'My eyes will open and I can see, but I can't move'

Last updated 06:00 16/12/2014
FRIGHTENING: Rachael gets no warning before an attack of sleep paralysis.

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I suffer from a sleep disorder called sleep paralysis

When a normal person goes to sleep the mind slows down and the body goes into a state of paralysis so that we cannot act on our dreams. In the morning, our body and brain wake up together so we are unaware that we were ever paralysed.

What sometimes happens to me is that I enter the dream phase of sleep and then my mind starts to leave the dream phase and wake up. Unfortunately, my body remains paralysed and I become aware that I cannot move.

It is very frightening for me.

It feels like minutes and minutes go by before I come out of it. I can come out of it sooner if someone gives me a shake. I always try to call out for help and my husband shakes me out of it.

You're probably thinking it doesn't sound so bad - you briefly can't move, someone shakes you out of it and that's it. Well, there is more to it.

When I have an attack, I have usually been dreaming and it's usually a bad dream. The sleep paralysis becomes entangled in the dream and at first I think the reason I can't move is part of my dream and I become frightened. Then I become aware that I'm having sleep paralysis and call my husband for help.

Sometimes at this point my brain can play tricks on me. Either I am not sure if the word help is coming out of my mouth or I don't know if my husband Mark will hear me.

To give you an idea what the dreams are like, during a recent attack of sleep paralysis I was dreaming that it was the end of the world. Then my legs felt hot and they felt like they were getting hotter and hotter and hotter. I started calling out for help and then I was aware I was having sleep paralysis.

My husband heard me and tried to shake me out of it, but at first he couldn't. After several shakes I finally came out of it but it was a very frightening attack.

Once the attack is over I have to wake myself up fully by getting out of bed, going to the bathroom and throwing cold water over my face. I then get a drink of water, return to bed, eventually go back to sleep and it does not occur again that night.

However, if I do not fully awaken myself, and instead let myself drift back to sleep, I will have another attack straight away. Some nights I have several attacks one after the other because I have not been able to get myself out of bed in time.

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One very frightening thing that sometimes happens is that I will have an attack and come out of it and manage to sit up in bed, then  drift back to sleep and go into another attack. But this time, because I am sitting up,  I feel as though my head and neck fall forward and my neck is being squashed into my chest. I feel I can't breathe and wonder if I might die. That's how frightening it feels.

I feel like I am really struggling to get the word help out. Just when dissipation sets in, and I feel like I am taking my last breath, I snap out of it.

Sometimes, if I have slept in in the morning, been reading during the day and dozed off, or had a rest because I felt under the weather, I will have an attack. Usually, but not always, when I have a daytime attack my eyes will open and I can see around the room but I can't move.

I remember one attack very well.

I was sitting in the lounge and my husband and children were in the room too. I ended up dozing off and having an attack. I could hear  everything my husband and children were saying to each other but I could not tell them I was having an attack.

Afterwards, I asked them why they did not help me. They said they did not realise anything was wrong as I looked so peaceful. 

Although I know it is not life-threatening, this condition of mine, I still feel very frightened each time it happens. I think part of the reason is that I am unprepared for the attacks, because they strike at any time. There are no pre-warning signs.

Also, often they are tied up with a bad dream or nightmare. Each time, it always seems a little bit different from the last attack.

I find it particularly upsetting when I go through a bad patch of having them more frequently as I often feel depressed and upset for the whole of the next day.

I feel upset because I feel shaken by the attack and I feel so alone. I have been able to find little information on my condition in books or on the internet. I have only once met someone else who I think might have what I have.

Over the years, I have seen documentaries of many sleep disorders but never on mine. I find it really hard sometimes because it feels like I am the only one with this sleep disorder.

I have suffered from this condition for 27 years. 

My parents decided to move from the house I came home to after my birth and lived in for 16 and half years. Just before the move I decided to go and stay in Palmerston North with my godmother. That was a big mistake as I was terribly homesick. I also believe it could have been the trigger for my sleep paralysis.

When I returned to Christchurch, my parents were all moved into the new home. Not long after that I had my first attack of sleep paralysis. I woke in the middle of the night and found I could not move. I could not do anything but just lie there. Eventually I came out of it. My body just suddenly jerked out of it and I could move.

I was very frightened and ran to my parents' room. My mother told me everything would be ok and I probably dreamed it. After that, whenever I had an attack I kept it to myself. I hated it every time it happened and didn't know if it was a real medical condition or all in my mind. I just knew it was really frightening.

Sometime in my twenties I finally decided to tell my boyfriend - later to become my husband Mark - about what was happening to me and he was very caring. But I still felt maybe it was a pyschological thing so I did not go to the doctor about it.

Mark was the only person who knew about my condition. I carried on suffering for another seven years.

By 2000, I was married and had two children. In early 2000, I had had a bad run with sleep paralysis and was feeling very upset. I decided enough was enough - I was sick and tired of suffering from this thing.

I made an appointment with the doctor who referred me to a neurologist. The neurologist diagnosed me with sleep paralysis.

It was good to know there was a name for what I had been experiencing and that it was a real condition and not just in my head. The bad news was that there is no cure, I have to live with it.

Sometimes I find that hard to deal with. I pray to God sometimes for a miracle.

The thing I wish the most though is that if I have to be stuck with this condition, I just wish I could learn more about it. I wish that there was a support group so I wouldn't feel so alone and would sometimes have people to talk to who know exactly what I go through.

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