This Is What It's Like To Have Sleep Paralysis
There are two kinds of sleep paralysis, and over the past seven years I've experienced both of them on the regular.
The first time it happened I was on a midday bus from Dublin to Galway, call it some time in 2010. Back then I commuted cross-country across Ireland several times a week, studying in the west, maintaining a life in Dublin – I know every bump in the motorway that threads the belly of the country. On this particular afternoon, the bus was empty. I kicked off my sneakers, put my knees to my chin, and curled up to sleep. Many of my cross-country voyages that year were upright, tense, too close to a stranger to relax, so days like this were little gifts. I don’t remember falling asleep there in the gentle hum of the journey, but when I came to, I was paralysed.
The deadening sensation of unconsciousness was still in my arms, my legs, the muscles in my face, but my heart beat hard and loud. The red mass on a violent escape mission. My mind was fully awake, maybe the most alive it had ever been. I was convinced that this strange, upright position, almost foetal, was how the paramedics would retrieve my body from the bus. I imagined them carrying me into the ambulance, assumed dead. Dead, obviously dead, unable to tell them I was still there beneath a thick, stupid coat of flesh and bone. I imagined myself buried.
My eyes were open, then. I could kind of move my tongue, heavy and mute in my mouth. I focused extremely hard on wiggling my toes. Uma Thurman, The Bride in Kill Bill, acting as my spirit guide back to the realm of the living. My big toes responded, or it at least felt as though they did. Stretch by stretch, my body woke itself. It broke out of the strange haze of chemical sleep, my heart battering its way out of me with relief, rather than terror.
I asked the internet, and it named this strange thing sleep paralysis, a common physiological phenomenon during which the sleeper’s brain wakes up before their body, or their body goes to sleep before their brain. Shh now, Wikipedia reassured me, you aren’t possessed or terminally ill! Terrific news. It happens to just about everyone once or maybe even twice in a lifetime. A spooky little badge of honour, a "let me tell you about the time..." – no more than this, surely. An achievement unlocked. I reckoned I’d had my one grace with the phenomenon, a single visitation. Done, dusted.
I was absolutely wrong. However, here’s some good news: WebMD, where all self-diagnosis goes to convince itself it has a brain tumour, assures us that sleep paralysis is not generally a sign of a deep underlying problem. It is merely something cruel and strange that crawls out of the night to inflict itself on us. So even if it feels like death, it absolutely isn’t.
Often, sleep paralysis is reported to feel like a paranormal experience. Threads of lore and tales of nightstalking beasts often come directly from historical accounts that exactly mirror the symptoms of sleep paralysis. Most often, sleepers report the distinct sensation of a creature, a hag, or a demon sitting on their chest, peering down at them or suppressing their breath.
Sometimes people experience a presence in their bedroom, the feeling of being watched by a malevolent force: a crone at the end of their bed, a tall man in the corner. A cursory skim through sleep-paralysis-Reddit (because of course there’s a sleep-paralysis-Reddit) reads like a series of short horror stories. Sleepers describe visitations from dead relatives, crones, hags, and of course the strapping young poster boy of contemporary dread, Slenderman. He leans, he lurks, he chills out in people’s wardrobes while their limbs lose sensation and they try to scream for help only to discover that they can’t make a sound. None of my experiences have been this exciting.
The first clinical report of sleep paralysis was given in 1876, by Silas Weir Mitchell. He published a case study focusing on two young male subjects – though there was some allusion to it in a 1842 book entitled The Anatomy of Sleep, or, The Art of Procuring a Sound and Refreshing Slumber at Will in a section about a daytime nap gone awry and resulting in difficult respirations and extreme dread. Mitchell wrote: “The subject awakes to consciousness of his environment but is incapable of moving a muscle; lying to all appearances still asleep. He is really engaged in a struggle for movement, fraught with acute mental distress; could he but manage to stir, the spell would vanish instantly.”
Sleepers have been exhibiting and recording the phenomenon for centuries. The earliest traces of writing about sleep paralysis in fact go all the way back to medieval Persia – the most significant of which was the Hidayat, written by Akhawayni Bokhari in the 10th century. In his time, Akhawayni was known as "the physician for the insane".
He wrote: "The night-mare is an introduction to epilepsy and it is caused by the rising of vapors from the stomach to the brain. The disorder mostly affects people with cold temperament in the brain; cold blood flows in the brain and its vessels. The therapy includes bloodletting from the superficial vein of the arm and from the leg vein."
There are two kinds of sleep paralysis, and I was lucky enough to experience both of them. They have great names, too: hypnagogic and hypnopompic. They sound like two kinds of sleepy Pokémon. Hypnagogic is the one that brings with it largely feelings of malevolence and dread, but no visions. It’s the kind that hits you when you are just falling asleep. Normally, when a person is dozing off, their body and mind relax in sync, so by the time your body has switched off for the day, your brain has too. Sleep paralysis disrupts this relationship: Your brain is still awake, and your body isn’t – so you become aware that you can’t move your body, which gives the distinct sensation of being trapped.
Hypnopompic, however, is the one where things get properly weird. During a REM cycle, which is the time of night where we’re dreaming, our skeletal muscles are paralyzed: This is called REM atonia. It’s a safety brake, and stops us acting out our dreams – sleep walkers and the sleep frozen joined by the abundance and absence of the same set of chemicals. Hypnopompic sleep paralysis occurs when the sleeper’s brain stumbles out of REM before the body does, leaving the body still paralysed but the brain kind of in a dream state – which can incur creepy visions. Or, if we’re a little more fortunate, something called lucid dreaming, during which sleepers feel like we’re in control of the dreams we’re still experiencing.
This happens most often in the morning. I lucid-dream once or twice a week, but thankfully haven’t had any Slendermen mooning around in my wardrobe. It’s generally quite pleasant: I started lucid dreaming during my first year living out of home and thought nothing of it – however, when it evolved into hypnagogic sleep paralysis, my sleep cycles became bookended by deep weird, which does not make for the calmest engagement with the waking world. In 2015, from a sunny week in July right through to December, I had sleep paralysis almost every single night.
I would lie in the bed and feel my body give way, deaden below me as my consciousness swam, my heart still thundering the same get me out as on that bus, someplace between Athlone and the west coast. In a bed in Lisbon, sunkissed and wine-soft, it began and it did not stop – night after night after night. During this period I was rewriting my first novel under revolving and intense deadlines: Everything was work, nothing was sleep.
Funny how we acclimatise to things, how our bodies both rebel and settle within strange routines and circumstances. Without sleep, the world grew slippery around me. Information somehow more difficult to retain. Weight I’d been struggling to lose for years silently left my body, at the specific kind of speed that made my mother worry. Light felt different, time more textured. Irritability and fear were my two primary responses to the world around me. I felt like I was operating on a different system to my friends and peers: I can’t imagine I was a delight to spend time with.
Here is a day: 4, 5, 6am, body frozen and unfrozen, perhaps catch two hours of something like sleep, get up again, get back to the work at hand. Drink coffee. Tremble under false-awakeness, how shallow the caffeine hit. Try not to smoke any cigarettes. Fail. Around evening time, be aware that you might drop things, your arms losing sync with what you want them to do. Lie in bed. Try to trigger relaxation by watching television shows from your childhood. Fail. Feel the seeping freeze move down your arms and legs. Don’t panic. Panicking makes it worse.
I went to the doctor in the autumn when I fell asleep at my desk in the middle of the afternoon – or rather, my body fell asleep and I was locked in. A sneak attack or a seizure: Whatever it was, it was enough to springboard me home to my parents in distress, then, at last, to a GP. He told me to maybe try to get a less stressful job and gave me some herbal sleeping tablets that had a suspicious implication of placebo about them.
I didn’t think asking him for some blood-letting of the superficial veins was going to be appropriate. I am sure he didn't believe me, despite my gaunt face, despite my baggy eyes. Maybe it's because of these signifiers he didn't believe me. He did not recommend therapy, or refer me to a sleep clinic. This is how "overreacting" is the first cousin of "lying". This is how you find yourself without diagnosis but rather, an accusation.
It’s only on reflection I realise that this fell squarely into the stereotype of doctors not believing women's pain. At that point, I was so frightened that I would have taken a prescription for a week’s pastoral bedrest to cure hysteria. I just wanted to get a good night’s sleep. I wanted to feel as though my body belonged to me, without sacrificing the pursuit of my career. How are wanting to succeed and wanting to sleep two diametrically opposed notions? Why was his only suggestion a career change? In my first terrified fantasy that day on the bus, I imagined doctors ignoring the life behind my eyes as they pronounced me gone. When I finally sought help, confessed quietly my lapsing memory, my terror at how long this had gone on – I was pronounced "just a little stressed".
In both stories, the doctor cannot see me, and will not help me.
Autumn passed. The book was completed, a weird monster of a manuscript. I can’t tell you when the sleep started to ease back into my life, but it did, hour by hour longer, until I had safe passage.
Then, in Galway again the spring following, escaping Dublin for a night to haunt that sailor’s knot of a city, I lay in the starched white of a rented bed beside my husband, away from home, happy. Until it crawled up through me, quiet stranger, through the sheets and into my body. Outside, a cluster of students drank Buckfast and sang, legs dangling right where the Corrib splits, swan dappled, into ocean. My chest heavy, my arms not my own. Same again. You spooky old friend, I’ve learned this icy dance. There’s never going to be a last time.
Now when it comes, I have a way of solving it – though, largely, it bodes for a night of wide-awake listening to podcasts while the cat purrs and my husband snores deep. I try not to sleep on my back – I’m told that brings it on – but somehow I find myself waking up on my back, like my body inviting the experience. So used to it that it leaves itself prone.
My hypnagogic experiences are less common now, but some nights I can feel it coming, like that weird thickness the air gets before a thunderstorm. Like a set of lights going off in a building, floor by floor, I can sense it rinsing though me before I’m helpless and can’t move. When I feel the electricity dim, I get up out of bed and I take a small stroll in the dark. Downstairs and up the stairs again, hitting reset on the process of going to sleep. Lie back down, try again. This is uncomfortable, inconvenient, and very boring – but it’s the only semi-sure way to defeat sleep paralysis when it comes on. The only other alternative is allowing it to loop through your system. Waking up enough to scroll your phone for a second won’t reset it. Your body and your brain need to approach sleep from scratch.
If you haven’t had it, sleep paralysis is likely to show up for you at some point, but I can’t tell you for sure. Or who am I to say – maybe there really is a hag sitting on your chest, or a tall pale man dressed in black leaning in your wardrobe. You’ll just have to get up out of bed in the cold dark of the night, wiggle your big toes, and hope for the best. ●
Sarah Maria Griffin is from Dublin, Ireland. Her first novel, Spare & Found Parts, was published by Greenwillow Books in October 2016. Her nonfiction book about emigration and coming of age, Not Lost, was published by New Island Press in 2013. She was U Magazine's 30 Under 30 award recipient for Literature in 2016. She tweets @griffski and has been sleeping much better, lately.