Having experienced what I now know to be sleep paralysis since childhood, I first passed it off as severe nightmares. But when it struck again in adult life, I quickly realized the limitations of this diagnosis.
It is notoriously difficult to write or talk about dream-like or semi-conscious states, so I will begin with the basics. In its broadest definition, sleep paralysis relates to a sensation of being unable to move or speak in the moments that follow waking up or, less commonly, falling asleep. This will often take the form of being conscious and aware of one's own surroundings, without being able to move, talk, or in some cases, breathe. It can be a one-off or a regular occurrence, and it's noticeably exacerbated by other sleep-related medical conditions, as well as anxiety and depression. Yet, people with no apparent mental health issues will commonly suffer from sleep paralysis too, with an estimated 7.6% of the general population
experiencing it at some point in their lives.
I fall into the small category of people who have, at different times, suffered from sleep paralysis on a regular basis. These bouts struck throughout my childhood, and then again in my late teens and early 20s, and seemed to always correspond with times of stress and irregular sleep.
The sensation of paralysis is distressing, but it is the accompanying visions — often explained away as paranormal activity — that transform the condition into a source of acute dread and anxiety for many sufferers.
I will always remember a bewildering exchange with my doctor while I was still a student. Suffering from sleep paralysis on an almost nightly basis, I had decided to see whether there was a medical explanation or solution to the problem.
“I keep waking up and not being able to move and then this strange...”
“Woman appears in the corner of the room,” she replied.
Later, browsing through archive issues of The Lancet
, one spine-chilling reader's letter from 1962 jumped out at me. Its description was an eerie echo of my own haunting experience. In it, M. D. Kaye wrote: "I also believed, falsely, that a close relative was [also] standing over my bed. She was looking down at me, leering, and held a knife poised above me, as if ready to strike."
Many sleep paralysis sufferers are also thought to experience hallucinations
. These vary from sensations of floating and pressure being applied to the chest, to seeing a sinister figure appear in the room. The latter is so common that the condition has colloquially been referred to as the "The Old Hag
" for centuries.