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As with everything, sleep paralysis is most unbearable in its incipience. You feel a terrible proximal dread shortly before your body seizes up. After registering what is about to happen, you are left to anticipate the excruciating dilation of time; during the ordeal, seconds seem like minutes, a perceptive shift which feels eschatological. Once the paralysis has introduced itself to you, the host, it creeps stealthily from the gut outwards into the limbs and eventually conquers the extremities. There might be time to utter a brief cry before the final surrender which leaves you protesting soundlessly and flailing movelessly.
A grim aspect of sleep paralysis is the fear that you might suffocate. It’s not that your breathing stops - I’m quite sure it doesn’t - but you feel certain that if the oppression got any worse, even by the slightest degree, suffocation would follow. You’re teetering on the verge of calamity, always anticipating the worst, and, in ironic result, enduring something far worse than that threatened fate. If lengthened indefinitely, this anticipatory state is so much worse than death that it is paralleled only by Hell. The thraldom of sleep paralysis obliquely recalls St Teresa of Avila’s vision of Hell as a place of ultimate confinement:
…there was a hollow place scooped out of a wall, like a cupboard, and it was here that I found myself in close confinement […] I had been put in this place which looked like a hole in the wall, and those very walls, so terrible to the sight, bore down upon me and completely stifled me. — from The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself (1565)
I’m also quite sure, though I can’t find my source for this at the moment, that Gerard Manley Hopkins shared the eschatological inflection of my view of sleep paralysis: “It made me think that this was how the souls in hell would be imprisoned in their bodies”.
The physical constraint is made infinitely worse if you’re among the unfortunate number who endure hallucinations of the macabre kind. I am rarely visited by wraithlike figures towering over my bed or little demons sitting ominously on my chest with a cosmic weight matched only by that of the Christ child on St Christopher’s back. Usually, my paralysis is unaccompanied by spectres, though recently I was greeted by a vision of my father who stood in the doorway and asked me what the weather was like. The pain of that episode was extraordinary; I was desperate to give him the answer that he wanted and felt a mad empathic surfeit of feeling towards him which, by virtue of paralysis, I couldn’t honour by replying that “it’s supposed to rain, so remember your brolly”. I lay in tortured silence as he faded away.
Of course, Dad wasn’t really there, as I verified the next morning (the vision was so lifelike that I woke up unsure if it had really happened). Not knowing whether one is dreaming or awake is an epistemic quandary felt with ultimate horror by Descartes - “my bewilderment is such that it is almost able to convince me that I am sleeping” - and evoked by Hobbes in his denouncement of empiricism - “appearance to us is fancy, the same waking, that dreaming”.
In the throes of sleep paralysis, like Lazarus, you’re caught between realms. You know where you are in the real world and you can perceive the usual dimensions of your surroundings, which is not the case in most dreams. But the veil between dreamworld and reality is rent and discarded by whichever phantasms enter the room and lurk tauntingly as you lie there, frozen and vulnerable, unable to respond to their rude interruptions or invitations to speak.
Sleep paralysis is disquieting because it makes that veil between realms seem porous. It’s phenomenologically destabilising (see the Dream Argument). Perhaps that is madness: a prolonged state of realmic intermediacy. More literally, I imagine madness as a state of feeling aware of yourself while being unable to assert that awareness in your environment and interact properly with your surroundings. If one is to continue living in that state, one has to take on an antic disposition and regard everything with insistent, wild mirth; otherwise, death is preferable.
The Dream of Life, by Michelangelo (c. 1533)