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18 Apr

I Had a Sleep Paralysis Demon. Here’s What It

Possibly you’ve seen the meme: “That is my sleep paralysis demon: [insert photo].” The viral idea builds on a really real condition through which an individual is conscious but unable to maneuver. In some cases, people experiencing sleep paralysis have frightening and even recurring visions. Often called sleep paralysis demons, these terrors don’t haunt nightmares, but reality. Unfortunately for me, I had my very own sleep paralysis demon. The one problem (well, besides the bone-chilling looming presence in my bedroom)? I had no idea what it was until seven years later (but more on that later).

I used to be a 20-year-old sophomore living in mandatory on-campus housing the 12 months I got here face-to-face with my sleep paralysis demon. After a protracted day of classes covering dense readings I didn’t fully comprehend (or finish for that matter), my anxiety from the workload and tight deadline was snowballing like the strain in a Stephen King novel. But, like every good horror story, bad decisions were made. There was a FIJI house party calling my name (my unhealthy coping mechanism), and FOMO to this particular college student took priority over chronic sleep deprivation.

And although I used to be exhausted and overwhelmed with all my looming assignments, I figured a 30-minute nap would do this trick before the pregame—short enough to present me time to compensate for a few of my work but long enough to present my brain a much-need zhuzhing. The massive sectional sofa in our front room appeared like a protected spot. My very own bed was a dangerous option where’d I’d get too comfortable and sleep too long. Plus, our apartment’s heavy and creaky front door would easily wake me as soon as my roommates returned home. And so, I let my mind drift off.

I got here to slowly, blinking on the ceiling. My site was clouded, but I could tell the sun had set; the blue glow from the emergency campus phones had taken its place. I heard a faint buzz coming from our bulbed “EAT” register the kitchen, followed by the shuffling of feet, which I registered as my roommate’s. An enormous decorative pillow lay on my chest, blocking my face from her view. The load of its stuffed polyester grew heavy, and suddenly, I felt the urge to shake it off before it crushed me. After just a few groggy and dazed seconds, it began to register that I wasn’t getting up. My limbs were lead and my mouth was glued shut—and who was that black, ominous figure within the corner of the room?

There weren’t red eyes, sharp teeth or other characteristic monster features. As an alternative, the onyx shadow looming in my periphery lacked any physicality and human attributes, and this absence of things overwhelmed me with essentially the most intense fear I’d ever known up until that time. But regardless of how hard I attempted to scream for my roommate to shake me or will myself to take a seat the hell up, nothing happened. I focused my vision on the ceiling, as if the longer I stared, the more my body would do as I wanted it to. I believe the experience lasted no a couple of minute, but that one minute felt like one hour. And like waking from a dream or nightmare, I transitioned out of the paralyzed state with a groggy and perplexed lack of expertise about all of it.

Dasha Burobina/PureWow

Scared and embarrassed, I never told anyone about what happened until seven years later when it dawned on me during a conversation where I first heard the term “sleep paralysis demon.” The belief sent a shiver down my spine. I had to grasp more. So I reached out to Dr. Rebecca Robbins, ŌURA’s resident sleep expert and a Harvard Medical School renowned sleep researcher. From our conversation, I learned that my college horror story was actually a sleep paralysis event, aka when “a sleeper wakes from slumber but cannot move,” throughout the REM cycle of sleep. As for that ominous shadow, Dr. Robbins says that hallucination often accompanies sleep paralysis, “a few of which might be quite disturbing and take the shape of scary figures, akin to demons or monsters.” Briefly: a living nightmare.

From the bloodshot all-nighters to my inebriated weekends, I used to be a walking ad for the everyday, rundown student. And after chatting with Dr. Robbins, it became clear that this lifestyle made me more vulnerable to experiencing a sleep paralysis hallucination. With no healthy technique to surmount all of it—tests, research, readings, essays, time management, social life, sleep and so forth—what other way for my subconscious to manage than to personify my stress into one big shadowy blob and scare the bejesus out of me? Its message: Get your shit together.

And get it together I did. A couple of things in my control that I’ve put into practice through the years: reduce on alcohol, read before bed and exercise day by day. Lucky for me, I haven’t seen my sleep paralysis demon since then, but when we meet again one forsaken slumber, I’ll make a degree to inform him I did manage to bag that double major in the long run.

Until then, sweet dreams.

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Originally published

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