I woke in the middle of the night. I couldn’t say why. Maybe my cat, sprawled cross the foot of the bed and taking up more room than an eight-pound creature should be able to, stifled my movement. Maybe it was just the end of a sleep cycle. I felt calm, relaxed. Nothing had jolted me out of sleep.
I fluffed my pillow and stretched my legs, ready to doze off again. My limbs grew heavy. My breath slowed. The shadows in the room blurred as my eyes slid out of focus, nearly closing.
Whispering slid through the air, sinister and unintelligible. As the wordless sounds hissed continuously, moving closer to my ear, I sensed a looming presence leaning up toward me from the foot of the bed. I had a strange perception that the voice wanted to trick me into thinking it belonged to my husband, to wake me into a trap. I lay helplessly frozen with my head half-turned, eyes still open, though, and I could see him. He lay quiet and peacefully asleep. He was not speaking, not trying to get my attention. It was something else.
I could not see the shadow creature whispering to me. I could not understand the words it spoke.
It felt like the most difficult thing in the world to turn my head. At first, nothing happened at all. I had turned to stone. Maybe I’d never move again.
Then my neck twitched, a fraction.
The whispering ceased at once. The menacing presence dissolved.
I raised my head. The room was just as quiet and peaceful as it had been moments before. My cat hadn’t moved, and on the rug, my dog snored.
It was just sleep paralysis.
I wouldn’t say I’ve been plagued by sleep paralysis, but it has happened to me a few times. This was the first episode in years, maybe even a decade. I can’t really remember. I used to get it more in my teens, and usually then only with the sense of an ominous presence and being unable to move. Sometimes it felt like something was poking my back. This was the first time I’ve had an auditory hallucination. Thankfully, I’ve never had a visual one because that sounds legitimately terrifying.
Satisfied that it had only been a surprise visit from sleep paralysis, I settled back to go to sleep.
It happened again, exactly the same way. This time, I knew at once what was happening. I managed to move my hand. My fingers shook as if I was trying to lift something too heavy, as if they would break under its weight.
And then nothing.
I was a bit more grumpy when I went back to sleep again. The next day, I mentioned the episode to my husband, and was kind of shocked to learn that he has never experienced sleep paralysis, that lucky jerk. (Just kidding. He’s not a jerk. I’m just jealous).
It made me curious, though. I assumed sleep paralysis happened to everyone. I did a little research (of course) and it turns out that anywhere from 5% to 40% of people have experienced it. Clearly, there aren’t any solid numbers out there, but I guess it isn’t quite as common as I thought. Maybe some people just don’t remember it happening, or it hasn’t happened to them yet!
When you sleep, your body enters a state of ‘atonia’, where your brain causes your muscles to relax. This helps prevent moving around during REM sleep. Without atonia, your dream of running might translate to your legs actually flailing across the bed, the way dog’s sometimes do when they sleep.
Sleep paralysis occurs when your body is in a state of atonia while you are awake. It usually happens when you are falling asleep (postdormital sleep paralysis) or waking up (hypnopompic sleep paralysis). It happens when your brain glitches a little, putting your body into a state of atonia even though you aren’t yet asleep, or awake, as the case may be. My last episode was postdormital, but I think I have usually experienced hypnopompic in the past.
Sleep paralysis is a recognised experience through history, as well. Henry Fuseli’s painting “The Nightmare” is thought to depict sleep paralysis. The phenomenon is also often attributed to night-time sightings of ghosts, demonic creatures, and even tales of alien abductions.
It isn’t always scary; some people experience gentle or pretty visions or sounds. That sounds nice. I would like to experience that kind of sleep paralysis next, please. If not, let’s pass, okay brain? I’m just glad I didn’t have a visual hallucination. I think that would have ruined the rest of the night.
I came across this picture in my reading. It’s probably because I saw it the day after my episode, but I stared at it for way too long, imagining this horrifying thing was whispering to me. It was not a good idea. Do not recommend.
We need this one to recover now.
Have you ever had sleep paralysis? Was it scary, or pleasant?