Friday, March 28, 2008

Pre-Sleep Insanity

I'm fascinated by Sleep Paralysis. So much so that I will now regale you with tales of it. I didn't make Sleep Paralysis a link just now because I wanna be the one to tell you all about it. Because I'm fascinated by it. I believe I've already mentioned that.

So, have any of you ever heard of it? I secretly hope that you haven't, but that you've experienced it, and now I will officially be blowing your mind by explaining to you a crazy phenomenon that has haunted you all your days. Or not.

Before I knew it had a name, I called it Pre-Sleep Insanity. I didn’t know it happened to anybody else so it never occurred to me that there might be an official term (and I love official terms. Official terms mean you're not crazy. Or not that crazy.). I was out with a friend of my brother’s a while back. They’d been roommates in Japan. Somehow we got on the subject of Pre-Sleep Insanity and he said, “Oh, that’s kanashibari.” Mind blown. What?! You just drop the K-bomb like that? This is a known phenomenon? All Japanese people know about it?! 'Cause this guy is an American, and even he knew the Japanese word for it. Apparently it’s common knowledge in Japan. And I’ve since found out, in Asian culture in general (well, okay, one Vietnamese guy told me it was a known entity in his culture).

Now that I know the name, I’ve found a bunch of stuff on the web about it. (Well, hell, I hadn't actually done a recent search on it. Now that Wikipedia exists, of course there's an entry on it! Dang I love the Internet.) A Dr. Dement (I swear) at Stanford has a website. He says:

“Sleep paralysis consists of a period of inability to perform voluntary movements either at sleep onset or upon waking.” It almost always happened to me when I was nodding off.

This is the even creepier part:

“In some cases, when hypnagogic hallucinations are present, people feel that someone is in the room with them, some experience the feeling that someone or something is sitting on their chest and they feel impending death and suffocation. That has been called the 'Hag Phenomena' and has been happening to people over the centuries. These things cause people much anxiety and terror, but there is no physical harm.”

It’s the closest I’ve ever been to being haunted.

It happened to me a lot in college. Which makes sense according to the research because it can happen when your normal sleep patterns are messed up. And in college, naps ruled my world. I would regularly fall asleep while reading some dull tome. And that’s when they’d get me.

Now it’s not when you’re nodding off and you’re still sort of awake but you are dreaming too and you trip over something in your dream and you flinch in real life. That’s not it. That’s just falling asleep.

I had this fabulous professor for a class called The Ordeal of the Union. John Mills Thornton. He was a genius but wrote an exquisitely dull book: Politics and Power in a Slave Society. Reading it nearly killed me. Sometimes in one session of attempting to read it I would fall asleep four or five times. And each time I’d have Sleep Paralysis and try to yank myself out of it. And try to keep it from happening again. But I’d be too drugged by the book to just get up and change positions. See I was reading in my Pier 1 Papasan chair. You know those dish chairs? And I think it was that and the book that were fucking me. I’m just gonna try to describe what happens.

There’s a lot of different ways it’s happened to me. I’ll fall asleep on my back and I’ll feel my hands fall through my chest to rest on the bed beneath me. That’s no good.

You’re in it, and after it’s happened a few times you know you’re in it. And it’s uncomfortable. It doesn’t really hurt, but it almost does. And you can’t move. Sometimes you think your eyes are open. Sometimes you think you’re moving a little and maybe even making noise, but you’re not.

I watch them there ghost TV shows. Many times I hear someone describing their encounter (or, their alien abduction, for that matter) and they're giving a textbook description of Sleep Paralysis. And the "experts" interviewing them have clearly never heard of it. So, therefore, it must be ghosts.

I've even had an out-of-body experience, but I knew full well what it was. I was in college. I dozed off on the bottom bunk. This is what appeared to happen to me: I stood up, walked to the door of the dorm room, looked back at myself asleep on the bed. I knew it was Pre-Sleep Insanity, as I was calling it. But I'd never been able to "balance" it like this before. Walk the fine line of being the boss of it, without coming out of it. I started to walk down the hall and as I got a few doors down I lost it and whooshed back to my body. This feels nothing like a dream. It feels exactly like being awake. Even if you know what's happening, it still feels like being awake.

For me, it takes physical effort to get out of Sleep Paralysis. There is only one way I can describe it. It's like someone wraps his hand around my sternum and pulls. And you kind of gasp and you're out of it. It doesn't hurt, per se, but it's wildly uncomfortable. And that moment before you succeed in coming out, it's like your wrapped in Saran, except you can breathe. It does feel sort of like suffocating, like your lungs aren't properly inflating. And what especially sucks is if you're so sleepy that you snap out of it, but then slip right back in. It's like being an oxygen deprived yo-yo. Not that yo-yos are normally big breathers.

I'd like to describe some of my most memorable Sleep Paralysis moments. I will describe these events as if they are actually happening, but please recall that they were only happening very very vividly in my brain.

I'm around 22. I'm in a hotel in New York City. There for a business trip that I don't wanna be on. Very lonely. Afraid (of the business, not of the city or hotel, although Barton Fink clearly had the room next door to me). I want to say it's the Pickwick Hotel, but I may be making that up. The lobby is vaguely fancy. The room, however, is a tiny brown bathroomless Coen Brother's special. I go to sleep. (Okay, all that actually happened outside of my brain. This is where the paralysis starts.) Shortly thereafter I hear someone fiddling with my doorknob (that sounds dirty). Then the door opens. Slowly. I can't open my eyes. I hear someone walk in. Quietly. He (because it's a he) comes over to the bed. He's standing over it. I hear him breathing. I can't open my eyes. I can't open my mouth. I sense him lean over me. I feel his breath on my face. I can't scream. And here's the only thing that didn't ring true. In fact, maybe it was a sign that I was falling from Sleep Paralysis into sleep and a nightmare, if that can happen. As I tried to scream, I was foiled by a butterscotch candy in my mouth. Then I came out of it. Now if you haven't experienced this, you'll say this was just a bad dream. But it's nothing like a dream. It's exactly like reality. And happily, even though my brain fully felt this was happening, my mind sorta sorta knew it was Pre-Sleep Insanity.

Another time I was in ye olde Papasan chair. I was reading Mills Thornton's book. This is where the insanity starts. The TV was on (it wasn't). It was Oprah. I could see the TV, but the rest of the stuff that happened I couldn't see. And it's similar to the hotel thing. I assume this is the hag phenomenon. And while we're at it, people think the hag is on their chest. I think this is the weird paralyzed lung/sternum grabbing thing I feel. Anyhoo. There is a person in front of me. I can't see him. I think it's my boyfriend at first. Then I know it's not. He leans into the chair. I hear him breathing. He puts a hand on the rattan on either side of my head. I hear it creak. I feel the chair give slightly from the pressure of his arms. He looms right up to my face. I feel his breath on my face. I don't care for this (i.e. scared shitless). I "get myself out of it."

I don't think this is the same thing as "night terrors." I can't be bothered to look into that because I think it only happened to me once, if ever, and it involved an Asian man, a squirrel, and me flying out of my bed and "coming to" cowering in the corner. I think this is similar to the times back in the day when my sister would wake in the night and decide all electrical appliances were evil and unplug her clock radio and electric blanket. She would oversleep. She would be cold. And she would have a vague memory of her late night brush with demonic simple machines.

I don't know why I've always yearned to discuss Sleep Paralysis ad nauseam. I think because so few people know about it. And it's the kind of thing that is an epiphany for those folks who have experienced it but have no idea what it is. My mom said to me when I mentioned it to her, "Oh yeah, that used to happen to me when I was a kid. You'll grow out of it." And I did seem to. Or else I'm just no longer sleep deprived and napping in uncomfortable positions. I sort of miss it. And I will sorta be gleefully happy if it never ever happens again.

Okay, I'll let you go search the web about it now. Hell, now that I've written this post so chock full of "facts," maybe I should read that Wikipedia entry myself.

Anyway, don't you think it's cool?!?


Rockycat said...

Cool?! That sounds scary as hell!

Chrissy said...

it started when I was 13. I thought I was possessed by the devil. I called the experiences "trips" and would go running into mama's bed once I could wiggle a toe and get the he'll out. In college a group of fundsmentalists actually tried an exorcism and when the trips continued I thought I was really damned. I'll never forget the worst ones- the aliens, the soldiers, the hand over my face, the falling out of my body onto the floor. Now I have an escape route. I can alter my breathing so it wakes my husband and he knows to shake me free. Thank you for writing about this. I wish i'd read your blog before we met so we could share trip stories as well as cool iPhone apps.

Matthew said...

i need to get in touch with someone that knows what i am going through, PLEASE PLEASE somebody help me i feel like its going to kill me one day

Jo said...

Matthew, now that you know that it has a name, go to the doctor! I think the first thing to do is have regular sleeping habits. Sleep deprivation and napping are not your friends.