How Lucid Dreaming Helps Me Cope with Chronic Illness

Sometimes relief is found in unexpected places

Kayla Douglas
Sep 14 · 6 min read
Photo by Patricia Prudente on Unsplash

A line of red appears where he’s pressing the knife too hard against her thin brown throat. I only met her yesterday. She’s six years old, speaks three languages and told me about the cities she has been to in Sri Lanka and Australia.

Nikki is terrified but so strong and determined not to let her tormentor see it. She is an athlete, a tennis player, a soccer enthusiast, and an award-winning swimmer. I’m wondering if I will ever get to see her in a match.

The man in black is screaming at me, and I’m blanking out.

I’m failing her. Focus. What does he want from me?

He’s telling me if I don’t cut off my finger, he will kill her.

My finger….

I look at my hands. I take my right pointer finger and touch it to my left palm. It goes right through.

This is a dream.

And now I am lucid.

Lucid dreaming is a powerful tool that some researchers believe anyone can learn. It is defined as being aware that you are dreaming, while you are dreaming. For someone who has nightmares or hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations like I do, it can bring relief.

What are hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations?

Hypnogogic hallucinations are vivid visual, auditory, tactile, and even olfactory dream-like sensations that occur near the onset of sleep. They can be terrifying when the dreamer doesn’t realize that they are not real. Hypnopompic hallucinations have the same cause and occur when waking up from sleep.

Early one morning, I remember my mom coming into my bedroom and telling me I needed to hurry up and get ready. She was angry that I hadn’t gotten up on my own and wanted me to be prepared to leave in 10 minutes.

I rushed to the shower, and once I was dressed, I realized no one else was awake. I peeked in my parents’ bedroom and saw my mom asleep in her bed. She hadn’t been in my room; I just had a very real hallucination of something that was quite likely to happen. These can be the most confusing types of hallucinations for me.

What is sleep paralysis?

One night I was drifting off to sleep when I heard my doorknob rattle. I saw light spread across my bed as the door swung open. My eyes were wide, my breathing sped up, but I couldn’t move. A towering dark figure stepped into the door frame. It felt like minutes he stood there staring at me as I tried to wiggle a finger or a toe.

I thought I was hesitating out of fear, but as the seconds ticked by I realized my body wasn’t going to move. I imagined I had been drugged. I couldn’t scream or even take deep breaths to get air in my lungs to cry. I was like a stone statue.

When we are in dream sleep, our bodies should be paralyzed, so we don’t act out our dreams. But with narcolepsy, those boundaries between being asleep and awake are not always clear. The body can be in the paralysis stage of dream sleep while the mind is halfway conscious, seeing, hearing, feeling, or smelling the hallucination. Many people experience this phenomenon that don’t have narcolepsy. There is even an extensive twitter feed of drawings of people’s sleep paralysis demons.

What is narcolepsy?

Narcolepsy is a chronic neurological disorder that disrupts the sleep-wake cycle. Often the most prominent symptom is extreme fatigue. But the other less predictable symptoms can be just as disturbing to quality of life. Sometimes after an especially terrifying nightmare, I struggle to shake the grief or emotions evoked by the dreams. I get trapped in a thought cycle of “what if” that happened.

I know it’s unlikely, but when I’m tired, it’s easy to let these thoughts run rampant and continue destroying my sleep. Sleep deprivation weakens my mental state, and I struggle to use the coping mechanisms I have developed over the years.

While there are medications that treat some of the symptoms of narcolepsy, there is no cure. Many people with narcolepsy are looking for alternative therapies or life skills that help them improve their quality of life in addition to medical interventions. For me, lucid dreaming is one of the skills I have developed. In most cases, it allows me to recognize a hallucination or dream and then offers me an escape route. I can rewrite the story and sink into a more peaceful sleep when I choose my dreamscape.

How to Lucid Dream

The idea is that you have to confirm that you are dreaming to become aware while you are in the dream state. This is easier for some than others, but it’s possible for anyone with practice. I was lucid dreaming before I ever knew the meaning of it, so I never went through the process of learning. Andrei Tapalaga describes a similar experience, but he still wrote a guide for others to enjoy:

It’s essential to have a “check” that allows you to discern dreams from reality. Mine is pressing my pointer finger into my palm. If I’m awake, I am only touching my palm, and it feels solid. When I’m sleeping, however, I am like a ghost, and my finger will pass through my palm. I can also walk through walls, fly, or float outside of my body and watch myself when I am lucid dreaming.

How does lucid dreaming help?

Facing the attackers, armed with the knowledge that I am now in a lucid dream, I have countless options. I am the film creator, and I have all the special effects imaginable at my disposal. I can make the kidnapper’s head explode, or give Nikki some Kung Fu abilities that allow her to render him helpless.

Lucid dreaming also allows me to experience things that I would like to do but have not yet been able to accomplish. I can literally dream whatever I want, go anywhere, do anything, and it’s an incredibly empowering experience.

How does the kidnapper dream end?

The man suddenly removes the knife from Nikki’s throat and becomes a purple genie. Then he grants her three wishes, and we spend the rest of the night swimming with dolphins and riding through the clouds on rainbow unicorns.

Photo by Patricia Prudente on Unsplash

When I can rewrite a peaceful ending, it allows me to enjoy peaceful sleep, and I often wake up feeling refreshed. The peaceful feeling follows me into my day the same way the terrors would if I let them continue to play out in my dreams.

In conclusion, lucid dreaming is a useful tool to edit our dreams and remove some of the scary darkness of narcolepsy.

Living with narcolepsy has challenges that aren’t often recognized even by our doctors. But we have the power to learn new skills and techniques that allow us to thrive with our unique obstacles. No two people have the same experience, but we all have a story to share. Lucid dreaming is just one tool we have to edit the chapters and bring some light into the darkness.

The first annual World Narcolepsy Day will be celebrated on September 22, 2019. To get involved, check out Project Sleep’s website.

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.

Kayla Douglas

Written by

Life Coach, author, lifelong learner, travel enthusiast, narcolepsy advocate, living in Myanmar, she/her https://www.kaylamdouglas.com

Invisible Illness

We don't talk enough about mental health.