Two Takes on the Press of Death

I've written about this before, the strange thing that happens to me some mornings in Sitka. It only happens when Luke has already left in the rain. He says goodbye from the doorway where the water comes down like a curtain onto wet stones, and I fall back asleep. When I wake up, a few hours later, a massive weight glues me to the bed and I try over and over, side to side, headboard to footboard, to throw the anvil off my chest and come to sitting. Instead, I guess I fall back asleep and wake a few hours later, wondering if it was all a dream or some third state of uncertainty between asleep and awake. Well, my friend Lauren just sent news.  The janitor at her school agreed that this feeling of suffocation is--as I had feared, and according to Mexican legend--the devil sitting on top of the one possessed. This scares the poop out of me because the man who confirmed my fears is a man of wisdom, according to Lauren, who knows history, religion, and myth, and who looks for the shimmer where others see the sludge. He collects any shard of gold glinting from anywhere in Denver--on the bus, on the curb, under a restaurant booth--brings his booty home, and melts it into jewelry for his wife. His cure for waking up under the weight of who-knows-what: two Hail Mary's, which would imply that he believes one is, in fact, awake, during the sleep paralysis state, if they can muster two memorized prayers.

Lauren also prompted me to look into the definition for sleep paralysis, which seems to fit the symptoms I've had. From wikipedia: sleep paralysis occurs when the brain wakes from REM activity, but the body paralysis enacted during the dreaming state persists. While the brain dreams, the body supresses the physical actions which might accompany the thought progression of being asleep (your legs and arms don't pump if you're running in a dream, you don't generally throw up in your bed if you're throwing up in a dream).

Put simply: when REM is ON, your muscles are turned OFF. With sleep paralysis, it remains unknown why REM switches off--meaning consciousness prevails--and the body still sleeps. Or why somethings sometimes appear.

When this happens to me, all goes stiff but my eyes. I yank them from wall to wall, looking for a way out, and sometimes I see twisted images, contorted faces, or just the hovering essence of something horrible. I found that yes, eye movement, according to tests, is possible during such episodes and that "the paralysis state may be accompanied by terrifying hallucinations and an acute sense of danger. The hallucinatory element to sleep paralysis makes it even more likely that someone will interpret the experience as a dream, since completely fanciful, or dream-like, objects (often described as looking distinctly demonic by those who experience the paralysis) may appear in the room alongside one's normal vision."

nightmare.jpgThis explains some things. The folklore surrounding sleep paralysis points to the darker side of the mystery. The stories range in narrative creativity, but not in root beliefs. In Nigerian lore: it's known as "the devil on your back." In Hmong culture: "dab tsog" or "crushing demon." The Mexican belief: "subirse el muerto"--dead person on you. In Vietnamese: to be held down by a spirit, smushed by a shadow.

WebMD says not to be scared of night demons, to try antidepressants, or different positions while sleeping. Obviously, whoever wrote the sleep paralysis entry has never experienced it. First, you cannot convince yourself out of the fear that you can't move and desperately need to get out of that room. Second, antidepressants aren't good for people who aren't depressed. Third, how do you try a different position if the condition's number one symptom is that you can't move?

I'm not sure what I think. Is "the dark presser" (the Turkish term) something worse than the body and the brain's waking disagreement or is it just a physical fluke? I remembered recently, while telling Lauren about the bad mornings, that the man who used to sleep on the same bed as me also engraved all the headstones for the Sitka cemetery. We used to find cracked headstones in the yard when we looked for good grill grate props to use as hot beds for our peppered salmon.

Look up any ailment and it has its lore. Look up any folk story and it has more logical explanations. I remember a friend once saying that people who don't believe are just as uncertain of their stance as those who do. Straying from science and math at an early age for literature and history, I realize certainty isn't something I've ever pursued. Who knows what sometimes stops me from moving. My husband's early mornings or the hangings-around of people who have only half-left the world. As the events in my life increase so does my stock in at least two beliefs:

1. From the smallest beauties (the perfect spores on the underside of the infinitesimal fragile fern) to the largest horrors (the dusted corpses of mothers holding their dead babies in Haiti), the natural and the supernatural coexist in all things.

2. Every quiet morning, my mom slides her small fingers over the 100-plus beads of the rosary, and I know--regardless of if I believe in the words or if sometimes I just believe in the comfort of my mom believing--that there's no way it's for nothing.