from the very start in the Frazier house. We didn't have a word to describe my mother's violent nocturnal wanderings beyond nightmares. Very, very bad nightmares. We avoided discussion of things that went bump in the night. We never used the word sleepwalker to describe her; it sounded too crazy. The terms night terror/sleep terror were not around. There were no sleep clinics in the 1960s.
I was left alone in the dark to unpack my mother's fearsome episodes. I'm uncertain the extent to which I was traumatized by her severely disturbed sleep and whether somewhere in my little girl mind I worried it would happen to me.
My father was a phantom of a different sort. Insomnia left him up all hours, wandering about, lost in his own home.
One winter's night, when I had finally graduated from the crib to a twin, I woke to see fingers of light reaching down the otherwise darkened hallway. I don't know how long I lay awake, unused to my new mobility and fretting over whether I should sneak from my big-girl bed to investigate. Finally, I tiptoed in my footed pajamas toward the living room, teddy bear in hand, floorboards creaking, and imagined ghosts released with every footfall.
There sat my father, surrounded by a haze of cigar smoke, perched on the edge of his La-Z-Boy recliner, footrest tucked away. He was leaning over a thousand-piece puzzle spread before him on our card table. He peered through black-rimmed bifocals, the butt of his stogie burned unattended in a glass ashtray. It seemed he'd never notice me, afraid as I was to make a peep. Would I be a welcome relief to his lonely night or would my interruption anger him? My mother had used the term like walking on eggshells to describe being around my father, and this night I imagined the living room floor strewn with empty, cracked shells between us. His balding head rested in his hands. His eyelids drooped and I thought for a minute that he'd fallen asleep, sitting up like that.
"Daddy," I whispered.
"Kitten, what are you doing out of bed?"
Met with his gentle voice, my whole body relaxed.
The puzzle was almost finished and he gestured for me to take a look. I saw giants' faces stuck in stone, and it frightened me. Years later, I would realize it had been an image of Mount Rushmore. But in that moment, I covered my eyes. He pulled me onto his skinny lap to comfort me. I placed my head against his steady heart.
"Why are you up, Daddy?"
"Keeping guard, Kitten."
"From the bogeyman?"
"I got the worry gene, that's all. And it looks like you do too." He rubbed his thumb between my eyebrows in an effort to erase my furrowed brow.
My parents were like cars speeding out of control, brakes slammed on, spinning wildly in an effort to right themselves against the pressure of generations of drink, mental illness, and resultant sleepless nights. Both had been Depression kids, raised in the city of Albany, New York, and both had survived alcoholic fathers.
Although my father lost his dad when he was only eleven, he'd been anchored to this world by his Irish mother, a stalwart icebox of a widow who worked days as a domestic servant and nights cleaning offices to keep her family together. I've no idea when she slept. Even worse was my mother's childhood. In addition to having an absentee father, her mom had been in and out of psychiatric hospitals with schizophrenia. Often, she had no parent to hold her hand, to tether her to this world. Aunties saved her and her siblings from orphanages. She was a waif seeking the warmth of the public library where she felt safe enough to fall asleep.
Once grown, Mom found independence in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Voluntary Emergency Service). My parents met after World War II. William Francis Frazier had been a sergeant in the army and had seen enough action to keep anyone up nights. Catherine Rose was a plump beauty with skin so soft we called her the smooth-faced lady.
Dad inherited the drinking problem. The Irish euphemism was he likes his drink. He took the pledge several times, a Catholic's commitment to sobriety, but slipped repeatedly. They had three children within three years. Eight years later, Danny was born. Eventually, Mom took her Irish triplets and the baby and left Dad. Eventually, he found support with men and women who helped each other stay sober. Mom returned and he put down the drink for good. He got sober around the time I was born, breaking the many-linked chain of alcoholism that had bound our family as far back as our stories stretched.
My parents bought a Cape Cod in a small development in a suburb of Albany. Ours was a blue-collar family with a devoted, stay-at-home mother and a strapping father, lean and strong from loading kegs of Schaefer beer on and off the delivery truck and down treacherous steps to barroom cellars. He'd gone bald early. My mother said it was from all the stress of the war, not to mention his drinking days — he only had a quarter of his stomach after his surgery for ulcers.
It was almost as though we were two families. Patty, Mary Ann, and Billy, three little steps of stairs my mother used to say, then eight years passed before Danny and, two years later, me. As the youngest of five, I entered the wreckage of my parents' past, the chaos of early sobriety, and their sheer exhaustion.
While growing up, my mother often proudly recounted this story about how she'd managed my toddler sleep. Every time she told it, my heart plummeted. I felt ashamed of and confused by my sorrow in the face of her sunny pride.
My parents and four older siblings went on their customary two-week summer vacation and left me behind to stay with relatives. Mom said it was not an uncommon practice during the early sixties with so many babies booming, but search as I may I have never found another family who did this. Was I a bad girl? A troublemaker? Aunt Helen and Uncle Harold had nine kids, and everyone laughed at the part of the story when my mom's sister slapped my face for I don't know what and how I refused to speak to her during the rest of my stay. This proved my wickedness and I laughed too, but it was right about then when my heart began its heavy journey southward. Next, Mom would say that by the time my family returned, they were strange to me. Strange to me? What could she possibly have meant by that expression? Tears of anger threatened every time I heard it. I'd even bite the inside of my cheek to prevent them from betraying the ugly emotion. That first night back with my brood, I cried and cried in my crib and not just for an hour, or even for a few.
I wept all the night through.
Mom said she'd read in Dr. Spock's baby book that if a parent goes to a child who is crying inconsolably in her crib, the child would be spoiled.
The next morning, our neighbor from two houses up the block came knocking at our door. "What's wrong with the baby?" she asked, worried about my well-being.
My mother was peeved at our neighbor's interference and pleased by her own resolve. I have no idea what she told the woman.
I'd been left twice, first to my callous aunt and then in my hard crib, and everyone seemed to find it hilarious. With each retelling of the tale, my heart fell further until I imagined myself a heartless girl, it having sunk straight through the soles of my feet to disappear past our hardwood floors and beyond our cemented basement. I imagined it buried in the concrete of our foundation while I walked hollow-chested. I was smarter without it. I became the good girl. I grew watchful, wary, ever-vigilant. I would have stayed up all night if my body let me.
According to the story, I never cried again at bedtime. I slept deeply. Dead to the world. What Mommy didn't know is that it took hours for me to fall asleep, worrying in bed over all my nameless fears. I despised one particular bedtime prayer, yet found myself whispering repeatedly:
Now I lay me down to sleep I pray the Lord my soul to keep If I should die before I wake I pray the Lord my soul to take
Soon Mom began boasting, "Kathy's so quiet, you wouldn't even know she was here." It is a particular vantage point, the youngest of many siblings. If I had been a superhero, I would have chosen invisibility as my power. And in a way, I had done just that, making no waves during the day but always wary of tsunamis at night.
Sleep is nothing if not mysterious. A practice in letting go. A measure of trust. Every evening each of us, all alone and in the light of our own circumstances, surrenders to sleep. Or tries to.
Before I started sleepwalking or having night terrors, I experienced recurring nightmares like most kids do. Mine were of a less common theme than being chased by monsters or toys turned menacing. They reflected a real incident that took place when I was three.
We were visiting my Great Aunt Kathleen at her cabin on the shore of an upstate lake. It was a small body of icy water, but to me it was as wide as the sea and as curious as it was foreboding. I was hopping about in shallow waters, the squish of silt between my toes, a welcome relief from the sharp stones I made effort to avoid. I also hated the long sheaths of weeds that undulated and wrapped around my little-girl legs.
Danny suddenly appeared before me, an explosion of splashing arms, his face contorted in an impish grin, his dark eyes wide against his pale skin. "Watch out for water snakes!"
Maybe those were not long strands of grass that waved murky and suspect through the green water. Algae conspired. My heart beat faster as I turned to face the shore, which now seemed miles away. I could hear laughter through the screen door from the bungalow beyond. I must have taken one giant step back instead of forward and the bottom was gone.
I breathed in the lake, sinking deeper like in a dream. Everything was slow motion and dark and cold. I felt what I was sure were snakes, hundreds of snakes, swirling around my ankles, then my legs and body, pulling me under — then blankness.
But my head popped up like a jack-in-the-box. Water splashed wildly beneath my frantic hands. I saw the blur of green trees and Aunt Kathleen's cabin, such a pretty pastel with darker trim.
And I saw panic on Danny's big-boy face. He hollered for help.
Billy had been sunning his golden-haired self on the floating dock when the commotion caught his attention. He sat up and called out, "Kathy!" Fear rang in his voice. Then he dove in, my Tarzan, to save me. Down I went a second time, the shivering cold surrounding me. My ears were full of water. I saw Billy again, this time beneath the surface. His face twisted, as if he were crying.
A long time seemed to pass until I opened my eyes to see the camp's wood-beamed ceiling and sinister, dark circles — faces of ghosts staring down at me. Maybe I was dead or in the scene from The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy lands back in Kansas. My fingers were blue and I heard the chatter of my baby teeth.
I found myself in a bed that was not my own, wrapped in a blanket. I pulled the satin trim to my chin, for safety's sake. My father's cousin, Father Joe, leaned over me. He patted my forehead with his priestly hand. "We almost lost you, little one."
Billy, age twelve, had saved my life.
After the near drowning, I suffered dark nightmares of great bodies of water. They'd appear out of nowhere, wash over me, envelop me, or prevent me from passing to where I knew I must go. But just as often, it would be Billy's face I'd dream disappearing, sinking into watery depths. It was excruciating. I was powerless to help him. I woke from these aberrations with my face and pillow wet with tears. Sleepcrying.CHAPTER 2
NIGHT OF THE BIG FIGHT
The rescue joined my brother Billy and me inextricably. As I grew, I'd hear stories of one person saving another's life and how the rescued one was always on the lookout to return the favor, but she also ran the risk of becoming a pest or, worse yet, of living her life in the shadow of her hero. I doggie-paddled through those early years and leaned into my hero, feeling a sense of safety in his presence of which I was unaware.
"Now don't you make your brother carry you." The screen door banged behind my mother's voice. I turned to wave good-bye. She was hazy through the net.
"I won't." Maybe I was four and Billy, thirteen.
We walked hand in hand down the long hill of Glennon Road past many houses that looked alike but for their colors, blue or gray or white. The Vincents' dog ran to the edge of their lawn, barking protectively as we passed, and Billy stood tall. The dog was shaggy black and white except on St. Patrick's Day when his family dyed his white patches green.
Turning into the empty lot near the end of the street, we padded the path cut between weeds by lots of children's feet. I could barely see above those weeds. I loved the way they sounded in the wind, hushing in an almost holy way. The sky was blue, as a May sky should be — Mary's blue, my mother would have said. We were going to Norm's Store. I didn't know why and didn't care, skipping to keep up with my brother.
The path turned up a little hill and the old oak tree presented itself. I loved that gentlemanly grandfather of a tree. It marked the end of our neighborhood and the beginning of the undeveloped land to the north. It meant that soon we'd be adventuring through a thick of trees, the creek singing beside us. Ahead there'd be the wide open fields that led to Route 155 and the grocery store.
My brother kept a steady pace, but I craned my neck to see if I could see my house. No. I was free and flitted in circles like a buzzing bee. And then — "I'm tiiiiiiired." I stretched the word as I stopped abruptly, leaning against the fat trunk of the old oak.
Billy's brush cut was the same color as the fields. He smiled and I felt like I was seeing his face for the first time ever. He wasn't much for small talk. His eyes crinkled yes, and up I went, up to be the queen carried on top of his strong shoulders.
He was a sensitive boy, nervous, high-strung, who loved music and poetry. I envied his dark blond, wavy hair. When people called him skinny, he'd reply, I'm not skinny, I'm wiry.
Billy's gentleness irked my father. Dad couldn't seem to recognize his own exhaustion in getting sober let alone wrangle it. He took it out on everyone, especially his eldest son. Nothing was ever good enough — his grades, his growing hair, his growing silences. Often, there were arguments at our dinner table, the five children and Dad sitting while Mom served and leaned against the kitchen counter. There was not enough room at the table, she said, and she preferred to stand anyway. I practiced my invisibility and at the same time felt cowardly, completely powerless to protect my protector in any way. There were big, mad-dog fights and gnawing, nagging, picking ones, but I don't remember Billy saying one single solitary word, ever.
It was dark outside, a winter night with wind like in a scene from Dark Shadows, the show about vampires that I was forbidden to watch because it was sacrilegious, but I did anyway at my friend Dee Korzinski's house.
I must have been about eight.
I sat on the hardwood floor upstairs in my sisters' bedroom, arms tucked around bent legs for safety's sake, and nursed a sinking Sunday night feeling while the radiator blasted hot air. It was the perfect spot to stay warm and to hear my parents' fight echo up the vent.
The door was closed and thank goodness my sisters and I were on the inside. Pat (about nineteen), sat on a chair pulled close to the icy window, which was open a crack, a second-hand fur coat over her shoulders. She smoked cigarettes gingerly while melting red sealing wax to the envelope of a letter she'd just finished. Patty used fountain pens and, if I was lucky, I'd get to stamp the melted wax, creating a regal fleur-de-lis. It tickled my sisters to teach me big words and the Greek alphabet. Mary Ann (about eighteen) studied at her desk. Their transistor radio played a sad-voiced man:
Sittin' here resting my bones And this loneliness won't leave me alone
A full-length mirror in the shape of a peanut hung on the wall above the radiator vent. I loved my reflection and pretended it was my twin.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sleepwalker"
Copyright © 2015 Kathleen Frazier.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Foreword: The Doctor's Opinion vii
Part I Night Gallery 1
Dead to the World 3
Night of the Big Fight 10
First Sleepwalk 24
St. Dymphna's Day 27
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest 36
A Nightcap 46
Hit and Run 51
The Exorcist 57
Tolerate It 64
Stage Sanctuary 70
Snake Terror 74
Disappearing Act 87
Part II Breaking Away, Falling Apart 95
Tsunami Terrors 97
Für Elise 117
Looking for Mr. Goodbar 129
The Lost and Found Weekend 137
Part III Recovery 151
First Things First 153
The Open Window 163
Please, Sir, More? 170
Get Up, It's Time To Wake Up 178
After the Fall 187
Winkin, Blinkin, and Nod 195
Visions of Baby's Breath 207