If you’ve ever experienced sleep paralysis, then you know it’s the most horrifying thing a person can endure that doesn’t involve war and other human atrocities like torture. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s basically this.
You know how your body paralyzes itself as you sleep? More or less–there’s probably some technical nuance that my statement doesn’t convey, but it doesn’t matter. It happens, though–when you are asleep, your body isn’t still because you’re not telling it to move; your body is still because your brain is incapable of telling it to move.
However, it can happen that you enter into a lucid dream state and semi-consciousness, on very rare occasions, and the result is that you are keenly aware that you are lying in bed and unable to move. But remember also that you are dreaming–sort of. It’s not a normal dream. It’s a lucid dream. Many people take the term “lucid dream” to mean one where you know you’re dreaming and you can control events, and that’s true–that’s a form of lucid dreaming. But lucid is a word that details awareness, not control. In most dreams, you are generally not aware of your real self that is asleep. During this lucid experiences, you are. And you lie there, in a state that is half-asleep and half-awake, paralyzed.
This has happened to me somewhere around a dozen times, and it never stops being horrifying. As a result of these experiences, my brain is absolutely terrified of going to sleep. It’s difficult to explain this, but it has left me incapable of taking naps. If I attempt to, then right before I fall asleep, my brain kicks itself back into high gear, and I jump up, my heart pounding, my body shaking, terrified. Sleep is my brain’s greatest fear. This isn’t to say that sleep is my biggest fear, but, on some level that I cannot control or influence, my brain fears sleep more than anything. This also makes it difficult to go to sleep at night, and if it happens early into the evening, I can forget going back to sleep–it’s not going to happen.
I wonder if it has something to do with sleep apnea, because the first time I experienced this I was 17 or 18 years old and sleeping on a couch in the living room at my dad’s house. I suddenly couldn’t breathe. I knew that I was asleep, and I screamed to myself “Wake up, wake up!” I choked out the words “Help me… Oh my god, somebody help me…” but no one could hear. No one was there to help me.
That’s the worst part of the sleep paralysis experience:
“Oh, my god, somebody help me…”
Choked out whispers that may or may not actually be said aloud, but it doesn’t matter–you are fully aware that you are helpless, that something is horribly wrong, and that you can’t do anything about it. When this accompanies a moment of sleep apnea when you can’t breathe, you become aware, in those fractions of seconds, that you are about to die, that you are unable to breathe and are about to simply die, and there’s nothing you can do. There’s no one to help, no one to beg for help. But you beg anyway, because there’s nothing else you can do. There are no words to convey what that is like. Horrifying doesn’t come close. Terrifying isn’t even in the ballpark.
Just imagine… lying in bed… unable to move… and knowing–although you aren’t always sure why–knowing that you need to move, that something horrible is happening to you. Something so horrific that you beg the world and whoever may be listening, “Oh, god, help… somebody help.”
My body that night began to shake and convulse as I entered the early stages of death by suffocation, and I know that my body actually shook in the real world, because the couch had been moved when I woke. Suddenly I could breathe again, and I woke panting for air. I had no idea what had occurred, and I did not sleep again that night. Or the next day. Days passed before I was able to fall asleep again, and then only barely. Eventually, the trauma eased and I was able to get back to a normal sleep pattern, but there’s a reason that I sleep so little…
More recently, after a random dream about some bullshit, I was suddenly disoriented and stumbling around in a dark house, looking for my bed. I went to what appeared to be the front of the house, but there were two people lying on couches. I stumbled around a bit, until I found my room. And then I tried to wake up, suddenly aware that I was sleeping, and it was, by a huge margin, the longest I’ve ever slept while trying to wake myself.
I hadn’t stopped breathing, which I normally do in those situations. I’d only become aware I was dreaming. I lay there in that unfamiliar place with some general resemblance to my room, with a mirror and bathroom at the foot of my bed (which isn’t right) and trying to wake myself with an increasing alarm and sense of “I NEED TO WAKE THE FUCK UP. RIGHT. NOW.” But to no avail.
Then there was a presence. And something was taking me, and I couldn’t see it. I could move, but only barely and with great resistance, and I did move–but not enough to see it, because I already knew what it was and knew that I didn’t want to look at it, that I couldn’t bear looking at it. And I knew I did not want to be taken, but it was going to take me. I began turning back and forth in that bed that wasn’t mine, in that room that wasn’t mine, in that house that wasn’t where I live, choking out, “Help me, please–god, somebody, help“.
And then the thing began taking me. I heard it speak in a guttural, nightmarish, broken language of unknown style or origin–neither the words nor sounds were recognizable. I hesitate to detail the voice further, but it was one that Hollywood would give to a demon or some hostile extraterrestrial, though the language itself was not. The language itself was much more like boiling water. And I know that doesn’t make sense, but it’s honestly the best way to describe it.
And then the mirror at the foot of my bed slowly dissolved and grew brighter, bluer, and became Futurama. And then I was awake.
It’s no wonder some part of me fears sleep and prevents me from ordinarily taking naps. I couldn’t begin to process it all, but I quickly recorded it an email to a friend of mine, but I felt that I did not wake from a random dream into a second, terrifying one. Something very important and very disturbing had happened at the very core of my… I don’t know. Existence? It genuinely felt like I was yanked from one existence and thrown into another, which felt every bit as jarring as it sounds.
I don’t know, and I didn’t want to speculate. But I did want to reflect, yet I was too afraid to end that email [In fact, most of this story is copy/pasted from that email]. Because then what? Go back to sleep? Fuck that. Fuck. That. I wasn’t sure I’d ever sleep the same again, and I was terrified of it, and I knew why. Because that, whatever that was, fucking happened. And I can’t just wave it away as a dream as I know, intellectually, I should, because… It wasn’t. I was screaming. And though I have no way of knowing, since the cats can’t tell me, I’d bet anything that those screams didn’t make it into the waking world, that someone right beside me wouldn’t have known I was screaming. But I was. Goddamn, I was. And though that would be pretty odd and the cats are pretty good at being consistently curious when I do weird shit, they have not bothered to pay much attention to me since I “woke.”
Did it simply become a lucid dream, as I became aware that I was asleep? That seems likely. And definitely explains why it was so jarring, but why was it so fucking horrifying? Why the presence, and then the speaking? And then, why the screaming? Who was I screaming to? And why, dear god why, was my brain so unwilling to comply and just wake me the Hell up? Or put me to fucking sleep, whatever, just get me out of that place fucking immediately.
I wasn’t sure where I was, for a while. Wherever I was–not the dream that separated the two worlds–but wherever I just was, that other real experience, with the mirror facing the bed from the bathroom, noticeably further away than my television is to me… Whether that is, it’s equally as real as where I am now. There is no sensory difference, no interaction difference, no any measurable distinction that I’ve been able to find to mitigate that statement. The people sleeping on the couches–every bit as real as my cats sitting here now. There is absolutely nothing I could do here to prove the cat is real that I couldn’t do there to prove those people were real. There is nothing that someone could tell me here that no one there could tell me. Is that a testament to the power of our minds? Maybe. I don’t know.
On another occasion, I was very much aware of voices as though they were coming over an intercom, an announcer with an almost mechanical voice, rattling off a list of numbers and letters. They were identifiers, like social security numbers, and I knew, in that moment, that I also had a number, that I was being catalogued. But I could not move, and I could not do anything about it.
“And I don’t even think my eyes were open,” I said, still laughing wildly.
“What?” she asked.
Have you ever had someone in a dream ask you to repeat yourself because they didn’t understand you? It’s a first for me, I must say. So I repeated it. And then, I got the overwhelming sensation that I was spinning around, spiraling wildly, and moments later, I woke up. At times like that, I really wish I recorded myself as I sleep, because I’d really like to know if I was laughing in real life, because I tend to think that I was.