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Let's talk about Nightmares

Illustration for article titled Lets talk about Nightmares

Some of you will recognize this picture and know exactly where this is going.

I suppose I’m fortunate that I don’t have a lot of nightmares, but when I do, I am almost always aware of my surroundings. Normally this just manifests with me dreaming that I’m in bed and realizing that there is a large spider or other insect near me, which almost always leads to me awakening, jumping away or thrashing around and scaring the crap out of my husband.


But every once in a while I experience a phenomenon called sleep paralysis, in which my mind is awake but my body cannot move. This would be terrifying enough on its own, but many people who have suffered episodes of sleep paralysis report additional visual, auditory, or other sensory illusions. Sleep paralysis is a very plausible explanation for many people who claim to have been visited by demons or aliens. The header picture, The Nightmare by Henry Fuseli, has been interpreted as depicting sleep paralysis specifically due to the demon seated on the woman’s chest, holding her down.

Here’s a trailer for the documentary The Nightmare, which interviews several individuals who have experienced sleep paralysis and re-enacts some of their most frightening episodes.

Many of you know that I watch a lot of horror movies, but this is probably one I won’t be seeing. My main reason, before today, was that I hadn’t suffered an episode in a while and I figured that watching this movie was just tempting fate.


I have been somewhat lucky in my episodes of sleep paralysis that I can trace them specifically to not getting enough sleep. Most of my episodes took place during college or the years when I stayed out late before early mornings at work; I’ve only had a few since then. Also, I’ve fortunately never experienced a visual hallucination, although almost all my episodes have been accompanied by either auditory hallucinations, or the feeling that I was being touched or held down by unseen forces. My most frightening episode was one where I awoke with my eyes shut, unable to open them, and for several long moments I was convinced that there was another person in bed with me holding me down. Because my eyes were shut I couldn’t even be sure I was in my own bed. I still shudder to think about it.

After my first episode, I learned what was happening and have generally been able to deal with them without panicking. My method is to focus completely on one hand, and think about moving a single finger, and as soon as I can move a single finger the spell is broken: I can move my entire body as if nothing has happened. Unfortunately, my brain seems to have accommodated for my awareness, and my last few episodes have involved the auditory hallucination of a painfully loud buzzing or whirring (like being in an alien spaceship) that makes it incredibly hard to relax and concentrate.


I had considered writing this post this week, but thought I was too busy. Until this morning, when I had another episode that was so strange I had to write about it:

I had an awful headache and had called out of work, taken some medicine, and gone back to bed. I awoke a couple hours later with light in the room, staring at the wall, my dog next to the bed, and with my body completely unable to move. After a few seconds the painfully loud buzzing started in my head, and I tried to fight my way out of the sleep paralysis to make it stop. Unable to focus, I desperately struggled to move for what seemed like minutes but was likely only a few seconds. I was finally able to unclench my fist, and sit up, and breathe a sigh of relief, before waking up again on my side, staring at that same wall. I had slipped back into complete subconsciousness and had only dreamed about being freed from my episode.


I struggled again, this time to speak, and was able to moan loud enough to get my dog’s attention. He wandered over, confused by the noises I was making, and then I awoke again, on my side, staring at the wall, the loud buzzing still wracking my brain. This time after I struggled to move I was able to shift myself out of bed and crumple to my knees on the floor, but still couldn’t move properly (which had I been thinking straight would have been a clue). My dog was alarmed and came to me to put his head in my lap, at which point I awoke again. On my side. Staring at the wall.

I am sure that the first time I awoke paralyzed this morning I was actually coherent and aware of my surroundings, but I’m not sure about the two subsequent times. I’ve seen movies and TV use this dream within a dream concept, but I didn’t think it was a real thing that you could actually experience. Now I know.

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