Drenched in a cold sweat, I try to scream out ‘there’s somebody on top of me’, but I can’t move, speak, or breathe; all I can do is lay there and wait for it to pass.
Ever since I was little, I have suffered from sleep paralysis. At times the paralysis passes relatively quickly, but it can also feel like it goes on for hours. Eyes open, eyes closed, the experience remains the same: I am surrounded by this threatening energy, someone wants to harm me and there’s nothing I can do to stop them.
Usually, this energy appears to me as a tall, dark figure that silently watches from the corner of my room. The room seems to swallow me whole as I drown in this felt malice. If I’m lucky, I can squeeze my eyes shut but often I’m frozen, watching this figure watch me. When I scream, it’s impossible to tell if my voice is being heard, I’ll cry out as hard as I can, but no one comes, making me feel hopelessly alone.
I’ve found that when I am at a stressful point in my life, I experience sleep paralysis more regularly. All the stresses of my life are internalised and trigger these nightly episodes. It doesn’t matter how small the cause, the end product remains the same.
My worst case occurred last month. I woke up, immediately recognising the typical symptoms, paralysed muscles and bone-deep fear. However, this time I heard somebody walking across my room and felt them climb into bed with me. They slowly mounted me, resting their body on mine. I could hear their muffled breathing and the sound their chest rising and falling. Slowly, once I regained feeling in two of my fingers, I pinched as hard as I could and felt the strength of their muscles, but this only caused the pressure to increase. After what felt like hours, the weight lifted, and I was able to move again. Frantically checking my room, I found that my door was locked, and my windows sealed – it was just a bad episode.
Over the years, sleep paralysis has had a detrimental effect on me, especially in regard to my sleeping pattern. When I experience regular occurrences, I find it impossible to sleep, the fear seeps into my mind and I begin to procrastinate sleeping. This, of course, leads to an irregular sleeping schedule which makes me constantly tired, creating a paradoxical cycle of stress. I am stressed because I can’t sleep but I can’t sleep because I’m stressed. When it’s particularly bad, I become so stressed that the dark itself scares me as it reminds me too much of the possibility of paralysis.
When I first explained the impact sleep paralysis has on me to a doctor, I was given little advice or comfort. Told that this was “common” and “there was little to be done”, I felt utterly defeated. I was told to maintain a regular sleeping pattern and avoid caffeine in the evening, but it seemed like everything I had told them was completely ignored. I had told them that I found it difficult to get into a regular sleeping pattern because of my sleep paralysis, did they not see the irony of their suggestion?
It wasn’t until I did my own research that I felt more reassured about this condition. According to a systematic review completed by Sharpless BA and Barber JP, 7.6% of the general population experience regular “lifelong” sleep paralysis, 28.3% of which are students . Despite this being a relatively low percentage, it showed me that I was not alone in my experiences and that it was a common experience for most students. What’s more, after reading accounts of other peoples’ experiences I found further parallels between our conditions and realise that I was not alone.
Nicolas Bruno relates that his paralysis is often coupled with ‘chilling hallucinations’ of ‘faceless silhouetted figures’, he expands how these figures ‘embraces from shadow-like hands, warping reality around’ him . Meanwhile, NCBI researchers explain the experiences of the 17-year-old female patient: ‘She heard 2–3 different voices, belonging to either family members or friends, which would either speak to her or speak to each other. On nights when she was more anxious, the voices increased in intensity and had a more aggressive tone; on nights when she was less anxious, the voices had a casual tone. The patient maintained insight that the experience is an erroneous perception, and the voices did not take the form of commands’ . These, alongside a multitude of other examples, illustrate the commonality of my symptoms – such as hallucinations – and how stress enhances these symptoms.
I have found that advice on how to cope with sleep paralysis holds little value as it is common lifestyle advice: maintain a healthy diet, stay hydrated, exercise and sleep regularly. Instead, I find talking about my experiences or keeping a written account about them to be far more cathartic. There is little that can be done to prevent sleep paralysis aside from identifying the source of your stress. Once identified, you can attempt to remove it.