My first episode is in 2012. I’m in the first semester of my freshman year. My schedule consists of classes, playing catch up to lengthy reading assignments, trying to socialize, getting used to a new city, and falling into a deep sleep the minute my head hits the pillow.
On such typical nights, I’d rarely wake till morning. But “typical” went out the window the night I woke up, hearing the sound of bloodcurdling screams.
Lying on my stomach, my face half-pressed into a pillow, my body went on high alert. “Get up! Run!” my instincts yelled, but my body refused to heed. So instead, I lay paralyzed. My eyes were the only part of me capable of movement and offered a narrow vision half-constricted by the pillow.
My gaze fixed on a dark corner of the room where a shadowy presence soon revealed itself. Then a second silhouette appeared. And then, a third. My breathing became erratic as I struggled to move, to do something. As the faceless shadows drew closer, the screams got louder… until I blacked out.
I woke in the morning drained and disturbed, with one thought in my mind: What kind of a dream was that? I’d had disturbing nightmares before, the kind that jolt you awake in a sweat, but I’d never experienced one so visually and physically distressing.
I couldn’t bring myself to speak to anyone about this, fearing it would be brushed aside as a simple nightmare or make me into the butt of a joke. I Googled “asleep can’t move bad dream” and learned a new term: sleep paralysis.
I skimmed through every medical blog that popped up on Google — WebMD, Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Sleep Foundation, NHS, Healthline, etc. — and and this is what I learned.
Sleep paralysis is a kind of parasomnia where the brain wakes before the body does. It happens when you wake up during your REM cycle. This is when you’re dreaming, and your body falls into temporary paralysis to keep you safe from physically acting out your dreams. And because you’re dreaming, it can lead to visual, auditory, and sensory hallucinations — often a waking nightmare.
There is no definitive cause for it, but research shows it’s more likely to occur if you have insomnia, narcolepsy, a general anxiety disorder, have a family history of it or have poor sleeping habits.
And there is no over-the-counter cure; all you can really control is “poor sleeping habits.” So I took care of the next few weeks. I kept a routine and strove for “good sleep,” and soon, it was a distant memory.
Over the next few years, I’d wake up paralyzed every now and then. But it would be just that — paralysis. No screams, no silhouettes, no terror creeping up on me. I had read that while sleep paralysis can be common, the accompanying hallucinations are mostly a one-and-done event. Just understanding what’s happening to you goes a long way toward keeping you grounded.
Trying to force myself to wake up in the moment was futile (for me), so when this happened, I would slow my breathing, close my eyes and drift off to sleep. I found I would fall into sleep paralysis more often if I fell asleep on my back, so I avoided what I could avoid and resigned myself to a life of infrequent but uncomfortable bouts of sleep paralysis.
Until one night when I woke up to a heavy weight on my chest and the feeling of a band tightening around my throat; in that moment, I remembered Henry Fuseli’s ”The Nightmare,” a painting that I had come across when reading up on sleep paralysis.
Maybe having seen it once made me manifest it but, much like in the painting, I was sure a demon was sitting on top of my chest, gleefully trying to choke me. And this time, I couldn’t peacefully drift off to sleep. Somehow, by sheer force of will, I forced my arm up and swiped at whatever was strangling me. My arm raked through empty air, and that simple act brought me immediate relief.
This hallucination, according to the Sleep Foundation, was an incubus one, one of three common categories of sleep paralysis hallucinations. With incubus hallucinations, you feel pressure on the chest and have difficulty breathing. The other two types are “intruder” (a threatening presence heard or sensed) and “vestibular-motor” (a bit astral, like spinning, floating or falling; an out-of-body experience).
Ask me in the light of day, and I’ll say it happened because of a cocktail of stress, irregular sleep, and anxiety mixed with an imagination injected with a healthy dose of TV horror.
But ask me in the pitch dark, when I’m lying in my room alone, afraid to let a hand or a foot hang off the edge of my bed, and my answer might lean toward the supernatural.
After all, with what little research has been done in this field and the prevalence of tales of creepy nighttime horrors, it’s easy to see how this phenomenon can be pinned on a supernatural entity.
Because while “sleep paralysis” is the term most commonly used, it’s known as kana tevoro (being eaten by a demon) in Fiji. In Thailand, a Thai folklore ghost, Phi Am, is said to be responsible. In Italy, people blame the Pandafeche, an evil witch, while in Egypt, a djinn is to blame — all feature some variation of a demon or witch attacking.
I’m not sure which belief is less comforting ― that an unknown force is holding you hostage or that your brain can rob you of your ability to move and speak? Especially within the comfort of your own bed.
Regardless, there is no cure. At least not one that’s been found. The nature of sleep paralysis hasn’t warranted enough research interest as it doesn’t pose any lasting threat or damage, despite feeling like experiencing a real-life nightmare.
Sometimes I spend my nights scared of sleep, pushing myself to mental exhaustion rather than sitting with thoughts of what I might experience when I do fall asleep. As my sleep paralysis experiences have continued over the years, I’ve found them to be linked more to periods of poor mental health rather than poor rest, but I still have no real control over them and have had quite a few scarring moments.
And since nothing can fully protect you from an episode, I’ve learned to accept the uncomfortable moments when I wake up immobile (even the scary ones) — in the hopes that simply by believing that it is just my brain responsible for it, I can doze off again and wake up free from the nightmare.
Sana Panjwani is a freelance journalist and copywriter based in Dubai. She enjoys writing about weird science, pop culture, and career trends. You can find her work in Refinery29, The Financial Diet, gal-dem, Introvert Dear and now Huffington Post (plus others)! Find her on Instagram & Twitter: @sanapanjwan1