Writing Below the Belt: Sleep Paralysis

26 Feb

Most writers (and presumably other artist-types as well) train those around them not to ask the horrible question “where do you get your ideas?” The question is ridiculous at its base, implying that there is some place that writers have access to that others do not. At readings or author interviews that are open to audience questions, the question inevitably comes up. (You can spot the writers in the crowd by listening for moans at this question or the almost equally dreaded “do you write long hand or on a computer?”) Neil Gaiman has an excellent response to this: “Out of my head.”


Besides being an idiotically worded question, the question is also very personal and begs for some salacious true story that inspired the fictional one or some inner torment executed and explored therapeutically on the page. Because often it is exactly that, with a little wish fulfillment thrown in for good measure. Often it’s not so much having an idea and putting it on paper, but excising the idea by putting it on paper.

One of my major WIP deals with sleep paralysis, which many friends know I suffer from, and the question I was asked by my beta readers was not, “Where did you get this idea?” (which they would never ask), but “Is this really how it is? Where’s the line?” The more I write about it, the harder it is to tell, to remember. Replaying a formed scene over and over has a way of replacing genuine memory, which is amorphous and hard to hold on to without a replacement. I’ve had a recent resurgent episodes, and I decided to try an solidify in writing a truly nonfiction account to refer to.

8 years ago, when it starts: I open my eyes. It does not occur to me that opening my eyes doesn’t actually mean I’m awake. At first, I think I’m simply too sleepy to kick away the flannel sheets. My discomfort grows; I become aware that my back is stiff from sleep, my sleep shirt is bunched up under my hip, and my back is nearly baking from the cranked radiator. I kick out my leg to knock the blanket aside, except that I don’t. I feel it move with the same certainty as I feel remain perfectly still. No limb of mine has ever disobeyed a direct order, and it takes me several seconds to process what has happened, or rather, not happened.

Usually, shock is accompanied by a gasp, a sudden intake of air that provides the extra oxygen the brain needs to process and react to surprise. If shock turns into panic, the body floods itself with oxygen by hyperventilating. My body, however, does not do this, even though I am starting to panic. My body is asleep. My breath is slow and even, the healthiest thing in the world for a young, sleeping woman, and it feels like suffocating.

I start to sense someone behind me. Those little senses you get aren’t really reliable, half the time you turn your head and you’re proven right, but half the time the tickle on the back of your neck is just your own hair, and when you turn, there’s nobody there. But if you can’t turn, can’t move at all, a healthy, adult’s skepticism is the first thing to abandon you.

It feels as though my muscles should ache with the strain of trying to move, but it’s only my will that feels the strain, my muscles are still and relaxed, flooded with chemical peace. And I’m now sure that there are hands holding me still. I’ve been drugged, and someone is holding my still. I can hear a chuckle behind me as something finds this amusing. Why do you bother it says in a voice that changes with repetition.

It would hold me a while each morning, and then it would let me go, sometimes suddenly like a rubber band snapping under strain, and sometimes slowly, like impossibly heavy blankets being removed one by one. Some mornings found me running franticly across campus in my pajamas, gulping frigid air like someone who has just escaped drowning.

For about four months, my rationality completely depended on the time of day. Every morning, I was convinced that a demon was trying to possess me and I only narrowly escaped. By mid-afternoon, I dismissed this as a delusion and started to wonder about my sanity. By the time I would return to bed, reality had been perfectly solid all day, my limbs had responded to every reasonable request, and no voices had taunted me, so I thought I had been perfectly silly to let a nightmare affect me so.

Finally I sought answers and was casually, even dismissively, diagnosed: a wonderfully logical chemical imbalance that causes a condition known as Sleep Paralysis. Simple, really. Nothing to worry about. I simply produce a touch too much of the chemical cocktail that keeps the body still during REM. It sticks around, so my mind wakes up first, becomes fully ‘conscious.’ I remember the day of the week and what time I have to be somewhere, but my body sometimes remains asleep. Also, because the chemicals also cause dreams, there are often hallucinations. (This is often tacked on to the medical definitions. Also: hallucinations.)

Once, an elephant about the size of a donkey trundled into my room. It had no trunk, but rather a sideways human mouth, a lipless vertical slit with perfectly white dentures. Don’t ask me what this means, or if it means, because I don’t know. I prefer not to. What I do know is my memory of this event is as clear as any waking event I experienced that day. The only absolute assurance I will ever have that this did not in fact happen is that there was no later evidence an elephant had been there—no tracks, nothing knocked over, no freak of a quadruped in my bathroom.

The diagnosis is a double-edged sword: now that I know it, I can never not know it, even during an episode. During hynopompic (upon waking) paralysis, this is a great relief to the mind. I no longer have periods of irrationality where I believe in the hallucinations I have some mornings. I am conscious, after all, and can recognize the symptoms easily. They are hard to miss. I can identify the hallucinations for what they are, but that doesn’t make the demons, rapists, snakes, good friends who sit on the edge of my bed and cry, super-enlarged version of my cat, or any of the cruel (and sometimes, since we’re being honest, wonderful) visitors dissipate into dream-wisps. They remain three dimensional and impossible to avoid until my body catches up and realizes that it’s no longer asleep.

During hypnogogic (upon falling asleep) paralysis, knowing the diagnosis is a curse because I cannot help but fight it tooth and nail. I can feel it as it’s happening—I’m going to sleep wrong. I lose feeling but my thoughts do not grow light and fuzzy. Fighting paralysis is only mostly futile, after all. As I realize it’s happening, I claw at it, mentally screaming obscenities and imagining that I’m thrashing around. Imagining hard. A little like the times I tried to use the force as a kid. The hallucinations incorporate this. I see and feel myself gnawing on my own hand trying to wake myself up. (The feeling comes from the natural tingling of the extremities that comes from interrupted sleep cycles, the nerves reversing the pattern.) When I manage to break free, it may be forty-five minutes later. But I’ve gotten no sleep. I lay down to try again, but often I have to fight my way up again several times before my mind slips into sleep.

Okay-I’ll let that do for trying to truthfully convey the experience for now. One day, I’ll describe this in a way that comes closer to conveying the real thing. Probably in fiction, because sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.





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