Sunday, May 21, 2006

Sleep Paralysis

When I was going to school at SIAST I would only have a good night sleep once or twice a week. Raina used to ask me why I always looked so tired and I would jokingly answer that my bed was haunted. I don't think there were ghosts in the basement, but I wasn't really joking. Many nights I would just stay up too late, but other nights I would spend half the night awake - too scared to fall asleep.

I am not the sort who gets irrationally scared, but these nights I truly would be. What would happen is I would have these nightmares... or something. I say 'or something' because these were no ordinary nightmares. I was always completely aware of my surroundings and I was completely aware of my body, and my eyes were open. Those sorts of things don't usually happen in a dream. In fact I was as aware of my surroundings as any person would be after waking up in the middle of the night in her bed, so by that account I was awake, but where it gets mixed up with the dream world is that I could never move - not even a finger or a toe or my tongue. The most I could do is move my eyes around and blink.

Well being paralyzed sounds scary, but I never had a feeling it was permanent or anything. If I ever did wonder why I couldn't move, I am sure the phrase 'paralyzed with fear' may have come to mind. I don't actually remember concern over being unable to move though because my mind was always 100% occupied with sympton number 2 of my not-nightmares. There was always something I could hear but not see such as whispering voices, footsteps or breathing. What makes it worse is that I always felt these sounds were coming from something inhuman.

The earliest memory of a nightmare like this is from when I was probably 13 or so. I was sleeping in bed when a sound wakes me. When I first open my eyes it is nearly completely dark with a thin beam of moonlight shining though a crack in the curtains. For an instant I think I see something. It was as if a man was standing over me and had just backed into the shadows of the corner of my room, and I had just caught a glimpse of the moonlight across the contours of a retreating, strangely shaped face just before it was completely obscured by darkness. I laid in bed unable to move, but at the time I thought it was my choice - that I am purposely not moving so the man in the corner of my room doesn't know I am awake. As I lay there I can hear breathing coming from the corner and for whatever reason I begin to think it is not a man at all, that it is something a lot scarier and I decide I have to bolt. For what seems an endless amount of time I struggle to move. The effort it takes feels like I am struggling to lift ten times my body weight - but all I am trying to do is reach for my lamp. Finally something gives and without warning I jump to life. I can move. I turn on the light to see an empty room. The belief that something was ever in the corner is gone - but I still remember that feeling of terror. The nightmare is over but the fright doesn't end for hours because I am rethinking it over and over.

For years similar events would occur. I spent about two years sleeping on a couch, and countless times I would be sleeping, turned away from the room so that when I was woken up by a strange sound I'd find my nose buried into the cushions. Behind me I would hear voices as if three or four people were speaking a language I didn't understand. Other times I would hear footsteps and the sound of opening drawers, things being pushed around. Again, each time I would not be able to move and as soon as I managed to break that paralysis I no longer believed anything was there, but my heart would be pounding and my imagination running wild. Then one day I was watching a show that was debunking claims of alien abductions and they were explaining the phenomenon of sleep paralysis. The explanation of sleep paralysis was exactly what I had been experiencing - waking up unable to move accompanied by foreboding feeling hallucinations. The theory made total sense. If you've ever heard eye witness accounts of alien abductions you may recall that they are always paralyzed, and they believe aliens are in their room doing stuff to them, this is the same as with me (except that I no longer believed it to be happening once I fully returned to consciousness).

Once I heard about sleep paralysis something changed. I had a few more episodes, but when I'd wake up paralyzed with something scary going on I would just assure myself it was sleep paralysis and I'd easily fall asleep again. Eventually I stopped having them altogether and it has been years since it happened... until a couple nights ago.

I didn't even recognize it as sleep paralysis because this was the first time I had a visual hallucination to go with it. I was sleeping out on my balcony and at some point a mosquito bit my cheek, so I remember brushing it off me and pulling the blankets up over my head. I was still covered up like that when I had my S.P. and that is why I didn't recognize it as one because I couldn't see where I was. It seemed like I was laying down looking into a field of blackness. The hallucination, believe it or not, was of a fat adult cupid with teeth like a shark. It was flying above me and had reached over and was holding my mouth shut. As usual I was terrified and I was trying to yell out but the cupid was holding my mouth shut so I was only able to make garbled panicky sounds. I don't know how long I was doing this in my dream but it seemed like forever. When I was finally able to wake up I realized that I wasn't just making those sounds in my dream - I was also making those sounds in reality. I clammed up immediately of course and then from a neighbouring balcony I heard a woman say "Holy shit... that was heavy."

I have no idea why I get these. A possible cause is irregular sleep patterns - which is totally me. If I knew the cause I'd certainly try to do it on purpose because it is honestly the scariest thing imaginable, but like everything once you know a little bit about it you find yourself less scared and more curious. For now though I can only investigate this through reading. In case you are also curious, I copied down some links. I find them interesting because in every case it seems to be that the dreamer is convinced something supernatural is going on. It makes me wonder how many legends of demons and angels, monsters and aliens began during nights similar to so many I've had in my life.

Science News
Sleep Paralysis Information Service
The Skeptic's Dictionary
University of Waterloo


Anonymous said...

Wait until you have had a very good day and then sleep comfortably with the lights on (or anything that would normally keep you awake). The light will keep you from falling into a deep sleep and that will keep you in REM sleep longer. During that time, you will experience the more pleasant aspects of the sleep paralysis and after you practice a bit, you can sometimes even select the theme of your dream.

Ariia said...

Just giving you a link that one of my Psych profs used as an in class tutorial tool when we studied sleep disorders. I hope it helps. Also that whole alien abduction thing, I read a study by a psychologist in the US who researched the people with Alien abduction stories and she came to the conclusion that the people who "claimed" to have been abducted, had sleep paralyses and it was all just halucinations. A short version of it was published in a Macleans mag a few (possibly many) months ago.

Sarah J M said...

Yes that is what the show was about. It was debunking those stories by offering sleep paralysis as an explanation.

Anonymous said...

I had the same thing until I moved out of my mom's house. To this day, I an scared to sleep there alone. I have no rouble anywhere else in the world, just there.
I can camp alone, live alone and even sleep in a subway station in southern Italy, just not at mom's.
I have seen all sorts of wierd wtuff there (and not drug induced, I am not that kind of person) that has happened. I am convinced that the darned place is haunted.

Ariia said...


I guess it would have helped if I had remembered to post the link LOL!