September 25, 2009

Held Down by a Ghost [jenna]

Experience has taught me that I had better not take a nap if I can possibly avoid it; at times, though, tiredness triumphs over fear. If I must sleep in the daytime, I can spare myself a lot of trouble by waking at thirty minutes or so, but sometimes my body won't give up its rest; when that happens, I know what it will mean. Somewhere between sixty and ninety minutes, sleep changes, and REM sleep begins. For me, REM sleep is best saved for the night and the dark.

The sun comes through the living room window, shining over the couch. Having slept a full sleep cycle, I wake--that is, my brain wakes. With waking comes the immediate sense of a serious problem: my body has remained asleep, locked in position. My mind races, but the muscles are bound in place, unable to move. I cannot bend a finger or open my eyes; I cannot even draw a deep breath.

Taking several shallow, sharp, quick breaths, I try to push my knees down, away from my torso. The seconds tick by as I concentrate, till at last the spell breaks, my body wakes, and I breathe deeply. I sit up to prevent myself falling asleep again and take more deep breaths to dilute the adrenaline rush.

Sleep paralysis. According to Wikipedia1, the Turks call it karabasan, "the dark presser or assailer", a creature that presses on you and takes your breath. Mexicans call it se me subió el muerto, translated "the dead person got on me". The Japanese say kanashibari, "bound or fastened in metal", and the term has crossed over into English usage. Those of African descent, who are especially prone to it, call it a number of things including "The Devil on your back" or "The witch is riding you." The Irish, amusingly, who refer to it as "on the pig's back", think of it as the result of having told a lie the day before or of consuming bad whiskey (I can debunk that easily.) "Held down by a ghost" and "held down by a shadow" are Vietnamese expressions.

In the English tradition we find the term "Old Hag syndrome", after the idea of an demonic figure sitting on one's chest; Mercutio describes it in Romeo and Juliet. The Old Hag may be related to the word nightmare, as "mare" comes through Germanic and Old English roots with the concept of a malevolent spirit.

For those of us who experience it--which, again according to Wikipedia, is perhaps most people at least once or twice in a lifetime--the above expressions can be summed up in the word terrifying. An awake mind in an asleep body is a perfect setup for panic. I have found two ways to fight the experience: sometimes I can talk myself into going back to sleep, after which I might wake normally, but most of the time I force myself awake. The latter course of action entails exhaustion and shaking, but feels more bearable than submitting mind to body in return to unconsciousness.

Sleep paralysis occurs when REM atonia persists after the brain awakes. The atonia is a chemical shutdown that paralyzes the sleeper, preventing him from acting out his dreams in bed. The waking paralytic state can last anywhere from a few seconds to a few minutes, and may be accompanied by intense feelings of dread and even frightening visions, as suggested by many of the cultural denominations; the Hmong call it "crushing demon" and commonly report the apparition of a small figure sitting on their chests. A sleep evaluation is recommended to anyone who suffers sleep paralysis over an extended period of time, to check for narcolepsy, of which it may be a symptom.

Some scientists think the visions some people experience in moments of sleep paralysis may explain alien abduction reports. I am grateful to have not experienced anything quite so dramatic. Though I've heard footsteps around me (rather creepy), only once have I actually seen anything in the paralytic state--my mother, putting flowers on my coffee table and talking to me, which was not at all frightening. I wanted to sit up and talk to her, and couldn't, of course; when I did manage to wake myself fully she was not there. Mine, therefore, is not the most compelling story; it is more kanashibari and less karabasan. Google searches turn up many a weirder tale.

Having outlasted the episodes once, I don't feel the need to put a fork under my pillow (as do the Maltese) or drink only the best Irish whiskey to escape the binding, though I might if I thought it would work. For those of us non-narcoleptics, the best fixes are to get enough sleep at night, avoid stress, and to not sleep supine (face up). Wearing an eyeshade during naps may help, too, as light decreases melatonin and low melatonin levels are suspected as a partial cause.

In the meantime, if you've got the Devil on your back, you're not alone.

1 Wikipedia: article on sleep paralysis, (accessed Sept. 22, 2009)


  1. Wow....this used to happen to me all the time, several times a year. It hasn't happened at all this year yet that I can remember. I honestly never looked into it & just thought it was a result of a bad dream I must have had (it's very rare that I remember them). I'm glad you wrote on this! Maybe I should look into it a bit more...

  2. I've never had this happen to me before. I can't even begin to imagine how scary it must be to wake up and not be able to move. I love all of the different perspectives you brought in. I find it very interesting how other cultures are quick to turn to the spiritual possibilities and Americans are quick to turn to the medical possibilities. We probably need a little of both.

  3. BTW...I love napping in the afternoon :)

  4. I think this only happened to me once and as Julie said, I thought it was just the result of a dream. I found this very interesting. You engaged the topics in different ways and went down avenues I never would have thought of.

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