I am suddenly awake in the pre-dawn hours. The heater is rumbling in the hallway and I can feel Lor and Vixen lying on the bed next to me. I decide to roll over and check the time, to see if I should get up.
But I can’t roll over.
As I struggle to move, to open my eyes, to twitch a finger, I can hear my breathing accelerating, and my heart rate is suddenly an increasing drumbeat in my ears. Through the sudden cacophony of the sounds of my panicking organs, unable to move a muscle, only one thought keeps racing through my head:
Oh no, not again.
A Waking Nightmare
Sound like a thriller or horror fiction? It isn’t. It is actually my personal experience less than an hour ago. The common term for it is Sleep Paralysis, and it apparently affects quite a few of us. But it isn’t anything I have ever heard anyone else talk about. It also affects those suffering from obesity (and epilepsy, lucky me) at a much higher rate than the rest of the world.
Sleep Paralysis, also known as hypnopompic sleep paralysis, occurs when you are transitioning out of REM sleep. During REM sleep (while dreaming) your body shuts down your musculature, so you don’t injure yourself while acting out your more active dreams. If the transition is somehow interrupted (for example, by a seizure) you may suddenly be awake, but without control of your musculature.
It is also one of the single most terrifying things a person can go through. Suddenly, you are the main character in Metallica’s “One” – completely trapped inside a body that doesn’t respond to your slightest command.
There is also another sub-group who suffer from sleep paralysis more than the average: those suffering from sleep apnea.
The Link To Obesity
Sleep Apnea occurs when your breathing is interrupted while sleeping. In more severe cases (like mine before bariatric surgery) this can occur dozens of times in an hour, every hour you are asleep. The result is that your brain is suffering from oxygen deprivation the entire time you are “asleep”.
One of the main factors causing sleep apnea is obesity: the extra fatty material in the neck around the airway closes it off. This is referred to as Obstructive Sleep Apnea, and the heavier you get, the more likely it is that you will begin suffering from it.
Now, here’s where things get weird. Let’s say you already suffer from sleep paralysis. Now, you also develop sleep apnea, thanks to your weight. Your sleep is being interrupted every night by your inability to breathe.
How many of those interruptions might take place during REM sleep, do you think? Your chances of a sleep paralysis-inducing interruption skyrocket. The combination of Obstructive Sleep Apnea and Sleep Paralysis deliver a devastating 1-2 punch that makes a person not want to sleep ever again.
Silence is Consent
I actually hopped on my blog this morning intending to write a short explanation as to why I wouldn’t be blogging today. An hour ago I was still panicked, turning lights on throughout the house so I wouldn’t be in the dark. I didn’t think I had anything coherent to say.
But, it turns out I was incorrect. It could be as many as 4 out of 10 people suffer from sleep paralysis. And I have yet to hear a single person talk about it. It is embarrassing as hell, akin to wetting the bed. But it doesn’t signify that there is something wrong with you alone. There is something happening to your physiology, or your sleep patterns, that is causing this to occur.
The solution? Start with a sleep study. After my original sleep study, I was diagnosed with OSA. I was given a machine called a C-PAP, which provides positive pressure down the airway, keeping it open while you sleep.
Since then, I have also lost 100+ pounds, further reducing my apnea. In fact, last night’s sleep paralysis is the first I have suffered from in over a year.
The Path Forward
Luckily for me, I already have an appointment for a sleep study follow-up on the books for next month. I had originally thought I would be getting released from my Darth Vader mask. Now, I am no longer sure that is such a great idea.
If you are suffering from these symptoms – talk to someone. You are not crazy. This is not a sign of impending mental collapse. Get yourself to a doctor and start looking into treatment. Don’t wait until your next mind-shattering episode.
Lack of sleep ties into a host of other physical and emotional problems. Do not be chained to poor health for a moment longer than you have to be.
Just remember, you are not alone.