After a lifetime of struggling with sleep paralysis, I stopped the episodes permanently.
Since I was a young child, sleep paralysis had been an unwanted nocturnal intruder into my bedroom.
It induced so much fear that I slept with a light on until I was well into my 30s.
Any unintentional disruption to my sleep schedule opened the door to nightmares and the accompanying frozen state. The relief of “it was all a dream” was instantly replaced by the terrifying realization that I was trapped in my body, desperate to get out, unable to move or scream.
Yet, there was another vague layer of anxiety when it was all over.
I didn’t understand what was happening. It was so frightening, I was too scared to tell anyone. I felt that if I did, it would be an unforgivable betrayal. It would be an invitation to something much worse.
Intuitively, I felt that I should not call attention to the problem. I later discovered that reading or talking about it would initiate a recurring cycle that could last months.
These episodes started long before the advent of the Internet, so the labels we have today weren’t in my vocabulary. I did not have the words like narcolepsy, parasomnia, hypnopompic or postdormital. These cold, rational scientific terms would later help me come to grips with what was happening.
Upon discovering the World Wide Web in the early 1990s, this phenomenon was one of the first things I researched. I found an explanation, it had a name and with it, came a great sigh of relief. I wasn’t crazy.
For the first time, I made the connection between sleep deprivation and paralysis and started formulating a plan.
The most frightening episode occurred when I was 19 and sleep-deprived from working nights, a worst-case scenario for sufferers.
I had fallen asleep late in the afternoon. When I awoke, it was dark in my room and I had the all too familiar feeling of not being able to move.
This time, there were hallucinations — vivid and disturbing images. These were of an epic cosmic battle playing out inches from my face.
Two shadowy figures hovered above me. One was black and “evil”, a malevolent misty demon from Hell. The other was white, but this was no angel from Heaven. I did not associate goodness with this entity, but rather I had a sense that it was “benign.” There was only a hint of a form to them, ethereal bodies that had attached themselves to me in dreamland and were now in my bedroom while I was awake.
They were wrestling each other, rolling about becoming one churning mass. I somehow understood the prize was my soul. The dark entity was viciously intent on winning; the white one wasn’t heavily invested in saving me.
I was way beyond terrified. Inside my mind, I was going into hysterics while my body lay frozen. I struggled to move a finger, a toe — anything to break the spell.
This was not something I imagined, it was not a dream. On some level, I knew it was not actually happening, but that was no comfort. Years later, I would understand hypnopompic hallucinations were common to sleep paralysis.
The white entity didn’t lose as much as it gave up and dissipated. I watched in horror as the filmy dark mass triumphantly sank into my body.
The fear was so great that I broke free of my paralysis, sat up in bed and screamed until my roommate came rushing in the room. I was traumatized and disturbed for days afterwards.
A study of more than 36,000 sufferers revealed that only about one-fifth of the population experiences sleep paralysis at least once. It is most common in those with narcolepsy, college students, and individuals with a psychiatric disorders, but it does occur to those not falling into any of these groups.
In the past, sleep paralysis was attributed to nocturnal attacks by incubi, sucubi, demons, and the “old hag.”
Psychologist and researcher Dr. Brian A. Sharpless notes episodes fall into three categories. The hallucinations feature the presence of an intruder, levitation or out-of-body experiences, or sexual assault with chest pressure.
Whatever the experience, many people find it distressing.
How I Ended Sleep Paralysis
I learned that I needed to get a good night’s sleep to avoid the episodes. But my husband’s snoring often kept me up and despite going to bed early, I could not avoid all the attacks.
My heightened sense of distress made the experiences darker. I knew the secret was to overcome my fear. I decided to try remaining calm despite the terrifying ordeal.
When a bad episode hit, instead of struggling to move or cry out, I immediately relaxed and reminded myself that my brain had awakened before my body. I told myself I was safe and it would soon pass. I breathed slowly, remained calm and tried to fall back asleep.
Sleep paralysis moved from a traumatic horror show to merely annoying.
Then during one episode, I thought to myself, “Oh, more sleep paralysis. I should go back to sleep. Maybe I will have a dream of flying.” That is exactly what happened, I was dreaming of flying over the countryside on the back of a great winged horse — except I was lucid. It was amazing.
I discovered that I could turn sleep paralysis into any kind of dream I wanted — visits to faraway lands, conversations with great thinkers, or learning new computer skills. Instead of dreading the episodes, I looked forward to it happening.
Shortly after overcoming my fear, I no longer experienced sleep paralysis. This coincided with the end of any nightmares, bad dreams or sleep walking. Sadly, I believe sleep deprivation brought on the paralysis and the induced fear caused the episodes to recur, but there is no supporting science for my hypothesis. I believe because I no longer felt distress over it, my life-long attacks stopped.