The Trouble with Sleep

by David Dennis


I like sleeping. Really I do.The problem is that sleep doesn't always like me. I was listening to This American Life recently and the episode was all about sleep, and reasons why people are afraid to go to sleep. Generally speaking that's not a problem I have, though I have at times in my life been scared of sleeping, which I'll explain.

I suffer from a number of sleep disorders, but luckily I came to realise none so severe as to ever make me feel the need to seek out serious medical help. But they are problems that the people around me have failed to take seriously. I get insomnia and have a generally erratic circadian rhythm, which will become an issue once every few months, meaning that for a couple of periods in the year on average I am a member of the walking dead.

However this has been an issue for me for as long as I can remember. When i was 7 or 8 I would have trouble sleeping, and get in trouble when my parents came to bed (some three hours after I was tucked in) and I was still awake. I learned to pretend to be asleep when I was checked in on, but overall I spent a fair amount of my childhood getting less sleep that I ought to have.

More interestingly though is that from the age of around 4 to the age of maybe 10 or so I used to sleepwalk. I'd be woken up by one of my parents in the morning somewhere other than my bed, most often sat in front of the TV or some other frequented location, with no recollection of getting there. This kind of faded away over time, but has occurred, or I suspect it to have occured at a few points in my adult life. It is a little confusing.

I also have night terrors. The kind of dreams where you wake up scremaing because the bad things are happening to you and you should scream. The bad things are so bad that your continued existence relies on you screaming for your life. So you're screaming at the bad stuff. Screaming at the very top of your lungs, and you're screaming just as loud as you realise that there is no bad stuff, you can't even really remember why you're screaming but it was bad and you're still shaking and trying to relax a full hour later, occupying the patch of cold-sweat you made in your sleep. I've woken up screaming and in the arms of my partner more than once, with no way to explain to him exactly why i'm a gibbering, incoherent wreck and 3:30 am on a tuesday morning.

This still, pales in comparison to my sleep nemesis, the sleep paralysis episode. For those not in the know, this is when you are more or less conscious, but your body is still paralysed - the effect that stops you accidentally killing yourself horribly in your sleep by jumping out of an plane in your awesome skydiving dream only to realise you actually jumped out of your 30th story apartment block window. There are a couple of distinct indicators that this is happening, asside from being unable to move. The first is that you have a sense of pressure on your chest caused by the way your breathing is regulated in your sleep (you do not want paralysed lungs!) and the second is the fact that you are in all probability still dreaming.

There are a number of common dreams, experienced by unconnected sufferers across the world - some of which you'll recognise thanks to popular TV shows of the last couple decades. The most common one that I have experienced personally is being paralysed on my back on the bed in a darkened bedroom with the door slowly swinging open, revealing only a blinding white light behind it. I don't need Mulder or Skully to point out the truth in this one. Another common one is linked to the feeling of pressure and restricted breathing. Where your vision is mostly a fuzzy grey except for two vaguely almond shaped black patches like eyes. I read a theory that these appear to correspond to the shape of the blind spots where the optical nerve joins the retina on each eye. Interestingly, asside from the description of aliens many descriptions of incubi and succubi involve little grey demons with large black eyes. You decide.

Another interesting one is a short, ugly, old woman with running black make up who sometimes sits on your chest (the breathing thing again) and is sometimes accompanied by a large man who is always shadowy and indistinct. I saw this old woman in an episode a few years ago, but her companion i remember vividly from a much younger age. Staying with my grandparents sometime around the age of 4 or 5 I remember feeling like i was suffocating. I panicked a little and the memory is indistinct asside from the only thing I could see in the room was a large, purple-ish swirling form of a man stood over the bed that my Grandfather was sleeping in. A few moments later i could breathe again and the hallucination was gone.

Other things I've seen range from the terrifying to the absurd. A completely flat/two-dimentional demon in the style of a slightly cartoonish tatoo flying around the bed. A man with a dog's head wearing a suit and fedora stood at the bottom of the bed (cynocephaloi?). Monsters of unintelligable and distinctly malign appearance that I can't even remember well enough to describe.

So there you have it. Reasons to fear sleep. Thankfully it seems that as I get older these things become less and less common, but they still occur occasionally. Wish me sweet dreams.