Sleepwalking Through Her Young Years: Kathleen Frazier’s Terrifying Journey to Recovery

By Nicole McNey

was young when she woke from a deep in a terrifying place. “I was standing at an open window, staring at the dizzying curve of Riverside Drive, five floors below,” Frazier writes in her new sleepwalker photor, : The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist. “I’d stopped, somehow, poised, about to jump. My beating heart told me so. Sweat streamed down the sides of my face and between my breasts.”Sleepwalker explores two terrifying decades of sleepwalking and sleep terrors as well as insomnia and resultant PTSD, plus a resulting lifelong fear of intimacy. But it is also a New York love story. Nicole McNey sat down with Kathleen in a café on the Upper West Side, where they talked about how addiction and insomnia paved the way for her exhausting path to recovery – which, eventually, led to good health and a great marriage.  Here is a nearly direct transcript of that conversation with some slight editing.

Your book is so relatable and I think it’s going to help so many.

Thank you, Nicole. I hope you’re right, that Sleepwalker will help people. There was a 19-year-old girl in the news this week in Colorado who traveled 9 miles away from her home while sleepwalking. Some of the news reports are suggesting that the solution is for her family to secure her somehow during sleep and hide knives, etc. I am appalled that a sleep clinic is not suggested. I think it’s egregious. It’s as if we’re still living in the dark ages!

It took you twenty years to seek help for your sleepwalking and sleep terrors. That must have been hard. But, in a way, was this probably better for you considering the medical advances through the years?

I mean, I count my blessings every day for things unfolding the way they did for me. A, I didn’t hurt myself further or die in the midst of an episode, and B, when I did eventually seek help, I landed in the hands of wonderful doctors who were familiar with my condition. So yes, I’m very, very grateful.

What motivated you to get involved with sleep policy and to become a healthy sleep advocate?

It was Tobias Wong, a young man who committed suicide most likely while sleepwalking. I just thought, “I’m completely recovered, I need to write about this. I can’t hide behind my shame anymore – I need to be brave.” What if he had read the book and was able to get help, you know?

You mentioned that you would sometimes have disturbed sleep if you’d seen violence in a movie. Do you still avoid that kind of negative imagery today?

Yes, I do for the most part. My husband and daughter occasionally watch an action film, and I sometimes join them… although I sometimes worry about a sleep terror episode. I can never watch horror (night or day) or read the news before bed.

The last intense night terror I had was probably a little over five years ago. I was at my in-laws’ house, writing some historical fiction, which was very intense and descriptive and I woke up in the middle of the night screaming. The next morning my in-laws asked if I was ok. I don’t know what I was expecting, but they were so kind and gentle – I just felt bad that I woke people up. So that part of me – the embarrassment – is still there.

It’s interesting that an episode should happen as a part of your writing process. Overall, how would you say your writing has affected your sleep?

Mostly, the more I wrote, the better I felt.

Have you ever tried sleep aids such as melatonin or Ambien? If so, how do these alter your sleep patterns and memory?

Actually, Ambien has a side effect of sleepwalking! You should really research that, it’s terrible. I have used melatonin, though, and I found that as far as the insomnia goes, it works. Most things I would take to help me sleep eventually lost their effect, though.

You mentioned that your doctor prescribed you to Klonopin as a part of your treatment. When you were finally off the medication and able to conceive, were you concerned that your daughter would get the “sleepwalking gene,” too?

Of course! I was very afraid. She did have some disturbed sleep as a child if she was overtired or stressed, but it was never anything that was chronic or had a component of violence or sleep terrors. Though it runs in my family, there’s also the recovery aspect, so I try to focus on that.

So you’ve just educated her along the way?

Yes. Life is not about not having these kinds of problems. We all come into families with different things and acquire things along the way but it’s about facing them; the good, the bad, the ugly.

Can you talk a little more about how your diet has evolved since you started the road to recovery?

The biggest thing for me was that I stopped drinking and using drugs for five years before the sleepwalking accident and – thank goodness – I’ve been able to continue that lifestyle. That’s number one coming from a family riddled with alcoholism and addiction. I had used alcohol to self-medicate the PTSD and try to help myself sleep, which failed miserably.

I guess I eat pretty healthfully now that you mention it. I noticed the biggest change when I wanted to go off the Klonopin to conceive [my daughter] Hannah. I was willing to go to any lengths to avoid a recurrence of the sleepwalking and sleep terrors and my nutritionist recommended that I stop eating sugar, dairy, and wheat. She also had me off bananas, citrus, and nightshades, meaning potatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and so on. The nightshades, like sugar, require magnesium in order to be digested so that was her reasoning there. I also stopped drinking coffee to avoid the insomnia.

Do you take any supplements?

Yes. I make sure to buy really great products and take them as prescribed. I take cod liver oil, not the pills, a B-complex, vitamin D, and I take an excellent multivitamin specifically designed for a woman my age. I also take acidophilus every morning and every day I take psyllium husk powder… both of those last items are excellent for digestion and overall health. My sleep health is not separate from the rest of my health; everything is interconnected, in my opinion.

Speaking of interconnected…How important are our dreams and how do they impact the quality of sleep?

I think dreams are very important. My dreams – er, nightmares – and even my sleep terrors – were my intuition trying to get my attention to deal with the trauma [of addiction and insomnia]. My dreams told me that I was separated from my intuition, which is not uncommon for a person whether they sleepwalk or not. What I mean by that is that many of us are not taught to recognize, let alone trust our intuition.

What is the most important sleep advice you’d give to a somnambulist, if you had to narrow down to one key point?

Seek help at a sleep clinic. If you don’t want to use western medicine, you can find someone who can work alternatively. Don’t think, “Oh, because I do it so infrequently, I don’t need help,” It only takes one time to be unlucky. And if you have sleep terrors but don’t sleepwalk I suggest you also seek help; I would suggest finding a therapist. This next advice goes for everybody: please stop minimizing poor sleep. Insomnia, for example, is epidemic in our country. Everyone deserves to sleep well.

Fact Sheet

Your website:

Your current location: Washington Heights

Your current job title: Actress and author

Hometown: Albany, NY; NYC since 1981

Type of Bed: Natural Latex

Sleep Position: Side

Pillow type: Used to use a water pillow, but now just a regular department store pillow (not down)

Midnight snack: No, but I drink Natural Vitality’s “Calm”- a magnesium supplement powder before bed.

Typical Hours of sleep: 7-8

Time to bed: 9:30-11:30 pm

Time you wake up: Between 5:30-7:30 am

How many pillows do you use: 1 for my head, 1 decorative pillow with a cover to rest my arm on

Sleep attire: Naked

Your sleep ritual prior to bedtime: Read. I try to avoid electronics. Review my day, list gratitudes. Pray and/or meditate. Sometimes I listen to a hypnosis/relaxation session on my iPod. Resting my head on my husband’s chest and listening to his steady heartbeat always calms me down but I can’t fall asleep in that position. I need to be physically independent of anybody else. I’m too nervous about being startled awake otherwise. The sleep terrors component of my history as a symptom of PTSD still requires a particular kind of attention. For example, I always sleep with ear plugs and an eye patch which my husband calls my “get up.”

Tags:  Interview Kathleen Frazier memoi Memoir Sleep Sleepwalker

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