From the age of 17 to 25 I used to suffer from sleep paralysis often. Luckily, it’s very rare for me now and I don’t really know why I experienced it so often then or why so infrequently now. As a writer, I seek to understand perspectives I cannot personally experience, and I realised that maybe this is something I can share first-hand for the curious.
What is Sleep Paralysis?
Sleep paralysis is when you cannot move or speak as you are waking up or falling asleep. The NHS says this is harmless but “it can be scary” and “most people will only get it once or twice in their life.” I would like to say: it is terrifying, and I had it so often that I made my brother promise to shake me vigorously every morning in case I couldn’t move. This occurred after he came in to say good morning one time and, despite desperately trying to scream for help, I could barely twitch my lips. So he left, thinking I was deep asleep.
What happens during sleep paralysis?
Summed up nicely by the NHS, “During sleep paralysis you may feel:
- awake but cannot move, speak or open your eyes
- like someone is in your room
- like something is pushing you down
These feelings can last up to several minutes.”
I’ve been very lucky never to experience any hallucinations of being pushed down, being watched, or being visited by a demonic presence. I have an intense fear of being paralysed, full stop; of being in a coma but retaining consciousness that no one can interact with. I think this fear has been so palpable for me that by merely being paralysed I am at the height of terror. No need for extra manifestations.
What does it feel like?
Sometimes I can sense when it’s starting to happen. I usually experience it when I’m waking up, which means there’s nothing I can do but try to ride through it. When I’m falling asleep, however, I can sometimes escape.
I wake up and still feel exhausted, or think, maybe a lie-in would be nice. Just a few more dreams. Then lead sweeps down my limbs. My face goes slack, I feel my body sinking and locking and I try to shake myself. It happens lightning-quick, this loss of control. I cannot move. I cannot open my eyes. I cannot even screw my face up to show that I’m distressed.
I hear my partner in the hallway, so I try to call for help. My lips won’t part. I am breathing but I can’t force air into a shout. My tongue won’t shape words. My awareness of what is and is not real is slipping but I know for sure that I’m paralysed. I try harder to cry and a slither of air escapes the crack between my lips. Move! I tell myself. Just move! MOVE!
HELP! I’m screaming, SHAKE ME! But I can’t speak. I’m not truly lethargic yet. Balanced on some fine line between my body desperately trying to throw me into REM sleep and my mind freaking out about being paralysed. Gathering my energy is like moving through tar, it’s like trying to roll a boulder without the use of your limbs. Because nothing. Will. Move.
In a rush, a sharp gasp, a lurch, my eyes spring open and I can move. I collapse in relief and fatigue. And the sweeping lead feeling rushes back. Claiming me the second I relax, and I am forced to get out of bed, no matter how exhausted, or it will happen all over again.
I used to take a lot of naps during university, which is probably one of the reasons I suffered from sleep paralysis a lot. Disruptive sleep patterns ain’t good for ya, kids. Waking up from those naps usually induced sleep paralysis, and this transition (waking) is when I almost never escape.
After panicking in the same way as falling asleep for a period of time (I’ve no idea how to accurately gauge the time but it feels long), I eventually am so tired from panicking that I fall into a proper sleep again, then wake up later. Normally.
That Time Siri Didn’t Help
One of my most memorable episodes was waking up from a nap and hearing my flatmates (my cousin and her husband) in the next room. I could hear parts of their conversation, they were so close! But, you guessed it, I couldn’t scream for help.
I felt a surge of hope when I realised my iPhone was still in my hand. And I was holding it upside down, the home button underneath my fourth finger. I can ask Siri to call them! I think. I focus all my might on twitching my finger. It’s like trying to lift a barbell for the first time on the heaviest weight setting. I try and I try and I try and I try.
Ding-ding! I’ve done it! Siri is listening, waiting for me to instruct her.
And I cannot speak. For a second, I almost find it funny. I focused so hard on moving one joint in my finger that I forgot I still wouldn’t be able to speak. I give it my best. A puff of air. And the phone vibrates. Siri is no longer listening.
I had read somewhere that the best thing to do is to relax. To tell yourself everything is fine. To disbelieve what is happening. Nothing is harder than disbelieving something physically happening to you. Exhausted, my begging no more than a whisper of wind, I attempt to heed that advice. Be calm. It’s okay.
Eventually, I fall asleep again.
What causes Sleep Paralysis?
Going back to the NHS, apparently, the following can cause SP:
- disrupted sleeping patterns – for example, because of shift work or jet lag
- narcolepsy – a long-term condition that causes a person to suddenly fall asleep
- post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
- general anxiety disorder
- panic disorder
- a family history of sleep paralysis
Well, now you know
All of my experiences are very similar to the episode described above. Internally screaming for help and no one noticing, even when they enter the room and look at me. My partner and I have a strict agreement that neither of us can leave for work without waking the other up to say goodbye. Partly because we’re saps, but also because there might be a chance I’m screaming for help.
Sleep Paralysis in media
Despite my trauma with sleep paralysis, I’m fascinated by dreams and sleeping brain activity. It’s one reason I was inspired to write my novel, A Head Full of Skye, about a woman who rescues coma patients by entering their dreams. Why does our brain manifest our fears, secrets, and feelings in abstract ways? Why are we not more educated about the benefits of sleep? Why are we not still fascinated by dream interpreters? But why, why, why have creatures been designed to sleep away half their life as a necessary function? Maybe that last question will always be too big to answer.
Others have tried to use sleep paralysis to tell scary stories. Others have created things to share the experience. Here are two suggestions for you.
Dead Awake (2016). I have never seen this film, but if you enjoy horror and are still curious for a more vivid trip down sleep paralysis lane, then this looks great. Great, as in, I will never watch this because the trailer evokes a gut-wrenching Nope inside me.
(Don’t) Open Your Eyes is an indie video game designed to give the experience of sleep paralysis. As explained earlier, I don’t see monsters or hallucinate, so I can’t relate to this other than the paralysis. I watched a YouTuber play the opening 20 minutes and…it is certainly well made. If you want to play it for yourself, you can download it from the creator’s website.