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Things You Only Know if You Suffer from Sleep Paralysis

Numb limbs, silent screams and demons that sit on your chest and refuse to get up.

by Geoffrey, as told to Mathieu Portogallo
23 July 2015, 10:09am

The author in his bed. Photos courtesy of the author.

This article originally appeared on VICE France

Laying paralysed in bed has been a regular facet of my nocturnal life since primary school. Stuck somewhere between sleep and consciousness, it feels as if my brain is wide awake but, for some reason, I'm completely unable to move or speak. It takes all my strength to simply muster a few feeble whimpers. For a long, long time, I had no idea what it was, but now I know it's sleep paralysis.

Sleep paralysis is a condition that typically affects people who suffer from one of the various forms of narcolepsy, but it can also happen to anyone. The condition is characterised by the paralysis of one's limbs during the initial stages of sleep, and at times whilst one is waking. Episodes of sleep paralysis can include hallucinations – the most common of which being an eerie sensation that someone else is present in the room with you. According to Webmd.com, as many as four out of ten people have experienced or will experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lifetime.

Read : Rodney Ascher's new documentary on sleep paralysis will give you the creeps

I've never really discussed the issue with my parents but I feel it has had a genuine effect on my personality. As a child, I would sleep in my mum's room and if she heard me groan, she'd call my name, waking me immediately. It used to reassure me – as if I had a shield of sorts. As the years went by, I ended up categorically refusing to sleep alone in my room; I needed someone to be there with me.

Sleep paralysis always rears its head right as I'm about to doze off. I just lie there feeling paralysed and as if some dark and blurry presence is hovering slowly above me. The shadow floats about and inexorably draws itself closer and closer to my body until I manage to shut my eyes. I sweat profusely but there's also an inexplicable air of coolness that has nothing to do with the actual temperature.

For me, the "intruder" manifests itself as a feminine presence – some sort of "dark lady" – but there's been a handful of times when I've perceived it as a masculine energy too. It's like clockwork: I hear a strange sound and then she arrives; Her shadow begins to gradually increase in size, quite slowly at the beginning, then violently. The shape sits on my chest and refuses to remove itself until I feel completely numb. Several minutes later, I somehow externalise my fear and inexplicably regain my ability to move.

I can't count the amount of times this has happened. I'd be lying if I said that I'd grown used to it, but I've managed to learn to live with it. It's like a mathematical equation that you're never quite capable of solving. As a kid, I used to think that this only happened to me, so I never really talked to anyone about it. It was only years later, as a teenager, that I began trawling the internet for answers and realised that I wasn't the only person to experience sleep paralysis.

Through my own research, I learned that the condition has had various names throughout different cultures. The Chinese call it "gui ya chuang" – which roughly translates to something like "the ghost in bed". In Muslim countries, it is often referred to as "djinns" or "genies." In Cambodia, where my family comes from, people often talk about the feeling of being crushed or of an evil presence. Throughout the Middle Ages, women-shaped demons – known as "succubi" – were said to seduce men in their sleep. These creatures were said to serve Lilith, the first wife of Adam according to the Talmud and the Kabbalah.

The author as a child, in his room.

If I am to look logically at all of this, it's obvious that the more stressful my days are, the more agitated my nights will be. When I'm feeling confident and relaxed, I experience these sorts of disturbances much less.

I've also learned to tame my fear. These days, I try to look at the dark shape and communicate with it – I even get aggressive sometimes and start to insult it. I used to need a while to gather my wits so I could fall back asleep again, but now I just wait for the manifestation to disappear and then immediately drift off.

Still, I will always remember my teenage years – a time when the phenomenon took on terrible proportions and occupied a huge part of my life. One time, while sleeping in a shared room with friends the presence arrived again – only this time it was masculine. It might sound crazy, but I was convinced that it was going to rape me. I bolted up out of bed to see my friends staring at me with the most worried of looks. I tried to tell them what had happened but then just gave up. Explaining everything would have taken far too long.

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