My Sleep Paralysis and the Terrors of Unwakefulness
The first time it happened it felt as if terror filled the hollow of my bones, anchoring me to my mattress under the weight of suffocating dread. I opened my eyes and stared at my white popcorn ceiling, which looked blue from the sunrise slipping between the window blinds. I was frozen, wooden actually, stiff, and unable to move. I cried out but my voice squeaked in an unrecognizable wheeze, my throat feeling the crush of an invisible hand. My eyes darted about as shadows closed in around me from the corners of the room. The staccato pulses of my heart were threatening to rip apart my chest when suddenly the horrific restraints pinning me down shattered. I bolted upright, gulping down air and swiveling my head frantically about as I blinked into the fading darkness. Cold beads of sweat slid down from my hairline while my brain grappled with what was happening. Was I emerging from a nightmare or was I emerging from a brush with the forces of evil?
I’d studied Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare in art history as an undergrad. Somewhere in the wrinkles of my gray matter, I recalled bits of discussion around the phenomenon of sleep paralysis and the associated superstitions of incubus visitations. Once I calmed my inner-Mulder, I donned my Dana Scully hat and googled ‘wake up can’t move.’ My experience included more than immobility, but this was enough to get my possibly demon-infested body down the rabbit hole of sleep paralysis information.
Web-MD, that vast repository of medical info useful for convincing yourself you have a rare and untreatable disease, provided enlightening and reassuring details about my encounter.
Sleep paralysis is a feeling of being conscious but unable to move. It occurs when a person passes between stages of wakefulness and sleep. During these transitions, you may be unable to move or speak for a few seconds up to a few minutes. Some people may also feel pressure or a sense of choking.
My corporeal hostage situation included all of these — the pressure, the choking, and the inability to speak or move. According to WebMD, I transitioned to wakefulness before the completion of my REM cycle, meaning my muscles were still in the “relaxed” state. This state prevents us from flailing about during our dreams. Essentially, I opened in safe mode before my mind and body finished booting up.
What could I do to prevent my sleeping habits from trapping me in a jail of my own flesh? The list of possible causes of sleep paralysis reads like a checklist for who I am and what I do:
- Lack of sleep (Always)
- Sleep schedule that changes (Daily)
- Sleeping on the back (I’m more a side sleeper but was on my back this time)
- Other sleep problems such as nighttime leg cramps (Yup)
- Drug or alcohol use (It only seems to occur on nights I drink)
- Stress (100%)
The medical experts claimed I experienced a relatively normal occurrence. I didn’t need an exorcist as much as a regular bedtime with no martini nightcaps. Oh, and I’d have to manage my stress.
Stress and I have a complicated relationship. I’ve had very good friends marvel at how I never seem to stress, which is laughable. I hide it. I cram it deep down into the recesses of my being and then it emerges in any manner of fun and funky ways. In my second year of college, during finals, I developed eczema all over my hands, which would be a recurring thing until graduation. In stressful moments I’ve experienced mild, and thank the gods temporary, hair loss, a crashed immune system, and a red dot appearing in the center of my forehead, which I’ve dubbed my third eye whined. Any combination of these may occur depending on how stressful my life is at the time.
My first sleep paralysis occurred in 2001 when I was an unemployed 25-year-old living through the tech bubble collapse. I’d spent all my post-college years living large on the tech bubble and then one day — POP! I didn’t have savings put back for a rainy day and was awash in a personal monsoon with no umbrella. I paid rent on an apartment I couldn’t afford and had recently indulged in leasing a luxury SUV. I also had student loans and my cupboards and fridge were bare of anything not pasta or old mustard. I was looking for a job during a time when many companies weren’t hiring for my skill set, and there were only so many mustard and pasta dishes a person can stomach. The one thing I had in spades was stress — enough to keep me up at night and enough to convince me a cheap bottle of wine was a better investment than grocery staples.
However, stress can do more than paralyze you during your sleep. It also contributes to night terrors, which, lucky me, I also experience. Yay, terror.
Per the Mayo Clinic, a sleep terror episode may include:
- Beginning with a frightening scream or shout (Yup)
- Sitting up in bed and appearing frightened (Did that)
- Staring wide-eyed (I was Marty Feldman)
- Breathing heavily, having a racing pulse and dilated pupils (Yup, Yup, Yup)
- Being hard to awaken, and being confused if awakened (Uh-huh)
- Getting out of bed and running around the house or showing aggressive behavior if blocked or restrained (Oh, yeah, that happened)
I discovered most of this one night when my girlfriend Liz slept over. I woke up, or thought I had, and looked over at my peacefully sleeping girlfriend, noticing she didn’t have a face. Her skin stretched smoothly from her chin to her forehead, with no eyes, nose, or mouth. She was also glowing neon pink. Other than that though, she looked pretty normal in her Wonder Woman pajamas.
When I emerged from my night terror, I was sitting upright in bed, hovering over Liz with my clenched right fist held high in the air, threatening to come down in a crushing blow. Perhaps it was her medical training or the fact that she was a very cool woman, but she brought me out of it by calmly asking, “Baby, whatcha doing?”
I woke up in this menacing pose and immediately recoiled, pulling my hand back and crossing my arms over my chest. My blood raced through my body, pulsing confusion along with it. I didn’t understand what had happened. Liz, calling upon her 3.5 years of medical school, told me I was being overwhelmed by my stress and needed to take measures to manage it. She was then absent from my bed for a week, presumably giving me time to cast out these new demons.
Two nights after my near-girlfriend-crushing episode, another night terror struck. This time I was alone, but when I opened my eyes I saw a giant, glowing praying mantis sitting atop my headboard looking down at me. I shot off the mattress, hurdling the footboard, and landing at the bedroom door where I flipped the light switch. I turned back in horror toward my bed to find… nothing. There was nothing there. I was naked and alone, staring at my bed like a rabid raccoon bracing for the kill.
When I researched night terrors, I saw the causes are identical to sleep paralysis. My brain was telling me to get my daytime shit together or else my nighttime shit would become increasingly terrifying and straight-up dangerous.
In my effort to avoid paralysis, faceless girlfriends, and glowing praying mantises, I went back to WebMD and looked for stress management techniques. This was when I first began exercising regularly. I started simple — jogging, yoga, and hitting the gym. Over the years, I’ve mixed in other things as well, mostly outdoor sports like surfing or snowboarding depending on where I live. After moving to London, I began taking long walks to acquaint myself with new parts of the city. Being outside and moving around changes my mindset and puts me at ease.
Another way I manage is by being more conscious about my decisions and my moods. A few years ago, I began meditating. I have a meditation app on my phone providing reminders to take some time for myself. It includes a daily program to follow, as well as discussions on consciousness and meditation. Practicing mindfulness, experiencing without reacting, helps keep me calm. I include what I choose to eat and how I spend my time in my mindfulness practice.
Exercise, diet, and meditation eliminated my night terrors. Yet, it’s easy to slide back into stress’s devilish grasp.
When life gets busy, we focus on things we think we must do and often cut out the nice-to-have activities such as exercise. When I moved from the States to Britain, I was putting in 70 hours a week at the office and that wasn’t including my trans-Atlantic travel or my travel throughout Europe. I was always on a train, on a plane, or on the go. I let exercise slide and would grab a burger at the airport or a pasty at the station. I’d down it with a couple of pints and then keep going. Sure enough, the terrors returned.
My very British girlfriend complained one morning that I was squeaking in an odd voice the night before and then I sat upright and looked around with a look of panic on my face. I didn’t remember any of this. She asked me, only half-seriously, if this was an American thing. Since my first sleep paralysis in 2001, I’ve had two more full-blown, stiff as wood experiences. They were far less alarming than the first, although still very unpleasant. I’ve also had a few night terrors, and after every experience, I realize I’m not taking care of myself. Once I get back to a healthier lifestyle the terrors diminish.
This pandemic has been rough. My consulting work in the UK vanished and I’ve had to scramble to make ends meet. I’ve choked down a big plate of humble pie, while also indulging in actual pie and occasionally skipping leg day. I had another night terror a week ago. This one wasn’t too bad — nothing was glowing and I didn’t try to crush anyone. I sat upright, panicked, and couldn’t speak for a second. Then it went away. It had been two weeks since I’d last meditated and I had imbibed a bit too much that evening on a virtual happy hour with some friends back in New York. The next morning, I rolled out my yoga mat, did a ten-minute meditation, and recommitted to my exercise regime.
Managing my stress is a Sisyphean endeavor, and I will never push that rock all the way to the top of the hill. However, I can keep the demons, incubi, and praying mantises at bay by committing to a few calming practices. I live a much healthier life and when I look at my wife in the middle of the night she has a face, which is nice. The night might be dark and full of terrors, but by ensuring I invest in myself every day, I will be fine.