My mouth is wet against her neck. Her taste—the oil, the sweat, whatever it is—it’s like lime sucked right off the rind. And I can’t get enough.
But I’m not really there. I’m far away, up in the rafters somewhere. I’m watching him turn her over. She’s moaning, waking up with his tongue in her mouth. His hands scrape down her bare back, he claws away her shorts, and then he presses himself into place when she asks, “Are you awake?”
“Uh . . . yes,” he says with a greedy self-assurance. He goes to penetrate, but she stops him. She can tell. Sitting up, she watches as the space behind his eyes begins to light up. The grin goes away. He recedes. I come to.
We’re in my bedroom. It’s 3:00 on a Saturday morning and the air conditioner is sputtering. We’ve been asleep for about two hours, but I’ve just woken her to initiate sex. And we’re about to have it—hell, we’ve already done everything except penetration—but until this exact moment, I’d been fast asleep. Someone else was at the wheel.
I have sexsomnia, a sleep abnormality that causes me to initiate sex when I’m asleep. Think of sleepwalking, but instead of walking I, well, you know. Those of us who’ve got what the DSM-5 calls non-REM sleep-arousal disorder, which research has found to be as much as three times as prevalent in men as in women, are prone to fondling a partner, performing oral sex, and even engaging in full-on penetrative sex and reaching orgasm, all while completely asleep. For me, as I understand is common, it flares up when I’m stressed, sleep-deprived, going to bed drunk, and particularly some combination of all three. I’ve only recently learned that there’s a name for this disorder. For years, I’ve just thought of it as something—or someone—that activates inside me at night.
I think he and I have always been together. I can recall nights in my childhood home, post-adolescence, waking up in a fog where everything felt far-off except for the raw and very, very dire need for release. But it wasn’t until I got out of college that I really became acquainted with him. I was in my first long-term relationship in which my partner and I shared a bed more than a few times a week. After two or three months of dating, he started visiting me. I’d arrive to consciousness with my face buried between her thighs, or sometimes even minutes after penetration. It felt a little bit like wearing a mask—my perception is shrouded and there’s only a sliver of consciousness peeking through.
Weirder yet was how my sexsomnia played out in this relationship. My partner's reaction to it was unexpected—for her, these visitations were a welcome surprise. I was different; he was different. She liked me but also him. She insinuated that he had an intensity in bed that I lacked in my waking hours. He was commanding; I was accommodating. I tried to figure out what she liked; he took it without asking. I began to wonder, with such passion bursting out of me at night, who was it behind the mask: me or him?
It wasn’t long before his presence started to become less of a surprise, and less welcome, too. He came as often as two, three, even four nights in a row. Sometimes I’d wake up halfway into bringing my partner toward climax, only to stop everything in a haze.
I became familiar with the disembodied feeling of pulling on my boxers in the morning and being told “last night was crazy” while having absolutely no recollection of ever engaging in anything wilder than snoring. I tried to stop eating or especially drinking alcohol before bed. If I found myself in a notably exhausted, sleep-deprived, or inebriated state, I’d tell my partner that I’d have to stay alone in my apartment. I began to fear sleeping next to anyone, most of all the woman I loved but also including a platonic bunkmate on a trip to the mountains with my buddies. Fortunately, my friends never met my horny doppelgänger.
Online forums were no help: “Just stop sleeping in the same bed,” said the comments section. “Or break up!” Yet it wasn’t only this less-than-helpful advice that scared me. Just typing “sexsomnia” in a search engine will bring up “criminal cases” before you finish entering the word. Articles like “My Boyfriend Raped His Ex ‘In His Sleep’ ” and “Accused Rapists Are Claiming They Suffer from ‘Sexsomnia’ ” would leave me in a state of dissociation. Tonight it was knotted bedsheets and drool—what would tomorrow night bring?
Not to mention the troubling reality that I hadn’t exactly given consent, either. It didn’t feel right to blame my partner, though. It was my disorder, after all. Some aspect of me was making this happen. And regardless of who answered, she always tried to ask me if I was awake first. The more unspeakable part of those conversations was, of course, imagining the dreaded night when I might cross the line. The night when she wasn’t game for this Jekyll and Hyde thing. The night that could so irrevocably change both our lives.
We woke one morning to find a smear of blood the width of a dishrag on the bedsheets. With great relief I learned that she was just on her period. Another morning I woke to something scarier: a fresh, red, three-fingered scratch that I found scrawled across my chest while brushing my teeth. Something was happening to us. At least she remembered the night of the period blood. This time, it was like he had entered both of us. And neither one of us recalled a thing.
I know very well how to keep a straight face, how to stay composed. I grew up in a family where my male role models taught me to be a kind person, an accommodating guy, but they also discouraged me from opening up, from being visibly emotional. I prided myself on my ability to maintain composure and pitied the hotheads in high school. Especially their fucking dads on the Little League field; they needed to learn self-control.
But then I began to lose control myself. I spent my waking hours trying to come off as levelheaded; all the while, something—or someone—was growing inside me. I started having panic attacks, these nightly bouts of arousal and intensity, and more and more my days became filled with an indiscernible feeling of unexpressed something.
That’s not to say I was out to hurt anyone. After years of trying to repress these outbursts, long after that first relationship dissolved (for, if you can believe it, reasons unrelated), I was faced with explaining this sleeping giant to new and unwitting partners. And I began to realize through experience that it was me, not the other person in the bed, whom he was trying to break down. He never forced himself on anyone. If ever the person on the receiving end was uninterested, he’d just turn back over, a dumb smile on his face, slipping back into blissful, throbbing slumber. He wasn’t Freddy Krueger. He was Bugs Bunny with a hard-on.
I eventually found another place where he felt welcome. My breakup was tough enough to get me into therapy. And there, flat on my back, in session after session, he began to speak through me. He’d lie there piecing together all the years he’d wished he’d spoken up for himself. Waves of anger, he explained, had raged inside him for decades. It wasn’t just anger, though, and it wasn’t just sex, either. It was joy. He longed for joy. My therapist taught me the phrase “libidinous rage,” or “libidinous energy.” She encouraged me to think of libido as more than simply sexual arousal. It’s a life force. It’s desire, it’s excitement, it’s surprise, it’s love, it’s wants, it’s needs, it’s sex, it’s fucking, it’s screaming—it’s the whole shebang. And apparently, I’ve got a lot of it. So much, in fact, that it’s spilling over into my unconscious life and flicking on switches when they’re supposed to be off.
It was passion, it was yearning, it was sadness, it was joy that both he and I longed for. He longed for so many things. How he yearned to dance at weddings, to scream in the face of failure or rejection, to swoon, to burst into tears at the drop of a hat, to be swept off his feet—to do all those things that he was never allowed to do before, those things that boys and men are never allowed to do. I’m finally meeting my alter ego, that shadowy self. Except he wasn’t a man, really. He was a child. A sensitive little boy who just wanted to feel all the many feelings of being alive. He’s here with me right now. It’s time he saw the light of day.
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