Ah, I am writing this after having just awoken from one of those lovely Sunday afternoon naps—the kind where you don’t exactly plan on napping but simply start to drift off while reading for pleasure or watching a rerun of a show you’ve seen a million times. You’re doing something not very important because it’s Sunday and for some amazing that means you don’t feel as bad about not working out or watching a Gilmore Girls marathon on Soap net or eating nachos for dinner. I tried to nap earlier today but it was only three hours after consuming major amounts of coffee while out for brunch and I found myself lying awake and thinking, “this is what people who can’t sleep must feel like.”
I have never really had trouble sleeping. I’m great at it. I am almost as good at sleeping as I am at making a delicious guacamole. I know this is a blessing and millions of people have trouble sleeping at night, but I have rarely lied awake in bed for longer than five minutes. I will often sleep until noon when I don’t set an alarm. (I don’t recommend this as it is usually followed by intense feelings of having wasted your life.) I have fallen asleep while talking on the phone but neither do I recommend this as it is never appreciated by the person you are talking to even if it is 3 in the morning. (Can’t believe I did that so often–sorry.) I never even have trouble sleeping on the floor, or in close proximity to another person. (There was a certain spring break trip that involved ten people splitting the cost of renting a one bedroom condo. Yes, one of us did sleep in the kitchen.)
Of course, being able to sleep on command is not necessarily a good thing. Feeling sleepy and irritable during the day when you are unable to nap is bothersome, if not destructive to your career performance or personal relationships. Excessive sleepiness can be countered by maintaining a steady sleep schedule, eating right, and exercising—the three most important things to staying healthy! Or, your sleepy-ness could be out of your control and need to be diagnosed or medicated. Sleep disorders are very common, and I have been suffering from one for the past year and half or so.
I was taking a beloved afternoon nap when I awoke in my bed to find that I could not move. I couldn’t lift my arms, move my legs, or fully open my eyes. I could see the room, and was very aware of where my body was and also saw my roommate Emily enter the room, when I began shouting for her to wake me up. This lasted for about thirty terrible second before I was able to jerk my head enough to wake myself up. Emily was not home.
Feeling frightened, I did what anyone else would do. I googled, “I wake up and I can’t move.” Try it. You will find hundreds of links leading you to information about sleep paralysis. You will also learn that many of the webpages about this disorder not only mention demons but have pictures of creepy ghosts and ghouls on them. Very reassuring.
Despite the creepy 18th century paintings of demon-possesion, I dug a little deeper and found out this phenomenon is relatively common (although I have not met a real person who I know who has experienced it) and not dangerous. Your body becomes paralyzed while you sleep in order that you don’t act out your dreams. Smart thinking, really–but sleep paralysis is when there is a miscommunication. Basically your brain is saying “I’m awake now!” and your body is saying “Noooo, you’re not!!”
The creepy part about all of this is that I almost always hallucinate. I have only experienced sleep paralysis while napping (this is typical, because your body is unaccustomed to the unusual time of day and/or length of a nap) but I either see someone who can help me, or hear an intruder in a distant room. The last time I had SP, there was someone in the kitchen banging around. Other times, my boyfriend has entered the room and I have called to him for help. I have also seen my mother. No, I have never seen dead people. It isn’t like a dream. When I wake up fully and can move again, my hands and feet and body are right where they were when I was hallucinating. The only thing not there is the person I could see and hear so vividly. A description that is almost identical to mine is on an episode of This American Life called “Fear of Sleep.” Skip to two minutes in and listen to Denise’s quick story. Or listen to the whole episode, because it rocks.
Now that you think I’m crazy, I should say that this has only happened to me about a dozen times. It’s enough to write about, but not enough to disrupt my daily life. If I do experience sleep paralysis, I am usually able to calm myself down and remind my crazy brain that no one has walked into the room. Although I refuse to believe I am being possessed, I have actually found that talking to God while it was happening was very effective in waking my body up.
I haven’t given up on naps completely, but they are rare. I now try to nap in moderation—only when I am very sleepy or didn’t get at least six hours of sleep the night before. It’s amazing how thankful I have become for a peaceful nap, and the whole experience has been a reminder of how much we don’t fully understand about the human brain and body. I could write forever about how freaking weird dreams are, but I will refrain and simply leave you with my story and hope that it has provided some comfort for those who struggle to find peace and rest. When it comes to sleep, we’re all a little crazy.