Nearly everyone's had a nightmare or two I would imagine. Some, like me, are so plagued with them that we have to take prescription medication just to keep from waking up screaming every night. But what happens when your nightmares no longer happen when you're sleeping? What happens when you wake up when you should be dreaming? This is the phenomenon called sleep paralysis, and for those that experience this it is a truly frightening ordeal each and every time.
Nearly everyone knows about the REM, or rapid eye movement, sleep cycle. This is the part of your sleep cycle where dreams happen. During this time also, in a normal sleep cycle, your body is paralyzed. This is to help keep you from acting out your dreams. In cases of sleep paralysis physically what happens is your conscious mind becomes awake, but your body stays paralyzed. Completely paralyzed. You can't move any part of your body, you can't talk, you can't scream, you are frozen in place. That in itself is terrifying, but what happens in your mind makes it so much worse.
Even though you are consciously awake and aware of your surroundings, for example if you are in your bedroom you know you are in your bedroom and can see your room from the direction you are facing, but you are still in this dream like state and will experience hallucinations. One thing that is commonly reported by people who have experienced sleep paralysis is an overwhelming sense of dread or fear and a feeling that they are not alone and that there is an ominous presence in the room with them that means to do them harm. I can tell you from experience this feeling is very real and very frightening. Even after experiencing this many times it's impossible to rationalize with yourself in this state and remember that what you are experiencing will pass. Each time feels like you are experiencing it for the first time.
Another thing that can be experienced, and I have experienced, is visual and auditory hallucinations. In some there are creatures that are trying to get me, in others there are people talking to me and telling me strange things. Sometimes the walls are melting or swirling, and sometimes I just hear loud buzzing noises or ear piercing sirens. I've never had one that I would say is pleasant. I would describe all of them as disturbing at minimum and downright frightening at worst. For me there is almost always some sort of hallucination, and even after the actual physical paralysis is gone it can take a second or two for all the hallucinations to stop as well.
It seems like the episodes last for hours, though I know that's not true. In some cases I've been facing a clock and have seen one go on for about 15 minutes. Others I think only last a few minutes, but it's really hard to grasp a concept of time when you are experiencing all of this. I am usually screaming for help in my head, and I think it's coming out of my mouth but it's not. I usually gain the use of my vocal chords first, though not my tongue, and am able to make moaning sounds that then alert whoever is around that I am in distress.
Those that know me have learned that those noises mean I need to be "woken up" so to speak the rest of the way. Usually that means talking to me or even touching me to help pull me out of it. This itself can take a few tries and is frustrating to both me and them. A lot of times if they are talking to me I am answering them, but it's only in my head that sound is coming out. That results in both of us getting frustrated. Once I finally do start coming out it's important that I sit up or move otherwise it's easy for me to slip back in to that state again.
After I've had an episode I am usually pretty shaken up. It's hard for me to describe what it feels like to someone who has never gone through one. People don't understand the fear behind losing all ability to move but still being awake, but not really being awake because you are hallucinating. I think that it's also hard to understand why it's still so frightening after I have experienced it so many times. One might think that by now I would be able to say "Oh, hey I know what's going on here. I'll be just fine in a minute or two." But the reality is when you are in that moment it's like you have never experienced that before. Your brain can't remember the other times. All you can think about is how scared you are right now because the fear is so overwhelming. Sometimes when I finally get out of one I just want to cry, but then I feel so foolish and weak for falling for that stupid mind trick one more time.
The medication I'm on for my nightmares also helps with the sleep paralysis, but I can only take it at night. With my chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia I sometimes need a nap during the day. Anytime I nap during the day there is a pretty good chance I am going to have an episode of sleep paralysis, it's just the price I pay for trying to get some sleep. I hope one day they find another way to stop this from happening, but until the I live in fear every time I close my eyes that I will be waking into a nightmare.