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My First Experience with Sleep Paralysis - I Almost Won

I’ve been sick as a dog the last few days, taking last Thursday (and my freelance Friday) off due to food poisoning or gastric flu. I’m still not better and it looks like tomorrow may be off as well, more than doubling the amount of sick days I’ve taken in my 8 year working life.

But anyway, as a result I think, I had my first experience with sleep paralysis last night. Sleep paralysis, conceptually, has always terrified me: for those that don’t know, it’s what happens when the body is paralysed for sleep (to stop you acting out your dreams, presumably), but you wake up before your body has been given the go-ahead by the brain to move again. Essentially you can tend to move your eyes, and your fingers and toes, but little else.


The trouble is half the time, people are still in the sleep stages, so they get some pretty terrifying hallucinations - demons sitting on them, children talking to them, shadowy figures approaching the bed, etc.


I’ve been worried I’d have this happen to me since the first time I read about it over a decade ago, and thankfully it looks like I’m not a natural sufferer. I think what tipped me over the edge last night, was that in an attempt to calm my attention seeking sore stomach, I went for some painkillers but only had the caffeinated ones left. I don’t drink coffee, and I don’t drink tea, so I rarely have caffeine. I blame this, and the mild fever I still have, for what happened next.


Because I’d been aware of it for so long, I knew exactly what was happening when my eyes clicked open, and I stared at the digital clock by my bed, unable to move. I could actually feel my left eye twitching, which I assume is still part of the REM sleep cycle*, so I was pretty prepared just to ride it out until I got control of my body again. Unfortunately, my brain had other ideas as I began to rationalise in my head:


“Ooh, sleep paralysis! So, this is what it feels like - look I can see all around the right hand side of the room. But where are the mysterious figures? The loud noises? The sense of dread? [A beat] Oh. That sense of dread”


And just by thinking it, there it was. A feeling of terror planted in the centre of my chest and rapidly expanding outwards.


“There’s something behind me - I have my back to the door, what’s there?”


And when the terror reached its zenith, my mouth involuntarily opened to shout, only no noise can come out when paralysed. But that jolted me awake, and I could suddenly move, and the panic instantly subsided.


It’s different from waking from a nightmare though: the immediate environment is exactly the same, so there’s no reassuring change of scenery, but for some reason the terror vanished instantly - no build down at all. I was actually able to get back to sleep surprisingly quickly after I’d gotten over playing back what it felt like: after years of fearing it, I didn’t want to forget the feelings, which is partly why I’m writing this down here.


So that was my first experience with sleep paralysis. I hope it’s my last, but compared to others, I certainly had it easy.


* This may well be bad science, but as REM is connected with dreams, and sleep paralysis is a side effect of dreaming, it makes sense to me. Agree, scientists?

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Note: This post originally appeared on The Inquirer, which heartbreakingly closed in December 2019, losing a huge amount of my best work in the process. Given it's all been scrubbed from the internet