Sleep Paralysis

Letter 2

by Freya Gillespie

   “While we usually think of being asleep or awake as clearly defined and distinct, conditions like sleep paralysis challenge these fixed boundaries.” This is how begins its page on sleep paralysis. Sleep paralysis challenges fixed boundaries. It reads more like an academic theory of identity politics rather than the terrifyingly claustrophobic experience of losing control of one’s body. But sleep paralysis is a distinctly liminal state, a strange land outside of time between sleep and wakefulness.


   Over the summer I found myself passing through this transitory land. I awoke in the middle of the night and in that moment was sure I could hear my downstairs neighbour trying to force through my apartment door. Panicked, I tried to wake my bedfellow, to warn them of this intrusion. But my hand could not reach them, and no voice came out to warn. So I lay there, desperate to communicate with this person beside me, who I’ve shared all my secrets with for the last 7 years, rendered incapable by my body.


   This physical block to speaking, to expressing the feelings of my body, made me think about all the things we cannot say. The incomprehensible feelings of the body; illness, injury, trauma. Even with those we love is there a way to express the most subjective and personal sensation; pain. Emotional, stabbing, dull, growing, financial. We do not have the lexicon to classify different pains. How do we begin to share this with others?


   In her essay On Being III, Wolf describes the inexpressibility of pain:


English, which can express the thoughts of Hamlet and the tragedy of Lear, has no words for the shiver and the headache.


This seems an achingly lonely position to be in, to be in isolation with our grief, our anxiety, our cramps. Awake at night, curled in a ball, crying into a pillow. In a world where our understanding of intimacy is built on shared experiences, going through something alone can seem counterintuitive to building connection. But she also says something rather comforting;


We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest, tangled, pathless, in each; a snow field where even the print of birds’ feet is unknown. Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable.


   Should we always be searching for the right words? Transforming the feelings of the body into something another’s mind can comprehend? There is an attempt to quantify pain; the scales of 1 to 10 touted by doctors, where we must rank our comfort from nothing to the worst pain imaginable. But what seems to me more appropriate is developing personal, nonverbal languages of understanding and care. I can’t explain menstrual cramps to my boyfriend but I can place his hand on my belly in bed as a cue for him to hold me tightly around the waist. I can’t convey the sense of impending doom I feel spinning in my head to my sister over Facetime but I can tell her I have a crazy little brain today, and know that she knows and that I can expect a nice gif to appear in my inbox later that day.


   Identifying these shorthands and creating a physical language in relationships is essential to developing a politics of care, a radical way to disturb convention and norms. We are conditioned to believe that to be productive we must be quantifying our actions, and to devalue liminal states, or provide an explanation – how many people do you know who admit to spending a day in bed without a self-deprecating caveat of self-care or hungover claims to never drink again? In our capitalist society, fueled by self-optimisation through the digital documenting of our lives, do we feel too pressured to objectively justify our subjectively painful experiences?


   Maybe we can create a new way of being by listening to our own bodies, each other’s bodies, rather than the words feebly used to describe them. Johanna Hadva says it best in her sick woman theory:


The most anti-capitalist protest is to care for another and to care for yourself. To take on the historically feminized and therefore invisible practice of nursing, nurturing, caring… prioritizing the care and love of our sick, pained, expensive, sensitive, fantastic bodies.


Taking a break from our minds and our words might not stop sleep paralysis, and it might not make a sleepless night any less lonely. Still, forging alternative channels of nonverbal communication – gifs, art, gesture, performance – can maybe help us express liminality, refute the language of certainty, and open ourselves to a collective intimacy we never knew was possible.