Since I was a child, I have been plagued with both hypnagogic and hypnopomic sleep paralysis accompanied by what is often referred to as waking or lucid dreams. While medically harmless, as symptoms of underlying mental health issues, insomnia, and stress, they can be quite distressing. Many claim it is related to supernatural events due to the sensation of an otherworldly presence, but it is simply a sleep disorder. Most of us might have an isolated episode or two in our lifetime that lasts for seconds up to a few minutes. Once the fog wears off, you may remember it, and you may not.
I am not one of those isolated cases. It might be a sleep disorder caused by underlying issues, but at the time it’s happening, it doesn’t feel harmless. It’s easy to understand why so many would look to a supernatural explanation. If you’ve had a hypnagogic or hypnopomic episode of sleep paralysis and remember it, you will recall disturbing feelings of being suffocated by an unseen presence on your chest and perceiving someone is in the room with you. And not just any something. Anyone who can recall their episode(s) will tell you that it feels particularly menacing, perhaps even evil. You feel a very real sense of danger, as though you were at risk of dying, and that is amplified by the fact that you’re desperately trying to move, to get up, to run to safety only to find you are paralyzed and at the mercy of whatever invisible demon lurking in the room with you.
It’s the perception of evil, the sense of danger, the inability to protect yourself or call out for help, and the vulnerability and defenselessness that has forced itself upon you that makes these experiences so overwhelmingly terrifying. Those of us who deal with these episodes on a regular basis might be able to acknowledge once the paralysis has abated that we logically know we aren’t really in danger, and that there is no evil presence. However, when you’re in the grips of each episode, that logic can do nothing to keep you calm as you lie there helpless.
Some of us also have these episodes accompanied by hallucinations or lucid dreaming. It’s not quite so simple to explain to someone how profoundly those hallucinations or lucid dreams exacerbate the terror we feel during these episodes. What I can tell you is that it can be akin to being trapped in your own personal horror movie. Before the abuse, I would wake to paralysis in the middle of a dream that I was being chased by an attacker or that I had been pushed off a ledge precariously situated above miles of concrete.
My dreams do not stop when I wake in this state. While I was asleep, the dream might have played out in the woods at night or above a bustling city street, but when my eyes open, the backdrop becomes my bedroom, and I am simultaneously aware of both things occurring in real life around and the terrifying events of the dream at the same time. I would awaken and finally break free of the paralysis to being wildly out of breath, heart pounding from running. Sometimes, I would feel the attackers hands still gripped around my arm. I would break free of the paralysis as I dropped through the air from the ledge feeling that knot in my stomach, grabbing wildly at the air in front of me, and then feel my body slam into concrete that was no longer there.
It should be no surprise, then, that once I have an episode at night, I desperately try to force myself to stay awake until morning, because once it begins I will have multiple episodes that night, and they escalate for days afterward.
If I thought the episodes of sleep paralysis were disturbing before the abuse, they are now desperately, distressingly horrifying. Gone are the days where I would wake to dodging an assailant or falling against the concrete from a ledge. Now they intermix with the demons in my nightmares, the demons of PTSD and terror I hoard away in the recesses of my mind far away from everyone’s prying eyes, memories (brutally violent and humiliating and crushingly sad) safely in the shadows restricted by the white, porous vault of my skull. Tucked away there, they hide and lurk in the darkness and ambush me when I am least expectant of their attack. Now it’s not a simple matter or running and falling and hitting pavement. Now it goes too far.
For the obvious reasons of not wanting to trigger anyone reading this post, I will decline to go into detail about the kinds of things I see and feel and relive both in my dreams and when I’m awake and locked in paralysis. I will say that it’s frighteningly real and almost exactly as painful as it was to live it in real life. I feel the beatings and the injuries that lasted for months after the physical wounds healed. The fear is real. The anxiety and panic stalk me as oppressively as my ex did.
Ironic, isn’t it? How everyone says memories cannot hurt you. I submit to you that they can, because it happens to me whenever the episodes of sleep paralysis strike. The dreams have triggered problems with my legs and migraines resulting from his fist slamming into the back of my head like a jackhammer. In a dream. In a hallucination of sleep paralysis. It is not real, but it might as well be. All the symptoms I had during the beatings that took place are present.
Memories can hurt. I know, because they hurt me.