True Nightmares

I’m 14 years old when it first happens. I’m laying in bed with my eyes closed, the sound of The Golden Girls lulling me to sleep. I have school tomorrow. It’s about 11. I’m thinking of a midterm, a project, or something.

My television shuts off. Strange, I think, I don’t remember setting the sleep timer. I decide to switch it back on, but something’s not right. I can’t move—at all.

I can’t reach for my remote. I can’t climb out of bed. I can’t wiggle my toes. I can’t move my fingers. I can’t…scream. I’m in a state of incomprehension. Total shock. I’m paralyzed.

My heart starts racing, and an unexplainable pressure collects on my chest, pushing me into the springs of my mattress. I look, but I see nothing.

And all hell breaks loose.

The door to my bedroom slams closed, and an impossibly loud crash comes from upstairs. I hear someone run past my bed, and scratch violently on my bedroom wall. A strange figure suddenly looms over me, and gets too close. He screams in my face. I feel his breath on my cheeks.

I want to scream so bad, I can’t stand it, but I can do nothing but lay and watch.

This is all real to me. I know—I know—I’m not dreaming, and I think this must be how it is when people die a violent death. I’m going to die. I know it.

The pressure on my chest grows until I can’t breathe—and then, Dorothy and Blanche suddenly are fighting over a man. I hear Sophia, and the laughter of a studio audience.

I’m in my bed. My bedroom door is wide open. No intruders.

This was not a nightmare. I was totally conscious while this occurred. I realize that I’ve experienced some sort of hallucination, one I will come to know as sleep paralysis. It’s common, and believe it or not, many of you have experienced or will experience it once or twice in your lifetime.

Here’s the gist: While you sleep at night, your body paralyzes itself. It does so to protect you from acting out your dreams. This happens to everyone, and it’s a great thing—when it works correctly.

Most of the time, we lose consciousness, and then, our bodies paralyze themselves. Rarely, though, the body gets the order wrong. This is when our bodies paralyze before we lose consciousness. Because our brains think we’re asleep, we sometimes enter a premature rapid eye movement (REM) sleep cycle during this event.

In other words, during sleep paralysis, we may begin to dream while we’re conscious, completely aware of our surroundings—and completely unable to move.

So, how’s sleep paralysis different from a nightmare? Beyond that you’re completely conscious during it, sleep paralysis differs from nightmares in another, particularly mysterious way. Sufferers of sleep paralysis all report experiencing remarkably universal themes. It almost always entails an intense pressure on the chest, loud noises, and the feeling of a threatening presence in the room. Why? If you find out, let me know.

So, what causes sleep paralysis? It can be a symptom of narcolepsy, although that’s not always the case. I, for one, am not narcoleptic. Sleep paralysis also is linked to irregular sleep habits, lack of sleep, and stress.

The folklore also abounds mightily, as you might imagine. Some believe sleep paralysis is a demonic visitation.

I live with sleep paralysis. I experience it four to five times a week. Other than just being scary as hell, it poses no harmful effect (and only lasts about a minute or two). I’m in my 10th year dealing with it, and its frequency and intensity change with the weather. Winters are the hardest (Minneapolis, baby!), while some summers go by without a single episode.

Don’t feel sorry for me. Experiencing sleep paralysis so frequently means I’ve got a pretty good grasp on how to deal with it, and it’s a cakewalk compared to what it was.

I can’t say I love sleep paralysis, but something’s weirdly enthralling about it, as if you’ve superimposed a roller coaster onto your world. I suppose people find haunted houses thrilling in the same fashion.

I sometimes wonder why I experience sleep paralysis so much. I have a naturally addictive personality—maybe I got hooked on the wrong disorder.

Or, even better, maybe my body’s telling me I’ve been single long enough, and I need a real, regular visitor in my bed.

Sweet dreams, my friends. See you tomorrow.

Information on sleep paralysis is difficult to come by. WebMD is a pretty good online resource.

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