I have experienced three episodes of sleep paralysis in my life. It wasn’t until recently that I had even heard of sleeping paralysis, much less sleep paralysis symptoms, so for years I was absolutely convinced that I had been attacked by a ghost. The first incident is the most memorable. It occurred during my junior year at West Point.
Late one night, I awoke with a strong sense of fear. In retrospect, I most likely woke up because of a nightmare. This is important because what it did was cause me to have an adrenaline response, which caused my heart to beat faster. In order to supply oxygen to my now faster-beating-heart, my body naturally tried to breathe heavier. Only, I wasn’t able to.
It felt as if a huge weight were on my chest. Perhaps not sitting on my chest, but actually inside my chest, squeezing my lungs. I tried shouting. Nothing happened. Words simply wouldn’t come out of my mouth, no matter how hard I tried.
I tried rolling over. No luck. I couldn’t move. Whatever was pushing on my chest had completely pinned me down.
In my mind, the fear mounted quickly. This is the point where I become absolutely certain I was being attacked by a demon. In my mind’s eye, I could see a dark figure hovering over me, pressing on my chest and holding my arms and legs.
Eventually, I was able to move my foot and leg, so I swung it back and forth until the weight of my leg pulled my body onto its side. Once on my side, I regained control of my body and was able to breathe again. After that, I was completely alert and awake. I wouldn’t have been able to fall asleep again even if I wanted to.
I didn’t sleep for three nights, out of fear that it would happen again, but I dared not tell anyone about the incident because I was certain they would think I was crazy.
Being awake for those three nights left me with a lot of time to kill. I spent most of it trying to research this strange phenomenon and figure out what had happened to me, but couldn’t come up with anything solid that explained it.
Now, I’m more familiar with the condition. It turns out that sleep paralysis is quite common and has been happening to humans for centuries. There are countless stories of ‘iron maidens’, which are a certain kind of spirit, sitting on a person’s chest and stealing their breath while they sleep. Now, research has started to indicate that sleeping paralysis can be caused by extremely high levels of stress. That makes sense considering I was attending West Point at the time.
Regardless of the cause of this phenomenon, I’ve found that it only happens when I sleep on my back.
I haven’t slept on my back in years.