(Don't) Sleeptalk With Me?
August 4, 2014 7:05 AM   Subscribe

My bed-mate is rather chatty while asleep. This is fine. Recently, however, he became rather head-squishy/pseudo-violent while asleep. This is less fine. It's difficult to wake him when he's in this state. This is a little scary. Is there anything he/we can do to prevent this? Or help him wake up? Or at least understand what's going on so that I don't get so scared?? My squished head appreciates your insights...

Mr. Dorinda talks in his sleep. A lot. He has for as long as I've known him, and other people have told him about his midnight monologues since he was a child.
Mostly, I find the sleep-talking endearing/hilarious/goofy/entertaining (honestly, something to occupy me while I'm endlessly trying to fall asleep is pretty welcome to this mild insomniac!).

Last night, sleep-talking became sleep-attacking (and not the sexy-times described in this previous AskMe). In the middle of the night, before I had fallen asleep, he was mumbling/flailing a bit in his sleep, and managed to throw his lower body right out of bed. He woke up enough to climb back into bed, and then was asleep again. About 30-45 minutes later (I was drifting to sleep at this point, but was not yet asleep) he reached over as if to cuddle me (yay!), and instead began squishing my head REALLY HARD in his arms and digging his thumbnail into my head while mumble-yelling gibberish (boo!). It HURT! A LOT!
I told him (possibly more forcefully than I should have) to stop and attempted to push him off, but he persisted for a few moments more, before apparently responding to my repeated exhortations to "wake up!", at which point he started yelling at me to stop saying "ow" and telling me that I was dreaming. Despite his increased coherence, he was still obviously asleep at this point (he often responds to my questions while he's sleep-talking).
In the morning, he remembers only the falling-out-of-bed bit, and not the painful head-squishy bit. He has never reported feeling any less rested on mornings when he slept soundly than mornings when he was yakking it up throughout the night.
What's going on? Is the escalation from sleeptalking to sleep-physicalizing something to be concerned about? How can I gently wake him when he's in this state if he gets physical/head-squishy again?
For the record, he is ~35, on no medications, no other sleep problems, and generally very healthy.
This recent AskMe is helpful from a medical point of view, but I don't think my dude's problem is as bad as the ones described there...what I'd really love are some practical ideas that can help me when attempting to wake or settle my guy as the sleep-flailing is happening. Should I wake him fully? Try to keep him asleep while discouraging his behaviour? Just let him continue squishing my poor head? Help!
posted by Dorinda to Health & Fitness (24 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Separate beds? Keep a glass of water handy to dump on him when he needs to really wake up?
posted by steinwald at 7:10 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

It is now time to talk to a sleep specialist. They are the ones who can give you the best advice here. This has now left the bounds of harmless sleeptalking, and has entered the realm of something that can seriously negatively impact your life.

Until then, separate beds. Your head won't collapse when squeezed, but your throat will.
posted by ocherdraco at 7:21 AM on August 4, 2014 [42 favorites]

He should see a sleep specialist. Please don't let him put you (or himself) at risk.
posted by jaguar at 7:21 AM on August 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

Is the escalation from sleeptalking to sleep-physicalizing something to be concerned about?
Yes, it warrants at least an appointment with his regular doctor and probably a referral to a sleep doc.

Should I wake him fully?
Some people will say that it is dangerous to wake him, and it may be, but you know it is dangerous to let him hurt you. That should be the first question he asks both doctors. Until he goes to the appointment, I would consider sleeping apart or having something in bed you can use to wake him quickly.
posted by soelo at 7:22 AM on August 4, 2014 [3 favorites]

I know you read that other AskMe, but this is probably worth talking to a doctor about. Sleep disorders that are this disruptive can be difficult to manage.

From a practical standpoint, make sure your partner's sleep hygiene is immaculate, and yes, try and wake him when he's flailing.
posted by Specklet at 7:22 AM on August 4, 2014

Mr. Jungle has an avid dream life like you described but his big thing is running in his sleep, it's ridiculous. He will be laying on his side but his legs are making a running motion which isn't very pleasant for anyone else in the bed. Trying to wake him up is difficult and sometimes bewildering for him so instead I prompt him with, "Slow down and wait on Toddler Jungle" and he'll stop 'running' to wait on her. For whatever reason his mind thinks stop is an unreasonable request but waiting on the toddler is reasonable so he does it. Maybe try to find a word or phrase that redirects him until you can get in with a specialist?
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 7:23 AM on August 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

On preview: the belief that it's dangerous to wake a sleep walker (or sleep head squisher) is outdated and has been debunked by the medical profession. You won't harm him at all by waking him.
posted by Specklet at 7:23 AM on August 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

My husband is a sleep-fighter ... luckily mostly kickfighting so he just kicks me really hard in the back of the leg and I get a charlie horse. But sometimes sleep-punching or sleep-head-squishing. We've talked about it with our doctor, who thinks his brain insufficiently shuts down his motor centers when he's dreaming, so instead of normal levels of twitching-while-dreaming, he performs the actions full on. Unfortunately she did not have a clear solution. (We have not, however, progressed to a sleep study or a sleep specialist. I believe that various sleeping pills are the first line of solutions.)

What's happened over the years is, I now Pavlovianly wake up when he starts twitching in his sleep, which is a sign he is having a dream where his motor cortex isn't shut down enough and is likely to start kicking or punching shortly. I then disengage myself from him and scoot to the far side of the bed (out of the flail-zone), and then I say, "MR MCGEE! You're having a BAD DREAM! You need to ROLL OVER!" (Rolling over is a command he can follow while asleep, and rolling over seems to interrupt the process.) Generally rousing himself enough to roll over stops the process without waking him all the way up, but sometimes he falls back asleep right into the same nightmare and I have to do it again.

This almost always occurs during nightmares (as does the majority of his audible/understandable sleep-talking), which mostly occur when he's under a lot of stress. So managing his stress and avoiding things that trigger nightmares (scary movies close to bedtime!) are the biggest helps. It was the worst right after we had a baby and he was very stressed with new parenthood and very sleep-deprived ... if we did it again, I might have him sleep in a separate bed for the first couple weeks (because you know what a new mother needs while recovering from childbirth? SHE NEEDS TO BE KICKED AWAKE BY HER NIGHTMARE-KICKING HUSBAND, THAT'S WHAT.).

I don't know ... it was scary and upsetting at first, but I guess I've gotten used to it? Which is maybe not the best solution? It has also tapered off, I think both because he manages stress better and as a natural function of getting older. Vigorous exercise and meditation also seem to help some in terms of it happening less often.

In terms of response, he had to come to terms with the fact that a) I get to wake him up HOWEVER I WANT AND NEED TO if he's sleep-fighting and kicking me and that b) I GET TO BE MAD ABOUT IT even though he didn't do it on purpose. It is a surprisingly emotional issue at first because you're both being woken from sleep by an angry partner! Now if I have to shout him awake in the night, he just mumbles "Oh, sorry," and rolls over instead of getting upset, and then is apologetic when I'm still mad in the morning. Which I'm usually not anymore.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:25 AM on August 4, 2014 [16 favorites]

Until he sees a doctor and gets this under control, I would, in addition to not sharing a bed with him, also remove or pad all sharp objects in the room where he's sleeping. (Think child-proofing.) If he's throwing himself out of bed, he could well start throwing himself into nightstands or dressers.
posted by jaguar at 7:28 AM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Nthing "see a doctor." It could possibly be REM Sleep Behavior Disorder, or it could be stress or sleep apnea - but it seems serious enough to warrant a doctor visit and sleep test.

In the meantime, separate beds and make the room safe as jaguar describes, so that your partner can't injure himself or you when he acts out in his sleep. If separate beds are out of the question, build yourself a pillow fort with a body pillow as a barrier between the two of you so you don't get hurt by accident.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 7:32 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

My husband sleep talks, sleep walks, sleep kicks and actually once sleep-elbowed me in the head so hard that he slammed my head into the headboard and gave me a concussion. He also snores like a freight train. We got him checked out for sleep apnea, etc. No clear diagnosis of anything. We tried various methods of helping him sleep better. No help. He now sleeps in a different room than I do. This is the ONLY solution that worked for us. By all means, visit a doctor. Get him checked out for anything serious. But in the end, you may have to resign yourself to separate beds.
posted by BlueJae at 7:46 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I do weird stuff in my sleep, including once trying to punch my husband in the head (I missed). My sleep issues are much worse when I am stressed or over-tired, which I hear is common, so your husband should work on those areas. Since he's actually hurting you, I agree that he should see a sleep specialist and you should sleep separately if it keeps happening. If you can wake him up, feel free - whenever I am woken during my "episodes" (not easy) I feel momentarily confused and then fall right back to sleep - no harm done. Be aware that parasomnias often occur together, so he may do other weird stuff, like sleepwalking or eating.
posted by Safiya at 8:19 AM on August 4, 2014

Another person wondering about REM sleep behavior disorder:
... sleepers with RBD become physically extremely agitated, actively moving their limbs, getting up and engaging in actions associated with walking. Some may even talk, shout, scream, hit, and punch, during their sleep.
Does Mr. Dorinda take antidepressants? RBD used to be seen almost exclusively (90%) in men ages 60 and older, but it's been appearing in younger people and women who take antidepressants of all types -- SSRIs (Prozac, Celexa, Lexapro, Paxil, Zoloft), Effexor and tricyclics.

I'm a 40-something woman who takes Effexor, and I've been experiencing RBD symptoms such as talking, shouting, kicking and jumping out of bed. I landed on my ass on a wooden floor after a leap in my sleep from a very high fancy old bed at a B&B this spring. And I've awakened with bruised calves after barking them on the bed frame during a sleep-jump at home.

I'm not currently sharing my bed with anyone but my cat, but I can imagine how disruptive it would be to sleep with someone who's acting out in his dreams. Good luck figuring this out!
posted by virago at 8:43 AM on August 4, 2014

Mike Birbiglia has some funny, endearing and frightening stories about his sleep problems, which are very similar to what you describe. He told them on a few episodes of This American Life, then made a movie with Ira Glass called Sleepwalk With Me which touches on it too. If you can listen to his story in this TAL episode with your husband, it might be both enjoyable and productive for you guys.
posted by hootenatty at 9:50 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I don't see why you think it's not as bad as the other ask-me problem. Your bedmate tried to squish your head, grape-fashion. Why don't you guys play it safe and find out for sure whether or not it's the Mike Birbiglia thing, since if it is he might leap out the window of a La Quinta Inn at four in the morning?
posted by Don Pepino at 10:01 AM on August 4, 2014

My coworker does the same thing, and gave her girlfriend a concussion! I would certainly send your hubby to a sleep specialist, and in the meantime sleep in separate beds.
posted by radioamy at 10:16 AM on August 4, 2014

Sorry for the double post, but I wanted to chime in and apologize if it seems like I was diagnosing Mr. Dorinda. I am no expert -- just a stranger on the Internet who has also had sleep problems.

I also wanted to weigh in on the side of separate beds and seeing a sleep specialist.

>Mike Birbiglia has some funny, endearing and frightening stories about his sleep problems: Yeah, Mike Birbiglia has REM sleep behavior disorder. He says his episodes are associated with times in his life when he's been experiencing sleep deprivation and anxiety.
posted by virago at 10:19 AM on August 4, 2014

Wow! I didn't think this phenomenon was so common!
Sleeping with Mr. Terrier is like being in bed with a dressage horse.
I looked up "violent sleep" and the consensus seems to be "get into a sleep study."
posted by BostonTerrier at 11:29 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the helpful responses, everyone.
To answer a few questions/clarify: he's definitely not taking any antidepressants, but he is absolutely under a great deal of stress right now, so that's definitely something to try and work on. I definitely like the idea of a code word/special question to try and snap him out of an episode, so I'll try that. Separate beds are not really an option for us, so I will definitely work on my pillow barricade building skills.
We will absolutely chat about the possibility of seeing a sleep specialist, and we will listen to the Mike Birbiglia stuff together for sure. I've also forwarded this thread to him so he can also read your thoughts (*waves* Hi, lovey!), so please keep posting if you have advice that worked for you, either as a sleepsquisher or a sleep squishee.
Thanks very much, all, for sharing your experiences of being on the giving and receiving ends of this nocturnal conundrum.
Much appreciated!
posted by Dorinda at 11:45 AM on August 4, 2014

I am a sleep-fighter, a sleep talker, a sleep paralysis sufferer, and an all around terrible person to share a bed with.

I agree that a sleep specialist is your best bet here. I'm not so sure a code word will be helpful, but it's worth a shot.

Personally, I know I like to grab on to things and hold them for dear life when I sleep, so I try to sleep holding on to a pillow or blanket. It seems to help prevent me from grabbing things and flailing.

I'd also move away and nightstands, lamps, or other objects away from the bed.
posted by inertia at 1:34 PM on August 4, 2014

My partner of 9 years does this and recent medical issues have made it worse. Now, I don't know how your partner will take this but in our relationship, it's ok. I slap him really hard and yell, "wake up! You're dreaming!" Without fail he wakes up, apologizes, and goes back to sleep. I promise, I'm not making light of this. I know how terrifying it can be. But could you just whack him really hard? (We're a `different` kind of people...)
posted by smashface at 4:59 PM on August 4, 2014

Just as a side note, the REM Sleep Behavior Disorder can be absolutely diagnosed during a sleep study and can be treated. Most men are strong and when they're acting out a dream that involves fighting or anything energetic and physical they can seriously hurt whoever's in the bed with them without meaning to at all.

A sleep study is very thorough and at the same time very specific; it will pick up the information that will help you.
posted by aryma at 5:28 PM on August 4, 2014

In the interim, keep a large glass of water by the bed and douse him if he attacks you. My college boyfriend tried to strangle me in his sleep more than once, so that was my solution. If you can't pour the water, you can always hit him upside the head with the glass. But in general, you do not need to get hung up on meeting violence with violence. Currently he can't control it, and you need to be safe and able to defend yourself.
posted by DarlingBri at 6:38 PM on August 4, 2014

I'm actually a bit concerned about your safety reading this, Dorinda. This isn't in any way a comment on your partner; it sounds like there's something going on in his sleep in the spectrum of a sleep disorder, and at the moment it's manifesting in this behaviour that negatively impacts on your health and wellbeing.

You say separate beds aren't an option at the moment; I'd really urge you to explore your options here until you've seen a sleep specialist and taken steps to address this problem. Could one of you sleep on an airbed? A couch? A yoga mat on the floor?

To reiterate, I'm not suggesting this as a permanent solution, but if I were you I'd try to avoid sleeping in the same bed until you've spoken to a sleep specialist to get a better handle on what's actually going on with your partner and to discuss strategies for future episodes. Yep, these options are awkward and uncomfortable, but not as bad as the physical and emotional fall out for the both of you if Mr Dorinda actually does injure you in his sleep.
posted by nerdfish at 4:49 AM on August 5, 2014 [1 favorite]

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