Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon in which people, either when falling asleep or wakening, temporarily experience an inability to move. More formally, it is a transition state between wakefulness and rest characterized by complete muscle atonia (muscle weakness). It can occur at sleep onset or upon awakening, and it is often associated with terrifying visions (e.g. an intruder in the room), to which one is unable to react due to paralysis.”
In some stupor of sadness I lay my head down, but not to rest. That’s not what going to bed means anymore. At night, the ghosts don’t just haunt you. They breathe inside you. Feed on your flesh. Familiar fears are fed new certainties. Old traumas take their new shapes.
In pitch blackness, the ghosts that might be ignorable in sunlight morph into the solid demons that are always dormant within you, the ones lying across from you in bed right now, staring into you with red eyes, bearing ragged teeth.
Without sufficient sleep, a brain becomes incapable of distinguishing day from night, reality from unreality, memory from nightmare. Lying there, aching, sunken, I’ve learned not to fight them anymore. Just wait. “But it’s no fun when you don’t fight,” the shadow demons say with high-pitched cackles, like nails on a chalkboard. When I start to feel their darkness press in, I know crying will just excite them, make the memories worse. But the body betrays you anyway—knuckles white, fists balled tight, nails leaving behind half-moon marks on the insides of my hands. Cold, dead fingers touch my thigh (“that’s my girl, that’s right, you like to fight”) and I know I’ve lost again tonight because I can’t distinguish if these hands are the ghosts of real memories or demons of imagination. Most likely, it’s both. A sharp sting and a trickle of liquid traveling down my palm lets me know I broke through my skin again, and I’m relieved. The small pain brings me out, and reminds me that I can—that my body at least still knows how to feel.
But in silence, tired minds will wander.
It always starts small—an embarrassing blunder, the time I got too drunk and couldn’t get my words out right and winced because I’m dumb, stupid, uncool, unintelligible, ignorable. But then he got it out for me, so it was okay. And then I giggle, remembering one of his blunders, somehow managing to see myself reflected in this brown-eyed, big, tall, male body—like my very own shadow on a day when the sun is high, nothing to be afraid of, nothing I can lose… But it always starts small, before it spirals. A warm hand on my hip this time (that’s my girl, don’t fight it, don’t fight him, fall, just fall, let yourself fall) and I’m carried under with comforts. Tonight I will sleep, tonight it will be easy, tonight I will be okay.
It always starts small, brings me down sweetly. But then suddenly I’m brought to the memory of looking across at a white wall, not really seeing, feeling the ground fall, as I hear him say through the phone, “You’re just not good for me.” And the phrase echoes over and over and over and over, over, over, over until it loses all meaning, until it’s all I can believe, until it becomes a permanent meaning, until it is tattooed onto the inside of my eyelids, until it is the other him (shadow him) and it’s really happening again—he’s really saying it—until it’s all of them and they’re all cackling, “not good enough, not good for anyone, anything, unseen, forgotten, unloved by each and every one.”
I shake that one off too, I turn onto my other side. I will not let them win this time, not tonight, cannot let them—
“I won’t die,” she said with defiance, a bravery I couldn’t understand shimmering in those big, blue, bug eyes. But, here, in darkness where the demons have reign; her eyes turn red—whole face red, bloodied, skin burt off; she’s on fire, screaming my name like I can save her if I drown in the bed of fire with her, screaming my name like I’m the one who’s dying, drowning, numb, can’t move, can’t breathe, dying with her, needles piercing through every pore and if I just flail hard enough, it’ll stop—she’ll be okay—life will stand still here…
When I manage to claw my way out this time, I’m already crying so I can’t even pretend to be brave anymore. All I can do is wipe away the hot liquid from my face, and whisper, “she is okay, she will be okay, she is okay, she—” but a faint and distant high-pitched noise cuts me short. My eyes fly open. I won’t do it tonight. Feeling for the switch, I flip it on. Give up. The familiar electrical hum allows me to take one long, slow breath. The demons won’t be able to take shape now.
But exhaling that big breath, my body shudders. A small noise comes out with it, like a wheeze, but really more like a cackle.