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To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

June 19, 2012

As far back as I can remember, at least since I was an adolescent, I’ve experienced frequent sleep paralysis. I didn’t always have the language to express what was happening to me, but I knew that there were times when I was lying down, sleeping  . . . but with an awake mind. And in those moments, frequently, my body was paralyzed, completely beyond my control. It was always an intensely frightening experience because I couldn’t control my limbs and wake myself up, when that was very much what I wanted to do. Eventually, I learned to wake myself up by controlling my mind and praying. Bringing my thoughts under control always resulted in a slow return to wakefulness.

By the time I finished college, a new symptom appeared to join the sleep paralysis: intense, vivid nightmares that occurred at the same time. As you can imagine, these dreams were particularly difficult to endure because I was, literally, paralyzed, and unable to do anything to help myself. In addition, it always took me several minutes to understand that I was dreaming, so the first few moments of any new nightmare were always, always terrifying. Eventually, I started to do some research and understood that what I was having wasn’t just nightmares, but more accurately fit the description of hypnagogic hallucinations. Hypnagogic hallucinations happen as the body is entering REM sleep. Because of this, they are experienced particularly vividly, and because the body is already in sleep mode, the dreamer often experiences sleep paralysis at the same time. Some theorize that many stories of alien abduction may in fact be recollections of hynagogic hallucinations, and in fact I can testify that some of my early hallucinations did feature people (sometimes strangers, sometimes not) standing over me as I lay in bed.

Eventually, the dreams became more terrifying: I had intruders in my house, whom I could see, as if I had a television camera, though I knew I was lying in bed and was powerless to move. My townhouse caught fire, and I could see the flames licking the main floor as if from a ceiling camera, though I was in my bed and could not rise to call 911, douse the flames, or save myself. The same strategy worked, though, as soon as I could wrangle my mind into submission and remember that this was just a dream: I could pray, calm my heart, and wake up.

By the time I was married, the hallucinations were less frequent, though, in seasons, they could come upon me frequently. I had now at least trained myself to make an audible sound, like a groan, so the Boss could wake me since he is a very light sleeper. Then we’d both go back to sleep, and the night would go on. I discovered, doing research, that sleep position might help, and the Boss and I quickly learned it was best if I didn’t fall asleep lying on my back.

For twelve years now, we’ve laughed that I’m “one of those people” that needs a lot of sleep. I know, because of my migraines, that it’s necessary for me to get from 7 to 9 hours of sleep. If I get too much more than that it can cause migraines too, but I definitely cannot get by on less. To the amusement of those who know me, I’ve also kept a pillow in the car for about five years. I always said it was because church is forty minutes away and I wanted to make good use of the time, but the reality is that I can fall asleep if we have a 10 minute ride home, and often do.

Lately, not only can I fall asleep in those 10 minutes–by the time we get home, I’ve dreamt.

And a new symptom has appeared yet again–EDS, or excessive daytime sleepiness. Again, no matter how much sleep I’ve gotten overnight, I am often sleepy during the day. Unless I am actively, physically engaged in an activity, I can fall asleep at the drop of a hat, especially in the early afternoon (2-4pm) and late evening (7-8pm). I cannot read quietly, study, or watch TV in those windows of time. Driving isn’t usually a problem, even if I’m alone, because I stay engaged enough by listening to podcasts, practicing what I’m learning or teaching, or singing along to worship.

When I had my intake interview with my new neurologist about eighteen months ago and discussed all these issues with him, he agreed that it was likely that I had a sleep disorder, and that if it continued to alter the length and quality of my sleep I might need to submit to a sleep study. I confess I am praying through whether it would be wise to do so. I’m afraid the first thing any specialist would suggest is more meds, and I’m about tapped out on the medications I want to take.

Unfortunately, I’ve made all the lifestyle changes that people typically suggest for sleep disorders: I’m at a healthy weight, I exercise regularly, and I generally maintain a very “clean” sleep schedule–going to bed and rising at the same time every day. I don’t usually eat a heavy lunch, though some specialists suggest going entirely vegetarian during the day may be even better, and I might have to try that.

Last night, the Boss had a church meeting, so I was alone when I went to bed. I had been working on transcribing the book of James, and had finished a few verses–it’s slow work for me to read and think through the Scriptures. I took my meds, glanced at the clock as I set my alarm, and turned in–and immediately had three vivid, terrifying nightmares, one after another. When I finally woke up–praying myself awake still works if I’m alone–it had only been twenty minutes. Most people take 90 minutes to reach REM sleep, so I know something in my brain isn’t firing right.

I’ll confess that what makes the nightmares (or hynagogic hallucinations) more difficult is that going back to sleep after I’ve had one is always a challenge. Though I rationally know that nothing in my dreams can hurt me, it can be a little like going back into a haunted house on purpose. It’s easier to stay up. But I know that what my body needs is sleep, and in fact the hallucinations are more frequent and vivid when my brain is most tired.

So, last night, alone in our small house, I returned to bed. But as I closed my eyes, I did so reciting Psalm 121.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
He will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore.

What a good time to remember that as I am struggling to sleep–to sleep soundly, blissfully, restfully–my Shepherd will not Himself be sleeping, but will be watching over me constantly. No matter what comes against me (yes, even a sleep disorder!), He is watching over me, now and always.

I woke up rested for this morning’s run. But I confess, it’s 1:30pm here, and I feel sleepy. As soon as I stop typing, I know I could nap. It’s a struggle not to see this as a weakness in myself, but to see it as an opportunity to be humble, to confess my need for Christ, and to wait and see how He will show Himself faithful in my story. The story He is writing here is not about me, after all . . . it is all about Christ.

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