I know it's going to happen before I even nestle into my bed for a nap in the afternoon.
I'm not sure exactly what part of my brain is trying to warn me, but I just know. I’ve been living in the middle of a perfect storm for days—so sick I can’t stay asleep, so tired I can’t see straight, the holiday stress is still lingering. But still, I need to give my body a break.
I don’t know how long it takes. Maybe I’m asleep for fifteen minutes, maybe two hours, but I wake up and I’m frozen. Stuck. I instantly start to feel my chest tighten as panic sets in. I try to tell myself not to freak out, that it’s only in my head.
But it doesn’t matter.
After a few seconds of trying to ground myself and end the confusion between body and mind, it starts. Something brushes over my foot where I’ve left my skin exposed to help combat the fever I’ve been harboring for a week. There’s something—maybe someone—at the foot of my bed.
Whatever it is drags a finger (Or a talon? Hard to say. It feels sharper, somehow), over my skin and I try to cringe away, to crawl to the top of my bed and escape, to burrow under the blanket where it can’t get me. But nothing responds. It’s like my entire body has shut down but my thoughts are on fire, ricocheting against my skull in a desperate attempt to get out and shake my body into action.
The scratching only gets worse. This isn’t happening. It’s not real. I’m okay, I’m fine. It will be over soon.
When its entire hand wraps around my ankle and starts pulling its way up my body, I can’t take it anymore. I start screaming so hard that I can feel the blood rushing around my eardrums, my vision blurs from the intensity, and still, nothing.
No sound comes out. Not even a whimper.
But I don’t stop. I can’t stop. I scream and I thrash and I squeeze my eyes, wiggle my ears, do anything I can to stress my body into waking up—my limbs are lifeless. My attacker, whom I’ll never see, climbs over my body. I feel muscle grind against bone under the weight of its joints on mine, and that hand grips my shoulder, pulling upward, but my body doesn’t follow the trajectory it sets. I just remain, motionless, encased inside a vessel that doesn’t care we’re dying.
As suddenly as it started, it’s over. My eyes are open, and I’m lying exactly as I was when I went to sleep. There’s nothing in the room but me, my chest heaving just like in a movie scene when the character wakes from a nightmare.
I know what you’re thinking. Call a priest, call your mom, call someone—you’ve got some things to work through, lady. I know because I spent years thinking the same thing. Yes. Years. The first time I was ripped out of sleep to find a shadowy, black figure just hanging out in the corner of my room, I was eighteen and had just moved out of my family home, balancing the stress of, well, being eighteen and on my own. I had an apartment, a roommate, two jobs, twelve credit hours, and the occasional ghoul in my bedroom to keep up with.
Sometimes we’d make contact, sometimes there was no actual presence I could see, only feel, sometimes it was a loud, harsh sound that felt like someone was trying to bust through the cinderblock wall my bed rested against. I’d go through weeks of silence and almost forget about the whole “I might be possessed” thing before it would start again. One weird afternoon, two nights in a row, a week straight of nothing, three times in one night, I could never predict when or what would happen.
It took years of regular visits from Satan and his pals before I finally got brave enough to ask Dr. Google if I was, at the ripe old age of twenty-two, losing my grip on reality or if I simply needed to get in touch with the local exorcism expert and put a bulk sage order in at Trader Joe’s.
Turns out, if I was losing my mind (Jury’s still out.), it wasn’t related to the late-night terror I was experiencing. At least not directly. What I was going through was actually a known experience that has been studied for centuries—sleep paralysis.
And if you’re like me, I’ve got great news. We’re in good company.
In a paper by Brian A. Sharpless and Jaques P. Barber, Lifetime Prevalence of Sleep Paralysis, a 36,000 person sample size helped them cut through over 30 sleep studies to determine that roughly 8% of the population experiences sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime. They also found that there’s a higher chance that you experience it based on a few risk factors—panic disorders, anxiety, depression, and anything that leads to interrupted sleep can contribute to the chance that you’ll be joining the club.
To boil it down to the simplest terms—sleep paralysis happens when your brain forgets to power down fully but your body gets the memo, so you feel as though you’re awake but you can’t physically interact with your surroundings. It's typically brief but can feel endless. To cope with the strange situation, your brain may hallucinate (IE: conjure hell’s rejects directly into your bed) or even allow you to reach a euphoric-like state of astral projection. It’s a whole thing, we’ll get into it, don’t worry.
So if almost 10% of us go through it, and we’ve been dealing with this for as long as we’ve been sleeping, what’s the deal? What triggers an event? What can you do to prevent these episodes, if that’s a possibility? How much sage does it involve?
This week we’re diving into everything there is to know about sleep paralysis, as well as revealing my own deepest insecurities to the entirety of the internet. Next, we’ll take a look at what exactly happens when you have one of these “waking nightmares” and what we’ve learned by studying the phenomenon.
Until then, try sleeping on your side. Studies show that the demons like to claw their way into your sleep more often when you’re on your back. See? We’re learning things and having fun already.
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