Sleepwalk With Me Into the Dizziness of Freedom

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Sleepwalk with Me is the fictionalized, but true story of stand-up comedian, Mike Birbiglia. (Yes, that guy from This American Life.) In the film, Mike, or “Matt” as he’s called, recounts his initial decision to pursue comedy and the way this takes place alongside a complicated relationship with his girlfriend-turned-finance “Abby.” Mike/Matt has RBD, a sleep disorder where you lack the usual physical paralysis of dreams, and therefore, enact them in real-life…while you’re still asleep. In the film (and also in Mike’s life), something as simple as a dream about a jackal turns into Matt kicking over a laundry basket. The most terrifying dream of the film (and, again, of Mike’s own life) is when he believes a missile is targeted for him and his loved ones and his only escape is jumping out of a window. The problem is that, in reality, it’s a closed window on the second floor of a La Quinta Inn.

The science behind dreaming is theoretically fragmented; explanations stem from psychoanalysis to neurobiology to evolutionary psychology. One thing we do know is that the most commonly experienced emotion while dreaming is anxiety. Even outside of dreams, anxiety is pervasive in Sleepwalk. It’s an emotion that Matt, like many of us, treat by segmenting the parts of life that we think will cause tension if combined – preventing the moments where “what I really think” and “those people” I think it about actually meet.

For example, when Matt begins to realize that things will not work out with Abby, he works hard to segment those thoughts from his actions. Conversations about their needed ‘break’ turn into mutual agreement about how bad an idea that would be. What starts as tearful discussion about their relationship turns into a tearful marriage proposal. Truth, we tell ourselves in these moments, is best experienced psychologically, and then quickly buried out back.

Matt’s growth as a comedian, however, comes through his bleeding together of these worlds. He begins to articulate his burden in front of an audience and his problems with Abby become part of the act. Maybe this is why T.S. Elliot called anxiety the handmaiden of creativity. But for most of the film, Matt stops the task of connecting with his comedic material and expressing emotion in an intimate relationship remains impossible. Like Matt, I think we believe it’s ok to be anxious, so long as it’s just a period of time, an “act,” or some dream state you don’t have control over.

There is still another way to understand anxiety: Soren Kirkegaard called it the dizziness of freedom. But can we handle it? Can Matt? Can we bare those ‘real’ experiences of wonder created when emotions collide with the flesh and blood of those with whom we share reality? That’s a big question for a seemingly simple, documentary-like comedy. And that’s exactly the brilliance of good story, and Mike Birbiglia.

Early in the film, Matt seems to live as if only comfortable when anxiety comes segmented into ‘acts’ and called upon when the timing is right. But in the end, he realizes this is not enough. His worlds must meld. He… we… must confront anxiety, not as a pathology to solve, but as a route towards freedom’s sweet dizziness.