It’s early in the morning. You’re just beginning to wake up when a figure in the corner of the room catches your eye. It looks like a human form, but you can’t make out any sort of face. The figure comes towards you. It begins pressing down on your chest; you feel an awful weight forcing you deeper into your mattress. You try to cry out for help. You can’t. You can’t even move.
This is sleep paralysis. Though millions of people suffer with this terrifying condition, little is actually known about it.
Cathy Whitaker has dealt with the phenomenon for 18 years, and is no stranger to the dark, terrifying figures that loom in the shadows of the bedroom. The 54-year old woman from Melbourne seems to live a very “normal” life on the surface.
If you dig a little deeper, you would find out that Cathy struggles with depression that was first triggered after several family members passed away. Her depression was triggered again after a work-related accident. It was around this time that Cathy began to experience sleep paralysis.
“I was first diagnosed with depression in 1997 which is when the sleep paralysis started,” Cathy said.
The first incident took place just a week after her grandmother passed away. Cathy was terrified that she was experiencing a stroke and remembers thinking that she would be paralyzed forever.
“I was beyond terrified,” Cathy continued, “I went straight to my GP the next morning. He told me I was just having nightmares but sent me to a neurologist who said it was “nocturnal paralysis”.”
It was very common for Cathy to feel like someone was in the room with her. She recounts seeing a black figure wearing a hat who would loom over her bed.
Cathy beat her battle with depression and experienced a break from her sleep paralysis. Unfortunately, it all returned after an accident at work left her with a spinal injury and she was told she could never work again. The dark figure with the hat was returning more frequently than ever.
“I don’t know if I’m asleep or awake,” Cathy said, “It’s a vague hallucination… it’s fear… absolute terror.”
Every time the figure returns, Cathy finds herself completely frozen, unable to speak or move. She often will fall into a bought of paralysis as her husband is sitting in bed next to her. Though she screams out to him to shake her, most of the time he hears little more than a mumble.
Cathy was quick to realize that she was not the only one suffering from sleep paralysis, finding many online discussions regarding the condition.
Sleep paralysis occurs when a person is either falling asleep or waking up. During and episode, they are unable to speak, move or react to anything around them. Hallucinations often occur. Though it is sometimes linked to other conditions such as narcolepsy, migraines and anxiety, this is not always the case. Sleep paralysis can occur entirely on its own.
Cathy has learned to live with her condition, working on ways to stay calm and coach herself through episodes of sleep paralysis.
She hopes that as conversations about mental illness become more and more common that conversations regarding conditions such as sleep paralysis will soon follow suit. She believes that if doctors talk to their patients more effectively about this condition, the entire experience will be much less terrifying.