Awake, but asleep
One night, when I was in my early 20s, I woke up in the middle of the night and could not move. Not an arm, a leg or even a toe. I couldn’t so much as turn my head, but my eyes were open.
I felt like something was holding me down, like I was wrapped 100 times over in plastic. I was trying to make my body thrash, but it was frozen.
I was stuck in the dark, so I cried out. But there was no sound. I couldn’t yell or even whine.
Along with this event, came an unbearable feeling that something bad was about so happen. A feeling that someone else was in the room.
I have no idea how long this lasted. It was probably only a handful of seconds but it felt like several minutes. It was exhausting, because in mind I was trying to flail. It was like trying to break out of a straight jacket.
Eventually, my head moved and soon thereafter my whole body jerked free, sending me tumbling out of bed. I was panic stricken, but there was no one else in the room and nothing had been physically holding me down.
I had no answers for what had just happened to me, save for briefly toying with the idea that some type of spirit had taken hold of me.
I simply hoped whatever had just happened would never happen to me again. But it did – and continues to repeat itself to this day.
What caused the episode was not the grasp of a demon, but rather a condition known as sleep paralysis.
Some researchers estimate that up to 50 percent of the population experiences sleep paralysis at some point, but only about 5 percent have reoccurring episodes. Lucky me.
Opinions on the exact cause are varied but it appears to materialize in people who have irregular sleep patterns and dysfunctional REM sleep cycles. This fits because I don’t sleep particularly well at night and I am a voracious taker of naps.
Basically what happens during sleep paralysis is that the mind wakes up while the body remains asleep. When a person enters deep REM sleep, where dreams occur, the brain essentially switches off the impulses to muscles so that you do not physically act out what is happening in your dreams. This is called atonia.
When a person has an episode of sleep paralysis their brain begins to flicker awake, but the body remains in this state of atonia. There really is no serious harm caused by the episodes, other than the fact that they are unsettling.
The feeling of dread associated with these episodes is what I find to be the most interesting component. This I something nearly all sufferers report, sometimes manifesting itself in the form of full blown hallucinations.
I myself have sometime felt that there was a dark shadow moving throughout the room. This is apparently caused by the brain still essentially being in a dreamlike state.
Throughout history episodes of sleep paralysis are believed to be the root of some demonic possession cases and are even thought to be the basis for alien abduction stories.
Some people say that they can wiggle their toes or fingers and eventually cause themselves to wake up. I can’t move any part of my body or talk, but I have found that I can control my breathing.
I usually try to speed up my breathing to the point that I am essentially panting and this helps propel me completely awake.
I am well aware that the whole situation sounds preposterous to anyone who has never experienced sleep paralysis. But if those same people ever wake up in the middle of the night and feel like they are trapped inside their own bodies, they will remember this column – or blame aliens.
-Chad Williamson is the managing editor at the Journal-Tribune.