“There’s something I need to tell you before we go to sleep.”
Everyone panics when I say this, but since the summer of 2008, I’ve had an obligation to lead a detailed conversation with certain people about my sleeping habits. Specifically, I need to tell people I’m about to sleep beside that I have a sleeping disorder.
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s not as bad as it sounds. It’s just that I, uh, kind of sleepwalk. But instead of getting out of bed and walking around I sometimes, um, try to have sex.”
I have sexsomnia, the grown-up version of wet dreams.
When I tell people this, they always come back to “that one Law & Order episode.” But I don’t stalk my apartment building in an attempt at finding the nearest person to have sex with. My alter ego is into foreplay and doesn’t like to leave the bed.
When I wake up, I’ve often got my hand in my partner’s underwear. When I don’t, I’ve been told to go back to sleep or pushed away and my unconscious brain understands, or so I’m told -- I don’t remember doing anything.
Baffled curiosity and laughter are the best reactions you can expect when telling someone you’re a sexsomniac, so I’m grateful I’m no stranger to embarrassment.
My first of many life-changing humiliations came at the local public swimming pool in first grade. An absent-minded kid, I went into the change room, undressed, and showered -- forgetting a crucial step -- and wandered out into the public area, giving a clear view of my naked ass to classmates and teacher alike. Children do not forget moments like this.
Discovering I had sexsomnia felt much like learning I had a useless superpower; one day it was just there. I was in Toronto visiting a friend in the middle of summer. Once my plane landed, I began showing signs of what my doctor later told me was Pertussis, better known as whooping cough. Basically, I was overcome with fits of coughing every five minutes.
I had intentions of romancing my Torontonian friend and this was officially my summer vacation, so Despite my non-stop coughing, Samantha (not her real name, natch) and I spent the week sightseeing, gorging ourselves on great food, drinking every night and having sex.
Sometime in that sleep deprived week when I was coping with the mid-July heat and waking up throughout the night to drink Buckley’s from the bottle, my sleep disorder poked its awkward head out. What I remember is this: I was asleep but the fog was lifting. I began waking up to find my upper body positioned over Samanthas’s, and I was mashing my lips into hers. We kept making out as I tried to make sense of what was happening.
Imagine: you wake up and realize you’re driving a car. That’s what it feels like.
Once we were both awake in the morning, I looked at her. “Did I wake you up to make out last night?”
“I think I was asleep. At first, anyway.”
She said she thought something was off. I dismissed it as a single, strange event, the product of my exhaustion. Then it happened again. I’d woken her at an ungodly hour and she saw me sitting up in bed. Instead of waking like a normal person when she said my name, I leaned over to put my tongue in her mouth. This is the story she recounted the next day.
We laughed -- it was funny! -- but I was eager to find out what was going on with me. Once I was back home I found articles on sleep sex, or sexsomnia. I read about a few sexual assault cases and the science behind the phenomenon. The legitimacy of the disorder was in question, so instead of going to my doctor asking, “What’s wrong with me?” I self-diagnosed as a sexsomniac.
I know well enough that groggily waking up in the middle of the night while stimulating my partner’s clitoris isn’t normal behaviour. Since then sexsomnia has gained ground as a real disorder. Judging by the stories I’ve read, I’m what could be considered a mild case; there are sexsomniacs who harm themselves by masturbating violently in their sleep and others who can’t sustain romantic relationships.
I know I’m lucky for the fact that every person I’ve involuntarily felt up has been okay with it and I’ve never groped a non-romantic partner. That doesn’t mean it’s all easy for everyone, though.
The summer after self-diagnosis I had a job traveling to festivals across northern Alberta giving away free condoms and lube and asking people to prove they knew how to put on a condom properly using a wooden penis. I traveled and slept in a tent with two co-workers. I had to tell them.
Rachel spent that summer sleeping in the van full of our educational material.
Because I’m unconscious when a fugue hits me, I have to rely on the people who witness my nighttime perversions for accurate accounts. I’ve woken partners by humping them in my old twin bed. Another girlfriend thought my sexsomnia was hot, though she admitted my acts weren’t quite as precise when I’m asleep.
My current partner tells me my sexsomnia is often triggered when she shifts in bed, and that it happens once every few weeks. She’s told me about the time she woke up with my hand under her pyjamas, groaning “Mmm…” in her ear. She’s also explained the night I gave her a verbal reply when she said my name, but complete silence when she asked if I was asleep.
“And what about the other times?” I ask.
“It’s mostly annoying,” she says. “You’re waking me up when I’m trying to sleep.”