So anybody ever had sleep paralysis?
Are you familiar with sleep paralysis?
There’s a “documentary” which is basically a horror film for anyone who’s ever had sleep paralysis.
I mean, there is so much literature, so much lore, so many cold scientific examinations of the phenomenon, so many emotional artistic expressions from people who’ve experienced it. It becomes difficult to suss out exactly what it is, how to fix it, whether it can be fixed, and most importantly for anyone with a curious nature: why?
Why the shit would this even be a thing that happens, you know? It’s so awful. This is another reason I don’t tend to like horror movies anymore. It’s been a minute since I’ve had this experience. Like almost nine or ten months probably and I don’t want to do anything to tease it back out.
There’s a solid body of analysis from both fans of the franchise and sufferers of sleep paralysis who argue that the film “Insidious” is an entire fictional examination of sleep paralysis and I don’t disagree. At all. Which is why I cannot watch this movie at all. I watched the first movie once and I was unsettled for weeks because of it.
For me, I truly believe that it’s a neurological happening. It’s some squacky ass shit that goes down in the brain that we experience and don’t understand, and so we make our own meaning whenever we can. I tend to like the idea of ghosts. I tend to like the possibility of the mystical lunacy that people talk about being real. It’s why I’m an agnostic rather than an atheist. I’m also heavily steeped in the scientific method, and true scientific skeptics never go so far as to say never. Not even hyper-skeptical Tim Minchin would ever go so far as to say never to anything. But the thing is, we “open-minded skeptics,” if you will, tend to live our lives and base our decisions on what we can gather evidence for. Hope. Fondness. Openness. We can only come so close to notions such as faith.
But okay. I’m getting off track.
What else is new. So I like the idea of ghosts and spirits and all of the entities and happenings that surround the sleep paralysis phenomenon. Incubi and succubi. All of the lore, right? It’s fascinating. But do I believe that when I wake up mentally but can’t physically move that there is an old hag or a lecherous spirit demon sitting on my chest diddling me?
I believe that atonia – the chemical action within the brain that stops muscles from moving so that you’re not thrashing about in your sleep – just happens to carry over into my waking up process. That my brain gets a little ahead of my body. I have almost constant hypnagogic spasms. Like when you’re just about asleep and you jump like you’ve just heard a shotgun go off next to your ear? Not that you actually heard anything, but that excessive startle response?
That’s a thing I’ve always had, and probably has a lot to do with why I struggle every single night to fall asleep. I honestly don’t know if my parents remember it at all but I remember spending the night at friends’ houses and having them tell me I was sleepwalking in the night. One night, at a very close friend’s house, I remember waking up in the middle of the night and I was walking around the far edge of the pond at the back of their yard. It was unsettling. I was very close to the edge of the water and I’m a strong swimmer, always have been, but I can’t say that falling in the water would have been enough to wake me up in time for me to get out.
The things that could have happened, right? Once you’ve got a few good decades under you, if you’ve lived right, you’ve racked up a solid handful of moments you can look back on and say, like, “damn. What if I had/hadn’t done/not done X or Y or Z.”
I think that these types of things are what drew me to psychology. I’ve always been as fascinated by the brain as a structure, and behavior as manifestations of that structure’s action in the body, as I am put off by and terrified of people.
So I have the hypnagogic – falling asleep – spasms. But I also have the hypnopompic – waking up – paralysis experience. These usually start with a dream – and we’ll visit dreams here in a moment because mine are fucked up, vivid, and lucid or else don’t happen at all – where I’m in need of the ability to punch. I need to be able to throw a punch. Someone or something is attacking me and I need to be able to defend myself and I physically cannot throw the punch. I can make the fist. I can raise it to chest level. But I cannot throw it. I’m physically incapable of forward motion. In the dream. And that’s when I start to realize that I’m about to experience the paralysis experience. I know I’m waking up. And so I just sort of lift up out of the dream scenario and I’m in bed. My eyes are open, and I know this because I can’t blink. My eyes start to get cold and then sting as they start to dry out and I want to scream but I can’t open my mouth. And I do have that sensation of someone being behind me – I’ve been a side/stomach sleeper for as long as I can remember so there’s always a behind me – but I know no one’s there. It’s just the dread. It’s the way the brain interprets that dread feeling. The brain needs for there to be a threat in order for the dread to be present because we don’t dread nothing. My brain always, always wants to fill in logical gaps.
Anyhow, I start trying to speak or scream because I feel like that’s what I need to do in order to get the process going. It just feels awful to be stuck like that, and you just want to get your ability to move going again. Not that you want or need to move, but the inability to can be panic-invoking, even in the absence of even the hint of an external threat. Just to know that you couldn’t move if you wanted to is the worst. A lot of people share this feeling that if they can just move this finger, wiggle that toe, or otherwise do anything, it’s the same as tipping that first domino. Everything will be fine if I can just…
By the time I’m finally able to croak out a syllable or two I’m usually able to start rocking just a tiny bit, which means the next thing to come back under control will be my arms. I’ll uncurl one from underneath me (I always, always sleep with my arms bent at the elbow and tucked under my chest, or if I’m on my side, then with one bent and tucked). And once I get the arms going the rest is pretty immediate. Like when you dump cold water on yourself and you kind of feel it all at once but if you really break it down you know you’re feeling it on your head first, then your shoulders, then your chest, and so on and so forth.
Once I can speak, though, I’m fine.
Only once have I ever woken up to have an actual hallucination and I hope to God and all that’s holy that I never, ever do again because it was awful, and I hated it and I still hate it to this day. It was at least ten years ago. I have been over and over it in my mind until I’ve driven myself secondarily nuts just trying to understand why my mind created the hallucination it did, but it was awful.
I was in a typical sleep paralysis situation, and I had the experience of needing to throw a punch and not being able to. Okay, I thought. This sucks, but here we go. Let’s get it over with. My eyes snapped open and I was on my left side, facing the doorway to my bedroom and the only window in the room. The cool bluish-lavender light of dawn poured in from the window and I got a fraction of a second to enjoy it – it’s one of my favorite colors next to the green-blue turquoise of the deep ocean at night – before my eyes focused on a set of eyes in front of me. I don’t know if it was standing or kneeling, which would indicate its age but I tend to think it was standing meaning that the thing I was looking at would have been bout three or four years old. Blue skin the color of the light in the room. No yellow to this blue, though. No warmth whatsoever. Black straight hair cut in a typical Japanese male child haircut. Just your basic Japanese hair. Almond shaped eyes set in that cold blue skin, with little mauve veins around the hairline and eyelids, but the eyes were milk. They were white. Like clouds in a moody sky. And its mouth was wide open. Those little bones and tendons in its neck were stretched right out in a wild scream. But there was no sound. No rush of air from its mouth. It stood at such a height that its face was on the level with mine. My face was resting on the edge of the mattress so we were literally inches from being nose-to-nose. This lasted – and it’s hard to say for sure, because the experience is stressful at best and traumatic at worst, so the subjective experience of time is obviously skewed and, for me, skewed to be slower than reality, as that’s how I experience time during trauma – but it felt like almost a full minute. I was just eye to eye with this little boy, and terrified by the shock of it but honestly, the most overwhelming emotion I felt as I looked at him was just crushing grief and sorrow. I didn’t feel threatened I felt sad. Like whatever my brain conjured up in this moment of neurological hiccup had taken on its own existence and needed to be witnessed.
I can’t explain it. I know it wasn’t “real,” in the technical sense. I know it was just something that came from me, was of my own making, but that didn’t make it any less intense, nor any of the emotion that came along with it.
So for me, with my approach to sleep paralysis being that it’s an apparently normal and organic function of my brain, which sucks, but does not make it supernatural but rather the opposite of supernatural, the entire ordeal comes with this extra layer of, like, “why is in my brain doing this to me?”
Just like suicidal ideation. I think people who have true desires to end themselves don’t necessarily want to die all of the time but there’s this sense of pressure. This sense that the organ that’s meant to keep us alive, to be our greatest asset, our biggest, most useful tool in this life, has turned against us. And so we have this sense of, like, being given ownership of this big powerful workhorse that’s beyond our level of skill to manipulate. And we either spend our whole lives and the vast majority of our energies just trying to keep it reined in or else being overtaken by it altogether.
Big shit for a Wednesday, huh?
What the fuck, right?
Anyhow. All that setup to say that my friend Ellen who lent me a great book (that I’m like a day’s reading away from finishing, Ellen, and then we need to call another club meeting with coffee and fellowship) also hipped me to a new podcast.
Because even though I tend to be a sort of sciency skeptic buzzkill, I also really love the myths and legends that have been part of humanity since the beginning. I really do. And believe me I will be the first person to be throwing a party when a bigfoot body is recovered or proof of life after death is recorded and peer reviewed.
I have no problem whatsoever adjusting my beliefs to the evidence put before me. As long as it is legit evidence.
So this new podcast, “Astonishing Legends,” tends to go a bit long.
Like one blogger you may or may not be acquainted with.
And I’m fine with that, but I have limited opportunities to listen and I despise unfinished business, so I chose to pop my “Astonishing Legends” cherry with a single part episode about the Cackowski Intruder, which is basically a first-person account of sleep paralysis/haunting/incubi/attendant lore.
I think I dislike the ideas of intangibles as threats because I depend on my ability to rationalize. I am easily unsettled, and the only way I’ve found to combat the absolute madness I could devolve into is to rationally evaluate my fears moment-to-moment. Having gotten off the rails with fear, and being familiar with how difficult it is to get back on track, I dislike anything that I cannot rationally explain or reason through. Madness, ghosts, hauntings, things I can’t physically defend myself from terrify the living shit out of me.
I need to believe that sleep paralysis is an entirely biological phenomonon because that makes it physical. That makes it non-threatening except in the context of being scary. Other than making me uncomfortable, it can’t hurt me. Thankfully for me, the evidence plays out in my favor at the moment.
Fingers crossed it stays that way.
I’d hate to have to adjust my views to allow for the possibility that ghostly intruders can actually exist. That that little silent-screaming Japanese boy might not have been an hallucination. But that’s what we sign up for when we register as agnostic, I suppose.
* Shudder *
No thank ya.
Anyhow, “Astonishing Legends” is great, and you should totally check it out!
Here’s the episode I jumped in on, if you’d like to follow my lead.