When my mother started having what she called her "spells," I, of course, started to have them too. I've never been one to let a loved one suffer a medical condition on their own.
When I first experienced the same strange and horrifying nocturnal freak-outs my mother had been complaining of there in our little one-bedroom apartment in Knox County during our lost year, I knew that this was different from the time my sister broke her foot and I developed a limp. This was no sympathy pain or attention-seeking behavior. My mother, for once, took me seriously. And it was decided.
The only logical explanation for what we were experiencing was supernatural. Possibly demonic. Either we were being haunted, or our souls were leaving our bodies nightly. The light of day always made this sound ridiculous and we smiled and shook our heads and made jokes.
But when it happened to us at 3am, it was no joke.
Upon our return back to northern Kentucky, Mom went through a battery of tests. She wore a heart monitor for a month, submitted to a stress test, had a brain scan, and spoke to someone who I think may have been a psychologist. All was normal. Our old family doctor shrugged it off, and as the years went on we had fewer of these episodes. Though they did not go away entirely. Since it's rare to have one of these episodes now, years have gone by since I last thought about them. Until I read an offhand comment left on my favorite blog last week, and I realized what so terrified my mother and me has a scientific, medical name.
Basically, it's a moment of mental wakefulness but physical paralysis early in the sleep cycle. You have all the crazy brain activity and dreaming of REM without being fully asleep. You also have the physical paralysis associated with REM sleep, which doesn't bother you so much when you're deep in slumber.
It bothers you a lot when you're not in slumber and are hallucinating that there's a demon in the corner of your room.
Trying to give myself a good scare on Halloween, I read the comments section of a blog post where readers were asked to talk about the most terrifying thing they had personally experienced. One responder mentioned sleep paralysis and the hallucinations that come with it. I gasped.
So that's what that was. Huh.
Further research reveals that some people feel a presence pushing them down into their mattresses. Other people feel themselves levitate. Still others see nightmare creatures that, of course, aren't really there. My mother and I experienced all three.
The worst was always the nightmare creatures.
Mom frequently sensed a dark male presence just at the foot of her bed and once saw horns sticking out of the shadowy figure's head. I usually saw ordinary objects transform into terrible apparitions.
The first time I experienced what I now know was sleep paralysis, I was snuggled with Annette, my knock-off homemade Cabbage Patch doll, sewn by a friend of my mother's to tide me over until the real thing was easily available and affordable. I relaxed under the covers and in a lightning flash felt the world shift. There was a buzzing noise inside my head. My eyes were transfixed on Annette and I realized I couldn't look away. I couldn't move my eyes, or my head, or my limbs. I willed myself to scream but could not. Annette's face then began to change, turning monstrous and evil and alive. You know the clown in Poltergeist? Annette became that clown. And I was powerless to escape.
I know, right?
Having a name for this still doesn't explain a few things about it. Why, for instance, my mother and I suddenly started having them at the same time. And why any time we travelled together after I reached adulthood I would have a "spell." The last one I remember having, in fact, was one of the last times we went to Barbourville together and shared a guest room. In that one, I hallucinated that she morphed into your traditional large-eyed, oval-headed, pale-skinned Roswell-ish alien.
When I was finally able to move, I woke her up screaming, "Your face is white! Your face is white!"
We had a good laugh the next morning over coffee. I can't say she found it as funny that night.
Like many that have these, I've found ways to get myself back to reality-world when in the grips of an episode. Knowing that what I'm seeing (probably) isn't real helps bring me fully awake, as does concentrating on one body part that I'm trying to make move. If I can move a finger, I can break out of it. As a tired mom, I sometimes just will my eyes closed and hope for the best.
On rare occasions, though, I still freak out whoever happens to be sharing a bed with me by watching his face turn into a monster's and screaming myself awake. What can I say, it makes the hubby's life more interesting. Fall asleep next to me and expect the unexpected.
Now, at least, one of my problems has a name that isn't "crazy" or "mildly possessed." I'll sleep better at night.
Or not. But either way, I'll know any clowns I see in my bed are hallucinations.
(Insert joke here.)