Actor and Parasomniac Pens a Memoir of Recovery

Kathleen Frazier
Kathleen Frazier. Photo: Hannah Dahm.

Actor Kathleen Frazier’s amazing memoir, Sleepwalker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist, recalls a life fraught with childhood nightmares, sleep terrors, insomnia and sleepwalking that lasted for more than two decades. At the heart of her memoir of parasomnia is intergenerational trauma, and its compounding and devastating effect on individuals and those close to them. It’s also a memoir of her recovery, a love story and one of the channels through which she has become a sleep activist: an advocate for healthy sleep as a basic human right (and she thanks fellow activist and sleep advocate, Arianna Huffington, for that phrase). As a long-time member of The Actors Studio, Frazier was able to develop her memoir from the affective memory exercises that are a signature of The Method. She is a Norman Mailer Fellow as well as being a member of Irish American Writers and Artists, the International Women’s Writing Guild, Artists Without Walls and a vested member of SAG-AFTRA and Actors’ Equity.

Frazier began having nightmares at age 3 after almost drowning in a lake. Her first violent sleepwalking episode occurred when she was 11, soon after her brother Billy attempted suicide. In her senior year of high school, she got the lead in the school play and found another world on the stage, one where she “entered an altered state of consciousness,” but unlike sleepwalking, one where she felt fully alive. It cemented her ambition to become an actress, and she credits the arts for transforming her life.

As an adult, her recovery from sleepwalking was precipitated by two harrowing events. She awoke one night as if about to leap from an open window of her fifth floor room overlooking Riverside Drive in NYC. Following that, a serious accident during a sleep terror left her bruised and bloodied in her bedroom. Since entering recovery in 1990, she has been driven towards health by her own sheer will, her work at The Actors Studio, her husband Mark, and the many medical professionals — Western and alternative practitioners — who have partnered with her in her treatment.

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Frazier is involved in several organizations that use drama or drama therapy to empower people who have endured trauma to rebuild their lives. Five percent of the personal proceeds from Sleepwalker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist are donated to Creative Alternatives of New York (CANY), one such organization (nonprofit).

Cover design: Brian Peterson

Betsyann Faiella: Thanks for writing this absolutely amazing memoir and for this interview, Kathleen. Your childhood and your parents’ childhoods were chaotic, and there was schizophrenia in your family of origin that was inherited by one of your brothers. Your mother had sleep terrors, and your father had debilitating insomnia. When did you start to unpack your understanding of how this affected you?

Kathleen Frazier: Things began to fall into place when I began my recovery from parasomnia in 1990. I started to understand the momentous snowball effect of mental illness, self-medication, denial and trauma that persists in families through generations when left untreated. It became clear to me that I suffered from PTSD and that my family did as well. My trauma manifested in violent sleep disorders, but trauma and stress in children can lead to everything from depression and violence to cancer, autoimmune diseases, suicide and more.

BF: Early childhood experiences are an important public health issue, and children aren’t really able to help themselves.

KF: Right. I was not able to figure out what was happening to me as a child and why, though I tried to piece things together as kids do. But the minute I could take control of my own recovery, I did. It was a powerful act.

BF: You have described yourself as a sleep activist. How does this play out?

KF: Well, more will be revealed, right? I believe in healthy sleep as a basic human right. Since Sleepwalker came out last September, I’ve been sharing widely about the connections between trauma and disordered sleep – including insomnia. My writing will play a large part in my activism. I’m preparing right now to launch a podcast where people will share their narratives on sleep. It will be anonymous, so participants feel free to share deeply. I’m very excited about that! And I’m shopping an op-ed about the Compton, CA, class-action suit brought by high school students and teachers against their school district, addressing trauma.

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BF: Can you tell me more about that lawsuit, and your interest in it?

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Sleep deprivation is a means of torture.[/pullquote]KF: I identify with the connection between the kids’ trauma and their lack of sleep. The Compton lawsuit alleges that traumatized students are punished, not assisted. That’s going on all over the country, by the way. One of the teenage plaintiffs in the case is a homeless boy who slept on the roof of his school for two months. He was sleeping with found carpeting as both mattress and blanket. He was suspended from school without any means of support. A child. Another plaintiff, a 15-year-old, described waking up to see his father threaten his mother with a gun when he was 3. It’s heartbreaking to hear him describe how he’s been trying to manage his nightmares his whole life long, from the time he was a toddler. Most schools don’t recognize the signs of trauma, let alone find help for our students. However, there are some good models in existence for trauma sensitive approaches in schools, particularly in San Francisco, Washington and Massachusetts. The Compton lawsuit is seeking a remedy based on the adoption of proven models. In reading about the case, you realize several of the kids at the center of the situation were looking for good sleep!

BF: In fact, isn’t sleep deprivation a torture technique?

KF: Yes, a frequent and very effective means of torture. It’s also a technique domestic abusers use to control their victims. Sleep deprivation is epidemic in our country. Unfortunately it’s also a badge of honor affecting many, including college students. That’s why Arianna Huffington is taking her book tour for The Sleep Revolution to campuses. She had an incident where she was so sleep deprived, she collapsed and broke her cheekbone. People die from sleep deprivation in any number of ways, including frequently in car accidents. And it’s very scary to think we have a Republican presidential candidate who exhibits all the classic, scary signs of sleep deprivation.

BF: Wow — overwhelming — but it makes sense with the macho culture about sleep in this country. In your research, did you investigate what’s going on in other countries regarding sleep?

KF: Other countries are ahead of the game in the connection between certain life experiences and resultant sleep disorders, and believe me, that’s not just my personal opinion, those are the facts. There’s an English study, ALSPAC; it shows that children who have been bullied have more serious sleep problems. The Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal does a ton of interesting research around sleep and dreaming. On the other hand, the first study on sleepwalking in the US in over 30 years — the first national study ever on sleepwalking — was released just a few years back by Stanford.

BF: Speaking of Ivy League Schools, weren’t you just accepted into Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine Master of Science Program? Congratulations!

KF: Yes, thanks! I work at Columbia, and I’ve been attending the Narrative Medicine Grand Rounds, hearing lectures by authors like Colum McCann of Narrative 4 and other artists, activists and medical professionals. With Narrative Medicine, art and health go hand in hand. I’m active in This Is My Brave, a storytelling organization that busts stigmas about mental health issues. My own writing was a huge turning point in my recovery, very healing and cathartic. I give a big plug to expressing oneself in that way, and any way, artistically. The arts transformed my life.

BF: What were your first steps in recovery?

KF: Miraculously I stopped medicating my sleep disorders with alcohol years before and had already removed blackouts from the equation. In 1990, I entered Gestalt therapy with Neila Wyman. I began to see the Director of Columbia Presbyterian Sleep Center, who suggested I take a very small dose of Klonopin to stop the sleepwalking. I was hesitant because it’s very addictive, and Dr, Kavey promised me he’d monitor me closely and be with me every step of the way. It worked. I actually began to sleep for the first time in 20 years. And when the sleepwalking ceased, that’s when I was able to integrate the threads of my story. I came off the Klonopin permanently when I was ready to conceive my daughter.

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BF: Is that when you began to write your memoir?

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]”My life was transformed by the arts.”[/pullquote]KF: No, I had kept journals and written about my sleep problems from sense-memory exercises at The Actors Studio that I turned into fiction. I wasn’t prepared to publicly share my true story until 2010 when I read about the death of designer Tobias Wong in the New York Times. His death was reported as a suicide, but he suffered from violent sleepwalking and night terrors. When a person experiences sleepwalking or sleep terrors, the part of the brain that controls movement is awake, and the part that is responsible for executive functioning, that monitors our behavior, and records memories is asleep. It’s in some ways similar to an alcoholic blackout. His longtime partner, in addition to a sleep specialist, suggested that he might have been in a sleepwalking episode when he hung himself. This phenomenon is called parasomnia pseudo-suicide. “That could have been me,” I thought. “Had I jumped out my window on Riverside Drive to my death while sleepwalking, it would have been ruled a suicide.” Mr. Wong’s tragic death was my motivation, finally, to tell my story. I was encouraged by my mentor at The Actors Studio, Ellen Burstyn. In 2012, after Psychology Today published the Two-Minute Memoir about my sleep issues and resultant fear of intimacy, I was contacted by a literary agent.

BF: What’s in your arsenal for your continuing recovery?

KF: I do whatever it takes. I just went through many sessions of neurofeedback which is hopeful for sleepwalking, insomnia and all sleep issues, PTSD, ADHD and chronic pain, etc. I’ve been helped by everything from meditation and exercise to healthy eating, hypnotherapy and acupuncture, EMDR, quality time with friends and loved ones, avoiding worrisome news and electronics at bedtime, and abstinence from caffeine and alcohol to name a few things. Community is very important to me, and I’ve adopted some First Nation rituals, and I’ve been exploring deeper connections to my own ancestors, the Irish. I’m dusting off some historical fiction in which the Irish protagonist is a chronic sleepwalker.

BF: What would you say to someone suffering from a mental or physical health problem?

KF: If you find yourself in a situation of any kind that you feel is out of control, talk to someone. Don’t isolate. We don’t have to do anything alone in this world. Also, if anybody has questions about night terrors and sleepwalking, they can reach me through my website.