I have a subject I’d like to talk about. But I don’t want to talk about it. How’s that for you?
I want to talk about it because I think it can be informative to people who don’t know about it. But I don’t want to talk about it because I’ve spent time trying to explain this to multiple people in my life and I always seem to have the same impression: You really can’t understand it unless you’ve experienced it. Oh well. Here goes anyway.
I suffer from recurrent isolated sleep paralysis. Or, more generally, sleep paralysis. I’ve been suffering from it for over 15 years. It sucks and I don’t like it, but I’ve learned to live with it.
What is it? You can read about it here. Or here. But I’ll try and explain what I’ve read over the years.
Well, first off – did you know that your muscles go in atonia when you are in REM sleep? Not just me. You. And you. Everyone. Muscle atonia is basically paralysis, and the body does this so that we don’t act out all the motions of our dreams, which occur in REM sleep. I’ve been trying to explain my sleep paralysis to my Sweetie for a couple of years and just recently found out – he thought I was the only one who was paralyzed in my sleep. “No”, I told him. “Your body does it too.” Everyone’s does. Except, I suppose those who sleepwalk (although I’m not sure sleepwalking occurs during REM). My Sweetie was quite surprised to hear that his muscles also paralyze when he dreams. Happens to the best of us.
So for most people, most of the time, you either transition into non-REM sleep, or you wake up – boom! and you can move. That’s what we all experience right? But, during sleep paralysis, the sleeper awakens (heh heh, the sleeper awakens – good line) and becomes conscious but CANNOT move. You can be aware of your surroundings, aware that you are waking up, but you cannot move a muscle. Literally. Sounds kind of scary, huh?
But wait, that’s not all. For reasons I don’t really get from all the reading I’ve done, sleep paralysis is usually accompanied by some sort of hypnagogic hallucinations. Sounds fun, right?
So, here is the deal. You wake up. You can’t move. BUT, not only can you not move, you sense a malevolent presence somewhere near you. This thing, whatever it is, is going to kill you. Is coming for you. And you can’t move. At all.
For me, this is the most frightening experience I’ve had. Because I am trying so hard to move. But I can’t. So I try and call out – either for help or, more importantly, just to let this *thing* know that I am awake. I may look like easy sleeping prey, but I am NOT. I am awake, and about to spring into kung-fu, ass-kicking action, just you wait, any second now. I’ve learned through the years that my attempts at a verbal warning are actually very feeble kitten-like mewing noises. Great. So much for threatening a non-existent menace in my room.
But here is the thing. This is scary for me. This is *always* scary for me. So scary, I concentrate with all my might to wrench myself out of sleep and move. It feels like I am covered with mega-magnets, and I am wrenching myself away from the mother of all opposite-poled magnets. And if I do manage to sit up, my body feels like it is still in REM sleep, my eyelids are heavier than bricks, and I could easily fall right back asleep. I could. If not for the fact that I am completely SCARED. So, I can’t let myself fall back asleep because 1) I’m just too scared to, and 2) experience tells me I’ll have another sleep paralysis episode after I do. So, I try and push myself out of bed, hoping that if I have to stand up I will. And I do. And I shuffle to another room of wherever I am. And I find a couch or something. And I try and sleep again.
Always the same. Even after I learned what sleep paralysis is. Before I ever heard about it, there was some small part of me that wondered if Death personified was really stepping into my room at night. I could not figure it out. I knew nothing was ever there. How could I be that scared every time it happened? I never actually saw anything, so it was not a real visual hallucination for me. Just a presence. And why was it I always felt like I could not move? (I didn’t know about REM muscle atonia)
Then, I talked to someone who, around 1998, was the first person who ever seemed to know what I was talking about. He said he had heard something like that before. I wanted to hug him. Well, I did – he was my boyfriend at the time. Then, my buddy (T) had the bright idea of “Why don’t you look it up on the Web?” Which never occurred to me. So I did. And I read another woman’s account of her own sleep paralysis episode. And I wanted to cry. And hug her. And laugh. Holy crap! There were people out in the world who *understood* what it felt like. And there was research. And information. And it helped so much to learn a little about it.
Not that it helped much. Because I still can’t seem to just let myself sleep through a sleep paralysis episode. I can’t. I’ve tried. Now that I know what it is, I know there is no unnatural presence beside me, but I still can’t sleep through it. My brain has morphed the danger into something more practical. Now, my fear is this: I’m paralyzed. But I’m sure I’ve left a door open somewhere. And someone is breaking in. And they are going to kill me. Just a stupid, mean person who intends to kill me for no good reason. And I’m helpless to stop it. And for the life of me, I cannot reason these fears away. I will literally lie there, in a panic, and think to myself “Stone Girl. This is sleep paralysis. No one is there. Stone Girl – in 16 years of this YOU HAVE NEVER DIED. No one has ever killed you. It’s pretty likely that no one is going to kill you right now. Go back to sleep.”
But I can’t. I still mew, and fight the mother magnet, and wrench myself awake. Stupid. But true. And I would love to be able to sleep through it. I’ve read reports where some people can enter a lucid dreaming state if they stay asleep. How cool would that be!? I’d love to do that. Research also claims that people who sleep through it experience something like an out-of-body experience. I know it sounds strange, but it’s a common feeling/experience for some people. But no, I gotta wake up. I’m a sissy. I’ve read some helpful suggestions. Some people say – try wriggling your fingers and toes first – as small motions. Which, I gotta say, is better that trying to wrench my whole body up in one motion. So that does help. Some people say – to try and sleep through it, focus on your belly button. ??? I don’t know about that. I can’t seem to focus well enough on anything to stay asleep. Too bad.
Why do I have this? I don’t know. I don’t suffer from narcolepsy (although it would’ve been fun to blame my old meeting snoozes on narcolepsy). I don’t suffer from a panic disorder. I get sleep paralysis under the entire gamut of life conditions – stressed, not stressed, sleeping well, insomnia-induced zombiness, exercising, not exercising. It’s been happening for about 16 years. There is no rhyme or reason for me. It just happens. It used to only happen to me when I napped – hence I learned to hate napping. Now it happens when either napping or sleeping at night.
It happened about a week ago while Sweetie and I were at his mom’s house. We were in single beds in her guest room. And I had an episode early in the morning. And I think I started mewing. Because I saw Sweetie’s hand reach over to my bed and try and touch my shoulder. But he didn’t wake me (which I’ve asked him to do if he sees me having an episode). I still don’t think he completely understands it. Because he told me the next day that he heard my crying out in my sleep. And I said “I know. And you reached over to me.” And he was surprised and said “You saw me?” Well, yes. How many times can I explain it? I am aware of what is going on around me. I just can’t freakin’ move! It’s an actual physical reality. It’s hard to get across exactly what that is like if you’ve never experienced it.
So there you go. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Research says many people will have at least one episode of sleep paralysis during their lifetimes. So, if you’ve experienced something like this, it has a name. Actually, it has many names. Ever heard of the myth of the succubus? The old hag who sits on people’s chests and sucks the air from them? Ever met someone who honestly believes he or she has been abducted by aliens in the middle of the night? Heard other sleep creature myths? Chances are, these people have suffered from sleep paralysis and didn’t know it. Or so the researchers say. Interesting huh?
For those of you wondering, why don’t you do something about it? That’s a complex question. I don’t hate it enough to try any sort of drugs that may or may not work. And frankly, I don’t want to. Besides sleep paralysis, I also sometimes have very vivid dreams. I have scary dreams. And beautiful dreams. I’ve composed music in my dreams (even managed to save one tune once when I kept a tape recorder by my bed at night). I’ve been sharing my dreams with friends for years. I can still remember exact details of some of them. How would affecting sleep paralysis affect dreaming? I’m not sure. But I don’t think I hate it enough to mess with the natural sleep cycles and dream possibilities of my self. Even if it does seem unnatural sometimes. I keep hoping I’ll just outgrow it someday.
Photo Credit: http://www.castleofspirits.com/sleepparalysis.html
Read Full Post »