I have considered that my body is a temple–a temple dedicated to weird maladies and conditions that most “normal” people don’t even know exist, that is. For example, let me tell you a story about sleep paralysis.
I haven’t given much thought to sleep paralysis of late. It’s probably been almost a year since I last experienced it. I’m not sure if that’s because I’ve learned to recognize the signs that herald an episode and techniques for heading it off (I have) or that my screwy sleep patterns (I generally don’t sleep more than 3-3.5 hours at a time these days) drastically reduce the time I spend in a REM sleep state, and therefore there are fewer opportunities for me to experience sleep paralysis. Maybe it’s both. Maybe there are other factors I’m not taking into consideration. Anyway, I digress.
I just started following the Mind Hacks blog yesterday. (Oh! It is SUCH a rabbit hole of fantastic-ness! You have been warned.) Lo and behold, there was a post titled Frozen Nightmares that led me to The Sleep Paralysis Project.
I had my first terror-filled experience with sleep paralysis in the mid-80’s when I was about 16 years old. It was night, and I was asleep when I became aware of myself as a bodiless presence suspended in a dark void. I was not alone in this void; there was a tangible presence there with me that exuded evil. Although I did not seem to have a physical body, I felt myself slowly turning to face the direction from which the evil presence seemed to be emanating. It latched onto my non-existent “ankle” and, slowly at first but with ever-increasing speed, it started spinning me crazily around and around a central point. I could not move, or break free, or scream. When I finally awoke, I was absolutely traumatized. I did not believe in “demons”, and yet what I had experienced certainly evoked a demonic presence.
Back then, of course, the internet was far from a common presence in people’s homes. Computer classes had barely been introduced in my high school. Also, I was in a strange place. I had recently become a foster child living in a friend’s home. My new foster parents were devoted Southern Baptists who made us go to church three times a week, and my relationship with my friend was in a weird place, too. I was already the stereotypical Basket Case girl at school. Who the hell was I going to tell that I was experiencing episodes of “demonic possession” whilst I slept? I was convinced I might very well be insane. I mean, why not? Everyone else already thought so.
I kept my night-time fright fests to myself. I got married, had a kid; still, no one knew–not even the man who was my husband and the father of my child. It wasn’t until the early aughts when I stumbled upon a discussion thread about sleep paralysis that I finally learned what it was that had been happening to me sporadically through the years.
If you’ve ever experienced a revelation of this magnitude, then you can imagine the feelings that washed over me as I sat on the edge of my seat in my family room, leaning toward the computer monitor, drinking in every word with my eyes, clicking on link after link after link. I wasn’t crazy! At least, I wasn’t crazy like that. Lots of people had the same kinds of experiences that I did. There was a name for it and science and everything! Ho-Ly Shit.
Knowing that my encounters with demonic presences were a manifestation of sleep paralysis did not magically make my problem disappear. I continued to have episodes, as well as recurring dream themes that did not always lead to full-on paralysis experiences but that I believe were related nonetheless. The recurring theme was either a snake or a lizard with huge teeth that would chase me. Sometimes I would escape from it just to realize that I had inadvertently locked it inside with my family or my dog, and then I would be forced to have to go back and face it again. I remember one particular dream in which just such a situation had occurred. I stood facing the door, which in the dream had a glass panel. I was psyching myself up to go inside when the lizard/snake thing lunged toward the glass and struck it forcefully with its fangs. I awoke at that moment, sweaty and clammy with my heart pounding, grateful that I never actually had to push that door open after all. Eventually, though, I figured out that this was entirely the wrong attitude to take. If I was ever going to be free of that horrible creature, I was going to have to open the damn door and step inside.
Eventually, I got to a point at which, when I dreamed of the toothy pursuer, it became slow and dull. Its teeth were no longer such a prominent feature. The last dream I remember in which it appeared, I was in a room that was presumably my living room. The creature was attempting to chase me around and around a sofa. I remember strolling around that dream couch, sneering at that dream snake, and feeling powerful. I nearly lapped the little fucker. HA!
My experiences dealing with sleep paralysis were similar. The first thing I learned was that I could break the “bonds” that held me by forcing myself to vocalize or move, even slightly. It sounds a lot easier than it is. Remember: this is sleep paralysis. It requires an incredible amount of willpower and may involve a prolonged struggle to break free. The first time I managed to wake myself by producing sound I nearly scared the hell out of me because my voice sounded strangled and demonic. It still does, every time I have to awaken myself that way (which is more often than not since it’s easier for me to vocalize than force other movement).
I almost always experienced sleep paralysis whilst lying on my side. It’s problematic because that’s generally how I sleep: on my side. (Most people enter sleep paralysis while they are in a supine position–lying on their backs). Lastly, I noticed that episodes were usually preceded by a sensation of weightlessness. Some people have likened this to an “out of body experience”. I can’t really speak to that, as –with the exception of that very first, harrowing night– I never felt as if I was “outside” my body. I just felt like I was, in actuality, floating above my bed. I could feel my body begin to rise off the mattress, and if I just let it happen I would end up somewhere near the ceiling. The solution was simple, of course. If while drifting off to sleep I started to get that feeling of levitation, I would exercise that tremendous will of mine and force myself to turn the fuck over.
Now, none of this is to say that I managed to avoid episodes altogether. Sometimes it happened as I was drifting into sleep, but at other times it happened as I was emerging. Heading it off in the latter scenario is a lot harder than in the former because I’m already actively dreaming.
Oh. But wait. That stuff with the scary-ass lizard/snake/whatever I was talking about earlier? That lucid dreaming stuff? Yeah. I got a lot of practice with that over time, and I learned how to stop the demons in their tracks. The last time I remember having a sleep paralysis episode, I was dreaming that I was in this cool house that was apparently mine. I was in my son’s room. It had a wood floor, and there was a small, red, rectangular area rug near the foot of the bed. There was an invisible presence there, but it seemed weak, and I knew, and it knew, that if I stepped on the area rug I would be in its control. Strangely, I didn’t get scared. I got MAD. I said out loud to the seemingly empty dream room, “Ok. FINE. Let’s do this,” and I deliberately stepped onto the area rug LIKE A BOSS.
And… I woke up.
As I said, I haven’t had an episode in some time now, and I’m not entirely certain why this is. I would like to think I’ve conquered it, but even if that isn’t the case, I no longer fear the demons. They have no power over me. I’m glad I saw the blog post about it, though, because it helped me remember some things:
I am powerful. I have a remarkable well of inner strength. I can face my demons.
And I can win.