My bed has always been one of my favourite places in the world. There's nothing I love more than lying in until midday on a Saturday, or vegging out in it watching TV after a long day at work. But for while my bed became a pretty terrifying place to be. Why? Something called sleep paralysis.
Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon that occurs during the stages of waking up that leaves sufferers unable to move or speak. Essentially, it means your mind is conscious and alert, but your body is still asleep. While it is usual for your muscles to be paralysed during certain other stages of sleep, the condition happens when the mechanism that makes your muscles relax doesn't wake up when you do.
I first experienced sleep paralysis a year ago, and at the time, I knew nothing about what it was or what caused it. I remember crashing out having come in from an early shift at my old job, completely exhausted from yet another 5.30am alarm. After what must have been a solid hour's nap, I awoke face down on top of my bed. As I went to roll over onto my side, I realised that I could not move.
Panic immediately set in. Why couldn't I move? What had happened during my sleep? Was I injured? As I reasoned that there couldn't surely be anything seriously wrong, I made another attempt to move, this time trying to shift my arm. Success! I had done it - or so I thought.
One of the things people who suffer with sleep paralysis experience during an episode are hallucinations, which occur due to still being in a transitional state. Some claim that they feel as if an intruder is in the room, but in my case, I hallucinated that I had managed to successfully move my body, and call out to my housemate in the next room. When I then came around from the hallucination, I realised that I hadn't done either, and this process repeated many times. While this was all happening, I was able to also feel my eyelids flickering, which is characteristic of the REM (Rapid Eye Movement) stage of sleep (one theory is that sleep paralysis results from disrupted REM sleep). My panic was also heightened by the fact that it also affects your breathing, making it more shallow and harder to catch a breath.
After what felt like forever (each episode usually only lasts a few minutes in actuality), I was then brought into a fully conscious and mobile state with a huge gasp of air, my heart racing as if about to pound out of my chest. With the experience so intense and terrifying, I felt emotional and was thankful at being able to move my hands, arms and legs.
Following my first episode, put it down to being some sort of weird dream caused by the fact my sleep pattern was so erratic due to a constant switch between early-starting and late-finishing shifts at work. Months then passed and I thought nothing more of it. However, after I had a few more episodes, I reverted to being a four-year-old again and actually became scared at the prospect of going to sleep, just on the off-chance I would wake up and have another one.
I also thought a lot more about paralysis more widely. While I know my experiences are nothing compared to what people who have locked-in syndrome or those who are para/tetraplegic are faced with every day of their lives, it made me realise how much we take for granted things like being able to walk to the shop, or speak to a friend on the phone.
Around the same time, I started to ask around among people I knew, and coincidentally I found out that a friend had also been experiencing the same thing. She told me she'd been to the doctors, who told her it was sleep paralysis. I then started to read more about it, hoping there was a way of making sure it didn't happen again.
But it turns out there isn't a cure as such. Instead the symptoms can only really be improved by changing your sleeping habits and environment, and making sure you're getting at least six to eight hours of good rest a night.
Since then, I've been trying really to change my approach to sleep. Having always been a night owl, trying to switch off for an early night seemed like an impossible task. However, slowly but surely, I'm learning to accept when I'm tired, and realise there's no shame in going to bed an hour or so earlier. I've issued myself with a laptop ban at least two hours before bedtime, and am trying (albeit a little unsuccessfully) to break the habit of checking Facebook/Twitter/Instagram/emails on my phone before going to sleep. And having not had a case of sleep paralysis in a while now, it looks like it is paying off, and my bed is not such a scary place any more.