Since the 1970s, autoethnographies (a form of research in which a researcher connects personal experiences to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings) have been used by researchers to explore and reflect upon different aspects of a personal experience. As more people are today aware of the sleep paralysis phenomena, I write in autoethnographic style, feeling no judgement or stigma as I share my sleep paralysis experience.
Whilst I’m not a practising Christian or overly religious, I chose to use the Lord’s Prayer throughout my experience, as it served as a comfort to me during my 30 years of feeling vulnerable and abused at the hands of sleep paralysis, and it is by no accident that when reflecting on my own experience it still brings me comfort and offers a pillar of protection against the unknown agents that intrude and take advantage of me during my most vulnerable state – whilst I am asleep.
“And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Amen.” – The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9-14 NRSV)
The episodes did not start suddenly. Instead, they began subtly at around the age of 23. I can recall a shift in my dream pattern that gained my attention. At that time, I was becoming increasingly unsettled upon wakening, as the experiences that took place during my sleep state took on, what I can only call a dark theme. There was nothing that I could categorically say happened as I slept. I only knew that an invasion of sorts had taken place that left me feeling afraid upon waking.
The gradual increase of the episodes meant that I saw them initially as random events and it was not until I began to fear going to sleep that I noticed their regularity and the impact that they were having on me. You see, it was very easy to dismiss them once I was awake. I could pretend as if it hadn’t really happened. I could live a ‘normal’ day with colleagues, friends and family without thinking about the terror that would invade my sleep. The paranormal didn’t exist in this normal world and I could fit in with people around me, having conversations that reinforced my ‘normality’. Whilst playing the role of being normal my conversations did not include anything paranormal, as I assumed that those discussions would upset the people around me who were not prepared for the topic of demonic intrusions whilst sleeping.
I created a self-imposed world where only I knew my secret. This meant that the subject of my sleep paralysis never came up socially and during those hours I was able to divert my attention away from my experiences. As the day drew to a close and the activity that had distracted me dwindled, I began to anticipate that the terrifying experience would happen again. I could no longer hide and pretend that they didn’t happen, and I had a deep feeling that ‘they’ were waiting for me to sleep. I was aware that the intensity and frequency of the visitations had increased and that the episodes were a regular and frequent part of my life that I could not control. I became anxious and afraid as I knew that I had to face sleep.
My thoughts drift whilst writing, as I recall the façade. By day I was an on-the-ball, action-driven team leader in a multinational organisation. By night I was a cowering, blubbering wimp in fear of sleep, convinced that ‘they’ were going to get me.
Within 3 months of my noticing the shift in my dream state, the experiences were extremely intense, prolonged and chronic. They were taking place five to seven nights per week and there were times when I would awaken from an episode, only to fall asleep again where it would start all over. They would also happen if I had a nap or dozed off. In most instances, I would go to bed normally, although it didn’t really matter where I slept.
At various stages of my sleep state, whether it was when I was in the initial stages of sleep or during the early hours of the morning ‘they’ would come. There are various scientific and academic arguments that relate to sleep paralysis happening only during the hypnogogic (going to sleep) and the hypnopompic (waking up states) (Jalal, Romanelli and Hinton, 2015 p.2). I have to say that this was not my experience. The sleep paralysis episodes would happen at any point of my sleep state.
A typical experience that took place as I was dozing off to sleep or after sleeping for several hours, would begin with feeling a distinct drop in temperature at my feet. I liken it to going into a pool of cold water that gradually rises the deeper you get. As the cold engulfed me, I knew I was ‘there’ wherever ‘there’ was.
Once I was ‘there’ I would awaken in complete darkness. I always laid still and moved only my eyes. I was on my back and at this stage, there was no motivation to move another part of my body. As I looked around, I could see shadows moving around my bed and I instantly felt foreboding anxiety.
There was an overwhelming sense of evil in this ‘space’. The evilness was far more than just a feeling. It pervaded my whole body. It was in the air. It was in everything that I saw. The fear and panic would start to well up within me as I knew that ‘they’, the ‘others’ were coming. The fear combined with the anxiety and anticipation of knowing that something which personified evil was coming generated terror within me as I could feel my body tensing up.
I could feel my eyes darting from side to side as my tension increased and, in that moment, I tried to move my torso to get up, only to find that it wouldn’t move. My arms and legs would not respond. In fact, I couldn’t feel my arms, legs or any part of my body and yet I flailed and rocked from side to side screaming and shouting, whilst not moving at all. I had an overpowering instinct to run and get away only to find that I had no choice but to endure the experience.
And then, from nowhere, it would land on my chest like a huge weight: a hunched, round beast with dark stubbly hair. It looked like a large troll with huge eyes. A conventional incubus. It threw its weight onto my chest. I continued to look up. I felt my ribs implode and I was engulfed by the mattress that was swallowing me due to the weight of the ‘thing’. I was being pushed into the blackness. I was sinking and, in that instant, I knew I was approaching death. I lost consciousness or so I thought, and I would either wake up shaking from terror yet glad to be ‘back’ or I would drift into ‘normal’ sleep.
The experiences tended to vary in intensity. Some nights there were only shadows and movement in the room and on other occasions the shadows would take the shape of a person. It would appear dense and solid without a face, and loom above me. I can recall whisps of smoke that would transform into a shadow, as it floated around the room.
I would often see myself in that ‘space’ as I watched from the ceiling or the corner of the room, which is how I was able to see the beast that would land on my chest. It was dark, yet I could make out the grey and black in its stumpy, patchy, fur-like skin. In those moments there were three of me. Me in the corner of the room watching the event, me on the bed with the beast on my chest and me, sleeping somewhat peacefully.
Upon waking there was always a clear recollection of the experience. The episode contained no storyline or actors, as there would be with a dream or a traditional nightmare. It was always only me, ‘them’ and the strange environment that we were in, which was somewhat similar to my bedroom.
Have you experienced sleep paralysis? Would you be willing to speak about your experience on a new podcast? There are many people who need support and could benefit from hearing your story. If you’re interested, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org expressing your interest.