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Surviving The Night With Sleepwalker Mike Birbiglia

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Surviving The Night With Sleepwalker Mike Birbiglia

Performing Arts

Surviving The Night With Sleepwalker Mike Birbiglia

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LYNN NEARY, host:

Mike Birbiglia is a sleepwalker, a condition that has gotten him into trouble over the years, like the time he jumped through a hotel window in a panic because he was trying to escape a missile.

(Soundbite of show "Sleepwalk with Me")

Mr. MIKE BIRBIGLIA (Comedian): And I'm running, and I'm slowly realizing I'm on the front lawn of LaQuinta Inn in Walla Walla, Washington...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: In my underwear, bleeding. I'm like, oh, no.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: But I was relieved that I hadn't been hit by the missile.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I remember thinking, that would have been a disaster!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: At least I'm still in the game, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Birbiglia has turned his worst sleepwalking experiences into a comedy routine. And now he gets to relieve that nightmare and others on a regular basis in his off-Broadway one-man show, "Sleepwalk with Me." If you have a question for Mike or a story about the worst trouble sleepwalking ever caused you, our phone number is 800-989-8255, and our email address is talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation at our Web site; go to npr.org and click on Talk of the Nation. Mike Birbiglia joins us now from our New York bureau. Good to have you with us, Mike.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: How are you? Thanks for having me.

NEARY: Well, for those of you who have never heard that routine, I was wondering if you could maybe tell them a little bit about how that story ended. And I was particularly always taken in that story by the hotel clerk's reaction to...

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: To your flying through the window and...

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Sure.

NEARY: Showing up with bloody legs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: The - actually, if people want to hear the whole - there's a 13-minute clip of it on the This American Life podcast. The episode is called "Fear of Sleep." It aired, I think, in July or August. And I - yeah, I walked to the front desk. It was one of those rare moments in your life, you know, where in retrospect, you're like, what the hell? And at that time, you're like, I guess I'll continue living. I guess I'll walk to the front desk and explain what happened. And the person working at the front desk was a slower person. I'm not sure what the exact diagnosis would be, but I walked to the front desk, I said, I hadn't - I'm staying at the hotel - which gives you credibility, you know? - I said I had an incident wherein I jumped out my window and I'm bleeding and I need to go to a hospital. And I'll never forget his reaction because he just goes, all right.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And I was like, that is the best possible reaction I could receive at this juncture. And so, I actually drove myself to the hospital.

NEARY: But this was really what you might call a wakeup call.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, yeah. And that's really what the show, my show, "Sleepwalk with Me," is all about, is actually the degree of denial that we will all, you know, go to, to avoid dealing with things. I've actually been able to speak with a lot - in this process, I've actually been able to speak with a lot of doctors who have come to the show. This week, actually, one of the authorities on REM behavior disorder, one of the guys who discovered it, Dr. Carlos Schenck, came. He's from the University of Minnesota. His partner, Dr. Mahowald, came a few months ago and - actually, I heard from - a doctor recently said to me that it's very typical male behavior in the medical world that a man will only go to a doctor unless - if he - something won't go up or there's blood coming out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And this is an incident, there was blood coming out, and because, you know, along the way, I had a lot - for years, I mean, probably six years, I had sleepwalking incidents, not of that magnitude, but smaller things.

NEARY: No, but some were pretty serious, too, right?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Yeah, like, I'll - you know, like - the one that really struck a chord with me at one point was that I had a dream one time that I was in the Olympics for some kind of arbitrary event like dust-buster-ing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And they told me I got third place, which I think is important to point out, that even in my dreams I don't win; in my wildest dreams, I place. And they say, actually you got second place. I move over to the second place podium, and it starts wobbling. And I wake up and I'm falling off the top of our - I was living with my girlfriend at that time - our five-foot bookcase in our living room.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And I land on the floor on top of our TiVo, and it breaks into pieces, and it was, like, one of these stories you hear where people black out drinking; they wake up in Idaho; they don't know where they are; it's like, ah, Hardy's, you know? But it was in my own living room. I was like, ah, TiVo pieces. And I went to bed, and my girlfriend woke me up in the morning, and she said, Michael, what happen to the TiVo? And I said, I got second place, and I'm really sorry.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And at that point I felt, well, maybe I should see a doctor. This seems dangerous, and then I thought, maybe I'll eat dinner, and I just went with dinner for years.

NEARY: Now, was that when your girlfriend first realized that you had this terrible sleep - or not terrible - this bad sleepwalking problem?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Terrible is fine. I'm OK with terrible.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Incidentally, I was listening to your movie discussion. I would throw "The Visitor" into that mix as well. That's just a side note. Did you guys discuss "The Visitor"?

NEARY: We didn't discuss "The Visitor."

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That's an excellent film. I don't know what the Oscar situation is with that, but that is a great film.

NEARY: All right. Well, listen, we're going to take a call now. We've got some people...

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Oh, by all means.

NEARY: Calling about their own sleepwalking experiences..

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Sure.

NEARY: Or their near-and-dear folks' sleepwalking experiences. We're going to Jeff in Eugene, Oregon. Hi, Jeff.

JEFF (Caller): Hi.

NEARY: Go ahead.

JEFF: Well, I thought I'd share. When I was young, I use to, like, run around my house, like, up the stairs, down the stairs, and my mom would just chase after me, and I had no idea what was going on.

NEARY: And this is - you were sleepwalking when you were doing this?

JEFF: Yeah. I was completely asleep, like, unaware of what was going on, and apparently, one of these times I, like, saw my brother - he was on the top bunk of the bedroom that we were in - and I saw him up there, and his eyes caught the light, and I just remember thinking, he's a demon. And I'm screaming at my mom...

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEFF: Like, get him out of the house! Get him out of the house!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Wow.

NEARY: Did your mother wake you up then? Did she wake you up or what?

JEFF: No - apparently, like, she won't talk about it now. Like, she - it was traumatic for her, I'm sure. I was only, like, maybe eight years old or something like that. And she would shake me and, like, try to grab onto me to stop me from running, but I would wrestle away from her.

NEARY: Oh, wow.

JEFF: Yeah. And I remember hearing about, Mike, like you said, you sleep in a sleeping bag to, like, keep yourself from sleepwalking.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That's right, yeah.

JEFF: I was a church camp one time, and I was in a sleeping bag and I, like, broke free from my sleeping bag.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JEFF: And, like, rolled up the top bunk and broke a table and was slamming my shoulder into it like I was in a football game.

NEARY: That sounds like you did this just when you were a kid. You don't do it anymore?

JEFF: No. I'll wake up disoriented, like I want to walk around, but I haven't really done it since I was maybe 13 or 14.

NEARY: Hm, you outgrew it. Well, Jeff, Thanks for calling in and letting us know about that.

JEFF: Thank you, have a good day.

NEARY: All right. When did you, Mike, when did you first realize you were sleepwalking?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: You know, it was in my 20s. Probably, I was about 19 or 20 years old, and it was - I was actually living with my girlfriend at the time. I was in college, and it was a secret that we were living together. And in other words, my girlfriend at the time was like, we should live together and what I should have said was, you know, my parents are pretty conservative and they probably wouldn't go for that. And what I did say was, yeah!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And so, when my parents would visit, we would put all of her stuff in the bedroom and then we would close the door to the bedroom. And then we hung a tapestry in front of the door as though that room didn't exist.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: It was the closest my life had come to a plotline of "Scooby Doo." And what was remarkable is that it worked, but it caused me a tremendous amount of anxiety, and that's actually when I started to have my first sleepwalking incidents.

NEARY: Oh, and you think it was a result of that anxiety?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I think so. I mean, there's a book that - if anyone has any sleep issues, because we - my friend Ed Herro and I, we were on tour this fall - in September I went on tour, and I was telling the story a lot. And it was called the Sleeping While Standing tour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And were videoing people's sleep stories, sleepwalking stories. And because what we were finding is that so many people had stories, and we have them up - I have a YouTube channel. I don't know if you know about this concept of a YouTube channel, but it's called birbigstube.com. And we have up, I think, about 40 people's sleepwalking stories. And people can also video their own and send them to us, and we'll post them. But what we found is that people have outlandish stories; you know, they pee in their shoe and then, you know, people who run out of their building and they cut their toe on the pavement, I mean, really extreme stuff. And we would, without fail, we would ask the people, have you seen a doctor? Have you had this diagnosed? And they would go, no, I just - I don't want to talk about it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And that's actually what the show is a lot about, is that - is this concept that, you know, we tend to not tell the stories that are most embarrassing to us, and there is some - and so, what I do is I've assembled the show "Sleepwalk with Me," which is a collection of the most personal and embarrassing stories.

NEARY: And very funny to boot.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: And it's funny at that...

NEARY: We have some people waiting to tell their stories...

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: By all means, yeah.

NEARY: So, let's get to the phones. Mark from Charlotte, North Carolina. Hi, Mark.

MARK (Caller): Hey, how are you guys doing?

NEARY: We're doing well.

MARK: Well, I was listening to Mike. I'm glad I'm not crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Thanks.

MARK: Not too long ago, my daughter was a newborn and that was my first child. And talking about sleep deprivation, that might have played into it, but I had my bed up against the wall, and I do a lot of talking in my sleep anyways. You probably do, too, Mike. I'm not sure or not.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I talk when I sleep?

MARK: Huh?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Did you say I talked in my sleep?

MARK: Do you?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Occasionally, yeah.

MARK: Well, (unintelligible) always talking in my sleep. Anyways, I'm laying against - my back's against the wall by the window. I'm laying there, dreaming that somebody is trying to take my newborn daughter out of my arms. I've got my arms crossed over like I'm holding her. And what do I do, rear back with my legs and kick my foot through the window that's against the bed. And to hear my wife wake up and say, you are crazy, you know, it's an awful thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARK: You know, I just...

NEARY: Did you hurt yourself?

MARK: Huh?

NEARY: Did you hurt yourself?

MARK: Oh, yeah, I cut my foot.

NEARY: Oh, God.

MARK: And I might've - you know, I just broke the glass, but it cut my ankle and not the bottom of my foot.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Oh, jeez.

MARK: But you know, you can talk about all the dreams that you have and the things that you are doing in your dreams, and you're acting them out in your bed. You know, I'm not so much sleepwalking, but just woke up one night and listened to my - a call and I woke up from my own screaming, my mother, mama, mama, and on the second "mama," I wake up and like, what happened?

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Well, thanks so much for your call, Mark. Good talking to you.

MARK: OK, I enjoy the show. Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Great. I just want to remind everybody that you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. All right, we're going to take a call now from Douglas - oh?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Wait, I've one quick question, which is, was the initial premise of his call, Jeff's call, that he's glad he's not crazy?

NEARY: I think that's what he said.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: He said, I'm glad - I think you're confirming in his mind that he's not crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That is amazing. See, this is what is so interesting, is that - that's - a lot of the response that I get from a lot of people, but it's actually quite common, sleepwalking and sleep disorders. I mean, there are 80 known sleep disorders, and I think there is some figure, like, you know, five percent of Americans sleepwalk. Sure.

NEARY: All right, let's take a call now from Douglas, who's calling from Illinois. Hi, Douglas.

DOUGLAS (Caller): Hi, I've only had one sleeping-walking incident in my life, but it was spectacular. I'm a professor, presumably, reasonably stable Ph.D. I was off as a visiting professor, asleep in a park, when I dreamed the building was on fire. I crawled out a security window that was eight-foot high without waking up, woke up in the parking lot of the apartment building where I was staying with a broken leg, chin - but it was totally broken, crawled across the parking lot to the apartment manager's office. He was used to drunks and meth-heads waking him up in the middle of the night, and I was beating on the door, and it was cold, and he kept screaming at me to go away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DOUGLAS: Finally, I convinced him who I was, he said, oh, OK, and called an ambulance, and I was in a cast for six months.

NEARY: Wow, you were in a cast for six months.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Wow.

NEARY: That's not so dissimilar from what happened to Mike, actually, when you jumped out the window.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DOUGLAS: Never happened again.

NEARY: OK.

DOUGLAS: And all the while I was consulting in Guatemala on an economic development project, I got to hobble around when I should have been boogieing.

NEARLY: All right. Thanks so much for calling in, Douglas. We're going to try another call in here. Let's go to - we're going to go to Kevin. Kevin is...

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: He also - for the record, I want to point out that he also pointed out that he is a stable person.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Yes, there we go. Well, it doesn't...

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: The implication that I am insane, but I actually - this is a disorder. It's just a medical thing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Yeah. Let's go to Kevin in Cape May, New Jersey. Hey, Kevin.

KEVIN (Caller): Hello, thanks for taking my call. I - one, this does not prove that I am not crazy...

(Soundbite of laughter)

KEVIN: But when I was about 10 years old I woke up in Massachusetts at a friend of the family's house, picked up something and had to mail it and ran almost a mile in my underwear down the street to the mailbox, to the dirt road, to their mailbox. And my parents and family being smart, they said, let him go; just follow him. And they let me go; I put it in the mail; they walk me back; I went right back to bed, no problem.

NEARY: So, you didn't even know you had done it?

KEVIN: No, I was told about it the next day.

NEARY: You woke up in bed.

KEVIN: I woke up in bed.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: At least he's a productive member of society.

KEVIN: Now, I do have a question for you.

NEARY: OK, go ahead.

KEVIN: I have noticed, because I have done an amateur kind of study, watching, talking to people about sleepwalking, and I've noticed that people, that when they're out of their element, sleeping elsewhere - like the urinating, you mention the urinating in strange places...

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Sure.

KEVIN: That they follow the path of what it is - especially with my nieces and nephew and all that, that I've noticed - they follow the path that they would normally take to the bathroom and urinate wherever it leads them, whether it be a closet, a trash can, or some receptacle of some sort, you know? And do you ever notice that?

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: That is very common. As a matter of fact, I was going to tell you, the listeners, about if they have a sleep issue, there is a lot of literature on it. And there is one book that I particularly like called "The Promise of Sleep." It was written by this guy named Dr. Dement, which is a very unfortunate name for a man trying to instill calm.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: I feel like he might have opted for a pseudonym like Dr. Happy Sleep or Dr. Chamomile Tea. But he - it's a great book, and it actually talks a lot about how, you know, how common things like that are and that actually sleeping somewhere that you're not used to is actually one of the triggers for this, so that does make sense.

NEARY: All right, and just we'll close out with this email. When I was in college, I sleepwalked into my suitemate's room one night and started going through her underwear drawer, looking for something that at the time seemed vital. It was only when she woke up to find me picking through her underwear that I, too, woke up and realized what I was doing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Wow.

(Soundbite of music)

NEARY: Mike, thanks for being with us. We want to let you, know by the way, that Richard Jenkins was nominated for best actor for "The Visitor."

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: Oh, fantastic, yes.

NEARY: So, there you go. It was great talking with you, Mike.

Mr. BIRBIGLIA: You, too.

NEARY: Mike Birbiglia's one-man show, "Sleepwalk with Me," runs through March at New York's Bleecker Street Theater, and he joined us from our New York bureau. Tomorrow it's Science Friday, and Ira Flatow will be here for a discussion on space junk and how to clean it up. This is Talk of the Nation from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary.

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