Hi everyone, I hope your all well and having a wonderfully creative and productive day, excelling in whatever it is you have going on right now.
Today I’m sharing a short piece of narrative non-fiction about the first time I experienced sleep paralysis – a truly terrifying, though harmless experience that can affect anyone at any time.
If any of you would like to comment and share your own experiences with sleep paralysis, then please do. I’m always curious to know how it affects other people.
The Shadow Man
I was five years old the first time I ever felt honest to goodness fear. Sure, I’d been afraid before – like a lot of kids I was afraid of the dark – but that’s not the kind of fear I’m talking about. I’m talking about the kind that digs in deep and gets under your skin – the kind that leaves an imprint on you and lives on as a part of you for the rest of your life.
I suppose what I’m talking about really, is terror and my first encounter with it occurred on a wintry night in late 1991.
The night began just like any other. My dad took me upstairs to bed, tucked me in and then – at my insistence – performed his nightly inspection of all the dark corners of my bedroom to make sure there were no monsters lurking about.
The sweep for beasties always began with a thorough check of the large space beneath my bed.
‘No monsters there,’ my dad said getting up off the floor.
‘What about the closet?’ I asked.
He stepped over to the large freestanding wardrobe in the bottom corner of the room opposite my bed with its top laden with dusty old suitcases. The ancient, wooden doors creaked when he pulled them open and stuck his head inside. ‘No monsters in the closet,’ he said, ‘where next?’
‘Behind the bedroom door!’
My dad pushed the bedroom door closed and dramatically waved his arms in the corner where the door had been. ‘All clear,’ he said, ‘not a single monster to be found!’
Although I knew, even at five years old, that my dad was just trying to make bedtime fun and distract me from my fear of the dark, I always felt relieved when he declared my bedroom a monster-free zone. It made me feel safe – as though I was sleeping in an impenetrable fortress.
‘Remember,’ he’d always say right before closing my bedroom door, ‘there’s nothing in the darkness that isn’t there in the daylight.’ Then he’d smile and be gone.
The moment the door was closed, the bottom half of my room immediately became enveloped in darkness. The top end, where my bed sat under the window, was bathed in the warm orange glow of the street lamp that stood just outside our front garden.
I turned to face the wall, staring into the orange glow to distract myself from the darkness and soon, I was asleep.
At some point in the night, I woke up. The instant my eyes opened I knew that something was wrong. I couldn’t move. It felt as though there was someone sitting on top of me, pushing down on my chest, but there was nobody there.
I panicked and my heart raced so hard that I thought I would die. I tried to move a hand – even a finger – but my body was frozen. Only my eyes worked and they darted around the room as I tried to force a scream out of my throat. Nothing but silence came.
My eyes tried to focus on the street lamp’s light. I didn’t want to look towards the bottom of the room. There was a strange sensation that seemed to pulse through me, I think it must have been dread, and it became more intense whenever my eyes would inadvertently flick over towards the wardrobe. It was during one of these times that I saw it.
As fear tightened its grip on me, my eyes came to rest on an oddly shaped shadow stuck between the freestanding wardrobe and a built-in closet next to it.
My mind frantically tried to make sense of the strange shape. I certainly hadn’t noticed it before. Whilst part of me wanted to know what it was, another part wanted to be looking at anything else.
As my eyes focused even more on the odd shape, it seemed to coalesce into a recognisable form. There seemed to be a body (I could only see the torso section because of the wardrobe’s bulk) shoulders, a head – the shape even seemed to have an old fashioned wide-brimmed hat.
The more I stared, the more it started to look like the shadow of a man – only, the shadow seemed to be a solid, three-dimensional form and, it seemed as if it was blacker than the ambient darkness.
The panic I’d been feeling turned into abject terror. I tried to cry – to scream. I wanted my dad. I wanted to get up and flee, to catapult myself through my bedroom door and along the landing to my parents’ room but my body wouldn’t budge. My limbs were frozen and it felt as if the weight of the world was pinning me to the bed.
I kept my eyes on the shadow between the two closets, too afraid to look away now in case it hid somewhere else while I wasn’t looking. I stared hard, burning holes into it with my eyes.
And then it moved.
It’s head, which had appeared to have been dipped low, as though it were looking down at the floor, suddenly flicked up and towards me.
The shadow had eyes now – bright red, pinhole eyes. I was screaming in my head, willing sound to come out of my mouth. There was somebody in my bedroom, hiding in a dark corner, and he was looking right at me!
I strained against the pressure on my body, staring at this person the whole time, wishing my dad would just come in and save me.
Then my hand flinched, and the instant it did, the strangest sound came out of my mouth. It was as though the tail end of a dozen screams were just released – dying the moment they left me. It was enough though. My dad must have heard me. He came running across the landing, flew open the bedroom door and came to my bed.
‘What?!’ He yelled, panicked, ‘what’s the matter?’
I pointed to the corner of the room. ‘There’s a man hiding in the corner!’ I squawked.
‘What, where?’ My dad sprang into action, searching the room in a frenzy. ’Where?!’ He said again. When, after a moment or two, he hadn’t managed to find anyone, he sighed and came back over to my bed.
‘It was just a bad dream,’ he told me, ‘there’s nobody in the corner.’
‘But, I saw him,’ I said, still crying, ‘he was really there.’
My dad sighed again and tousled my hair. ‘It was just a bad dream, that’s all. Sometimes when we wake up after a nightmare, we think what we’ve dreamt really happened, but it didn’t. It’s just your imagination.’
With that, he tucked me in again and headed back to bed, though he left my bedroom light on. For a long time, I just stared at the spot in the corner where I’d seen the shadow man. I was afraid to look anywhere else, in case he came back.
Eventually, I dozed off.
In the full light of the next morning, I had a good look at the corner where the closets were. I couldn’t make sense of it. It had felt so real.
My fear of the dark grew worse after that, and I developed a bit of a fear of going to sleep. I needed the landing light and the bedroom light to be on so I could feel comfortable, and for a little while, I couldn’t fall asleep without somebody lying next to me.
During my late twenties, I began to experience the paralysis and the shadow man regularly and – afraid there might have been something seriously wrong with me – I made an appointment to see my GP.
‘Well, it definitely sounds like sleep paralysis to me, ‘ he said when I’d explained what I had been experiencing. ‘It happens when the brain’s safety system malfunctions.’
‘Yes, the human brain is remarkably clever. When we enter REM sleep, the brain sort of switches the body off so that we don’t act out our dreams. Sometimes, it malfunctions and you start to wake up before your body has been switched back on.’
‘But, I’ve been seeing things,’ I said.
‘No doubt. I bet you’ve felt a presence with you in the room even when you know there shouldn’t be anyone there. You’ve probably seen strange lights, shadows and the like.’
‘Actually, yes, I’ve seen and felt all those things.’
‘It’s fairly common, ‘ said the doctor, ‘in fact most people experience sleep paralysis at least once in their lives. Some, however, like you, have regular episodes – though nobody really knows why some experience it more than others.’
I felt instantly relieved. At least I knew I wasn’t going crackers.
‘It’s not dangerous, though it can certainly be distressing and there are things you can do to try and reduce the frequency of episodes,’ the doctor told me just before I left. ‘Making sure you properly wind down before bed is key, and also, keep a journal to see if you can spot any patterns. Figuring out what triggers it might help you to prevent it.’
I thanked him for his help and headed home.
Since then, I’ve done a lot of research on the subject of sleep paralysis and, although I still panic when it happens, it has gotten easier to deal with. It helps to know that there are millions of people the world over who experience sleep paralysis regularly.
I still sometimes think of my dad’s words, ‘there’s nothing in the darkness that isn’t there in the daylight.’ The truth is though, there are things in the dark that aren’t there in the daylight – at least for those of us who experience regular episodes of sleep paralysis – our brains become like movie projectors – projecting our dreams into the room as we lie semi-conscious and paralysed.
The strangest thing of all that I discovered about this particular sleep disorder, is that unconnected people, living all over the world often experience the same types of hallucinations. Often, there are reports of shadow people, old hag type figures sitting on peoples chests – it’s even been suggested that sleep paralysis is the reason some people believe they’ve been abducted by aliens.
Perhaps that means we’re all connected somehow, at least on a basic level, or maybe it simply means that we all have the same basic fears which cause us to manifest similar dreamlike visions. What do you think?
As always, thanks for reading, I know this was a bit of a long one, but I appreciate you sticking with it if you did.
Until next time,
© 2019 GLT
Categories: Creative Writing, Narrative Non-Fiction
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