I only have one recurring dream. I’m being chased by a shadowy figure. Without need for conversation, I know he wants to kill me. I will do anything to escape–run, hide, fly, fight. But thick mud tugs at my feet, slowing my pace. A canyon opens up before me, hurling me over the edge. Or worse, I turn the corner and he’s there.
Then I wake up in bed.
Shaken, I pry myself from my covers. Catch my breath. Turn on the lamp. But the power’s out, and the figure is standing over me.
Then I wake up in bed.
This goes on, again and again, iteration after iteration. These first started when I was six. When I was fourteen, I became convinced that this endless cycle of dreaming was Hell, and I was trapped. Once, when home from college taking a nap, I managed to arm myself with a vase during one horrid chase, and four dreams later, woke up with a vase in my bed. Sometimes I sleep walk or sit up screaming, and most times I’m struck with extreme confusion around whether or not I am awake.
In addition to these dreams, I also see things that aren’t there. Transitional occurrences, I see them either as I drift off to sleep or back into the real world. The ceiling might warp, the room expanding endlessly. Sometimes I see spiders crawling everywhere, or elaborate duct work overhead . Fireworks, or bright lights descending around me like jellyfish. Once, I rolled over to find I was staring off a sheer cliff-face toward a roaring ocean tide. Once, I imagined there were boxes towering over me, and I jumped when they fell. Occasionally, I’ll hear things, like music playing, or a TV left on. Sometimes, I hear someone’s voice.
But most often, I wake to find someone standing in the corner of my room. Not a shadow, but a person with distinct facial features, hair, eyes, clothing. For years, I’d want to scream, but I couldn’t move. Couldn’t breathe. I’d just stare at them until slowly, they would morph into the landscape of my room and I’d be free.
Needless to say, I didn’t sleep for the entirety of the 8th grade. Luckily, black eyeliner and Avril Lavigne-esque eye bags were stylish. I was exhausted all the time.
A quick Google search will tell you that a number of religions, legends, and belief systems describe shadowy spiritual beings or supernatural entities such as shades of the underworld, and various shadowy creatures have long been a staple of folklore and ghost stories. My religious upbringing gave way to terror; could these be demons? Was I psychic? Or, maybe just as terrifying, could I be schizophrenic? Worst of all, I was afraid to pray, because I read once that the most pious were the most likely to be possessed. So instead I just stayed awake, staring at the ceiling and whatever being decided to join me in the night.
I stopped watching horror films (as you can imagine, Insidious was OUT). I devoured anything and everything that made light of the supernatural, including (but not limited to) an old fav, Supernatural. I became an expert on demonology and sleep paralysis, laughing off my own fear during the day, but then calling my (then) boyfriend crying at night because I was so terrified. Unfortunately, all the jokes and logic in the world help very little when you’re face to face with a soaking wet woman crawling up at you from under your sheets*. You know what’s on during the 3AM witching hour (when you’re potentially most likely to be possessed by a demon)? Golden Girls. I watched a LOT of Golden Girls. I bought medallions and tokens of protection. I began wearing St. Christopher’s cross.
*Not a joke. Really something I saw.
I was 25 before my exhaustion finally gave way to real concerns. In Spring of 2015, I spoke to a doctor who recommended me for a sleep study. After speaking with a sleep therapist, I learned that I exhibited 3 of the (then) 4 “pillars of narcolepsy:”
1) Hypnagogic (relating to the state immediately before falling asleep) and/or Hypnopompic (relating to the state immediately preceding waking up) hallucinations
2) Sleep paralysis (the inability to move or speak when waking up or falling asleep)
3) Excessive Daytime Sleepiness, or EDS
This was, as you can imagine, a huge relief. Now, my (usually) weekly visitors had a rational explanation, and not one that involved demons or mental illness. Narcolepsy! Who knew.
Having science collaborate your experiences is a great feeling, and for once, I felt like I had control over my sleep. I can rationally dismiss figures and shapes as hallucinations. A few deep breaths, and I’m unlocked from my paralysis. Now that Daniel and I are married, I’ve learned that having someone in bed with me helps me anchor myself. I use him as a gauge. Is the person standing behind him real? Obviously not. I am hallucinating. Or he’s been roofied, because he’s a very light sleeper.
I used to wake him, but even a man of steel can only be asked if he sees the lady on the ceiling, or the little girl in the bathroom, or the body in our bed, so many times before he gets spooked. So I keep it to myself mostly… but when one of us is out of town, I have no anchor. This is how I end up in precarious situations like this past Friday, when I watched Lucifer eat an apple on my dresser.
(I originally posted this as a thread on Twitter, but have elaborated the following here:)
The night started out normally. Daniel was hiking, and my routine when alone is to do a few sweeps and close doors behind me once cleared. When you hallucinate people, it’s best to rule out the possibility of actual break-ins. Especially if you have little ones. Once cleared, I went into my room and locked the door.
I try not to sleep on my back, because paralysis is more likely, so I climbed in bed on my side. “Okay, Google, play nature sounds.”
Rain started to fall. The streetlamp outside cast a beam of light on framed engagement photos hung on the wall. Clean sheets smelled of laundry. My eyes closed. Drifting away, I heard faint baby cries. I held my breath, waiting to see if they would fade; they didn’t. Conceding, I opened my eyes.
In the beam of light was the distinct profile of a man, his arm raising something to his lips. I froze. Widened my eyes. Focused. I reminded myself that the doors were locked, the dogs were in the house, therefore, he wasn’t real.
A photo focused into view, light cast to obscure half of it. The clothing in the picture somehow morphed into a man’s face. The arm was a branch outside, blowing in the wind. Obviously, it wasn’t real. Neither were the baby cries. I tried to slip back into sleep, but then I heard a voice.
Now, an auditory hallucination is a strange experience, especially a voice. There’s something in our brains that recognizes voices distinct from ourselves. It’s portrayed in movies & books, but it’s hard to describe hearing something that is 1) not real & 2) not of yourself.
What I heard, distinctly not of myself, was: “Kaleigh, wake up.”
My heart stopped. But I listened. I rolled out of my cocoon to find my room full of people. I sat the eff up. They stood, like pillars, in a circle around the bed. Twelve people, all perfectly spaced, perfectly still. Looming, would be a good word. And on my dresser, sat Lucifer, eating an apple.
Hallucinations are funny. You don’t often get multiple senses at once. It’s auditory, or visual. So I’ll be transparent and say he did not introduce himself. His ID as the devil was 100% my subconscious making that assignment. But make that assignment, it did. And it was f*cking terrifying. So obviously, I just stared at them. They didn’t go away. The only movement in the room, was the lever of Lucifer’s arm taking an apple to his lips. Over and over again. So I tried to go back to sleep.
You know the feeling when you can’t get comfortable so you toss & turn? This was like that, except I couldn’t get comfortable because there was someone standing at the edge of my bed behind me, no matter which way I turned. Eventually, I vanished into tumultuous nightmares. I dreamt of Voodoo, of skeletons wearing black hats. I dreamt of Norse mythology, of crows and snakes. I became convinced that the figures in my room were malevolent gods, there to curse me.
Then, someone grabbed my arm. I startled awake, but no one was there. My hand was numb. This was the obvious cause. No one in a locked house, in an empty room, can grab you. And then, as one is naturally prone to do when sleep deprived and faced with a room full of hallucinated demon strangers, I started to wonder: what if the devil is real? What if, he was in fact, sitting on my dresser?
I say this as a joke, but there’s a large disconnect between the rational mind and the irrational, exhausted one. It was 2AM. I packed away all my witching hour fears, and resolved myself to the fact that I’m not important enough to catch the attention of Satan himself, even if the Old Scratch is real.
Instead, I went out in my living room and woke up my dog, and made her come get in bed with me. If she couldn’t see them, I felt confident that the ghosts of my sleep were, in fact, just hallucinations.
I understand the symptoms, and I recognize the triggers. I know to expect these visitors when I’m alone, or exhausted, or during periods of extreme stress. I can use them as a warning that I’m about to overload, or that I need rest. I understand the ways my research and writing can translate into these strange manifestations, and I’ve been able to translate my experiences to one of my characters who believes himself to be preternaturally inclined. But after all the jokes, after all the science, in the depths of the night when I’m face to fact with the devil, I will probably always wonder if there’s something bigger out there.
What are your thoughts? Does your religion have something to say about these things, or do you fall on the side of science? Leave your comments below!