On Sleep Paralysis
Chronic nightmares, within chronic nightmares.
You’ve just woken, and you can’t move. You take in the surroundings peripherally. It is, in fact, your room. You can still shift your eyes around, thank goodness. There’s your plant, and your mirror, and it’s dark, your partner is sleeping next to you under the covers. You’re probably dying, or perhaps, by some miraculous catastrophe, you broke your spine in your sleep, and you have a new life to reckon with. You’re picking out your impending wheelchair when an icy blue light flickers in the corner.
And there he is. He’s cloaked, and a glowing kind of red, and he’s looking directly at you. He’s glad you’re afraid. Delighted, actually. Fortunately, you’re well-equipped to deal with this type of intruder. You’ve had practice.
You walked into this by choice. Or rather, you laid perfectly still for hours on end to self-induce it.
You first heard of sleep paralysis as a gateway to astral projection. The idea being you lie still for an hour or so (still, as in do not move at all, not an iota, not even your eyeballs or your pinkie toenail) until your body gradually falls asleep. While this happens, you do everything in your power to stay conscious – awake. The resulting effect is one of astral awareness; your body isn’t a hindrance because it’s technically asleep, but your unbridled mind can do whatever, or go wherever it wants.
You practised for several hours a day and drifted in and out of various floaty, trippy, buzzy states of consciousness. You opened a door to another plane of awareness, man. You were lucid dreaming like a champ. It was magical, exciting, whimsical. At first.
Had you googled it beforehand, even lazily, you might have seen this:
“Sleep paralysis is a state, during waking up or falling asleep, in which a person is aware but unable to move or speak. During an episode, one may hallucinate (hear, feel, or see things that are not there), which often results in fear.”
That was five years ago, and now you experience sleep paralysis an average of ~2-3 nights per week. You’ve opened the floodgateway, so to speak. Now, you’re practically a professional, and you’re leading a nocturnal double life. Each evening holds the potential for new communion with the not-so-divine.
It’s eerie, how not-sleeping you always feel. You’re typically certain you’ve opened your eyes, or at least certain you felt the sensation of doing so, and the details of your surroundings are always so precise that you can even make out the strands of hair that fell over your eyelids as you slept.
It starts with a gentle hum, a lone note droning somewhere above your head. The feeling you’re falling, or floating, or moving at great speed through a tunnel that spits you out before an assembled council of spectres at the foot of your bed. Even now, all these years later, you have to wonder: how many layers are available in this state?
The demon isn’t moving, which is unsettling. His features are hard to decipher under the shadow of his cloak. You try to calm yourself down. You know what’s going on, it’s happened hundreds of times. No actual demon in your room to speak of. Not really.
Still, as a glassy chill creeps towards the tips of your toes, you can’t help but feel that something in his demeanor separates him from the others. He’s smarter. Conscious. And that’s when he smiles, and that smile turns into a light chuckle, and the light chuckle turns into laughter, gleeful laughter, as he begins to gnash his grey teeth at you like an overexcited animal.
You have a few options during these episodes.
1. You can wait it out, and let the experience run its course. In the past, this has been hard for you, especially when you feel things breathing down your neck, or when the whispering trickles in. It’s musical, and haunting, and innately venomous, even with its sweetness. You can never make out what they’re saying, but you know deep in your bones that they don’t mean you well. You always try to move, but of course, you never can. It gets worse when you feel them sitting on the bed, or, jumping on it, or watching you, or taunting you...
2. Which makes you hyperventilate. This is your favorite option, because the ferocity of your breathing often wakes you-wakes you.
3. You can try to make strangled noises so that your partner wakes you, too. Of course, this doesn’t always work. Sometimes you’re trying to call for them with everything you have, and they still don’t wake, so neither do you, and you’re back to option one or two.
You’ve heard it said that confronting the fear is the only true way out. You must label it, face it, disempower it. But that’s hard to do with an incubus in your bedroom.
As the robed demon bares his teeth, you try option two and three. You’re inhaling and exhaling like you’re Wim gosh damn Hof, you’re trying your best to scream your partner’s name, but you’re not waking. He really isn’t like the others.
You once heard an obscure Buddhist shaman mention that encountering entities like this, in any state, was a sort of toll that you were paying to the gate-keepers of consciousness. Is this a test? Are you being tested?
See, your sleep paralysis monsters are smart, and they’re getting smarter. You’re immersed in a symbiotic parasitic relationship with each and every one of them. You conquer an experience, and they raise the stakes. It’s been increasing steadily since the beginning. You’re playing blitz chess with each other, requesting rematches over and over again, and each of your ratings are improving in real-time. The more aware you get of them, the more aware they get of you.
She’s standing at the foot of your bed, her head cocked to the side. Her eyes are bigger than they should be, and she has no pupils. Her skin is pallid and practically flaking off. She doesn’t want anything from you, per se, but she feeds off of your dread. You tell her, subliminally, that she can’t harm you. She nods, and sits down at the edge of your bed. You feel her weight on the mattress. She has a small bag in her left hand, it’s a cosmic sort of bag. She reaches into it, and grabs a hold of the black hole inside, and whispers that it’s death, a punishing death, and she asks if, since she can’t give it to you, if you’d mind if she gave it to your partner instead. You try to scream, to stop her. She crawls onto the bed now and continues to inch towards your partner, reaching further into the bag. Your partner stirs.
You wake-wake with seamless continuity. Your partner shook you, he heard you panting, distressed. He’s worried you were having a nightmare. You look to the empty bed beneath you, grateful, petrified. You think, why don’t I ever get visited by, uh, gnomes? Or Faeries? Or my great-grandma?
There are sneaky, mundane atrocities too. Like, you wake up paralyzed to the sound of a burglar breaking the window. Or to the heat of a fire that’s slowly consuming your room, or to a serial killer who has entered your home through the front door and is heading step by step towards your bedroom.
So you come to understand that you’re a person who just gets sleep paralysis, and you can’t trace how, or why, or what substance gave it to you, or what substance will take it away. You can’t hyperventilate for the rest of your life, can you? Why don’t you just face the fear? Pay the toll and pass through the gate?
So you try for a while to do this. And now the voice becomes someone you know, like your mother, and they’re calling for help, and then their voice transitions into the deep, devilish whisper of a decaying behemoth sitting upon your chest, and you think, ‘fuckin nope, I’m waking out of this.’
So you wake-wake, and it’s over. And you look for your partner in bed next to you, but he’s not there. He’s standing in the corner of the bedroom, with his back facing you. You’ve just woken from sleep paralysis, but you can’t move again, and you try to call his name, but nothing comes out, because your mouth can’t move, and then he starts to glitch, jump around unnaturally, and he’s turning his head towards you, and it’s so horrific that…
Okay. You know what? Why not. Let’s try it. Let’s face the fear. Once you name it, surely it’ll go away. Once you fully reckon with the fact that it’s a hallucination, you’ll be free. Pay the toll, see what’s on the other side. Right? Right.
So you really consider what’s in front of you this time. A cloaked apparition, a pair of black eyes, a mouth clicking its little grey teeth comically. What a joke, who cares if you can’t move, it’s all a dream. You know this, you absolutely know this. You’re playing chess, and you’ve decided to win, finally. So you steady yourself and you think, Oh, okay, what a cliche. Who are you, anyway? The Grim Reaper? Ha-ha.
And that’s when he stops his gnashing, and he looks you in the eyes with a curious sort of intensity, and you find yourself feeling lightheaded, like you’re so terror-stricken that you’ll slip out of your own skin, but you stare back resolutely. He glides towards you with graceful force, and he knows you’re afraid but trying to hide it, and he bends down to your cheek. You feel his ghastly breath tickling your ear canal and the grunting of his unnatural baritone voice preparing to speak. You brace yourself for esoteric terror. But instead; he inhales as though he’s taking in the scent of your neck, and says the one thing you didn’t expect him to say:
‘I too know this is a dream. But I, I am real, and I am using this state to contact you. Once you’ve seen me, once you’ve cast your unconscious eyes on mine, I’m tethered to you forever. I will suck you dry, whether you feel it or not. I will haunt you until the day you die, even if you wake and never see me again.’
You light a candle, you curl up with a book, your partner touches your hair. It’s soothing, and serene. You don’t know who you’ll encounter this evening, in the middle of the night, in the early hours of the morning. You are not sure what their purpose is. You are not sure what yours is, either. You’re compelled by the idea of gate-keepers, but you have no knowledge of what they’re guarding, or why they’re guarding it, or why they have to be so mean about it all. Something-something catching more flies with honey.
You sink into the pillow, your eyelids are heavy, you pull a blanket over your chest. Are you flawed? Are you meant to suffer? Did a cosmic god flip a coin and pick the ingenue who was lying still, asking for an extraordinary adventure to grace their dreaming life? Is there something slimy in you that draws them in? Or is it something bright, and ready, and lovely? Are you, against all odds, the honey?
Your body falls asleep, your mind starts to dim. These aren’t questions you can answer, any more than you can unsee the creatures that occupy your bedroom at night. You suppose you’ll just have to continue to face them, greet them with gritted confidence, or at the very least, inhale deeply until they leave you be or let you through.
Thoughts? Tips? Similar experiences?
This moved me, because I too struggle with almost nightly (or in my case daily, because my circadian rhythm is so fucked that my most frequent sleeping hours are about 12 noon through 5 PM Toronto time) sleep paralysis. I feel very seen by this piece. I love you, and I feel for you, and I wish you well in dealing with this.
Years ago I began stepping in to deal with disturbing dreams. That must make me a control freak, but it works for me.